Quarantine in South KoreaAn XploreAsia Teacher Experience
What is Quarantine in South Korea Like?
As we adjust to the ‘New Normal’, teachers from all over the world are beginning to return to their schools overseas, and new teachers can begin their life-changing overseas teaching experience with XploreAsia! However, there are a few hurdles that need to be navigated. One of the most common questions we get asked is, ‘What is quarantine like?’ Well, we will present first-hand accounts over the coming days and weeks, detailing the planning, arrival, and quarantine processes in South Korea, Myanmar, and Thailand to show you that it’s not so bad and can be done with minimal discomfort!
Today, we hear from Steph, from the UK, who writes about her experiences with quarantine in South Korea, where she arrived to teach English with XploreAsia.
Which Program were you on, and how did COVID-19 Impact your Experience?
I had the pleasure of joining the March intake of the Seoul in-class TESOL / TEFL course, run by the remarkable Kim Le Roux and glamorously assisted by her South African comrade, Enzo Forgiarini. I spent some time researching the different routes available to achieving the TESOL / TEFL qualification. It seemed like a much more sensible idea to invest in an ‘all-inclusive’ package that included work placement, accommodation, visa assistance, and of course, the training program.
It is here in my ‘Get Steph to Korea’ timeline that I’ll note that COVID-19 wasn’t even a twinkle on the landscape of the global health agenda. Even when about to leave the UK for Korea in February 2020, it was still largely isolated in China, and despite the geographical closeness of the two countries, I wasn’t about to let my desire to make this move across the world be tainted by what was, at the time, media-hyped speculation.
The course itself was intense. The work schedule was pretty demanding, I guess given the content we needed to cover and the limited time that we had to do it in. But Kim was for want of better words, bloody amazing. She was personable, approachable and always available to answer any of our concerns – whether related to the course, an emotional grievance related to our new lives, or just a friendly chat that encouraged normality. She made everything that could have been grueling fun and as COVID-19 began rearing its ugly head, she assumed the position of ‘Course Confidence-inducer’ (yes, I teach English), and we could deal with the worrying times with greater efficacy.
South Korea was one of the first countries outside of China to experience a surge in COVID-19 cases, owing mainly to the church-related outbreak in Daegu, and quite inconveniently, it happened at the same time that I was on the TESOL / TEFL course.
As our course progressed throughout March, we were given almost daily updates on the state of affairs in neighboring countries, and with that, our list of prospective countries to visit for a visa trip was severely contracting. In fact, it got to the day of our graduation and final decisions had not yet been made. At this point Japan had closed its borders, along with Taiwan, the Philippines, Hong Kong and Thailand. The only options we had were to either fly to Cambodia, or fly home. The rush of anxiety was debilitating, and after speaking to my sister in the UK, I felt the best choice was to do my visa trip to the UK and then fly back to quarantine in South Korea.
What Preparations did you Have to Make for Your Return?
I will skim quickly over the fortnight I spent back in the UK – but with the grace of whatever heavenly body, the Korean Embassy in London was able to turn my visa around in just one week, and I was able to quickly fly back to Korea. At the time, flights were rare, expensive, and stopping at more airports than a Chelsea girl on spring break. Maybe it was because I booked my flight with less than 24 hours to go before departure, but I rocked up at Heathrow Airport with a direct flight to Incheon and an extra-legroom seat with British Airways.
The journey to the airport, the flight back to Korea, and my arrival at Incheon to quarantine in South Korea are all part of one journey that I will never forget. The roads to Heathrow were empty. The M25 is notoriously a car park, but COVID had diminished the need for anyone to drive its highways. My dad was my on-duty chauffeur. Even this was a point of contention – no one wanted to be anywhere near the airport, let alone collect/drop off a person who had been on a flight in the past two weeks, or in a country with such (comparatively) close proximity to China. Nevertheless, father dearest took the job and I got to the airport. With no element of exaggeration, as far as I could see in terminal 2 was emptiness. All shops were closed, with the exception of Boots and WH Smith, where social distancing was implored. The only other people seemed to be the few who had held onto their jobs and those boarding my flight.
The flight was shockingly full – it felt almost as if that flight was part of the last-chance exodus out of the UK into Korea. I was placed in a middle seat between two people, though physical contact was avoided and my personal sanitizer was constantly within reach should our hands touch.
The journey to the airport, the flight back to Korea, and my arrival at Incheon are all part of one journey that I will never forget.
What was Your Arrival Experience?
Arrival at Incheon was an endurance event. The different queues that we were guided through were endless. I had my phone number tested (luckily I had a Korean number from the course), and my ‘guardian’ as it were, was contacted to ensure that the address provided was legitimate I had been told prior to my arrival back to quarantine in South Korea that I would need to get tested at the airport, though I strolled through arrival area with no issue or guidance towards a testing facility. Here the games began.
I contacted the Korean speaking representative from the XploreAsia team, and within moments, my assigned sticker had changed color three times. When coming through customs, you were assigned a sticker based on country of origin, or whether you were a Korean Native. I was passed around among airport workers, the Korean Army, and men dressed head to toe in hazmat suits, before being escorted to the testing center.
I was told to stand in the car park at Incheon Airport, armed with three brimming suitcases and suffering from severe sleep deprivation. To further challenge my sanity, I had a swab shoved in my mouth and so far up my nose, it was knocking on the door to my brain. With tears rolling down my cheeks, I was escorted by four more soldiers to the transfer bus headed to a quarantine facility.
I was moody, miserable, and extremely tired. At this point, I had been awake for around 22 hours and was ready to pass out any place I was left for more than ten minutes. After a few other people got on the bus, we headed off on a 90-minute bus ride. Once we arrived at the quarantine facility, I was met again by men in hazmat suits and armed with clipboards. I started to feel incredibly overwhelmed. As I waited for my turn to register, I noticed that the guys were handing out packages to those ahead of me. To my surprise, we were provided with a hot TGI Friday’s lunch, a box of towels, toiletries, and complete guidance in English as to what to expect over the next 24 hours. I got to my room and found that, though basic, it was perfect. Warm, clean, and with enough space for my entourage of luggage. I showered almost immediately, unraveled the Korean ‘mattress’, and curled up to rest. We were provided with another hot meal of fried chicken in the evening and breakfast time was announced in English over the speakerphone the next morning. At 11 AM, a woman came to my door and told me my COVID results were negative, and to expect to leave in an hour and a half. With that, I packed my things, organized my airport transportation, and headed to the transfer. Again, we were provided with food, from Lotteria nonetheless, and taken directly to the airport for our onward journey, which for me was to Gyeonggi-do province, where I had a 14-day quarantine in South Korea, in my apartment provided by my school. The experience was emotional, but honestly, the Korean government was outstanding in their organization of the whole ordeal. It was comforting, safe, and quite importantly – free, so I know that despite the personal inconvenience, it could have been so much worse.
When coming through customs, you were assigned a sticker based on country of origin, or whether you were a Korean Native. I was passed around among airport workers, the Korean Army, and men dressed head to toe in hazmat suits, before being escorted to the testing center.
At 11AM, a woman came to my door and told me my COVID results were negative, and to expect to leave in an hour and a half. With that, I packed my things, organized my airport transportation, and headed to the transfer.
How About Quarantine in South Korea, What are the Conditions Like?
We were supported by a very accommodating school principal who was willing to get anything we needed in terms of food, crockery and anything that would make our experience more comfortable.
Mmm… so quarantine in South Korea. Quarantine…A three-syllable word that still makes my eyebrow twitch and skin turn an unhealthy shade of ashen-white. Firstly, it is fair to say that I was blessed to have secured a teaching position in Suwon, in the Gyeonggi-do province, so the transit from the airport wasn’t too long, and no public transport was required. This was a huge relief, given that those arriving at Incheon, who need for public transport, were siphoned into regional categories and held until there was available space to board the ‘foreign arrival’ carts.
I was also incredibly lucky to have been placed at a school with a girl (now a very good friend of mine) with whom I trained in Incheon. She had opted for the Cambodian visa trip and returned to Korea a few days earlier, and so was able to give me valuable insight into what was waiting for me at my apartment, and more importantly, what was not. (Bedding; bedding was not waiting for me.)
We were supported by a very accommodating school principal who was willing to get anything we needed in terms of food, crockery, and anything that would make our experience more comfortable. I expected that there would be an absence of a lot of things and so brought with me my home comforts, however, I wasn’t about to pack a saucepan and bring it to Korea with me.
What are you Doing to Keep Yourself Busy During Your Quarantine in South Korea?
I was able to prepare slightly when I was back in the UK, bringing with me puzzle books, a yoga mat and resistance bands in the over-optimistic belief that the two weeks would see the renaissance of Stephanie as a fitness goddess and lean machine…
Once settled into my new surroundings, I was ready to accept the fate that was a fortnight of the same four walls. I was able to prepare slightly when I was back in the UK, bringing with me puzzle books, a yoga mat and resistance bands in the over-optimistic belief that the two weeks would see the renaissance of Stephanie as a fitness goddess and lean machine… The reality was that I managed one HIIT workout, nearly threw up, and decided it’d be best to hang up my resistance bands.
The side effects of quarantine in South Korea (twitch) included a disturbed sleeping pattern, over-reliance on social media, and a Netflix binge to end all others. The Netflix binge played into the disturbed sleeping pattern, where the concept of time was governed by the length of an episode, not the position of the sun – though the position of the sun made me realise I had stayed up for far too long or woken up far too late. The over-reliance on social media made the reality of how far from home I was even more real. Despite incessant scrolling, I missed my loved ones and I guess I started to feel a little bit lonely.
Within the first week, the Suwon government dropped over a food kit, thermometers and sanitising spray/hand gel – all left at the door with a fleeting knock to avoid any interaction with the potentially virus-infected foreigner living inside. The schedule for twice daily temperature checks was strict, and if I missed a timeslot, my Director would politely remind me. If my temperature varied too much above 36.5, I’d be questioned.
After about ten days, I could feel the light at the end of the tunnel getting closer, I was getting excited again to leave the apartment and explore the city of which I was now a resident. I’d spent some of my time watching people out the window to remind myself that I was actually in Korea and shamelessly attracted to Korean guys. As the fortnight rolled to a close, I had already decided that I was going to spend the last few days readjusting my sleep schedule so that work wouldn’t be a complete nightmare (given my quarantine in South Korea ended at midnight on a Saturday night), and eat something more nutritious than spam and rice.
Looking Back on the Experience so far, have you Learned Anything From it?
My life in Korea is going very well! I have developed emotionally and psychologically in a way that I would never have been able to if I had stayed in my rat-race life back in London. My school is brilliant on the whole and I am really enjoying working for the first time in my life. There was a new outbreak of coronavirus in the Itaewon area of Seoul and foreigner-fear meant that we were not allowed to work until we were tested (my second experience was probably worse than the first), but our Director paid for the test and even took us personally. There are horror stories about other hagwons’ treatment of foreigners during this time, but I feel pretty lucky with how my school handled it (despite the INCREDIBLE annoyance at how prejudiced the fact we even had to get tested was).
I intend on being here long term, learning the language and exploring other options in education and elsewhere whilst I am here. I’ll never forget my experience with, and the memories made on, my XploreAsia course, or the wisdom imparted by Kim during that time. I hope that with time I will turn out to be half the influencer that she is.
Written by Stephanie Dagg.