Rosenkrantz and Gildenstern are chatting over Skype.
“Hey, I just got an email from my cousin Don.”
“Which one’s that?”
“He’s the one we visited in Philly a few years back. Took us on that ‘unwritten history tour,’ as he called it. Showed us where he saw cops try to let a fire sweep the Occupy encampment, where people were dancing in the streets after Obama won, and the memorial to Norm—the homeless guy with the viking horns.”
“Oh yeah. I just remember him taking us out for the good ice cream and then to that basement show in South Philly. What’s he up to?”
“Dude moved to Korea.”
“Korea? Why Korea?”
“Job stuff, but the way he tells it, got tired of Nazis, left the country.”
“I thought those people always moved to Canada.”
“He doesn’t like poutine. Prefers his french fries ‘unadorned.’”
“Fair enough, but Korea? Now? What’s going on over there? I can’t remember if it’s good or bad anymore.”
“Lemme see what he says.”
On Monday, February 10th, my office was buzzing over Parasite winning best picture at the Academy Awards. In the following days, the movie was back in Korean theaters, even with English subtitles, to do a victory lap. This was the face Korea was presenting to the world. First K-Pop, then the Olympics, and now the Oscars, the world was going to be talking about Korea.
The country had 27 confirmed infections.
Corona came quietly to Korea, less a storm than a susurrus. I’ll admit that I was largely unaware of it. I was on vacation in Ireland when the first case crossed the border from China and, upon my return, had the sense from colleagues that it wasn’t anything to be too concerned about. On my way to the bus stop one morning, I ducked into a convenience store to buy a mask. The sight of all the people wearing them made me aware of my own uncovered face and I didn’t want to be rude.
A few days later I’d buy a second mask and that would be the last mask I’d get my hands on for a month.
The Korean government was taking coronavirus seriously by the time I returned to school. They were testing anyone who’d traveled from China and encouraging people who were sick to stay home. I learned about that after one of the other expats at my school came down with a cold. The school sent them home for a week, with pay, and no deduction from their sick days. The government was covering the cost of anyone who had to miss work due to illness.
At this point, we were not thinking about self-isolating. Had we been instructed to, I would have found it hard to differentiate that from my daily life: I lived alone, was going to work in a largely empty school that was on break, and rarely went out for dinner or drinks. I had come back from vacation with the intention of going out more: to movies, to museums, to nature parks, to really get out and immerse myself in Korea. My family in the States had been asking when I’d be coming back home, where it was safe.
Timing is everything.
On Valentine’s Day, I had a hospital appointment. I’d had my annual physical before going on break and my blood tests showed abnormal liver function. The nurse suggested I come back in a month to see if the levels had changed and so there I was.
Korea is a mountainous country with everything in Busan on the side or in the shadow of steep, heavily forested peaks. To get to the hospital, I had to climb through a neighborhood built without cars in mind, navigating the narrow path full of switchbacks and dog-legs, cul-de-sacs and dead-ends, a narrow concrete canyon snaking up a mountain.
I alternated between claustrophobia from the houses arcing over and above me, to vertigo from looking down on the roofs of buildings I’d just passed. I was using my map app to direct me, but some of the turns were so tight and onto paths so small that I swore my phone must be wrong, that these paths must lead to someone’s home. I worried that a resident would come flying out at me, flapping their arms and yelling about trespassing, me violating a taboo I had no way of knowing about and inadvertently learning lots of new and colorful Korean.
But the neighborhood was completely abandoned.
Doors were nailed sideways across entryways and no window was unbroken. Notices, presumably of eviction, were pasted to walls throughout. All the houses looked fine though. Nothing seemed to be falling apart or over. The neighborhood had just been cleared of people. Moving boxes with pictures and broken toys still lay on some of the floors. It had been like this long before coronavirus emerged.
Busan, like so many places, is in the midst of a real estate boom fueled by capital that doesn’t know what to do with itself. You’ll find huge swathes of land being cleared and redeveloped to house exactly as many people as lived there before, but at a much higher price. All the empty houses around me lay in the shadow of a university hospital, a prime region for clearance and redevelopment. The only remaining population was the few stray cats that eyed me with territorial wariness.
The hospital had changed since my visit the month before. Then, I’d just walked in to find the multi-lingual nurse who’d led me from station to station throughout the complex. Now two attendants flanked the front door and took each person’s temperature. Then we were given a face mask if we didn’t already have one and had to apply hand sanitizer under the supervision of a security guard. Rather than have an air of menace, like a bouncer demanding an ID, this felt more like a concierge welcoming you to the hospital and directing you to a place to rest before your name was called. Nothing told me to be afraid.
My visit went fine, by the way. My liver function was better, the doctor told me I was too fat, and I left to meet my friends for drinks. They were preparing to return to the US and UK respectively, and this was a chance to give them a proper sendoff. We went to Seomyeon, the densely-populated entertainment district, and watched couples celebrating Valentine’s Day. The weather had turned warmer and everyone was breaking out their spring gear, walking around, enjoying the opportunity to leave their homes after being shut up all winter.
The country had 28 confirmed infections.
On Tuesday, February 18th, the 31st case of coronavirus in Korea was confirmed. They were a member of Shincheonji, an evangelical Christian sect that says church attendance is mandatory, encourages aggressive recruitment, and preaches that illness is a sign of sin and God’s wrath. This combination means you have people who refuse to admit they’re ill regularly meeting and interacting with both each other and strangers, often coming into close physical contact. In the coming days, coronavirus and Shincheonji would become the public face of Korea.
On the 19th, my expat colleague and I asked our Korean co-worker what was up with this Shincheonji thing, and from how my co-worker rolled her eyes, I wondered if I was about to learn the Korean for, “Shincheonji, these fucking guys.” She described them as a cult, but at best a local embarrassment and nuisance, her tone echoing my friends in the States when they would talk about the Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, or Scientologists.
The country had 51 confirmed infections.
The next day, neither she nor any of my other Korean colleagues were in the office. Self-isolation had begun and everyone had gone on lockdown.
Except the order wasn’t sent out to expats. The government mandated social distancing from March 24th through April 5th and I was told about this in an email I received on March 26th. Before then, from February 20th on, the only instructions my fellow expats in the school and I received was a series of posters in the halls telling us, via pictures, to wear a mask, wash our hands, cough into our elbows, and, while we could not read the Korean underneath it, we think it said do not rim a chicken.
The country had 104 confirmed infections.
On Saturday, February 22nd, I went to the beach for a friend’s birthday party. In retrospect, it was self-isolation that was keeping it clear, but I thought the beach was empty because of it being late February and chilly. A few people were fishing, children dug holes or skipped stones here and there, and the occasional couple walked along the adjoining road. I met my friend and his group halfway along the shore, far from anyone else. A brutal wind kicked up driving us into a nearby café where we had the glassed-in roof deck to ourselves. That evening, we gathered at the same place in Seomyeon I’d taken my friends the week before. Whereas couples had occupied the space then, now it was largely empty with small groups of foreigners, and only foreigners, clustering together. I asked my friend, “How does it feel to be LARPing Pandemic?”
The country had 433 confirmed infections. Busan reported its first 3.
By Monday the 24th, I was getting daily text messages, in Korean, detailing where each confirmed patient had traveled locally. A website was set up collating all the information so you could see on a map which places were safe and which were potential infection vectors. Nothing near my home, my school, or my commute was tagged, and I was calm. All the information coming in, and there was a lot of information coming in, allowed me to differentiate what I should be afraid of and what I shouldn’t. Even though I lived on a street with several hospitals, I could check the map and see that none of them were currently housing coronavirus patients.
The country had 833 confirmed infections, Busan 26.
On the 25th, I woke up to an email from my sister asking if I was all right. That evening, I received a similar email from my brother. Later, a friend messaged me on Facebook asking if I was okay, saying that things were looking pretty crazy from America. This had become the new public face of Korea.
I remembered the Stewart Lee routine where he describes checking his email on the day of the London Tube bombing without knowing about the attack. People from all over the world messaging him to ask, “Are you all right?” and him replying, “I’m fine, how are you?” It had never occurred to me to be afraid, even with the numbers climbing. I could see how the government was responding to the crisis and, more importantly, how it was keeping citizens informed. I recorded a video of me drinking whiskey and describing the situation, saying how the Korean government had botched their response to MERS in 2015 by treating it like a PR problem instead of a public health one. I described Shincheonji and pushed back against conspiracy theories I’d been seeing about them intentionally getting infected and spreading the disease. And I described going out as normal—which was still pretty rare for me—because we knew what was going on. Counter-intuitively, the stories coming out of Korea, the high numbers of infections people were seeing, were a sign of things going well: my government was addressing and staying on top of the problem.
On March 9th, when I posted the video, the country had 7,513 confirmed infections. The United States had 213. On March 10th, the US had 472 cases, an increase of more than the total number of deaths due to the virus in Korea. On March 20th, ten days later, the US had more cases than Korea. On March 23rd, the US reported more new cases in one day than Korea had total.
News reports were now describing the Korean response to coronavirus as a rousing success, a model to be followed by the rest of the world. When I called family in the States, they fumed that Korea tested more people in a day than the US had total. An orientation seminar at my school on how to do online teaching opened with a video documenting all the praise Korea had received in response to their handling of the crisis. The country was buzzing with pride again.
Meanwhile, my friends and family were no longer asking if I was okay. No one asked me if I was coming home. I watched the news every day and started to worry about what coronavirus might do to the people over there.
“That’s a cheery ending.”
“Well, that’s kind of Don’s thing. ‘Ha ha, fun fun fun. Oh, look at this hole, let’s get closer to the hole, look down in the hole we are in the hole, we are falling into the hole, we are deeper in the hole, there will be no escaping the hole, all is hole, this is our life now.’”
“Bet he’s fun at parties.”
“I’m surprised he didn’t start talking about fascism or weird music. That’s kind of his thing.”
“Must be mellowing in his old age.”
- The Expat’s Tale - May 11, 2020
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