The world feels frozen – as if aliens paused their intergalactic DVR episode of Earth to use the toilet and pop some more corn. California ordered the entire state to shelter in place. The U.S. ascended intro the epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Some days I do nothing, yet feel like everything is changing. These are truly turbulent times.
Seven long weeks ago, a story broke about how a cult-like church headquartered in the city of Daegu spawned an outbreak of coronavirus that catapulted Korea into the second-most infected country in the world. In the meantime, I laid out on a catamaran in Hawaii as the captain suggested I cancel my flight back to Incheon.
“Yeah, I say just forget about it. Go home. You can’t be too careful with your health.”
At that time, with that information, she wasn’t far off. Returning to East Asia in late February felt foolish.
But I had to go back. The job I love, the friends I cherish, and pretty much my entire life lie in Deep South Korea.
“Someday, people will ask me what life was like when coronavirus hit East Asia.”
Oh, how naive I once was.
After a brief sojourn in Mokpo to sanitize myself with beer and good company, I returned to my minimalist (at times spartan) Yeosu apartment. I touched down in Incheon on a Thursday. By Sunday, I still owed four more days of self-quarantine.
My parents met the phrase “self-quarantine” with understandable concern. Quarantine conjures up images of sterile, white hospitals, staff members in squeaky rubber hazmat suits, and patients isolated from their fellow humans by plastic walls with little holes poked in the top to let in a little oxygen.
At the time, “self-quarantine” meant remaining at home as much as possible, only exiting to buy groceries or other necessities. Basically a hermit’s staycation.
Never have I questioned my identity as an introvert more than those days I spent in self-quarantine. On the first day, life was great. I lounged around on my floor mat, watched YouTube videos on my sporadic, yet lightning wifi, and downed a whole jar of Kirkland peanut butter.
By day two, I paced around my apartment and rooftop like a caged tiger. I gazed out at the Dolsan hamlet – its high-rise hotels, low-rise seedy motels, and soup restaurants wondering how those free folks lived.
Getting work done was next to impossible. My senescent dinosaur of a laptop, bless its heart, is barely cut out to stream a few YouTube videos and make barebones PowerPoint presentations. (Google Chrome threatens to stop working any day due to being ‘out of date’.) Depression drilled its scaly tendrils inside as I languished from a lack of exercise and purpose.
By day three, I gave up.
I grabbed my book bag and strolled into Starbucks, living life like a typical Sunday. I could do some reading, sip a comically large cup of drip coffee, and take my mind off of COVID concerns.
Finally, by March 9th, a new six-month teacher-training program began and I settled into a sense of normalcy. In fact, the program remains in motion today – a fact that I grow more grateful for with each passing day.
As the days and weeks rolled on, my concerns melted into comfort as coronavirus set the Western world ablaze. First Italy, then Spain, then France. Europe became a hotbed of illness, lockdowns, and fear.
Iran joined the fray not long after.
And days later, American infections picked up steam. In the wake of worldwide athletic cancellations, the sportsman in me found perverse excitement in visiting a coronavirus case count website, which I affectionately named “The Scoreboard.” And the U.S. score was rising – alarmingly fast.
“The U.S. will probably pass South Korea in a couple weeks,” I once told a friend on a post-lunch walk.
The U.S. passed Korea two days later.
By this point – mid-March, I felt creeping worry while suppressing a devilish smile as U.S. media outlets hit the panic button. This is the same panic button that many expatriates slapped here in Korea no more than a month ago.
“When will we be allowed to go home?”
“How bad is it going to get?”
“I have asthma! I can’t get sick.”
But the panic passed. And I could sit and listen to the hysteria all over again, like instant replay, as Americans descended on grocery stores like locusts, cleaning shelves of toilet paper, and passing conspiracy theories faster than missionaries can pass on “the good word.”
Flatcap and I often spoke of the relief we felt “sitting on the sidelines” as Brexit and Trump’s tweets-of-the-day sparked firestorms of political outrage back home.
This feels different.
This feels real.
This is a problem here, it’s a problem there, it’s a problem everywhere.
And this time I find tangible reasons to be grateful. I am grateful to have a government job that pays me regularly while over ten-million Americans applied for unemployment this past month. I’m grateful to live in a country that offers me strong health insurance – within a healthcare system that ranks fourth in the world. I’m grateful to live in a country so aggressive in its testing and tracking measures, that news outlets hold it up as a beacon of hope – a model to follow – rather than a cautionary tale.
And yet on the other side of the gratitude token is a realization of how much suffering has come from this pandemic – the multitudes that have died, fallen ill, lost friends and family members, accumulated exorbitant medical bills, lost their jobs or lost their sanity from cabin fever.
I’m white. I’m male. I speak English. Sometimes I feel wrong even writing about how good I have it.
And yet I still struggle. I still have bad days. I still fumble around trying to cope with ongoing uncertainty.
April Tandy on The Migooks podcast put it well last week. It’s not fair to judge or admonish others for a lack of gratitude. Suffering is not a competition. We’re all struggling in one way or another. And the best that we can do is remain patient and understanding and help when we can.
And someday, when the aliens return from their bathroom break and hit “play,” hopefully we can bore them by finding new ways to cooperate, innovate, and show compassion for one another.