Moving to South Korea During a Pandemic Part 1: The Why

So Moving during a pandemic was never my intention. In fact, when I decided that I was going to travel the world no matter what, Covid-19 was over a year and a half away in an unimaginable dystopian future.

My solo trip to Mexico City in November of 2018 reawakened a dream and a passion that I thought had died when I chose my career path as a costume designer over, well, everything. Like many millennials, I had bought into ad convinced myself that doing “good” work was all that I needed to be happy and satisfied in life. Oh, how was I wrong.

That idea that work is enough to sustain you had left me empty and traumatized by toxic work environments and people alike, which is the short story of how I ended up moving by myself without a job to Tucson, Arizona.

I have a knack for being resilient when my world falls apart, but I also have a terrible habit of running towards change, hoping that something new will help me find my path, but I had one ideal driving me towards change this time, connection.

Traveling the world and experiencing other cultures to see how we are all connected is something that Mexico City awaken in me. This time I decided it was a non-negotiable moving forward in life. If I failed at everything else in my life, love, work, home, but I could see the world and connect with people, that would be enough. I would be happy.

So I promised myself if I hadn’t gotten a promotion working at my current rental job within six months to fund my dreams that I would look into teaching English abroad. I had looked into a job several times before but had never thought I was smart enough.

Six months came and went. In the eighth month, since I had made travel and connection a priority in life, I was sitting in my managers’ office and listening to feedback about why I did not get a promotion yet again. A decision hit me. I say that it ‘hit’ me because the decision was not linked to any thought I was having before I made it. It came at me with such a force that I had no energy left for my day after I made it. I felt empty and sad. I was going to quit my job, resign to failing at another thing in life, and move abroad within a year.

This decision wasn’t easy. I loved the company I worked for, I had better benefits than friends making three times more than I did, and although I couldn’t stay in retail forever, There were facets of the business that I could see myself loving. The reality is I was tired of living paycheck to paycheck, I was tired of the retail hustle, and I couldn’t wait another year or two to have enough money to travel.

So I had to start over again. I took My TEFL course that gave me the certificate I needed and decided on South Korea as my country of choice; then, just as I started my application process, the pandemic hit.

In the beginning, like everyone else, I was naively hopeful that in six months, things would be somewhat normalized, so I went forward with my application process. Boy, we were all wrong.

Two days after I accepted a job teaching in South Korea, I got heartbreaking news. Due to Covid-19, my new job had decided to defer my job till the spring when I would have to reapply and hope that they still wanted me. I was devastated.

I lived the next few months in pandemic limbo, hoping that I could leave for Korea in the spring. At the same time, I worked at a job that I had completely lost my passion for because the pandemic had brought out the worst in people. Any essential worker and restaurant or retail worker will tell you that people genuinely care less that their actions could kill them, you, or someone else. All they cared about was normalcy and getting what they wanted.

When I got the news in November 2021 that I had a job working in the Provence of Jeollanam-do in South Korea, it didn’t feel real, even though I was happy and excited that I was finally accomplishing a dream. It didn’t help that this news came just over two months before I needed to leave the country for my new job. My mind was definitely in ‘oh, shit’ mode. Before moving to South Korea, I needed to move across the country back home, to Michigan, with my cat Bogart in my little Honda Civic. The following two months were such a whirlwind of stress and anxiety that my brain didn’t have time to process joy.

It didn’t help that the Covid restrictions keep changing and the new rule for having to get tested for covid within 72 hours of my flight out of the United States went into effect just one month before I left.

I pick up the rest of my story in part two of my Moving to South Korea series Part 2. Let me tell you know it all starts with the fiasco of getting a Covid test.

These past couple of months have been challenging. Seeing constant posts on social media about friends and acquaintances getting vaccinated then being bombard with posts that equate being unvaccinated to being a bad person. Although I can’t entirely disagree with the latter, it has been hard to hear those words because being vaccinated is a privilege for people in the west that is currently unavailable for most of the world.

Between blood cot concerns with Asta-Zeneca, buying way more than meets the demand in places like the United States, and issues with contaminated vaccines, many countries are being left behind in the race to get vaccinated. 

To be more specific about my experience with getting vaccinated, let me start with the attitudes and struggles that South Korea has had with vaccines. It may surprise many people to hear that the US isn’t the only country with a population of highly skeptical people of the vaccine. When I moved here six months ago, I listened to many Koreans saying that they don’t trust the vaccine and they don’t trust the government. I heard many people say, “I’ll wait a year and see what happens,” which eventually turned to “I’ll get anything but Astra-Zeneca (AZ).” Who can really blame them for not immediately trusting a new Vaccine with possibly life-threatening complications? Yes, the risk is low, but to add to Koreans’ trepidations about AZ, AZ is a Russian company. Russia’s backing of North Korea during the Korean war still weighs on the minds of South Koreans today. Luckily as this pandemic has dragged on (longer here than in the US by 3 months), the attitude has switched from I want the vaccine anything but AZ to I don’t care, I just want to get my life back. Unfortunately, the Korean government is struggling to obtain the vaccine. So much so that after listing to people’s fears and restricting AZ for people 50+, they will allow people to volunteer to get it. Although pulling AZ vaccines out of their demand has hurt the vaccination rate, Moderna has had issues in its supply chain. Including contaminated vaccines, which have led to recalls in Japan as I’m writing this.

So when I tell you I am damned lucky and privileged to have this vaccine, I want You to feel it and understand that these difficulties don’t just belong to Korea. 

After months Of setbacks and frustration, I received an email that it was time to sign up to get Vaccinated. Being a teacher in Korea allowed me to jump the age line and get vaccinated with the 65-40 age group. A privilege that I’m incredibly grateful for. I was so excited about the opportunity to get vaccinated; on top of knowing that it was a limited supply first come, first serve deal, I stayed up till midnight just to sign up.

Vaccine registration was a nightmare. Navigating a website in another language, even for Koreans, was more challenging to get onto than the affordable care act in the United States when that was released. Between crashes and not knowing if they needed my name in Hangul or English, I gave up around 2 am.

If you don’t follow me on Facebook or Instagram, this was my evening in photos:

After trying again in the morning and failing, a friend messaged me that a friend of theirs was successful, and if I sent her my info, she would get them to sign me up. After delirious mistyping several things, I was successfully signed up!!! Bless. The first of August was the date for me to go get it!

After weeks of patiently waiting, I walked across the main road to the local health clinic to be told it was the small clinic up the street… I thought, Oh boy… I initially passed this clinic because it was dingy on the outside with windows that had a yellow grey tint to them. I knew then I was going to be in for an experience.

I walk into this little clinic that looks like it hasn’t been updated since the sixties or early seventies with dingy wood paneling floors that won’t come clean. I squeezed around the two rows of seating and made my way to the front counter, where one of two nurses was checking in people. I filled out the application using Papago (a translation app) and sat down.

Looking around me, I was overwhelmed by the look and feel of the clinic. There were three rooms; one was a curtain-offed portion of the reception area behind the desk. Another had 4 wood pallets with pealing dirty vinyl stapled to the top with a few coverless dirty pillows scattered around. That room from that I could tell is where you laid down if the doctor needed you to, along with whoever else was there; the third and final room held the doctor with an eye exam-style hair and no sink. The latter, I would assume, was in the single bathroom in the clinic.

The doctor was really nice and spoke complex but broken English. He began in Korean, and I hit him with, “I don’t speak Korean. English” 저는 한국어를 못해요. His eyes went big, and he said, ok.

Doctor: first shot

Me: yes

Doctor: ok, looks at my sheet types something. Ok pain

Me: yes

Doctor: Pat’s legs and arms. Pain

Me: Ahhh, in limbs. Pain in limbs

Doctor: yes, come back. Pain in chest, Breath trouble, Come back.

Me: Ok. I carry an Epi-Pen

Doctor: you know, use

Me: Yes

Doctor: Feel bad. Use and come back.

Me Ok, ok.

Doctor: Symptoms in 3 days or get worse come back.

Me: Ok.

Doctor: Ok. Gestures to the door

The nurse has me sit on a pallet in the curtained room behind the desk. I look over, and I see an old wood medicine cabinet (has the same feel as my grandparents had but is more bookshelf sized). It had clear bottles separated on two shelves with tape identifying what was in each vial. There were plastic bins with gloves, needles, gaze, and all the other nursing supplies needed. This all left little counter space for the nurse to work on.

The shot was already drawn up, and without needing to change gloves from the previous patient, I lifted up my sleeve for the vaccine. When the shot was done, the nurse handed me a sheet of paper about the vaccine before assuring me 3 steps to take a seat in the waiting area. After waiting less than 10 minutes, I was told to leave; they were too busy to have me wait for the full 15.

I want to be clear that the staff was all really nice and professional. I am also sure the doctor and nurses know what they are doing and have had proper training. However, I would be lying by saying the thought of the vaccine being compromised by the clinic’s conditions hadn’t crossed my mind.

I walked my way back to school for all of 10 long minutes (if that) and fought not to fall asleep at my desk over the next two days as fatigue hit me hard from the vaccine.

You would think that the rest of my vaccine experience would go smoothly at this point in the process. To be fair, it relatively did. However, with South Korea struggling to get ahold of the vaccine and Moderna having manufacturing issues, I received a text message a week before my second vaccine pushing it back an additional 2 weeks.

Luckily to have at least one shot, I waited patiently for five weeks for my second one. This time I wanted to give the clinic the benefit of the doubt when it came to cleanliness. I was overwhelmed with nerves when I first went, so I was hoping it wouldn’t feel so cringy this time.

Well, I was wrong. My first impression was very accurate. It didn’t help as I was waiting to see the doctor; all 20 seats got taken up with patients squishing us all uncomfortably close in the middle of a pandemic. Four of these patients were old ladies and men who got seated off to the side. I didn’t think anything of this because not many people would expect what would happen next. Both nurses come out of the curtained room with shots and supplies. They start prepping each of the patients for a shot f something (I assume a weekly or monthly vitamin shot as they all knew each other). Right in the middle of the waiting room, the nurses gave them their shots throwing extra supplies down in a chore, moving as fast as they could because the number of people coming through this clinic was insane for one doctor and two nurses (1 per min)  

My second shot went off without a hitch except for the side effects that woke me up at 3 am the following day. Although my side effects were not bad, it was tricky navigating getting food I could stomach, which didn’t happen until my fever went down late the next day. The trouble with living in an area without a community of ex-pats that’s a little rural is the only delivery services are chicken and pizza. Neither can I eat. Also, I have to do a temp check at every store I go into, which means I had to wait for my temperature to go down before getting food. Don’t worry, I eventually got a smoothie and Bingsu 빙수 (Korean shaved ice, fruit, and condensed milk goodness) for dinner.

I feel so lucky and privileged to be finally vaccinated!

Look at the extreamly tired face and frizzy haur after my first dose!

Explore With Me

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