Seoul, South Korea
As I landed in Seoul at 4 AM on March 15 and saw the neon lights that lit up the city about to fade as the sun rose, my feelings towards my second home began to feel more mixed: a place I associated with holidays and family gatherings had now been taken over with the impending threat of COVID-19. All the while, my mind floated to the ensuing chaos, care, and resilience of my Oberlin College community as students prepared to depart our homes within a mere 72 hours notice; for my friends and me, it was a period marked with bold moves and oddly enough the beginning of new relationships during a period of displacement and in some ways loss.
Unlike the usual beating sun and humidity I was often welcomed with, this time I was greeted with health officials who donned masks and gloves with hand sanitizer at their disposal, taking everyone’s temperature as we deplaned. And, as I went through the motions of immigration, customs, and baggage claim, it hit me that I would now have to again adapt to a different set of social norms that had been drastically altered by COVID-19.
I took a cab back to my dad’s place, where the driver asked me to sanitize my hands before entering the car, yet another reminder that my stay in Seoul would not be the same. And, as the sun rose, instead of the usual texts that I would have received at this time from my friends, my phone buzzed with notifications of individuals who had contracted COVID-19 near me, notifying me to call 1339, the national hotline for COVID-19, if I showed any symptoms. After arriving home, the self-quarantine started, two-weeks of introspection and a growing sense of displacement. Once my quarantine period was over, Korea’s daily cases were going down and life began to return to normal. But it was not the normal we were used to. On every bus and train ride I took, the speakerphone announced in Japanese, Chinese, English, and Korean the ways citizens could prevent the spread of COVID-19; the people who were not wearing masks would attract glares and attract social disapproval from fellow passengers. It was also not uncommon for me to come upon individuals who were tasked with disinfecting public areas, wearing an orange vest donned with the words COVID-19 prevention team. It felt weirdly dystopian while also necessary for public health. Compared to America, I knew I was lucky. I could go outside, as long as I took the necessary precautions.
While I was adjusting to the cautious nature of Korean citizens and its government, jetlag, family, and classes that were 13-hours behind me, thoughts of my Oberlin community began to pop up in the most random places. Even the smell of rice would place me back in my Dining Co-op at Oberlin for a few seconds. And an overwhelming sense of loss followed for a couple of days after classes started; even the mundane activities at activities at Oberlin felt special. Zoom, Facetime, and Facebook Messenger became my safe-havens and a connection to the community I missed and a way to strengthen and build the connections that were made during a period of immense transition. In different words, the things my friends and professors talked about were all the same: a sense of loss, a sense of new beginnings, and a sense of change. But after a while, the conversation shifted into ways we could support each other even though we could not do one the one thing that would solve many of our problems, be together.
Now, as South Korea’s daily cases continue to drop steadily, people are coming out and are cautiously enjoying Spring. It feels like a movie: I walk around Hangang River’s adjacent parks, admiring the cherry blossoms and taking in Spring, while anxiety-inducing music plays in the background.
And as I enjoy the benefits of the collective energy that “flattened the curve,” news media reports out of America and communication from my friends remind me of the continuing and growing threat COVID-19 poses on American society, and by extension, my loved ones. A weird sense of anxiety grows in me; and the source of it, I cannot always pinpoint. But each day, my friends and I gain a sense of hope: countries have been able to halt or hinder the spread of the virus and give us hope that we will be able to return to Oberlin and resume our normal lives. And the strength of our parting words as we left Oberlin become more real and stronger: “It’s not a goodbye, it’s a see you later.”
Sun Moon grew up in Oxford, England and is currently attending Oberlin College. In his free time, he enjoys talking with friends, going on hikes, and trying out different restaurants.