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A Welcome Unfreedom in South Korea


When my mom and I arrived at Incheon Airport in November, after twenty uncomfortable hours in K94 masks, I was shocked by its emptiness. There seemed to be more workers in face shields and white Tyvek suits than travellers. A polite young man from South Korea’s national health corps inspected our stack of documents, took our temperatures, and explained the conditions of our imminent ten-day quarantine. A “disease prevention” bus outfitted in plexiglass and plastic seat covers took us straight to our rental apartment, in Pyeongtaek city, about an hour south of Seoul, for a small fee. “Wow, door to door,” Mom said. The pandemic response proved how much the country had changed since she immigrated to the U.S. in the nineteen-seventies. “When I left, I only knew Korea as a place of hardship,” she told me. “I’m getting to know the new Korea now.”

Our quarantine rental was a cheap, dorm-size efficiency—a brand-new apartment in a brand-new building in a brand-new neighborhood. It had very little floor space but all the basics: a galley kitchenette with an under-counter washing machine, a bathroom, a tiny living-dining room, and a lofted bedroom. “The landlord said not to leave, not even to enter the hallway. He said that the authorities sometimes check CCTV footage to catch quarantine escapees,” Mom said with a sly look. We unpacked the snacks, tea, coffee, and instant meals we’d brought from the U.S. An uncle in Seoul had dropped off a care package of rice, banchan, eggs, gochugaru, and produce.

We would spend most of our waking hours at a round, plastic table (a flimsy Saarinen-tulip knockoff) that served as dining room and desk. Our phones screamed in unison every few hours with “extreme” emergency alerts from the local government. “Pyeongtaek city: 49 COVID-positive people. Keep outings, travel, and gatherings to a minimum. Wear a mask, wash your hands, ventilate indoor settings, and observe all disease-prevention rules.” Or “Pyeongtaek city: Today, 6am to 9pm, emergency air-pollution measures. Limit outings, wear a mask, take individual care. No prohibited fires. Level-five traffic restrictions over the weekend.”

In quarantine, there was no rush to get over jet lag, as there was no one to see and no place to go. But quality rest proved elusive. The bedroom loft, up a twisty flight of wood-block stairs, never got below eighty degrees. Mom and I resorted to dragging the bedding downstairs and sleeping next to one another, rigid as planks, arms touching, on the two cushion cubes that served as a modular sofa. The setup was absurd but tender. Some nights, I would look over at her and think, My face, but not my face. My future body. I would imagine an older version of me remembering this time of inseparability.

We had meant to come earlier, in the spring of 2020. But, as the virus spread worldwide, Mom and Dad were stuck in Tacoma, Washington, where I grew up, just south of the first nursing-home outbreak in the U.S. I was in Brooklyn, sleeping with earplugs to muffle the sound of ambulance sirens. My younger brother was in Philadelphia, where he had his restaurant hours cut back, then eliminated. South Korea chose to keep foreigners away with strict quarantine rules. Travel, especially across an ocean, seemed indulgent, even callous.

From Brooklyn, I reported on the South Korean response by phone. The central government oversaw the production of masks, which neighborhood pharmacists and public servants distributed at low cost. Testing was free and abundant. Cell phones were used to monitor social distancing and conduct contact tracing in real time. Some of these tactics were borrowed from Taiwan, which, like South Korea, had learned from an outbreak of SARS in the early two-thousands and planned for the worst. Korea saw large COVID outbreaks in churches and night clubs nevertheless. And there were serious privacy concerns: phone alerts detailed the locations and travel records of COVID-positive individuals in the community, making them easy to identify. Still, I envied the effectiveness of the country’s public-health system.

Mom had left Korea for good during the postwar military dictatorship. As a teen-ager, she had attended a nighttime high school so she could work full time and help support her family. She passed the civil-service exam and took a job in her native Seoul, but saw no future for herself in a corrupt, patriarchal office. So, when a distant relative mentioned an opportunity to move to the U.S., she didn’t hesitate. In Southern California, she took low-wage jobs and classes, and laid unsuccessful plans to reunite with her mom and siblings. She later met my dad, who had also immigrated from Korea on his own, and they both gave up their Korean citizenship to become U.S. citizens. She returned to Seoul on job assignments in the late seventies and again in 1985, before becoming a social worker in Washington State. Aside from that, family trips to Korea have been sporadic and mostly brief.

We never lost touch with our relatives there, though, and several of them sent fretful 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 O.K.? “This moment has taught us that the West we’ve so admired isn’t as logical and reasonable as we thought,” the then mayor of Seoul said at a press conference. “In New York, up to six hundred and thirty people a day are dying. In all of Seoul, two people have died.” The mayor added that medical costs in the U.S. were “unimaginably high.” I could tell that my parents were revising that graph in the back of immigrants’ minds. The x, over time, from place of birth to adopted country; the y of health, stability, and general flourishing. Their plotted lines were arcing downward, and fast. Had they made the right choice?

Over the course of 2020, our extended family survived what seemed to be the worst of the pandemic—and my parents and I waited for another chance to travel to Korea. The summer of 2021 gave us hope. After the Korean vaccination rate reached seventy per cent, in October, the government urged the population to accept a new normal. Its slogan, “With Corona” (transliterated in Korean), implied a baseline level of transmission and eventual herd immunity. If my parents and I travelled in the late fall (my brother couldn’t join us, as he was back at his restaurant), we would still have to quarantine upon arrival—but for ten days, down from fourteen.

My dad decided to stay in Washington State, put off by the thought of a long confinement. Mom and I packed our bags. We would stay for three months—the maximum for U.S. citizens without a visa. I would work on a book, and Mom would apply for a long-term-residency visa, a right given to ethnic Koreans abroad. Before departing, we read a lot of fine print: in addition to our passports, we would need our vaccine cards, negative COVID PCR-test results from less than three days before our flight, birth certificates, citizenship papers, and family-registration forms showing that my mom still had siblings in Korea. Foreigners without close blood relations had to stay in government-run hotels, at about a hundred dollars per day. We, too, were foreigners, but our residual Koreanness gave us the privilege of paying less and staying in a rental of our choice.

From our seventh-floor micro-apartment, we gazed out at fast-growing Pyeongtaek. Our windows framed two construction sites: to the left, a cylindrical shopping mall; to the right, an apartment complex that occupied an entire city block. Straight ahead, an office building was being readied for its first tenant, the Pyeongtaek Chamber of Commerce. It seemed fitting to face these symbols of capital: Pyeongtaek was being rapidly remade by Samsung and LG factories and U.S. Army Garrison Humphreys, the new headquarters of U.S. Forces Korea. Humphreys hosts some forty thousand American military personnel, contractors, and their families. Further north in Pyeongtaek is a second U.S. facility, the Osan Air Force base. Since the pandemic began, many Koreans had come to resent the loose COVID protocols on these bases, and feared U.S. soldiers as vectors of the virus. By early January, U.S. Forces Korea would report more than three thousand positive cases, a rate “far higher than desired,” and restrict “off-installation activities.”



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