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.

School Lunch

While explaining a lesson that involved the story of two students running for class president, one only having a motto and the other having actual policies, I asked my students to think of policies that they would want to implement in their schools. I gave the example of free lunch.

“Isn’t lunch free in the US?”

It’s in these moments that I realize how backwards my lovely home country can be. What’s even worse is how we view stories of good samaritans paying off school lunch debt as “proof that there’s still some kindess in the world” instead of “proof that our country isn’t doing enough to provide for its children.”

At the hagwon where I teach, lunch is served each day for the kindergarten students. It’s a separate lunch to the teachers’, which usually features some spicy things. The lunch is provided by a catering business but we make our own rice and food for snack. When I taught English to Tibetan refugees in India, we had simple lunches that usually featured a Tibetan bread called tingmo, and dinner was almost always rice and dal. Fruit was provided once a week and if you happened to get to lunch late, you were left trying to find the least rotten piece of fruit. As to be expected, the lunches served at my school in Korea are much different.

Tibetan college food pictures below, left to right: a bowl of steamed green vegetables and two pieces of tingmo; a bowl of rice and dal with some spinach and tomato; the special Losar (Tibetan New Year) breakfast of a large circular slice of Tibetan bread, a hardboiled egg, and a mug of traditional butter tea (with added tsampa I had).

Below are some photos of the school lunch here in Korea. In the first picture, there’s tofu and mushroom soup, white rice, chicken nuggets, bean sprout salad, macaroni, lotus root, and spicy slaw. In the other photos, there’s various foods such as steamed green vegetables, sliced potato, spicy pork belly, acorn jelly, burdock root, anchovies, cubed radish kimchi, cabbage kimchi, omelet, fish with tartar sauce, spicy cucumber, tuna salad, apple salad, fried wonton, and tteokbokki.

Here is an example of what the kids eat for lunch. They each have their own lunch tray with chopsticks and a spoon, and this kid has a chopstick training kit (which she’s now graduated from yay). There’s rice and some bulgogi with cabbage, bean sprout salad, not-spicy cabbage kimchi, and quail eggs.

I give lunch twice a week, which entails putting food in their tray, helping them pray (a very unbiased “pray, pray, thank you for the food”) for all the food, watching over them while they eat, and scraping leftovers into the empty soup bowl to be disposed of by the kitchen teacher. Usually I will take my tray to the kitchen to get spicy kimchi and anything that was delivered just for the teachers, such as spicy beef or fish filet.

Below is a view of our kitchen at school. In the first picture is the lunch set-up for teachers. If the kids ask for more food and we run out in the class, we send them to the kitchen to see if there’s any leftover. Usually it’s sausage, meat or seaweed. Once a student came into the teachers’ room to ask if anyone had any leftover sausage because the kitchen had run out!

Our kitchen is equipped with a stove, microwave, kettle, and a large rice cooker. There is a kitchen teacher in the kitchen getting everything ready and washing the empty teachers’ plates and the containers; the kids pack up their lunch trays when they’re done and take them home for their parents to wash.

Once a month, we have a birthday party for any students whose birthdays fall in that month. In this day, we have a special lunch, which includes several types of fried chicken, pizza, fresh fruit, and cheesecake.

Sometimes a student’s parent will order us food, such as a couple of pizzas. We also have leftover chicken from Class of the Month chicken parties. We also get pastries, and sometimes iced americanos.

What’s your favorite school lunch?

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.

Taking a Cat to Korea: Merlin’s Story

When I noticed that the director, putting my bags into his car, was a little careless in tossing my backpack on top of the purple pet carrier that Merlin was hiding in, I realized something was off.

As it turned out, the director was never informed that I would be bringing a cat with me to Korea.

Merlin as a baby. Merlin is an all black cat with then-blue eyes and has a little shaved patch on his front paw from being in the hospital for several days. He is sitting next to a stuffed animal plushie of a squirrel, both on a white fleece blanket. The edges of the photo have been overlaid with some fancy black lace graphic.

I learned early on in my interviewing for teaching positions not to ask if it was okay that I would be bringing a cat with me. Recruiting companies are looking for red flags, and asking if the school-provided housing will allow pets is considered a red flag because it’s one more thing they have to worry about on their end.

I didn’t mention my cat to the recruiter I worked with until I had a job offer on the table. The person in Korea that my recruiter was working with took a few days and got back to me, saying that as long as I am responsible for any damage that Merlin does, that it’s okay I bring him. Merlin is a very well-mannered cat and doesn’t damage anything. The worst is that his fur sticks to the textured wallpaper when he rubs his face on corners, so I have to wipe that down occasionally.

Merlin, laying on top of me with his front paws outstretched, facing me.

My director wasn’t informed that I was bringing a cat and the reason for concern is that the other new teacher would be living with me for our week of training. I moved into a male teacher’s apartment while he moved in with the other male teacher who was leaving, and the other new female teacher would stay with me for a week before taking over the other male teacher’s apartment. If she happened to be allergic to cats, there would have been a problem, and had the director known,  he would have had to plan around it.

Luckily, she wasn’t allergic and Merlin just hid under the bed from her for that week. I’m also lucky in that it turns out the director has two cats of his own and we sometimes trade cute cat photos through KakaoTalk.

When I was figuring out how to take my cat with me to Korea, some people on the internet told me I was an idiot. I knew I was probably going to be staying longer than a year and knew that I would never regret taking him with me, but I would forever regret leaving him with someone. Merlin has been through a lot of shitty situations, having been a rescue from the streets when he didn’t even weigh a pound, to spending days in the hospital with some kind of infection, to living through a hoarding situation that he needed to be rescued from. He’s my fat cuddly buddy and I can’t imagine life without him.

All this said, I would not recommend bringing your cat if you only plan on staying a year, or if your cat is older. The flight is hard on even the toughest of cats. Merlin didn’t meow at all, just kept looking up at me with sad eyes, and threw up the little food that he had been given before we left. The girls beside me thought I was crazy until I told them I wasn’t just whispering into the void underneath the seat in front of me but that there was an actual animal there.

Merlin looking out the window of my apartment on our first night in Korea. There are a bunch of neon lights coming in through the window and he is behind some ugly curtains, sitting on a ledge next to an ugly pig statue that was left from the previous tenant.

So what do you need to do to travel with your cat? Well, first off: your cat needs a microchip and a rabies vaccination. The rabies vaccination was $40 at my vet and he waived the health check-up that would have been $32. You need a rabies titer test, which ran me $200 with a sedation and overnight stay costing $50. You also need a full health check-up within ten days of travel that has to be apostilled by the USDA. The vet initially thought he could turn in the health check-up results online on a Saturday, but when he realized he couldn’t, he had to mail the results in and wait for them to get back to us. There was a Monday holiday that week that pushed everything back, so it wasn’t until 9am the day before my flight that I got back that piece of paperwork. (And you may have read that I was so reluctant to let go of it, the customs officer had to tell me that it would only be valid for thirty days and I’d need a new one for travel again.)

At the airport, he cost me a one-way $200 fee. So a breakdown would be:

  • rabies vaccination: $40
  • health check-up: $32
  • rabies titer test: $200
  • overnight stay and sedation: $50
  • one-way in-cabin flight fee: $200
  • cost of mailing the health check-up to and from New York: $??

That’s roughly $600 to have Merlin travel in the cabin with me. If someone told me that it would cost that much, I would have probably cried and wondered where I’d get the money. I’m glad it was spread out over a few months, and no matter the cost: you make things work for the ones you love.

Merlin snuggled up in my gray and purple fleece jacket.

As far as how Merlin has adapted, he’s pretty resilient and adapted right away. I tried to switch him to tofu-based litter but that smelled bad, so I found a brand comparable to what he was using in the States. Although he was initially a touch fussy with the new Korean brand food, he still ate it, just more slowly than usual. He doesn’t like the Korean cat treats that come in a little squeeze pouch for them to lick, but several of my local marts stock Temptations brand and Friskies brand treats. (And my mom sends me Greenies brand treats for him, spoiled cat.) He usually sleeps with me in my bed or on the second-hand chair I have in my room, which is something that he scratches at occasionally even though he has a scratching post. He is probably looking forward to winter, when I turn on the floor heating, because last winter he loved sprawling on the heated floor and sleeping.

I have no regrets taking butthead to Korea with me. I hope he’s my kitty forever.

You May Notice Something Different about My Homepage…

Yes, everyone, it’s official: I’m moving to South Korea at the end of this month! I just bought my plane ticket and am actually currently on hold with Delta regarding taking Merlin with me.

This is a dream ten years running, and I’m about to make it a reality.

Edited to add: the one-question questionnaire that I was given after the phone call was to rate the customer service representative based on whether or not I would hire them for a customer service rep job, one being “definitely not” and five being “definitely yes.” Never got that one before.