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MARY NEWPORT, Former Countywide & Sun Intern 

From Dream Job In South Korea To Quarantine


Photo courtesy of Mary Newport

The normally bustling streets of Seoul are deserted after the Corona Virus (Clovid-19) quickly spreads throughout the country. Photo courtesy of Mary Newport

My first day home from South Korea was an exercise in caution. My mother bought gloves for putting my clothes in the laundry; we used Clorox to clean my suitcases, shoes, laptop and even doorknobs. My parents didn't hug me; we decided they would stay six feet away at all times.

Five days in to my voluntary quarantine, I've shown no symptoms of the virus I fled. But even without infection, Covid-19 had a huge impact on my life.

When I set out for South Korea, I was headed toward a dream job. The upscale private kindergarten offered great pay and a free apartment in a lively Seoul neighborhood. At the time, there were only 50 cases of Covid-19 in the country, all of them centered 150 miles away in Daegu. I resolved to wash my hands often and avoid travel until the danger passed.

By the time my plane landed it was too late. Five hundred cases had popped up, some of them in Seoul. My new boss met me to give me an apartment key and advise me to stay inside, except for when I went to get my mandatory foreigner health check. I rode the subway masked and gloved, watching a trickle of passengers leave 10-seat spaces between each other.

The clinic was almost deserted. Nurses checked my temperature and spritzed me with sanitizer before I could enter. I was distracted from worry for my health by worry about my wallet; the test cost more than my boss told me, and I had only exchanged enough currency to get me through a weekend. I ended up eating convenience-store chips, all I could afford, while reading news of rising infection rates and sending my boss emails that she ignored.

On Monday, I showed up at work to find the school closed for two weeks by government order. We were instructed to wear masks at all times and avoid eating together. Worried about having no news or contact during an epidemic, I asked for a native speaker's help getting a temporary data SIM. My boss informed me no such thing existed in Korea. When I proved it did, she didn't budge.

"You don't need it," she said. "If there is an emergency, you can use the internet at the school."

Dubious about breaking into the closed school, I headed for the airport and English assistance. As I got back online, a chorus of worried family members greeted me. They wanted me home at once, out of the danger zone as soon as possible. At first I was determined to stay, disinclined to leave my job, taking every precaution and young enough to live through the virus even if I caught it.

But as more carriers shut down Korean flights and more countries refused to accept them, a pervasive new fear arose. What if the school stayed closed? What if I ended up trapped in a foreign land, slowly running out of money? What if I did get sick, and no one cared enough to help me? The school had already proved less than supportive, and I had no friends in the country.

I wept while I bought the plane ticket and packed my bags. On the way to the airport, I read news of quarantine springing up behind me in the neighborhood next to mine. Before we boarded they checked for fever, long white guns pressed to our faces as they asked about our health, nationality and identity. On the plane, we wiped down armrests and trays, adjusted our masks, listened for a cough.

Mary said goodbye to Korea at the message tree. Every message entered automatically prints and drifts like a leaf to the base of the tree. Photos courtesy of Mary Newport

Twelve hours later we touched down in Seattle and the spell was broken. Passengers doffed their masks and laughed as though they had outrun something, as though the very air around us hadn't come with us. I kept mine on all the way home, anticipating mandatory quarantine or at least questions about my health and habits. But not one person stopped us, not one official batted an eye or asked a question when I said I had come from Korea.

The only questions I've received have been hateful messages delivered to my inbox or hissed at my family. For some people, putting myself under quarantine is not enough. I'm blamed for spreading a disease I've never had to people I've never shared air with. Why didn't I stay away until I was dead or the whole world was cured? For me, that's the scariest part, knowing that my family is facing blind hatred born of paranoia while I sit here, boxed up, waiting for the day it's safe to leave.

Mary worked at The Countywide & Sun in the summer of 2012 through the Oklahoma Press Association intern program. Among other things, she taught English for a year and a half in China before going to Korea for another teaching job. She is now self-quarantined at her parents' home in Paden.


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