A High-Schooler, Delivery Driver, and Hagwon Teacher Walk into a Vaccination Center…

On Saturday, the director picked up the foreign teachers at my hagwon and drove us to the vaccination center, which seemed like some sort of general meeting area that had been cordoned off into different sections for the vaccination process.

The vaccine roll-out did not go smoothly as planned, as many foreigners complained that “glitches” in the system didn’t allow them to register for the vaccine. Fortunately, our director handled our registering so we were all registered and given vaccination dates and times based around our ages. We were able to go all at once to get injected instead of going at various times throughout the week.

We got to the center around 8:30 and were out by 9:40. We were given disposable gloves and had our temperature taken by a machine that you put your hand under and it dispenses hand sanitizer as well as taking your temperature (we have the same one at school now). We filled out some forms and were given a number and sat down in some seats that were socially distanced from one another. I was number 51. There were a lot of high schoolers in the center, as well as delivery drivers, who had all parked their delivery trucks in the parking lot.

They called the numbers and you saw someone that went over the form with you and sent you into the next room, where you sat again and waited to see yet another person who went over your forms. From there, you moved a little further into the room and finally saw a nurse.

The injection itself is a piece of cake, and we were given a sticker with a time on it and sent to sit in another part of the conference room with a projected clock that must’ve been at least ten feet tall. At your designated time, you could take off your now sweaty gloves and leave the center.

I had some minor muscle pain later that day, but nothing since. We’ll go back sometime mid-August to get the second dose. We all received Pfizer which were part of a vaccine swap with Israel.

As far as everything else goes, South Korea has seen a huge jump in number of positive Covid-19 cases, and our level is now a 4. Under it, places must close at 10 pm and there can only be a gathering of two people after 6 pm. Oh, and gyms can’t play music with a bpm higher than 120. That’s a bit ridiculous, but oh well.

I hope everyone is keeping safe and continuing to wear masks and socially distancing!

What Happens When a Student Tests Positive for Covid

Back in March, myself and the other foreign teachers at my hagwon had to submit to a Covid test mandated by the government. Not too long afterwards, the government withdrew their order to test all foreigners and decided to test only those “foreign workers at high-risk workplaces, such as those in close, dense and enclosed work environments.”

We got up early and our director took us to the testing place, a parking lot across the street from a health clinic. They had set up several tents and were very thorough. You got a pair of disposable gloves while waiting in line (socially distanced of course) and wore them throughout the entire ordeal, which involved going and filling out some minor paperwork to being handed the two vials and ushered up to a booth where a health professional stood, only their gloved arms protruding from two holes.

a long line of people waiting in a socially distanced line

The test was not like the test I’ve heard some people in the US have gotten. This was not a mere nasal swab; this was a brain poking. I was honestly shocked that someone could stick something that far back into my sinuses. It wasn’t painful, just really uncomfortable.

All of us tested negative, fortunately, and it was back to business as usual.

a Covid testing center, with several tents

The question that has always lingered in my mind is: what happens if one of the students gets Covid?

Unfortunately, a little over two weeks ago, a student did test positive, albeit asymptomatic. Her father had tested positive and when they tested the entire family, she was the only one who also tested positive.

I feel really bad for this student because she had already missed two weeks of school because there had been a positive case at her elementary school, and now she would be missing yet another two weeks of school.

It was determined that only a few of us would get a Covid test: her immediate classmates (there were three) and her two teachers, which included myself. CCTV footage showed that she and her classmates remained masked up the entire time they were at the hagwon, which no doubt helped keep everyone safe.

We were closed Wednesday through Friday of that week, and on Wednesday I went by myself to get tested for Covid again. I had been informed that the center opened at 9 but when I got there at 9:30, I discovered that they actually open at 10, so I was the first in line to get swabbed. It went super quick and was only a little more uncomfortable than the last time.

Fortunately, everyone tested negative and we could open up school the following Monday.

a yellow and black paste-up of a Stop sign to socially distance those waiting in the line to get a Covid test

This week we closed Wednesday through Friday because the neighboring town of Okjeong has a massive outbreak involving at least 20 students in a high school. There was also an outbreak in the neighborhood of Hongdae in Seoul that was linked to foreign instructors, including one at another branch of the hagwon I teach at. That outbreak was confirmed to be of the Delta variant.

I’m hoping that all of this can be held at bay and we can reopen on Monday–if not all the way, then at least kindergarten can be in person and we can do online classes in the afternoon. With every day that the school is closed, we lose one day of our holidays, and as selfish as it is, I don’t want to have to lose my summer holiday that I’ve been looking forward to (as I didn’t have any holidays last year because of Covid).

a poster in a bus that has multiple squares of excuses illustrating that Corona19 likes “it’s okay”, as in, “we know each other, we can get together” and “the vaccine is coming soon, it’s okay”

Keep washing your hands and wearing masks.

Coronavirus in Korea, Part Two

 I am obviously not an expert on Covid-19 (and neither are you) but thought I’d give some more information on how Korea continues to handle the novel Coronavirus.

Image description: the floor of a Starbucks with tables and chairs spaced apart

The first wave of the deadly virus hit the southeastern city of Daegu first, in February. The outbreak was linked to a “secretive church sect” that packs worshippers “like bean sprouts” in the church.

I arrived in Korea on the 21st of February and my school was on a week-long break because of the heightened virus cases.

The second wave occurred in May, and was linked to club-goers in the Itaewon and Hongdae areas of Seoul. There was a minor ripple in the expat communities I belong to saying that Koreans were going to be blaming “the gay foreigners” for the outbreak, as it was rumored that the cluster outbreak was connected to a gay club.

The third wave occurred in August and was connected to an anti-government rally held by a church based in Seoul.

Our school closed for three days at the end of August, and were forced to close by the government the weeks of August 31st and September 7th. We reopened September 14th. We were closed because we were under a level 2.5 out of a 3-point system.

Under a 2.5, all chain cafes must do take-out only, and restaurants and bars must close after 9pm. I didn’t wander around Uijeongbu past 9pm during the 2.5, but I imagine downtown was completely empty. For the most part, people stayed home during the semi-lockdown and ordered take-away or only ventured out to buy groceries. (I was the former. I prefer calling it “supporting the local economy” not “sheer laziness.”)

Image description: all of the tables and chairs on the floor of this Starbucks have been pushed into the corner

Some examples of more permanent changes include checking your temperature whenever you enter a building and either writing down your name and phone number or checking in with a QR code connected to your KaKaoTalk account. KaKaoTalk is a messaging app, first and foremost, but functions like an all-in-one app for almost everything else. This level of contact tracing would be fought against by your average American, but I will gladly give up my information because, let’s be real, my phone is already tracking my movement and at least this kind of tracing is for the greater good.

Image description: a table with an ipad, hand sanitizer, and papers on a clipboard for scanning in your QR code or manually writing down your name and phone number for contact tracing

There are also hand sanitizers everywhere. Including ziptied to a tree along a nature trail and to a lamp pole, as seen below.

Image description: a bottle of hand sanitizer ziptied to a medium-thickness tree
Image description: a bottle of hand sanitizer ziptied to a lightpole. I wouldn’t have noticed it except the person in front of me actually used it.

Starting Friday, November 13th, the government implemented a fine for non-mask compliance in public spaces and on public transportation. Prior to the fine, you could be turned away from buses without a mask and if you were on a subway not wearing a mask, you would be told to wear a mask. There were some cases of older men refusing to wear a mask on the subway and the ensuing fistfights, but for the most part, everyone is wearing a mask.

Several weeks ago, my school closed for two days because a child was a confirmed case that had Taekwondo with two of our students. Everyone at the Taekwondo academy tested negative, but we closed out of an abundance of caution, and the two students are quarantining for two weeks and not attending classes. We were sitting at a level 2 in the greater Seoul region, but with strict measures implemented: for example, no cafes (including small mom-and-pop) are allowing dine-in and all restaurants and bars must close at 9pm.

And now, as I write this on the 17th of December, we have been without work since the 8th. We are at a level 2.5 with rumors that we may eventually hit level 3, as cases have been creeping up on 1,000 new cases each day. We will hopefully go back to school on December 29th, but if they raise the level to 3, then we may be out of work even longer. Going online is not an option; only two parents have requested it, while a number have confessed that they would be unable to have their students be taught online, so our hagwon loses less money just closing rather than trying to figure out a new system for virtual learning.

For the most part, people here are wearing masks and taking precautions. I feel safe, which I can’t guarantee I’d feel back in the States. Wear your masks, people. Stay at home as much as possible. Don’t be stupid.

More information can be found here.

Coronavirus in Korea (코로나19)

I remember a guest coming in towards my expected flight date and asking me if I was worried about Coronavirus. I said no. At the time, the virus was mostly constrained to China, affecting me only in that my chosen flight path would have to have me transfer somewhere other than China.

What would I say now?

One of the many emergency alerts I receive throughout the day.

I’m not worried about myself.

I’m worried for my family back in the States, where my brother works as a pizza delivery driver, coming into contact with who knows what kind of germs; where my dad is considered an “essential” worker because he works in the food industry; where my mom finds herself with less and less dictation work as hospitals cancel or postpone all elective surgeries.

Where, you know, you can’t find toilet paper or basic necessities like, apparently, yeast, since we’re all going to come out of 2020 being master bread bakers.

No, I’m only worried about myself insofar as I might be an asymptomatic carrier of COVID-19 and unknowingly pass it along to my students, who range in age from 6ish to 15ish. (I say -ish because Korea has a different aging system as the rest of the world, which usually puts them at least one year older than their “international” age.) And kids will be kids, especially the littler ones who run up to you and hold your hand when you’re walking to the gym, or sneeze directly onto your hand while you’re guiding them through an assignment. (This particular kid is a handful and wasn’t wearing his mask at the time, of course.)

Cases of ramen (six to a pack) sitting atop packages of toilet paper outside a shop.

No, I’m not worried about myself. Toilet paper? Sitting outside the grocery store on the sidewalk. Easy meals? Ramen is aplenty here, in all different types and flavors. (My life has personally been changed forever with the introduction of jja-jang-myeon, black bean noodle.) There’s hand sanitizer on the bus. Most everyone is wearing masks, and there’s enough to go around, as Korea has implemented a strict policy allotting the purchase of two masks per person per specified day of the week based on the end number of your birth year, e.g. my birth year ends on 5 and so I can buy masks on Friday when those whose birth years end in 5 and 0 can purchase masks. The delivery system in South Korea is unparalleled, and even if I didn’t want to walk the seven minutes to McDonald’s, I could have it delivered faster in the time it would take me to get home with it. (This also includes grocery deliveries.)

I’m worried about my former co-workers, who have suddenly found themselves without jobs. I’m worried about the hoarding of essential goods like toilet paper and bread. I’m worried that the US economy will never recover from this, and the various industries being hit hardest will be forever changed, in ways we can’t imagine. I’m worried, obviously, about the frontline fighters who didn’t ask for their lives to be a “sacrifice” but get ready for work each day anyway. I’m worried about those whose pre-existing conditions mean that facing the virus is a true battle for life or death.

Here in Korea, almost all of us wear masks. There is plenty of hand sanitizer. We make our kids wash their hands and use hand sanitizer before playing. We take our own temperatures and the kids’ each day. Thanks to Korea’s preparedness, its economy has not completely tanked in the way that the US economy has. Sure, public schools have been delayed for over a month now, but life seems to go on, and it gets more and more “normal” by the week as the numbers of recently infected each day in Korea dwindle to under 30.

I’m safer and more well prepared to handle life as a whole, healthy or not, in South Korea. I am really thankful that karma decided to put me here now, as my life back in the States would be a hellish nightmare right now.