Tag Archives: evacuation

Life in Korea during COVID-19

A lot of people have been asking me, so…

Personally, I’m doing great. I feel safe and secure knowing that if I need to be tested, there are testing centers right in my town. The cost for the test is about $160 and is completely reimbursed if you’re positive. If you’re positive, the treatment is free (even if you don’t have national insurance- like me). South Korea currently has one of the most aggressive testing regiments out of all countries in the world right now. Consequentially, we have one of the lowest death rates in the world- 0.7%. As of writing this, we have 7,755 cases. Verrrry slowly but surely, the new cases each day have been in a steady decline, which is pretty promising.

Some resources about Korea’s impressive response to this virus:

Effect on the community

There is no school until March 23rd. It was originally supposed to start on March 2nd. Throughout this whole epidemic, school has not been in session. Currently, the hardest thing to come by in Korea is masks, or N95 respirators. However, the government has just started stocking all local post offices with masks and are available cheaply to citizens. You go on your assigned day, based on your birthday, to pick up the masks. Gyms and academies are closed. Even back when there were only 28 cases last month, all college graduations were cancelled. There are no food shortages of any sort. Just yesterday I went to downtown Cheongju and almost every establishment was selling hand sanitizer. Not only that, but when you walk into a business, there is free hand sanitizer that you’re supposed to use at the door. Small businesses are being hurt by the spread, but the Korean government is offering a huge sum of financial relief to businesses who are struggling. Undocumented immigrants are being encouraged to get tested, and the government is waiving policies of reporting these undocumented immigrants at the doctor’s office in order for everyone to get tested and protect public health.

Many people have asked if I’m “trapped” and the short answer is- not at all. Legally, at least. There are currently no domestic travel restrictions in Korea. I can choose to leave my apartment whenever I want, but they recommend you stay inside in order to avoid spreading and contracting the virus. My host family prefers that I don’t travel at a time like this, and I am respecting their decisions to do so. The only people who are “trapped” are those who have come into contact with a confirmed case of COVID-19- they are asked to self-quarantine for 14 days and take their temperature daily.

An unintended effect of no school or work means that families are spending a lot of time with each other. Kids have time to go outside and play basketball or tennis, something otherwise unimaginable during the famously strict Korean school year. Families are going hiking with each other. In my own family, I’ve started going on nightly walks with my youngest host brother. We’ve been playing boardgames, assembling puzzles, and playing Nintendo Switch. One of my favorite developments is that we’re now doing Netflix movie nights together. My host-brothers and I turn off the main light in my room, turn on my little fairy lights, gather up all the pillows and blankets, get a tray of snacks and watch a movie on my laptop. It provides some really cozy and precious bonding time with them.

Effect on me

I’ve been spending a lot of time indoors for the past 2 weeks. I have one week to go until I have to go back to school. Besides spending more time with my brothers, I’ve been trying to delve into self care. I’ve been pampering myself with Korean skincare products, which has been nice. I’ve been journaling and scrapbooking some of my experiences here in Korea. I’ve also been following yoga videos on Youtube and exercising in my room quite frequently. I’ve also been revamping my entire resume and polishing up on interview tips, since the next month or two will be critical in interviewing and applying for ELA teacher positions in the US.

A lot of people I know in my cohort have already voluntarily evacuated back to America, and I’m starting to realize that I may never see them again. It’s very upsetting to know that I never got to say goodbye to them in person. Keeping a routine and doing these little activities everyday help distract me from that reality. I have chosen to stay, for now, in Korea. We still have the option to leave in the future though if anything changes. Quite honestly, I feel safer being here than in America, where the virus is just starting to spread widely and wreak havoc. There is a calm sense of transparency in this country. I get nation-wide emergency alerts everyday that outline whether or not there was a new case in my city on that particular day. If there was, we are all sent an outline of each business or place that person travelled to in our town. It’s a bit invasive, but also quite effective. I have hope that Korea is now on the downwind of this and if not, there are ways I can protect myself here.

Not gonna lie, I’m a little bummed that I have all this free time off and I’m unable to travel to different places in Korea. For most of my grant year up to now, I’ve been packing in tons of weekend trips all over the country. It’s come to a halt now and it’s a bit upsetting, but I need to remember that staying put is the safer option for my school and family. I hope that this is resolved within next month maybe and that I can slowly start seeing Korea again.

To evacuate or not to evacuate?

Not even proofreading this. I know not all considerations are covered in here but I’m tired and this is just a quick vent.

It’s 1:30 AM on an early, fresh Friday. I can’t sleep. The state of affairs concerning my grant have completely changed within the last week.

Today we were notified that Fulbright is allowing a voluntary evacuation from Korea. Fulbright will be fully paying for our flights and, in a surprising move, will continue to give us our salary until June 30th regardless of whether we choose to stay or leave. If we return home, there’s the possibility, but not a guarantee, that we can return to teach in Korea if the current COVID-19 situation dies down. That is, if our schools don’t replace us in that time. All of us, on the record, will have a completed Fulbright Alumni status. They also informed us that a mandatory evacuation might be necessary in the near future. Voluntary ETAs would be evacuated in waves, the first wave being about 6 days from now.

I’ve been on the phone with different ETAs all day. We’re scared and stressed. At the beginning of the day, there was shock and confusion. How could we make such an important decision? We worked hard to get here and now our newfound livelihood could be ripped away from us so quickly. On the flip side, there were 500+ new cases JUST today within Korea. Many of us aren’t so worried about getting sick, but we’re worried about the effects that come with it. What if, God forbid, we acted as carriers to our students or other civilians with health problems, unbeknownst to us? Our host families are getting increasingly worried. Items in stores are disappearing or getting price gouged. Streets are emptying. Our schools are closed. A growing number of Asian countries are not allowing incoming flights from South Korea. What if the U.S. is next?

As a cohort, we’re sharing anecdotes. Passing on any valuable tidbit of information we can get our hands on. Who’s leaving? Who’s staying? Who’s on the fence? We’re reiterating the facts from the email we were sent- repeating them, memorizing them. We’re just trying to get comfortable forming the words on our lips- “evacuation”, “mandatory”, “voluntary”, “pandemic”. Asking things like “Well, are we truly safe anywhere in the world right now?”. We’re frantically looking for reassurance from someone- anyone- for our decision, whether it is to stay or leave. Guilt and doubt comes with either one we choose. We’re tip-toeing around our co-teachers and host families- parties who don’t even have the choice to leave. We are in a spot of privilege, but also a spot of pressure from everyone outside our cohort. It seems like many of us have turned inward, trying to fend away the reality that was foist upon us from the outside and protect our collective. We are the only ones that understand the pain of leaving this grant and this country that has grown so dear to us. Ultimately, we are the ones that are going to have to break the news to our younger host siblings and comfort them when they cry. We are the ones faced with the reality of never being able to say goodbye to our students or share last words with them. There will be some people in our cohort we might never see again.

I want to stay. I’m going to try to stay. But if a Daegu situation happens here in Cheongju, I will have to evacuate. If there’s a mandatory evacuation, I will have no choice. Tonight I took a walk outside after dinner and passed the landmarks leading up to the bus terminal near our apartment. I thought about the restaurants I liked and the ones where I planned on going, but might never be able to get to. I thought about how I was walking on the same roads my host brothers and I have walked and laughed on. I looked at the Mini Stop where I would often go with them to treat them to candy or ice cream. I thought of weaving through the backroads with Hyungyu, who would tell me about his day and point out what the different business on our street were. When I arrived at the bus terminal, I thought about how many times the Intercity bus had safely taken me home from all different cities in Korea. This is my home. What were my unknowing lasts here? Thinking about renewing was difficult enough for me. Coming to terms with the fact that I might not even get to stay for the second semester is totally jarring and overwhelming.

I keep experiencing such a wide range of emotions ranging from “this isn’t really happening” to “the situation is getting dire”. Even if I stay, when will I be able to teach? What if I’m just stuck in my room for a month? Then what purpose of my grant would I really be fulfilling? Knowing that I could be with friends and family at home and still get paid the same amount is tempting. But I don’t feel right abandoning the life I worked hard to forge here.

Two nights ago, my host brother asked me if I was really leaving in July. I told him I didn’t know yet. He then told me that he wants me to stay another year, and that he doesn’t want me to leave him.