Life In Quarantine: Studying in South Korea

Harry is one of our students currently studying in South Korea. As he explains, when he first got to his host country he had to quarantine before beginning his year abroad experience. We are so happy to have received this account from Harry all about his time quarantining in South Korea!

By Harry Braganza, Physics
International Year at Soongsil University, South Korea

When I landed, everything happened in a blur of stress. After the quarantine check, immigration, taxi pick up, and COVID test, I finally arrived at the hotel where I was quarantining. It had taken five hours total, and I was starved from not eating for seven hours (Long-haul flights usually serve a meal 1-2 hours before landing.) So when the receptionist gave me my lunch, I dug in. It wasn’t great; the meal was designed to be very cheap with little waste. Jet lag set in soon after and I had to fight off sleep, as the only place to sit in my room was on the comfy bed.

To help I took stock of what I was given at the airport: a lot of disinfectant and hand sanitizer from both the COVID test site and the hotel, many face masks, large medical waste biohazard bags, and a 20-pack of bottled water.

Turns out all waste I create is deemed as infected, so I must keep it in my room, and they gave me all that bottled water to minimize contact.

Life in Korean quarantine is not as bad as people make it out to be, however I am a different sort of person to most people. Since leaving secondary school and going to college I’ve felt like everything’s been going too fast for me to process. I needed a pause button, where almost no one could talk to me and nothing new could happen. I could finally sort my thoughts out. Quarantine has provided exactly that. So for me quarantine is a blessing in disguise. Having something to do during the quarantine however is probably what made it work out for me, as trying to sort out your own thoughts in one go is not good for anyone’s mental health. It has given me time to reflect on who I was and who I want to be as a person. Now this may sound a bit depressing, but you’re effectively in a hotel room unable to leave, and your only view of the world is out of the window. Your mental health is something to take serious note of and be prepared for when in quarantine, especially on the other side of the world to your friends and family.

You may think it will just be a repeat of the COVID lockdown experience in England, but that is wrong. You cannot pop out to the local store for food, or see people in the same building as you. You don’t even see the delivery person who drops off food; they leave as soon as it’s in front of your door. At least during the lockdown there were postmen that came round, or you could go to the supermarket. In quarantine, there is none of that. I feel like I need to stress this a lot, as the people I am quarantining with seem to be going a tad mad (will talk about them later).

When I found out about needing to quarantine, I saw it as a perfect opportunity to do this personal reflection. In fact, one of my goals for coming out here was to reflect on myself as a person; all the problems I had in the past and what my goals are in life to start afresh.

I was just so exhausted from everything COVID, around 18 years of education, stress about the job market and my future. Where better to start thinking by yourself and setting up the first building blocks for self-reflection, than in quarantine? To that end, I feel like I am now ready to gain new experiences when I leave that’ll help me reach that goal.

Because everything was such a rush to sort out, I was only able to sort out immigration and quarantine when I set off for Korea. In hindsight this was probably one of my better decisions to date. I say it was a decision; it was more a case of no one knew what to do, including the host university, as this was a new and developing situation. So I didn’t receive any information until I landed, about what I was doing with the host university. Side note: thank you Jake and Global Opps for constantly emailing the host university for updates, otherwise I would have been in so much more stress from the uncertainty and short time frame. Anyway, this worked out as the quarantine time was filled by me sorting through the registration process. It ate up a good chunk of the time I spent here.

Soongsil University was very kind and gave us a buddy to help us with any issues and to help us adapt culturally. This was great, because it means I have been up late at night messaging my new buddy about Korean life, his interests, and help with the registration process.

This has kept me preoccupied with learning about the city and the Korean way of life, so to say. After all we’ve talked about, I’m even more excited to get out of quarantine and meet him.

In between messaging my Korean buddy and getting my new life set up, I had some video calls with family and friends to let them know I have landed. I wished them the best with work, third year at uni, and their hopes of going abroad in their second semester.

When I got to the immigration check I was required to download a self-quarantine app that allowed the Korean government to track me. Also, I have to provide a self-diagnosis twice a day on it. So everyday I have been using a thermometer provided by the hotel to fill in the self-quarantine app. The university wanted a 14-day self-diagnosis too, so I’ve been filling that in as well.

The food during quarantine is not great. It all must leave minimal waste and be under 7000 won a meal (just under £5), so it’s greasy, salty, and includes a lot of meat. As expected, because this is Asia there are no vegetarian or vegan options. This upset a lot of the current quarantine occupants, who are all going to different universities in Seoul and are of varying nationalities. We’re all part of the same WhatsApp group, which we only managed through the email addresses the hotel sends the daily menu to. The group has been great for helping with any issues we have or just for a general chat. To keep myself occupied I also did some research I did not expect to do. With the change in diet, being in one room and the greasy food, I noticed my face no matter how much I washed it was looking worse for wear. I started doing research on the facial products they have in Korea. As it turns out, S. Korea is one of the best countries for skin care and they are obsessed with it. I figured it might be interesting to try out the Korean skin care routine. Now I should state I am a guy, but my skin is not great at all and can make me a little self-conscious. I don’t like wearing makeup; it doesn’t feel right on my face and knowing me, I would smudge it badly. Korea’s skin care products aren’t makeup, so what is there to lose if I just try a couple? Korea might be the answer to my skin troubles.

One night there was a lightning storm and it was my first time seeing a lightning bolt. I know, 21 years and I’ve never seen a lightning bolt. I always saw the flash but never the bolt. I tried getting a photo of one, but it was too quick for me, even with an app that specializes in capturing lightning. I will be sure to try again next time.

As I have a few days left until quarantine ends, I plan to trade on the stock market and do a few coding projects. It would be great to add on my CV.

The last couple of things I have done to keep busy are learning Korean. It goes a long way just to say “please” and “thank you” in their language, even if you say it slightly wrong, it’s always appreciated. I’ve also been doing exercise every morning and evening, when I wake up and just before bed, so I can sleep. As you are not walking anywhere, nor going up or down any steps, it is important to stay fit. I have also been dancing along to music. I mean no one is watching, so why not dance? The last and probably most important tip is to stick to a time schedule as much as possible. I wake up at 6:50 am everyday, do exercise until 8:00 am, have a shower, make my bed and eat breakfast at 9:00am etc. Keeping a schedule is super important to stay focused and helps time just fly by.

In general, life in quarantine is great so long as you keep yourself preoccupied. Just be accepting of the fact that other cultures are different, so do not expect the food you’re used to. You can always have a chat with other quarantine members if you can get a hold of them.

Before I started to write this and even as I wrote this, I got up to look out the window for possibly the thousandth time since coming here. The sun outside is setting and the lights of the city are coming on slowly one by one, like stars awakening as the light fades from the sky. My eleventh day here is coming to an end.

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