What Quarantine Is Like In South Korea, While America Burns
Korean phrase of the day: Joh-un Anchim “good morning”
The 14 days I spent in quarantine have come and gone. As of writing this I am 22 days into my life in Korea.
In the first week that passed since I left America, our entire world changed. I passed the time in quarantine sobering up; no access to booze, nor time for anything but work and family, vices traded for reflections on old habits that died hard. Some people call going to jail going to school, and that’s how I felt: powerless, like a child, in a totally new place waiting to be told what to do.
Before we came to Korea, Sumi’s family had hastily setup our apartment. It was clean and all the essentials were there- towels, toilet tissue, and internet fast enough to continue my work. My kids had just enough drawing paper and off-brand legos to occupy themselves for the two weeks we’d be stuck inside. My wife spent the little free time she had between feedings and cleanings filling in the gaps online. Deliveries came via intercom, and boxes and trash were picked up the same way. Our only interactions with the outside world were with Sumi’s family, who came by several times to drop off groceries and other necessities. They never stepped through our doors, but they yelled hello and goodbye loud enough to make my wife cry. We felt their presence from day one; from the small but essential considerations (like extra soap), to the notes left in drawers and walls written in broken English throughout the house, I had never felt more welcomed and so lonely.
Day after day time ticked by at a snails pace. A friend sent me a video of looters pouring out of a Target. I assumed this the inevitable outcome of months of unemployment. Hours passed as I worked on envisioning our new marketing strategy when more messages came in. The looting wasn’t about coronavirus and unemployment (directly, at least), it was in immediate response to the lynching of a black man named George Floyd.
While I was struggling to adjust to the differences between American and Korean environmental design — the Black Lives Matter peaceful protests swept through the US, alongside violent destruction and looting. As I busied myself in work, both remote and domestic, I realized the sinking feeling wasn’t the monotony of quarantine, it was the remorse for leaving my country behind as it burned, and having to witness it digitally alongside Slack and iMessages from coworkers and family.
The second week of quarantine my powerlessness sunk in completely. I was unable to leave my Korean condo, my every move tracked by the app I had to install on my phone at the airport. I heard word through Slack that things were digressing back home. I tuned in to Periscope to a live stream of Bellevue, the city where I lived for the past two years, to see looters ransacking the same streets that my son and I took lonely walks through just a week prior. Long gone were our echos, yelling Marco down deserted streets to no response. Marco replaced now by the screams of hundreds of protestors — would Polo respond in kind? Peaceful protestors half a block away were flanked by police, while the looters ran free in front of and behind the officer’s turned backs. “Why aren’t they stopping them?”, I wondered.
My wife and I secretly watched the coverage in my office, while our son watched Netflix in the living room. When my son came in my wife turned off the news — she didn’t want him to worry about his friends and family back home. I imagined what it might have been like, if we decided to stay in Bellevue an extra week before coming to Korea. “Daddy, why is that car on fire?” “Daddy, why are they breaking the windows across the street?” Perhaps we’d have kept him in our bedroom, blinds drawn, watching Netflix with noise canceling headphones as our condo windows were smashed downstairs, PJ Mask blaring into my son’s ears, drowning out the noise of police vehicles and teargas bombs outside.
In the days to follow, more looting spread throughout America. The national guard was called in to some states, and police violence was amplified across my news feeds. Cops marched through black neighborhoods on Reddit, opening fire at people sitting on their porch. Pepper-spray and rubber bullets hit the eyes of teenagers standing in peaceful protest. An elderly man was pushed into submission for standing in front of an armored brigade. I was reaching peak despair, when something happened — while the protests continued, the looting stopped. The protests grew stronger, more unified, and the message became clearer. Police chiefs resigned, officers took knees, and people of all races and ages continued to pour out into the streets in peaceful protest. The NFL openly apologized for not acknowledging black players who took a knee. Nascar banned the confederate flag. Slaver statues came down across the South. Brands from Starbucks to Goop took up the BLM cause. Was change coming to America? Or was this just another American fad? To me -from my privileged vantage point in the comfort of my Korean quarantine — the plight of Black Americans had never been clearer. I reflected on the path that lead us here, the pain that we had to go through to begin this dialogue, and wondered if it would end, or if it should even end. Our president, tear-gassing a path to a photo-op in front of a church, declared these protests to be on the wrong side of history. Defiant to the calls from the masses, he refused to change the names of military bases named after confederate generals and slave owners. Perhaps change was coming, but not without powerful forces on the other side blocking each step towards progress. With the stock market never better, and unemployment never worse, with a president openly denying systemic racism while the very system around him crumbled under the growing divide, my 14 day quarantine ended, on Saturday, at midnight. Unceremoniously I stepped out my condo and into the dead of night, unable to sleep. My body was in Seoul, my mind and heart torn between two places: home and family.
That first day out of quarantine Sumi’s entire family came to celebrate. I went for my second walk outside with my father-in-law and son, down busy and bustling backstreets filled with people going about their daily lives. Coffee shops were crowded, supermarkets elbow to elbow. Everything was absolutely normal. My thoughts kept going back to home, uncontrolled pandemic and widespread anger, but the thoughts never lingered long enough to fall back into despair. I was out of quarantine, a free man.The three of us, grandfather, father, and son, joking about how hot it was, who farted, and what kind of food we wanted to eat. We went for pastries, where the owner greeted us with a smile. He asked if we were American, my father-in-law denied it, and we shuffled home with a bag full of sweet bread. My son beamed with excitement, and my father-in-law tousled his hair, telling him to wait and share it with mommy. Besides the ubiquitous masks, life was so normal here in Korea. The hot smoggy air, hectic traffic, and ‘bali bali’ (hurry hurry) culture would be hard for me to get used to, but I realized exactly where I was — surrounded by family, my son happier than he has been in months. I too was in the most peaceful place I’ve been in months, balancing gratitude and dread like the blind lady etched in frozen relief to the side of a courthouse, impatiently waiting for peace and justice in America.