#1: Quarantine and all that comes with it
My first week in Seoul brought jetlag and delicious food. It also brought some quiet rage.
Here’s a easy-listening song for your enjoyment.
Greetings friends, family, and randos of the internet:
Thank you for signing up for this newsletter. I hope that it can provide a momentary glimpse outside the hellscape that is the United States. I can’t promise coherence, but I can promise too many food photos, research updates, and anything else that I think might be interesting to y’all.
A lot of you have asked what it’s like to be in Seoul. The honest answer is: I don’t know. Due to the mandatory quarantine period, I have spent the last week stuck inside the same two rooms. Every day I wander around my empty apartment, order too much delivery, enjoy the joy that is heated floors (ondol), and generally avoid doing any of the preliminary research work/language study prep that lies ahead. From my window, though, Seoul appears much the same as it did the last time I lived here. Same long puffer coats, same groups of businessman smoking cigarettes on break. It snowed the other day, and for the first time in a while, I felt a sense of calm.
Now, to get to address the elephant in the room: COVID-19, Korea vs. US. Who wore it better?
I’ve had many conversations over the past year (many of them with some of you) about COVID-19 and the United States’ deliberate, near-criminal incompetence in containing the pandemic. Andrew Cuomo, in his infinite wisdom, is writing self-congratulatory books on leadership, “leadership” that led 9 of his top health advisors to resign earlier this week. Trump…well, many words have been spent on him, which I won’t add to. Instead, I will illustrate my frustration by describing Korea’s response to COVID-19.
On Friday (today), Korea reported 294 new COVID-19 cases…for the whole country. To put that in context, Korea has more than 50 million people. Bars, gyms, and karaoke rooms (my favorite) are closed. Restaurants are at limited capacity. If the number creeps over 500 per day, the country will move into a shutdown. Yes, there is a mask mandate, but according to several of my Korean friends, mask-usage was universally practiced before the mandate went into effect. With the exception of certain “echem” cult-related incidents, Korea has largely kept the pandemic under control.
Before I could step foot on the plane, I had to present a negative COVID-19 test that had been taken within 72 hours. The moment I stepped off the plane, I was shuffled through a series of health checkpoints, required to download a series of contact tracing apps, and ushered to a waiting area where, along with a few Fulbrighters I met along the way, we waited for a bus that would take us to our testing site. The bus pulled up to a luxury hotel in Incheon, which the South Korean government has turned into a testing/quarantine facility. Late at night, we were tested, given a box of rations, and shuffled off to a room to sleep in until we could get our results. After another negative PCR result, they called a “quarantine taxi” to bring us to our registered quarantine location. In my case, I was dropped off at the Fulbright building and opened the door to the space that, hopefully, will soon feel like a home but, in the interim, feels like a very comfortable box.
I haven’t seen another person for 5 days and I still have 9 days to go. The isolation weighs on me sometimes: occasionally, I’ll press my forehead against the glass and try to get a glimpse of people walking by. It’s like “Rear Window”, sans mystery. The temporary loneliness, however, is nothing compared to the comfort I feel knowing that the South Korean government is looking out for its people, looking out for me. COVID testing and treatment are free for everyone, including foreigners like me. And when I do eventually get to leave my apartment, I can walk around without worrying about dodging around unmasked passersby.
Which brings me back to Brooklyn, to New York. It didn’t have to be this way. It doesn’t have to be this way. And yet, increasingly, even with this new administration, even with the vaccine, I’m not sure how we can come back from this as a country. Maybe we shouldn’t. Maybe we can only build something new, because how could we not in the face of such inequality and loss. “We will survive this” rings hollow because, no, not everyone will.
We have not had a chance to grieve. Even now, I still haven’t had the chance to lay my aunt and cousin to rest, months after their deaths. In a lot of ways, choosing to go on Fulbright felt like a cop-out, a trip out of the country where I can eat good food and put my grief on pause. Maybe that’s not a bad thing, though. All I ask that y’all stay safe so that I can see you, and hug you, and share a meal with you when I get back.
That was a lot. Here’s a food pic to offset the tension.
(All of this was around 9 USD).
I promise that not many (if any) of my future updates will be this…dark? The isolation weighing on me. Thanks for coming along with me on this journey. The moment I get out of this apartment, I’ll be spending all my time exploring the city, visiting old haunts, and laying the groundwork for my research (which you can read more about here). I hope you’ll come along with me.
Stay safe, best wishes.