COVID Times in South Korea

The office building where the author held up for his two-week quarantine in South Korea in 2020.
The office building where the author held up for his two-week quarantine in South Korea in 2020. Yeon Hee Kim photos.

My Self-Quarantine Odyssey in South Korea

By Ron Roman

The author taking a break from writing in his South Korean prison.
The author taking a break from writing in his South Korean prison.

Upon arriving at Incheon/Seoul International Airport in Korea to return to work after a late-summer vacation in the U.S., I was immediately put in government-mandated 14-day self-quarantine aka self-imprisonment.

COVID Times in South Korea 1Absent diplomats and high-ranking government officials, everybody had to be quarantined. Everybody.

Whether you were affected (guilty) or virus-free (innocent) 14 days of punishing solitude would be your sentence (verdict).

What follows is a chronological account of what would be a unique experience for anybody who hasn’t spent time themselves in quarantine or in a hoosegow–a jail–somewhere.

Met by the Guys in Suits

Late Thursday afternoon, after making it past a preliminary fever-check and Immigration and Customs, I walked into the airport lobby. I was met by white hazard-suited personnel, two guys who were seated and giving out directions to outgoing passengers.

Virus Testing Center in South Korea.
Virus Testing Center in South Korea.

One was an amiable Iranian, about 35, and working a COVID gig for the Korean government, who spoke excellent Korean and English. Among other things, I told him that about a zillion years ago I went to college with two Iranian co-eds, one a beautiful girl from Tabriz named “Shanass.”

He appeared impressed, or maybe amused, by my quaint, and perhaps outdated, knowledge of his country.

South Korea Travel Warnings for Americans from the U.S. State Dept

Moreover, I must’ve appeared agitated over the menacing virus precautions in sight everywhere, for he urged me to take a nearby seat and relax after instructing me how to purchase a special “COVID bus” ticket to my home in Songtan outside America’s Osan Air Base, a two-hour drive south.

It would be a four-hour wait.

Getting on the Virus Bus

At about 9 pm I hopped on the “virus” bus driven by a dour-looking chap who looked like he’d rather be doing anything else but this.

But we only made it to Dongtan where everybody got off and on to separate mini-vans for their final destinations. I was the only passenger headed for Songtan.

This new driver couldn’t find my specific address, though it was written in Korean.  Finally, after repeatedly demanding he shut off the overhead van lights interfering with outside visibility, I was able to make out the lay of the land and we arrived at what would be my two-week hoosegow home: my wife’s business office.

Author Waving From The Hoosegow

Prior to my leaving solo for the U.S., my wife and I decided that it would be best if I stayed at her office rather than with her at home.

That way, she wouldn’t be forced to self-quarantine herself. Call her paranoid, yet she wasn’t peachy-keen on my cozying up with her immediately upon my arrival from the U.S. where she was all but sure I’d catch COVID-19. Or it would catch me.

Inside the Officetel

Inside the “officetel” (as they’re known in Korean) I went to shower, quickly discovering that nobody had remembered to juice up the water heater.

I struggled with the thermostat, then simply gave up, and jumped under the icy spray. Offices aren’t hotels after all, right?

Later that night like a guardian angel my wife showed up at the door bearing additional provisions. This would be the first time we had seen each other in over a month. She was wearing a mask and appeared not to know how to greet me.

Fist punch? Elbow bump? Or—yikes! —a hug and break regulations? After an awkward interlude, she eventually left, dropping off my first Care Package as if I were some pitiful refugee. Jet-lagged, I plopped into bed and slept like a dead man.

Getting a COVID Test

Friday morning, we called the local COVID-19 medical center where I needed to be tested within three days of arrival. After wrangling over the phone with a Korean woman about precautions, we were told that it was OK for me to be driven there: “You no walk here. No take taxi. Wife drive you here, OK, but must both wear a mask and, oh, keep car windows down!”

Upon arrival, I met my assigned virus control officer, a Miss Un Hee Kim. First up, I had to be officially virus-tested yet again. (I had been tested twice in the U.S. while on vacation.) I was in a foul mood after arguing with my wife about nothing, and I didn’t relish the necessity of having a long testing stick rammed up my nose yet again.

A young fellow looking like some high school kid working a gig to pocket some loose change hurried over to my seat, pushed my head back, and jammed the wooden pick up both nostrils and practically into my brain with all the finesse of a Mexican border town back-alley abortionist. (This was now my third test and the only discomfiting one.  I would test negative again.)

Then he ran off to impale another victim seated next to me. Standing nearby, my wife looked bewildered, perhaps thanking fate she need not be next. We made our way back to my makeshift hoosegow.

Masked Up

At any time she and I met, even if only for picking up items at my doorstep, she was always with a mask—and demanded I be in one, too, notwithstanding my recent three negative test results. Back in Connecticut and Massachusetts while on vacation, mask requirements and distancing were strictly enforced. Everywhere.

In Korea, at least from what I could see, not so. Despite a new local directive demanding all don a mask in public or face a W100,000 fine (about U.S. $83), half of the pedestrians ignored it, despite the popular perception that Korea was on top of the virus outbreak including cellphone contact tracing alerts (“kuh-ching!”) going off every five minutes, etc. Enough to drive one crazy.

Soon it was crunch-time. I’d be on my own with only a PC and Internet hook-up, a few books, and miscellaneous reading materials for company, along with my ancient radio that on a whim tuned in and out from any station it was set to as if it had a mind of its own.

Quarantine Care Package covid in Korea.
The author’s Quarantine Care Package.

Being a veteran myself I always found broadcasts from nearby Osan Air Base (absent the songs) to be particularly boring (the usual military propaganda), so English language programming was limited.

Daily Quarantine Routine

I tried to stay true to a well-disciplined routine: Get up “early” (by 8 am), shave, eat, meditate (which I had taken a long hiatus from), mouth my usual daily affirmations, check e-mail, and complete my daily exercise regimen for my feet, and eyes.

Trying to recapture my youth or just maintain my current wrinkles? In doing so, I rediscovered something I realized years ago: The more time available, the more time it takes to complete things. What used to take an hour and 20 minutes now would consume three hours.

No strict time deadlines to meet? I wouldn’t finish till 11 am. Call it silly, I know, but this soon inculcated a sense of guilt in me, as though I were lollygagging (to borrow my track coach’s favorite term to shame me) in not completing oddball tasks on time.

Days Run Together

Days blended into one another. There was no land-based phone line and out of boredom, then loneliness, I’d make local cell phone calls to friends and acquaintances alike and discovered only one of them had experienced the quarantine firsthand.

Author At Work Composing Story
Passing the time in quarantine.

Few were genuinely interested to hear what it was like, perhaps not wanting to be reminded that at any time they could be next up.

I soon stopped calling people. And, except for my wife, hardly anybody was calling me. This left me even more isolated.

I’d even catch myself talking aloud to myself from time to time. And though this quarantine was artificial, i.e., government-imposed, I recalled reading as a college kid the great British philosopher Bertrand Russell stating how most humans really do live out their lives fundamentally alone.

Time to Kill

One nice thing about having time to kill was I could listen to an endless supply of my favorite 50s and 60s pop classics on YouTube—endless Roy Orbison whose inimitable voice had so much color it could outshine a hundred rainbows. This, as well, became addictive. Then, too, extended trolling of the Internet reminded me how much is mere piffle or pornographic.

To be more productive I started composing this article. After initially laying out the early distinct details of quarantine, it became obvious that soon one day was bleeding into the next; daily activities became a blur. The mind wanders.

From time to time I would look out from my office balcony and take an impromptu survey on the percentage of passers-by wearing masks. About one-half. Unlike in Asia, in the West, I suspect aversion to masks is because we associate them with surgeons and going under the knife. A masked doctor is the last thing you see before going under, wondering if you’ll ever awake. Corny, but true.

Sharing His Temperature

In isolation, my main obligation was to dutifully record and text in my temperature at 9:30 am and 1:30 pm to Miss Kim, my outside virus contact. This I would do; she would then text: “Yes, thank u” or simply “Got it” and occasionally inquire about something else like “Has someone delivered daily necessities to you?” in reference to the government two-week “Help” package of water and foodstuffs prisoners would receive.

While adequate no one could develop a gourmet appetite over oodles of noodles, rice, water, and myriad dried snacks. I gave these away to my wife and wolfed down what she would drop off for me instead.

Household chores would have to be managed. Truthfully, I’m not much for meal preparation, house cleaning, helping out the wife around our home, etc., yet now I was on my own. I cobbled together simple meals, you could hardly call it cooking, hand washed individual clothing items, and hung them outside the window to dry.

Un Hee Kim at Songtan
Author and his jailer, Un Hee Kim at Songtan Virus Control Center, South Korea.

Laundry Hanging in Sight

My wife caught sight of my shirt and socks hanging from the balcony, then promptly demanded I bring them indoors, insinuating I was acting like an uncouth hillbilly. This I did for family harmony, though I was hardly living in or with any family.

In doing household chores I remained decently disciplined, so at least this wasn’t a problem. Or was it because I had no choice? In any event, the Better Half would’ve been proud of me.

During my final week, my foot cellulitis started acting up again. It could be life-threatening. I had just been treated for it in a U.S. hospital while on vacation, and I mused aloud if I shouldn’t break quarantine and make a beeline for the hospital.

Author Un Hee Kim
Sharing a COVID handshake

If I did so, I worried that it would arouse suspicions back at the Songtan medical center. Would I be thought of as trying to weasel my way out of quarantine and would they be inclined to extend or slap me with another? Thus far I had no problems with the staff and wanted to keep it that way.

Possibility of Losing My Visa

There were news stories of non-citizens being stripped of visas and deported because they played a little too loose and fast with the rules. The authorities meant business. I decided to tough it out; I didn’t want to face the prospect of being stripped of my permanent residency, deported, and forced to live with our tenants back in the States!

Finally, my last day in the hoosegow crept up on me. Ms. Kim said I’d be a free man at precisely high noon (like in some countdown out of a Hollywood cowboy movie) and to see her after 1 pm at the center. My wife picked me up and we drove to the center where I would get my final clearance certificate.

The three of us posed for photos, I fist- and elbow-bumping Kim, but now being allowed officially to squeeze and smooch my wife. The ordeal was over.

Ronald RomanRon Roman currently lives in South Korea where he taught English and the Humanities to the U.S. military at the University of Maryland Global Campus (UMGC-Asia) until the COVID-19 crisis. He has written extensive travel, academic, and political articles for regional and national publications.  He studied writing (both non-fiction and creative) for his third graduate degree (Humanities) from Wesleyan University. 

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