Korea has long been seen by outsiders as an annex of its giant neighbor, Jungguk (China, or literally, Middle Kingdom). Aspects of China’s vibrant civilization have made their way into the core of Korean culture: Confucian civil service exams, Mahayana Buddhism, and Hanja (Chinese characters). In the contemporary context of the Covid-19 pandemic, Korea was one of the earliest countries to be hit. Nevertheless, while to many foreign eyes, Korea’s tiny land may seem like an odd tail jutting out of China on a world map, Koreans proudly see the silhouette of a prancing tiger. Our independent strength is our pride.
This pride extends to how South Koreans have been dealing with Covid-19. Without a formal lockdown, controlling this rampant outbreak seems hopeless in a democracy. But with extensive testing and tracing infected people, cases have stayed low for weeks in Korea. News reports from around the world praise Korea for its “successful” battle with Covid-19, yet as a student in Seoul, I know that this battle is not being fought without unspoken consequences.
My early memories of the pandemic are foggy. My friends started wearing masks to school, so I followed along, not sure of the stakes. Being blithe students, masks naturally came off our faces after the first few hours and never came back on after lunchtime. I remember the school nurse installing thermal scanners by entrance doors. The inverted color footage of the students unnerved me; we looked like zombies waddling into school.
I remember walking down perpetually busy streets, seeing no face without a mask and feeling that I was living in an apocalypse. My dad obsessively watches the news and sprays me with alcohol whenever I come back from outside. As I am writing this in my home, the skies are murky and splitting open with thunder. The torrential downpour either means that my apocalyptic suspicions are confirmed, or the monsoon season has come early.
My school has been continuing its curriculum online since March, but like most other things in the world right now, there seems to be a looming sluggishness throughout the whole system, as if someone pressed the slow-mo button. Diversity is one of my international school’s core values and has been ingrained in our minds during every assembly since first grade. We take pride in our global interconnectedness, proven visually by the row of over 50 flags strung up in the lobby. We students see ourselves as global citizens, always ready to embark on an adventure around the world. This seems like a remote future during this prolonged period of isolation.
The future is scary.
Although the internet provides some restoration to lost connections (I woke up at 3 AM to take the AP World History test and will everyday during my summer break for an online program), we still feel completely lost.
My friends and I were counting down the days to May 27th, when we would be allowed to come back to school for the very last week to say our goodbyes and send the graduating seniors off into an uncertain future. Then, another outbreak occurred in a nearby bar. Now any plans to return to normality are unlikely, and we wait in suspension with the rest of the world.
Anne LeeAnne just finished her sophomore year of high school at Yongsan International School of Seoul.