When my mother and I arrived at Incheon Airport in November after twenty uncomfortable hours in K94 masks, I was shocked at its emptiness. There seemed to be more workers in face shields and white Tyvek suits than travelers. A suave young man from South Korea’s National Health Corps inspects our stack of documents, takes our temperature and explains the terms of our upcoming 10-day quarantine. A “disease prevention bus” fitted with Plexiglas and plastic seat covers took us directly to our rental apartment in the city of Pyeongtaek, about an hour south of Seoul, for a small fee. “Wow, door to door,” Mom said. The response to the pandemic proved how much the country had changed since they immigrated to the US in the 1970s. “When I left, I only knew Korea as a place of need,” she told me. “I’m getting to know the new Korea now.”
Our quarantine rental was a cheap, efficient, dorm-sized apartment—a brand new apartment in a brand new building in a brand new neighborhood. It had very little floor space, but had all the essentials: a galley kitchenette with an undercounter washing machine, a bathroom, a tiny living-dining room, and an attic bedroom. “The landlord said not to leave, not even to enter the hallway. He said authorities sometimes review CCTV footage to catch quarantine fugitives,” Mom said with a mischievous look. We unpacked the snacks, tea, coffee and ready meals we had brought from the US. An uncle in Seoul had handed in a care package containing rice, banchan, eggs, gochugaru, and fruit and vegetables.
We spent most of our waking hours at a round plastic table (a faint imitation of a Saarinen Tulip) that served as a dining room and desk. Our phones were screaming every few hours in line with “extreme” local government emergency warnings. “Pyeongtaek City: 49 COVID-positive people. Keep outings, trips and gatherings to a minimum. Wear a mask, wash your hands, ventilate indoors, and observe all disease prevention rules.” Or “Pyeongtaek City: Today, 6 am to 9 pm, Air Pollution Emergency Measures. Limit excursions, wear a mask, provide individual attention. No forbidden fires. Level five traffic restrictions over the weekend.”
In quarantine there was no rush to overcome jet lag as there was no one to see and nowhere to go. But good recovery proved elusive. The bedroom loft, which led up a winding wooden log staircase, never got below eighty degrees. Mom and I hauled the bedding downstairs and slept side by side, board stiff, arms touching, on the two pillow cubes that doubled as a modular sofa. The setup was absurd but delicate. Some nights I would look over at her and think my face but not my face. my future body I could imagine an older version of me remembering that time of being inseparable.
We were supposed to come earlier, in the spring of 2020. But as the virus spread globally, Mom and Dad were stuck in Tacoma, Washington, where I grew up, just south of the first outbreak at a US nursing home in Brooklyn, sleeping with earplugs to muffle ambulance sirens. My younger brother was in Philadelphia cutting down and then eliminating his restaurant hours. South Korea chose to keep foreigners out with strict quarantine rules. Travel, especially across an ocean, seemed indulgent, even callous.
From Brooklyn, I reported the South Korean reaction by phone. The central government oversaw the production of masks, which pharmacists and neighborhood officials distributed at low cost. Testing was free and plentiful. Cell phones have been used to monitor social distancing and conduct real-time contact tracing. Some of these tactics were adopted by Taiwan, which, like South Korea, had learned from an outbreak of SARS in the early 2000s and expected the worst. Korea still saw major COVID outbreaks in churches and nightclubs. And there were serious privacy concerns: phone alerts detailed the locations and travel logs of COVID-positive people in the community, making them easy to identify. Still, I envied the effectiveness of the country’s public health system.
Mom had left Korea forever during the post-war military dictatorship. As a teenager, she had attended night school so she could work full-time and support her family. She passed the civil service exam and took a job in her hometown of Seoul, but saw no future for herself in a corrupt, patriarchal position. When a distant relative mentioned a possibility of moving to the US, she didn’t hesitate. In Southern California, she took low-wage jobs and classes and made unsuccessful plans to reunite with her mother and siblings. She later met my father, who also immigrated alone from Korea, and they both gave up their Korean citizenship to become US citizens. She returned to Seoul on work assignments in the late 1970s and again in 1985 before becoming a social worker in Washington State. Apart from that, family trips to Korea were sporadic and mostly short.
However, we never lost touch with our relatives there, and some of them sent angry text messages when COVID-19 hit New York. They had seen footage of overwhelmed city hospitals and morgue-like nursing homes on the Korean news. was i ok “That moment taught us that the West we so admired isn’t as logical and sane as we thought it was,” Seoul’s then-mayor said at a news conference. “Up to 630 people die every day in New York. Two people have died across Seoul.” The mayor added that medical costs in the US are “unimaginably high.” I could tell that my parents were redesigning this graphic in the back of the immigrants’ minds. The x over time from birthplace to adopted country; the y of health, stability and general prosperity. Her drawn lines curved downward, and quickly. Did they make the right choice?
Over the course of 2020, our extended family weathered what seemed like the worst of the pandemic – and my parents and I were waiting for another opportunity to travel to Korea. The summer of 2021 gave us hope. After Korea’s vaccination rate reached 70 percent in October, the government urged the population to accept a new normal. Its slogan “With Corona” (transliterated into Korean) implied a baseline level of transmission and eventual herd immunity. When my parents and I traveled in late autumn (my brother couldn’t come as he was back at his restaurant) we still had to quarantine on arrival – but for ten days instead of fourteen.
My father decided to stay in Washington state, put off by the thought of long incarceration. Mom and I packed our bags. We would stay for three months – the maximum for US citizens without a visa. I would be working on a book, and Mom would apply for a long-stay visa, a right granted to ethnic Koreans abroad. Before departure, we read a lot of fine print: In addition to our passports, we need our vaccination cards, negative COVID PCR test results less than three days before our flight, birth certificates, citizenship papers and family registration forms showing that my mother still had siblings in Korea. Foreigners without close blood relatives had to stay in state-run hotels for about a hundred dollars a day. We were foreigners too, but our remaining Koreanness gave us the privilege of paying less and staying in a rental of our choice.
From our micro-apartment on the seventh floor, we overlooked the fast-growing Pyeongtaek. Our windows framed two construction sites: on the left, a cylindrical shopping mall; on the right an apartment complex that took up an entire block. Straight ahead, an office building was being prepared for its first tenant, the Pyeongtaek Chamber of Commerce. It seemed appropriate to confront these symbols of capital: Pyeongtaek was quickly remodeled by Samsung and LG factories and US Army Garrison Humphreys, the new headquarters of US Forces Korea. Humphreys is home to approximately forty thousand American service members, contractors and their families. Further north in Pyeongtaek is a second US facility, Osan Air Force Base. Since the pandemic began, many Koreans had rejected the loose COVID protocols at those bases and feared US soldiers as carriers of the virus. By early January, US forces would report more than three thousand positive cases to Korea, a rate “far higher than desired” and restricting “activities outside the installation.”