Pandemic precautions set a new standard, but Koreans are still as close as ever | By Tom McCarthy (Spring 2021 issue)
As 1 o’clock approached, I left my apartment in Itaewon and headed for the bus stop, bound for the GOA’L office in Jongno, downtown Seoul. Before stepping out my front door, I ran though my usual checklist: Keys, wallet, phone. There has been one new addition since February of last year; a mask. After the explosion of COVID-19 cases (still called “coronavirus” in Korean) a year ago last Spring, masks have become commonplace.
Masks were prevalent in Asia long before the pandemic, as western news media have emphasized. People wear masks year-round, through flu season to pollen season and the many heavily-polluted days in between. A year later, precautionary measures are still in place and people wear their masks, largely without the obstinance seen in other countries.
GOA’L, or Global Overseas Adoptees’ Link is an official non-profit organization in Seoul that provides resources and connections for Korean adoptees who are in Korea for work, education or just visiting.
As I rode the bus toward the heart of Seoul (and the location of several outbreak clusters in the prior months), I watched riders carefully adjust their masks before boarding at each stop, ensuring that their faces were fully covered. As passengers made their way onto the bus in front of Myeongdong, the driver suddenly barked at a middle-aged man attempting to board. “Put on a mask!” he said in Korean. The surprised passenger immediately pulled a mask from his pocket, apologizing half-heartedly to the driver and averting the stares of fellow passengers.
As I reached the GOA’L office, I passed throngs of office workers making their way back to their offices after lunch. Swarms of mask-wearing, hand-sanitizing professionals poured out of the restaurants around the We’ve Pavilion building, home to several businesses, embassies, and other NGOs. Enough has been written about the Korean society’s compliance with proactive public safety measures during the pandemic, but seeing it universally accepted without complaint makes the reported antics from abroad nearly incomprehensible.
As I entered the office building, I doused my hands in hand sanitizer, a new standard feature in all buildings, subways, and buses. In the elevator, I pushed a button for my floor covered with an antibacterial film. After greeting my coworkers, I immediately departed with fellow staff members Eirik, Dave, and Kara to explore downtown Seoul and document the new normal.
Our first stop was the grand central plaza, Gwanghwamun Square. On this tower-lined boulevard leading up to majestic palace, Gyeongbokgung, the fallout from the virus was immediately noticeable. Despite the nearly-unbearable tropical weather, June to August is statistically peak tourism season. Where once there were endless rows of tents offering various cultural wares and experiences, the square was nearly desolate, save for some persistent protesters who seem as permanent as the King Sejong and Admiral Sun-shin Yi statues at one end of the pavilion. We glanced inside the palace at the end of the street, which was nearly empty of visitors.
We turned east toward Insadong, the fabled tourist shopping street. Here, the virus appeared to be dealing devastating economic damage to the shops lining a street of some of the most expensive real estate in the city. This trend continued as we ventured south toward Myeongdong, the retail shopping hub of Seoul.
On a Friday evening of any other year, this district would be suffocatingly dense with tourists from all over the world. Stores position employees outside their storefronts to draw customers in. The sales people appeal to Asian passers-by in their presumptive native languages (a risky but surprisingly accurate gamble when it comes to Asian shoppers), while non-Asians are uniformly greeted with English. On this day, however, the sales people could only be heard soliciting in Korean, since there were no tourists to call to. We snapped some surreal photos of a relatively-empty Myeongdong and moved on.
There are two sides to every story. On the streets and in tourist (or foreign) districts, the danger of the virus has been of paramount concern. The reduced number of retail shoppers is hurting business, particularly in major shopping areas frequented by non-Koreans. After an outbreak was traced back to Itaewon, the result of sheer misfortune really, the restaurants in the area had to demonstrate even more aggressive “social distancing” practices, closing off half the seats in their restaurants in a largely-inconsequential attempt to show the public that they shared the same level of concern for safety. However, a quick jaunt into a nearby “Korean” district (i.e., an ordinary neighborhood) would prove that caution stops at the water’s edge, or rather, the door’s edge.
After visiting Myeongdong, we took a stroll through Ikseondong, bustling with post-work activity. An Instagrammer’s dream neighborhood, this area has been rising in popularity because of its traditional Korean building exteriors paired with modern, minimalist interior design. The Ikseondong cafes were packed to maximum capacity.
After witnessing how not-affected this charming district was, we decided it was time for dinner. At the southeast corner of this neighborhood is a famous street of Korean barbecue restaurants, offering densely-positioned indoor tables and breezy (but equally compact) outdoor seating. Once inside a barbecue restaurant, time appeared to have stopped and we were transported back to 2019, save for the employees.
Interestingly, the retail areas popular with locals, like Ikseondong, were continually packed during the pandemic months. Like in other countries, many stores were killed off by the pandemic. But in “Korean” Korea, little precaution is taken compared with tourist areas like Itaewon or Myeongdong. Our Ikseondong restaurant was a good example; we were packed into a set of grill tables so close that I accidentally bumped into fellow diners while simply adjusting in my seat. In this enclave of Korean salarymen and trendy millennials, we nearly forgot we were in the midst of a pandemic, and clearly every other patron did too.
Checking to see if this was a city-wide phenomenon, we then went for a second round near Jongno 3-ga, one of the few streets that still host pojangmacha, street food stalls that the government has sought to eradicate since 2012. On the walk from the restaurant to the stalls, there was more apparent awareness of epidemic etiquette, since everyone wore a mask.
Once we reached a stall, we again noticed the disregard for precaution as we were seated next to another table of thirsty clientele. Despite the wide street littered with tables and stools, we were somehow closer to the other customers here than we had been in the first restaurant. We carried on as we had pre-corona, and only disbanded our party because Eirik and I had to get up for our usual adoptee football match the next day. Soccer fields in Seoul had been closed for some time, but outside of the city proper, fields are open and users simply register a normal body temperature, name and address on a form. After that, you were free to pant and sweat on 21 other people.
This piece should have ended right here; juxtaposing the uniform acknowledgement of danger, but only up to the point where you want to have a traditionally-Korean good time in a country that is now growing ever safer.
But on Liberation Day, August 15, a far-right church hosted an anti-ruling-party protest. The core of the city pulsated with the enraged chants of the 20,000-person crowd. Depressingly similar to the first wave of cases in the late winter of 2020, many church members refused to comply with government requests that they get tested. As a result, the number of positive cases rose as high as 441 per day in the subsequent weeks, and the Seoul government tightened regulations to prevent clusters from spreading. These measures included shutting down all indoor sports facilities, closing restaurants at 9 p.m., moving all schools and academies to online lessons, and reducing the number of late-night buses.
For a while, lockdown-lite seemed to have worked, with the Seoul city government reducing the caution level from 2 to 1 in October. However, within mere weeks, cases spiked once again. Various news outlets oscillated between assigning blame to Chuseok, the Korean harvest festival holiday (during which Koreans traditionally pack the trains and buses to visit their parents’ homes around the country) and the ill-advised Halloween festivities, which occur in university areas and the maligned foreign district of Itaewon.
After that, the previous social restrictions were reinstated, much to the chagrin of small business owners. Businesses continued to suffer. At one point, gyms, which were required to close altogether, symbolically opened in protest (with most refusing to actually allow clients in), racking up fines and broadcasting their woes through the media.
By March of this year, fines were still being issued left and right until the government relented and modified the restrictions in a somewhat farcical fashion. As of this writing in March, restaurants and cafes are permitted to accept groups of four. There is a recommended distance between tables, but there doesn’t appear to be an effort to adhere to the recommendations in most establishments. Groups of diners exceeding the four-person limit inevitably, ask the restaurant for two “separate” tables close to each other.
Some bars, having to choose between losing revenue or risking a three-million-won fine (about $2,650) for staying open past 10 p.m., have secretly stayed open well into the night for regulars. Even gatherings in a private residence were limited to four non-relatives, and the Seoul city government went as far as offering rewards for reporting neighbors in violation of this policy.
Contrast this, then, to the resumption of in-person classes at schools and academies, with the government measuring social distancing by the number of people permitted according to the floor area of the entire facility (school or academy). As such, schools were alternating days that grade levels appeared in person and took online classes to comply with the “average persons per square meters” policy; no matter that a single class still had 30 students in the same room.
The drama escalated as the Korean government appeared to take a lackadaisical attitude toward the vaccine rollout, originally intending to start in the summer. However, recent outbreaks have caused the daily new case numbers to increase, nearing 500 daily, with several outbreaks originating in factories employing a large number of foreign laborers. As a result, Gyeonggi province (the region encircling Seoul) issued a mandate requiring all foreigners to get tested for the virus.
Seemingly out of the blue, Seoul imposed a similar (but ludicrously poorly-coordinated) directive in the beginning of March, setting off a firestorm of accusations of xenophobia, predominantly from American and European white-collar expats. Meanwhile the most-targeted foreigner demographic, Southeast Asian laborers, were mostly quiet. After several embassies, including the U.S. and Britain, issued diplomatically uncharacteristic rebukes of the policy, the city rescinded the order.
Socially, the country is starting to see the effects of pandemic fatigue, although not to the degree of discontent seen in America or Europe. Instead, a majority of Koreans, it seems, have decided to try to return to normal, albeit with masks on, which was never a controversy here. Along with Korean nationals, we are also slowly reverting to our old ways, while exercising caution, of course.
Our adoptee soccer team has resumed playing, social calendars are filling up, and our friends’ restaurants and bars are sustaining themselves. Friends once again meet for coffee or dinner, pubs are packed until the curfew hour, malls and department stores are full of shoppers and families on weekend outings, and as the cold gives way to a lovely (but somewhat polluted) spring, public spaces are starting to resemble the parks and squares of two years ago.
While life in Seoul during the pandemic was not, in all honesty, that arduous from a social perspective, the country seems ready to go back to the way things were. Maybe one day soon, we can introduce our friends visiting from overseas to our friends here in Seoul, and we’ll sit in a cafe talking about what a bizarre two years it was. Then we’ll check our pockets for our emergency masks, sanitize our hands, and head out into the streets of a new social order.
Editor’s note: This essay was originally published in International Adoptee Magazine and was updated for Korean Quarterly’s spring 2021 issue.
Tom McCarthy is an adoptee from Rochester, Minnesota. A resident of Seoul since 2013, he is the copyeditor and anchor of the English edition of KBS WORLD Radio News.