Stuck in a Korean “Covid Jail”

“You have to stay here,” the woman in the hazmat suit said.

“But I need to catch my connecting flight to Jeju, where I live. It leaves in two hours. I can’t stay here,” I said, trying to keep my voice steady and show that I was in control of my emotions, which I most certainly was not.

“No. You stay in Seoul. PCR test.”

“But, I have a negative PCR test result from America that I took before boarding the plane. I will take the PCR when I land in Jeju.”

“No. You cannot go to Jeju. Stay here.”

End of discussion. No more bargaining. I was taken to a cubicle by another hazmat-suited worker, where I would remain for the better part of two hours. I was given a new mask to wear, one that had two thick rubber bands to hold it in place and cut into my face, leaving marks. No water. No food. No access to a toilet. I was contaminated in their eyes. Someone to avoid, less I give them my germs, the ones that might contain Covid.

As I sat in my isolation chamber, becoming more and more restless and agitated as the time slowly ticked by, I called my boss, my friend, and my parents to tell them what happened and try to make sense of what would happen next. I called Korean Air to inform them of my detainment and inability to make my connecting flight, which I then lost.

After what felt like ages, I was finally given more information. I would be given a PCR test, taken to retrieve my luggage, and then take a bus to a temporary quarantine facility, where I would wait until my results came back. If I tested negative, I would be allowed to rebook my flight to Jeju, where I would be able to spend my 10-day quarantine in my own home. But if I tested positive, I would be sent to another quarantine facility outside of Seoul, where I would quarantine until I was told I could leave. Things weren’t looking good for me.

A little while later, I was escorted, along with a few other pariahs, along a corridor, down the elevator, and outside, into below freezing weather, to wait in line for what can only be described as the most invasive and painful PCR test I’ve ever had.

After getting off the bus at the quarantine facility, I struggled with my three large bags, as the hazmat suits stared at me, offering no help at all. To say the facility was depressing doesn’t do it justice. I walked down the fluorescent-lit hallway to my room, dragging my bags behind me. The door to my room opened onto a small “holding area,” beyond which was another door. My room was sparse, containing a twin-sized bed with a hard mattress wrapped in unclean plastic, a bedside table, a table and two chairs, a TV on a stand, a small fan, a wardrobe, a mini-fridge, and a landline phone. I had a basic private bathroom with a shower, a lone hand towel, and no soap (I’m in here due to Covid, yet I can’t wash my hands…the irony!). Luckily the wardrobe had a blanket and a pillow, so I didn’t have to lay on the plastic-wrapped mattress. I was shocked to find that the facility did not have wifi access, but I was lucky that I live in Korea so that I was able to use the data on my phone.

The only towel I was given. This was to dry off after my shower, too.

I was told the wait would be 8-10 hours. After a 15-hour flight, several hours in the airport, and the stress of the day, I tried to get some sleep. I was awoken abruptly around 2:00am by a gruff hazmat suit who stormed into my room without so much as a knock. In Korean, I was directed to sit at the table. For the record, I don’t speak Korean, but I figured it out using context clues and body language. A laminated paper was placed in front of me informing me that I had tested positive for Covid. Tears came to my eyes, fear and dread setting in. But I’m not even sick, I thought. I picked up the paper to read more information about what would happen to me next, but hazmat suit snatched it from my hands, barking, “No touch!”

The instructions said that I would be taken by ambulance in the morning to another facility in another (undisclosed) city for my quarantine. I was to take my luggage, but prior to leaving, I was to pack everything I would use in the next facility separately, as all of my personal belongings used at the facility would be incinerated upon my departure and any electronics would likely be damaged during the cleaning and disinfecting process. I would be responsible for all of the costs for the government quarantine, but no amount was given, as it would depend on the number of days I had to remain there.

The reality of the situation set in, and I couldn’t hold back my tears, as anger, frustration, and fear pulsed through me. My worst nightmare had come true. I’d heard about this happening, and I knew it was a risk for me to have traveled home for Christmas, but I hadn’t thought it would actually happen to me. I begged hazmat suit to let me out. I’d quarantine at home, I promised. “You can put an ankle monitor on me if you want. I won’t leave my house at all.” Every request was met with an uncaring “NO!” which only left me spinning out of control. I wasn’t even sick! I had a little bit of a stuffy nose, but that was it. Surely I’m not a danger to society. “Can I see my PCR result?” I asked through my tears, unsure how i could have tested positive after testing negative on twelve rapid antigen tests and three PCRs back home. Like every other request, it was denied. No amount of pleading changed her mind. Getting tired of my emotional response, she left.

I crumpled. Ripping off the mask, I sobbed, realizing that no matter what, this was my fate. It didn’t make sense. It wasn’t rational. And the sense of injustice I felt couldn’t be squashed. The heat in the room didn’t help the situation either. Hot air blew into the room, making it nearly unbearable. I knew it was -11C outside, but I needed to crack a window. Damn! The windows were bolted shut. Probably to prevent an escape, I thought.

Look carefully at the flags…

After calling everyone (parents, friends, boss) to alert them to my predicament, I collapsed on the bed, mentally, emotionally, and physically exhausted. A few hours later, I was awoken again by my breakfast delivery, a ham and cheese sandwich and bottle of orange juice, along with two small bottles of water. I’m a vegetarian, which I told them when I was detained. No dietary accommodations were made here, they said. Orange juice, it is! Luckily I had a few snacks in my bag that I’d brought from Texas. Mostly cookies, chips, and candy, but hey, it was something.

That first day I was a fighter, doing everything in my power to get myself out of there. The ladies on the other end of my landline got so tired of me calling that they mostly just hung up whenever they heard my voice. The US Embassy tried to help, but they couldn’t make any headway either. As the day progressed, I realized I was stuck.

Lunch and dinner were the same, white rice with some sort of fried meat, kimchi, and three pickle slices. I ate the rice and pickles.

Due to a lack of space at the other facilities, I ended up staying there for four days. Without wifi, and not wanting to drain my data in case I needed it later, I was bored. I watched reruns of old crime shows, like CSI and Law and Order, that played on one of the three English channels. But mostly I slept. The heat was unbearable, and despite the small fan and lack of clothing (I only wore a tank top and pair of sleep shorts), I was burning up. I didn’t have a fever though. My thrice daily temperature checks I had to do confirmed that. After my numerous complaints about the heat and requests to turn it down, one of the hazmat suits brought me a large ice pack, which I would use to cool my body, moving it from my head to my torso to my feet. It helped some.

The days dragged on, and I felt like I’d never be free from that prison. On day four, I was notified that I would be transported to the new facility. My own hazmat suit, gloves, new mask, face shield, and booties arrived with my morning delivery. This is what I was to wear in the ambulance.

I couldn’t even pretend to smile…

To be continued…

Reflection on the SOL Challenge

I normally write my SOL challenge reflection on the last day of the challenge, but this is the slice that is begging to be written on this penultimate day.

When I started my twelfth Slice of Life Challenge thirty days ago, I was giddy and ready to write, write, write! However, a few days into the challenge, Covid blew up in Korea and we started to have large amounts of students and teachers test positive. All of my energy went to Covid triage, leaving me with little left to devote to my writing.

In all my years taking part in the challenge, this one has been the hardest. While I have written every day (some days I wasn’t sure if I would, but I eked something out), the joy I normally have has been overshadowed by everything going on outside of my writing life. I’m saddened by this fact and wish I could have a do-over. As a commenter, I’ve not lived up to the usual daily number of comments as I have in past years. That’s the essence of the challenge, and the part I love the most- connecting with wide range of writers. If I haven’t commented on your blog enough, I apologize. It’s not you, it’s me.

As I limp to the finish line this year, I am proud that I managed to finish (well, almost…one more day to go), but have much regret. I am hopeful that 2023 will be easier (it has to be, right?) and I can get back into my regular groove. Thank you to this community of writers that supports one another, even when we’re going through a hard time.

Spinning My Wheels

I love my job (well…most days!) and the work that I do. As a school leader and curriculum coordinator, I enjoy planning units of inquiry with our teachers, hearing about the students’ learning, insights, comments, and action, and further developing the curriculum. The meaningful work energizes me, spurring me on to do more and do better than the day before. But lately, the tedious things, the stuff that has to be done to keep a school running (especially during a pandemic) has worn me down.

I’m busy all the time, but I don’t seem to make any headway on my big projects or the stuff that really matters. The hours are taken up by administrative tasks, such as finding cover for the sick teachers who are out, creating and adding to the daily bulletins, making schedules for this or that, editing reports, EMAILS!, and the list goes on. Not to mention we are still hiring for next year. While finding the right people for our team is crucial to our success next year, the time it takes to sift through applications and search for candidates online, correspond with said candidates, interview, and follow up with references is incredible. More and more I feel like my calendar, inbox, and head are overflowing, leaving little room for much else.

I have ideas and plans and hopes and aspirations, ways to make my teachers’ lives easier and the curriculum more engaging and robust. But when can I get to all of it? I’ve never been the best at prioritizing. I tend to put out the fires right in front of me, rather than stepping back to see if this is something that really needs my attention right now. As I looked ahead at the calendar today, I realized there are only two and a half months left in school. Two and a half months!!! But I have way more than two and a half months worth of work left to do.

I know I need to take a step back, look at the big picture, prioritize what has to get done, what I would like to get done, and what simply won’t get done, and make a plan for the rest of the year, but when do I have time to do this? My problems aren’t unique. Many of us (okay, most of us) in education feel this way; there’s never enough time to do it all. Is there anyone out there who’s figured it out? Any words of wisdom or magic pills you can offer up?

Five Things About Me

I loved reading Elisabeth’s slice last week with five things about her. I figured I should try it out on my own.

Something About Yourself: An incredible amount of space in my brain is taken up by music lyrics. I can hear a song once or twice and catch on to most of the lyrics. I few more times, and they’re committed to memory. Another strange thing is that I can hear a song for the first time in years and begin singing along, not missing a word. I wish I could replace the stored-up lyrics for more useful information, but instead of remembering the elements in the periodic table, I can rap all the words from Sir Mix-a-lot’s “Baby Got Back.”

Something About Your Neighborhood: I live in what’s called the GEC, the Global-Edu City. It’s a unique place in that four international schools are here, one right after the other down the main road, all within 2 km of each other. The GEC is like a small town, with eight apartment complexes and a few pockets of compact houses and townhouses, three small grocery stores (much smaller than anything you’d see in the states), a police station, a bank, a park, a couple coffee shops, a handful of restaurants and take-aways, an obscene number of convenience stores, a fire station, a bookstore, a couple of hair and nail salons, a dog groomer, and a few other random shops. It’s convenient living in the GEC, but you can never go anywhere without running into a colleague, a student, or a parent. I sometimes miss the anonymity of living in a big city.

Something You Love to Do: I love entertaining, cooking for others and hosting them in my home. I adore the planning almost as much as I do the actual hosting. Small touches are important, such as getting the lighting right, playing the right playlist for the attendees and the occasion, the scents- from the food and candles/oil diffusers, and the presentation of the food. I haven’t been able to host very often in the past couple of years, but I’m hoping that changes soon as things start to open up more.

Something You Hate to Do: I hate washing dishes more than anything, which makes it difficult to love hosting so much, as there’s always a mountain of dishes at the end of the night. I wish I could find washing dishes calming or therapeutic, but I detest every minute of it.

Something You Want to Learn: I’ve never lived anywhere as long as I’ve lived here without learning some of the local language. As it stands, I know all of three Korean words (thank you, hello, and yes). I’ve tried learning Korean through apps and a tutor, but I haven’t been able to pick it up. I blame it on the fact that so many people in the GEC speak English, so it’s not vital to speak Korean to go about my daily tasks, unlike other places I’ve lived. I’m so embarrassed that I haven’t made more of an effort to learn, and it’s a goal of mine to at least learn how to read Korean characters and speak some basic phrases.

Take a Peek Inside my Korean Home

Living abroad means I move every few years to a new country. Each of my homes has been different, each with their own unique aspects. My home in Korea has been the first place I’ve lived abroad that I didn’t choose. Some international schools provide housing and assign you to an apartment or house, while others give a housing stipend and you get to choose your own place.

In Jeju, I live in a townhouse near my school, about a 5-minute drive or 15-minute walk away. My house is two stories, with three bedrooms and two bathrooms. It’s cozy and small, but it’s enough room for me. I spend most of my time in the living room, surrounded by my plants and artwork I’ve collected while traveling. My kitchen is way too small for someone who loves to entertain, and it’s the thing I’d change the most if I could. I’d also love to build a deck in the backyard, but it’s really expensive to have one built ($4,000 USD for a deck that’s only 10 square meters!).

My bedroom has an en-suite with a small bathtub, which I enjoy soaking in when I’ve had a rough day or when my back’s giving me trouble. The theme of my bedroom is Moroccan, with a blue and white color palette, and I’ve decorated with photos I took on my trip to Morocco and the antique wedding blanket I bought.

The largest guest room’s theme is travel, specifically from my time in Myanmar, one of my favorite places I’ve ever visited. I’ve decorated the room with photos taken in Inle Lake and a few other pieces I bought while in Mandalay. My map duvet cover completes the travel theme.

I’ve started converting the smallest guest room into my “Zen room,” but I’m not quite done. I’d like for the room to be a place to meditate, exercise, and chill.

I didn’t really have room anywhere for my desk that I brought from Indonesia, but I love it and didn’t want to get rid of it. I eventually settled on housing it in the hallway upstairs, where I can get some natural light.

My home isn’t perfect, and there are things I’d change if I could, but I’ve done my best to make it a home. That’s one thing I’ve learned while living abroad. If you treat your house like a temporary place and don’t add your personal touches to it, you never quite feel settled.

What do you love about your home?

Bravo! Seussical the Musical was Spectacular!

The lights come on, illuminating the bright, colorful set. The actors, donning their Seuss-themed costumes, come out onto the stage to find a mysterious red and white striped hat. A series of monologues reveals the owner of the hat, the Cat in the Hat!

Throughout the show, each act ending with a musical number and dance, we were dazzled by the colors, whimsy, and rhymes from the world of Seuss. From start to finish, it was a fun and entertaining time for everyone. We were so excited to have parents in the audience for the first time in nearly three years.

I’m honor of the show, I dressed up as the Cat in the Hat. Here I am posing with the Cat from the show. 🙂
The set was amazing!

I honestly can’t believe the team pulled this off in five weeks. During our after school program, the students worked on the set, made costumes and props, learned their song and dance, and practiced their lines. When you think about everything that went into the show, it’s a testament to the hard work of the production team that it came together and turned out as well as it did!

Check out the Behind the Scenes video of the students preparing for the musical!
Here’s one of the shows from yesterday 🙂

Currently

I’m currently…

Listening to the sound of the TV. I recently found the series “Lie to Me” that I loved watching years ago is now on Disney + and I’m rewatching it. I’m so bummed that they only made 3 seasons…it’s such a brilliant show!

Loving the cheese ciabatta from Sosohee, the vegan chocolate cake from And Yu, and the pesto, mozzarella, and tomato sandwich from Bangin’ Kitchen.

Drinking a Coca-Cola. After the busy day of dress rehearsals for Seussical the Musical, I deserve a little pick-me-up.

Thinking about my family. I hope they know how much I love them and how much I’m looking forward to spending time with them this summer!

Wanting to both speed up and slow down time. I want to speed past the next two weeks to get to spring break, but with so much to do and the time falling faster than grains of sand in an hourglass, I want to slow time down so I can get everything done that I need to do before the end of the school year.

Procrastinating so many projects. With recruitment, Covid cases, and the production taking up most of my time lately, lots of other things have been put on hold. I need to get back on track!

Needing a hug from my family, a haircut, the warmer weather to finally come, a good night’s sleep, and a holiday.

Reading Amanda Gorman’s book of poetry about the global pandemic, Call Us What We Carry. I love many of the poems but some are just okay. Next up is my book club book, The Silence of Bones by June Hur, a historical murder mystery set in Korea in the 1800s.

Worrying about all the teachers who have Covid at my school and whether I’ll finish all my projects this year.

Wondering what my summer plans will be. I’ll definitely go home and to Michelle’s wedding in England, but that’s as far as I’ve gotten. I need to spend some time planning soon.

Anticipating my upcoming spring break trip to Seoul with friends. Can’t wait to spend time in the big city!

What are you currently up to?

Better Days

Last May, when I went in for an annual medical check-up, they found a large tumor attached to my uterus. The doctor, through a translator app, told me it was 6.7cm in diameter and would need to be removed immediately. Unsure of whether I should trust a doctor I couldn’t communicate with, I booked an appointment with a specialist a week later who, luckily, spoke English. She confirmed that I would need surgery soon. Dread and fear sank in. I had to undergo my first major surgery in Korea, where I don’t speak the language and don’t have any family support, and it had to happen soon.

The surgery happened in the beginning of July, shortly after school finished. Gail, a dear friend, offered to help and spent every day in the hospital with me. Without her, I’m not sure what I would have done. The surgery was successful (tumor was benign), however while they were in there, the doctor found loads of endometriosis lesions all over my uterus, ovaries, and fallopian tubes. He “cleaned it all up” but said if not treated, it would soon return, causing more issues. Endometriosis explains the pain and issues I’ve had for most of my life.

Without much warning, I had to make a decision about treatment, which was pretty much do the treatment or don’t do it and have the lesions return. The treatment meant I couldn’t have children…at least not for a few years anyway…but I’d just turned 40 and am single, so I figured that ship had sailed anyway. I opted for the treatment, which began just before I went back to school. The treatment consists of three months of hormone shots (high dose, once a month) followed by two years of daily endometriosis hormone pills. The doctor warned me that hormone shots would throw me into forced menopause and I would have hot flashes and my periods would become irregular and eventually stop.

I was ready for the hot flashes, which would come at the most inopportune times, but I wasn’t prepared for the other symptoms. The first issue was the crying. It was spontaneous, uncontrollable, and came on for no reason. It was so embarrassing at work. Here I am, a leader, trying to lead orientation with my teachers, and I’d start crying. They must have thought I was so unstable. Then the panic attacks began, again out of the blue and at inconvenient times (Is there ever a convenient time to have a panic attack?). However, the worst thing was the insomnia. I can remember being dead tired, willing myself to sleep, crying from exhaustion, yet the sleep wouldn’t come. I tried melatonin and sleep music and lavender oil diffusers and praying and a new nighttime routine, but I only managed a few hours a night. Through all this, I felt like I was going crazy. I was at my wit’s end and didn’t know what to do.

When I went in for my first monthly check-up and told my doctor about my symptoms, he said I was having an adverse reaction to the treatment, which had caused me to develop depression and anxiety. He said I needed to stick it out and it would eventually get better, but when you’re in the thick of it, you can’t see a way out. I was in a really dark place and didn’t recognize myself. I had never experienced mental illness firsthand before. Through this whole ordeal, I developed so much empathy for people who live with mental illness; it’s worse than any physical pain I’ve ever experienced. I can remember crying to the doctor, begging for him to trade me my old physical pain for my new emotional pain. But by then, it was too late.

Music has always been my go to for any emotion. Happy? Play upbeat music and dance around. Angry? Play angsty music on high to work it out. Sad? Play sappy music and cry it out. During my depression and anxiety period, I found a few songs that spoke to me and helped articulate how I felt or how I wanted to feel, and I played them on repeat. One of those songs was Dermot Kennedy’s “Better Days.” I can remember driving around, alone, blasting this song from my speakers, as I sang along, tears streaming down my face. He promises, “Better days are comin’, if no one told you. I hate to hear you cryin’…” and “I know you’ve been hurtin’ waiting on a train that just won’t come.” and “The rain, it ain’t permanent, and soon we’ll be dancin’ in the sun.” and “Your story’s gonna change, just wait for better days.” His words, the promise of better days coming, got me through some of my darkest days.

I’m happy to report that the depression and anxiety did eventually subside, just like the doctor said it would. I think the better days have come.

I love this live performance of the song…it’s a little different than the original, but the interpretive dance adds so much to the lyrics.

Better Days

Better days are comin’
If no one told you
I hate to hear you cryin’
Over the phone, dear
For seven years runnin’
You’ve been a soldier
But better days are comin’
Better days are comin’ for you

So when the night feels like forever
(Mh-mh)
I’ll remember what you said to me

I know you’ve been hurtin’
Waitin’ on a train that just won’t come
The rain, it ain’t permanent
And soon, we’ll be dancin’ in the sun
We’ll be dancin’ in the sun
And we’ll sing your song together (eh-eh, eh-eh)
And we’ll sing your song together (eh-eh, eh-eh)

We never miss the flowers
Until the sun’s down
We never count the hours
Until they’re runnin’ out
You’re on the other side of the storm now
You should be so proud
And better days are comin’
Better days are comin’ for you

So when the night feels like forever
(Mh-mh)
I’ll remember what you said to me

I know you’ve been hurting (is our time ever soothing?)
Waiting on a train that just won’t come
The rain, it ain’t permanent (is our time ever soothing?)
And soon, we’ll be dancing in the sun
We’ll be dancing in the sun
And we’ll sing your song together (eh-eh, eh-eh)
And we’ll sing your song together (eh-eh, eh-eh)
And we’ll sing your song together (eh-eh, eh-eh)
And we’ll sing your song together (eh-eh, eh-eh)

Your story’s gonna change
Just wait for better days
You’ve seen too much of pain
Now, you don’t even know
That your story’s gonna change
Just wait for better days
I promise you, I won’t let go

I know you’ve been hurting
Waiting on a train that just won’t come
The rain, it ain’t permanent (is our time ever soothing?)
And soon, we’ll be dancing in the sun
We’ll be dancing in the sun
And we’ll sing your song together (eh-eh, eh-eh)
And we’ll sing your song together (eh-eh, eh-eh)
And we’ll sing your song together (eh-eh, eh-eh)
And we’ll sing your song together (eh-eh, eh-eh)

A Taste of Normal- Haiku Style!

It is happening!
Seussical the Musical
will be on Friday!

More than two years since
our last performance with a
real, live audience!

How did they do it?
in four weeks, in the middle
of a pandemic?!?

The set is ready,
the songs rehearsed til perfect,
all lines memorized

Colorful costumes
coupled with peppy dance moves
make for happy kids

A taste of normal
is exactly what we need.
The show must go on!