We first heard about it when it was badly affecting China, like everyone else. There were definitely some jokes in the beginning, mostly with the other expats, so I don’t really know how the Koreans felt. They were also affected by the other Coronaviruses like SARS and MERS, so I’m sure this virus felt more real to them.
I am currently living in South Korea right outside of Busan in a city called Gimhae. I’m teaching English as a second language primarily to elementary age kids at a hagwon, which is an academy students go to after their public-school day to get more tutoring. I teach about 100 kids in eight classes a day every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. Under normal circumstances, I would teach one additional Tuesday-Thursday class for three hours to slightly older kids— like around middle school age.
Yes, I was slightly nervous at first, but I tend to be nonchalant about things. Everyone from home was worried about m, but I ended up being much more safe here than in America. Once South Korea got its first couple of cases, my boss texted me over the weekend saying that he didn’t know if we would return on Monday. It ended up being six weeks off of work.
The government closed public schools, and recommended that private businesses close as well. I work with a private business that works directly with kids, so their parents wanted to keep their kids home. Every hagwon shut down for a month— a month and a half.
I remember barely seeing anyone on the streets for the first two weeks. I avoided public places, and when I saw my friends, it was at one of our apartments rather than going out. I was fortunate to be in an area that was not very badly affected. The South Korean government did a really good job at starting to test people immediately. Anytime someone tested positive, they were really really transparent and sent out emergency alerts to people containing a description of the person, their age, where they live, and the businesses they visited recently. Getting these alerts was kind of scary, and watching the number go up so fast was alarming. But overall, they were super good at testing people from the beginning.
It makes me nervous to leave Korea, where I feel very secure, to go back to the U.S., where I feel like they haven’t had as good of a response. I plan on going home when my contract ends in September. I think I am ready to start my career and get a job, but obviously right now is one of the worst times to get a job. Coming to Korea was honestly more of an opportunity to travel, which kind of got derailed. Hopefully it will be safe to travel a little bit more within Korea before I have to head home.
Things feel pretty normal now. The weather is nice, so people are out more. Early April is when the cherry blossoms bloom, which is a huge attraction and center of cultural festivals, but those events have been canceled. People were going out to take pictures of the cherry blossoms and crowds were forming around them, so the government had to block off the really pretty areas which is sad.
My friend and his wife, who is Korean, owns an Australian café. I know it has been tough for them during this time, but with the change in weather, their business has picked up. It makes things feel normal to be able to sit outside a restaurant and see it somewhat busy.
Public schools are opening in stages, with the older kids going back first. They will slowly start letting the younger kids go back as well. Allowing kids to go back makes parents nervous in both ways: parents want their kids to go back to school because they are nervous about their education, but they are also nervous about a second outbreak.
I am also working again, but my boss shifted the schedule around so that everyone is working part time now. We have kids coming to the hagwon, but just slightly fewer because of the virus. My hours are so weird at work. There are a lot of expats that I still hadn't had the chance to meet or get to know because of our schedules. A lot of them teach public school, so they teach in the daytime. When they are going home, I am going to work, so our schedules never lined up at all.
People still do wear masks. It is normal to wear masks here during this time of year, especially the filtered N-95 ones. There is this yellow dust that comes from China that makes it hard to breathe, especially with the addition of air pollution. It really affects older people and small children. Even I can notice a difference in breathing, and I am only 22. I think wearing masks bothers people in the U.S. more than people in Korea, because we aren’t used to wearing them.
I will say it is tough wearing masks inside, especially with the warmer weather. Teaching for six hours with a mask on is quite bothersome, and I can definitely tell it bothers my students. It gets hot and humid, and air conditioning here isn’t as good as in the states. Obviously it is important that we keep our masks on, though.
It has also been easier to stay in touch with people at home. They are around 14 or 15 hours behind me, so it was always challenging to find free time to talk. But with all of this free time, it has been nice to talk to friends and family at home who are homebound.
I think in many ways I’ve actually felt more connected to people during this time.
Written by: Mary Blake Zeron