An expat English teacher in Korea experiences an “ordinary” day in one of the countries most affected by the coronavirus outbreak.
Ping! Ping! Ping!
My phone emits a sequence of alerts, causing me to look up from the book I’m reading. But I already know by the desperate tone of this notification that it won’t be something I want to see- not a text from my boyfriend in America nor a cute kitten photo.
This is the sound of rising panic and fear. This is The Hunger Games in real life! This is what it’s like to live in South Korea as an English teacher during the covid-19, or coronavirus, outbreak.
“Patient 21 was at the Big Sale Mart on February 16th at 4:00 pm. She went home by bus number 492. She took a taxi to the University of Ulsan Hospital on February 18th, where she was diagnosed with covid-19.”
I anxiously hurry to recall my own whereabouts for the past few days. Which bus did I take on that day? 4…uh oh….4… 417! Phew. Safe for now. This is the only lottery I wouldn’t be happy to win.
“Please avoid group gatherings, use hand sanitizer, and wear a surgical mask. If you feel like you have symptoms, contact the emergency covid-19 number.”
Roger that. However, the person composing these emergency alerts must not be aware of the current countrywide mask shortage. Because of their sudden high demand, disposable masks are now being rationed on a five day rotating system, according to the last digit of your birth year.
I’m a 9, I reiterate to myself, Wednesdays. I’ll stick with my cloth mask until then. Although highly unlikely to be effective in preventing contagion, it’s pink. It’s cute!
My new prized possession, I hang my mask alongside my keys and headphones each evening to ascertain that I won’t forget it the next day. When I am brave enough to venture outside, I usually carry my mask in my pocket until I’ve had enough of the ogling eyes from guised passersby.
I had become accustomed to people examining my blond hair with surprise before the coronavirus reached Korea. These stares, however, are different. Eyes laced with horror, strangers cross streets to avoid my maskless presence. I pull mine out and dutifully wear it in order to continue on with my day with anonymity.
Not that I leave my house often. Although well informed of the numbers- the small chance of contracting the disease and the high chance of survival if I am so unlucky- I cannot help but feel worried. Unfortunately, the media induced panic and social stigma of coronavirus seem to be more contagious than the virus itself.
To look at the bright side, the extra two weeks off of work and semi self-quarantine, or my coronacation, have been an introvert’s delight! I’ve spent ample hours catching up with my cat, listening to crime podcasts, and cooking new recipes. I’ve completed a total of three and a half puzzles, half of a book, and two seasons of Formula 1: Drive to Survive.
I’ve also begun to make plans for leaving Korea- pending this pandemic ends, I think to myself, then quickly try to push negativity away.
Ping! Ping! Ping!
Another emergency alert from the government, reminding us of the symptoms of coronavirus.
I go through a mental checklist- fever, cough, shortness of breath- to triple check that I’m okay. Sometimes, however, my body tricks itself.
I felt a little out of breath today. Of course! I remember that I went for a jog this morning. I use some of my hand sanitizer, and repeat my affirmation that because I am young (enough) and healthy, “I am fine. Everything will be fine.”
Obviously, day to day life in South Korea has changed in a number of ways to accommodate the new normal. My new favorite game is called “spot the hand sanitizer” on busses and in elevators of busy buildings. I was going to go to the park today, but volunteers are checking for fevers at the entrance, and what if I don’t pass the test?
In other ways, the land of the morning calm coronavirus has remained the same. It’s common for people in Korea to spit in public, and the unhygienic bubbles still adorn the ground like twinkling Christmas lights. I look down and watch my step with more care than before.
When I pick up food from the supermarket near my apartment, long lines of masked figures still wait to eat bite sized samples of whatever packaged food is on sale for the day. Same same, just move the mask to take a bite!
When I finally make it back to my apartment each night, I breathe a sigh of relief- I made it through another day- and catch up on my latest covid-19 texts. Luckily, the foreign community in my city is small and close-knit, so even if we don’t see each other, we can share information, coronavirus memes, and support through facebook.
I try to sleep through the night and enjoy my mini vacation, without worrying about the classes I will likely be teaching online soon. I try to feel confident that the Korean government and healthcare system are doing a good job. Mostly, I try to remind myself to continue to live cautiously, but without fear.
The pungent food, the vast mountains, the colors of the temples and the sweet melody of a traditional song- Korea is too beautiful of a country to hide indoors for long. Korean people are too friendly and warm-hearted to self-isolate. Together we will enjoy the new life that spring brings; we will continue to hike; to socialize; to share beers; samgyupsal and laughter- from behind masks, of course.
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