Coming to South Korea on a 90-day tourist visa, I never thought I would need to renew it, but thanks to the coronavirus, I had to, just last week.
Encountering bureaucracy anywhere is usually stressful, but thankfully, the process here was quick and straightforward. Koreans know how to be efficient. Buses and trains always run on time, and my dealings with a Busan bank has also been extremely smooth.
Setting up an appointment online, I filled out a brief form, then added, on my own initiative, a letter in English, which I also had translated into Korean. I stated that although I was an American citizen, I had been living in Vietnam, so needed to return there. I had no US home. With my situation clearly stated, the officer took less than five minutes to stamp 30 more days onto my passport.
My guesthouse is filled with people who are stuck. There’s Javier from Spain, who needs to go back to his home in Thailand, but since this doesn’t seem possible soon, he may have to fly to Spain. Twenty-four-year-old Gustavo from Brazil got a visa extension, then, just days ago, managed to book a flight home. Gustavo came here to improve his Korean, which he had studied in Brazil. His English is excellent.
“You’re going to miss this place!” I said to Gustavo.
“I know. I will.”
“So when are you going to return?”
“I need to save money first. I want to go to graduate school here. I will apply back in Brazil.”
“What will you study?”
“Wow, that’s great. You’re gifted.”
Short of cash, Gustavo has been exchanging labor for room and board at the guesthouse. Several others are doing the same.
Just as in Seoul, Busan’s main train station is a hub for the homeless. Each evening, more than a hundred line up to receive a hot dinner ladled up by a Christian charity. It also dishes out sermons and songs, heartily belted out, accompanied by a guitar. At night, several homeless sleep within sight of my guesthouse’s front door, and once, a drunk one pissed right outside it. This door is never locked, however, for there’s no danger of anyone coming in to steal the computer, printer, coffee machine or food, and female guests have no fear of encountering an intruder at 3 in the morning.
Regarding the coronavirus crisis, much has been made of the Swedish model, but what about the Korean one? As I’ve stated repeatedly, life goes on here. This week, I took a three-hour bus trip to Namhae, visited a hilltop Buddhist temple in Beomeosa, strolled with the festive crowd through the bar and restaurant district of Seomyeon and basked my sorry assed carcass on Dadaepo Beach. In Namsan-dong, I followed a cranky old guy with a cane into a basement café, only to find it oddly dark and lined with semi private booths.
Cheap, eight-pronged lighting fixtures glowed red, blue and viridian. A TV was left on to drown out moist noises. It turned out to be a hostess joint, but with only one “girl.”
Likely over 45-years-old, she was still sweet to behold, but since I had never had an appetite for such, I gulped my Americano while she comforted the old fart. Having survived war, poverty, backbreaking labor, widowhood and ungrateful children and grandchildren, he certainly deserved some boobies, if not a handjob. Only $2.40 lighter, I reemerged into the sunshine.
Most of us are invigorated and comforted by the proximity of other bodies, so even when living alone, we prefer to have social spaces nearby. Bars, restaurants, cafes, shopping malls and parks all fulfill this essential need. We don’t go to the stadium just to watch the game, but to be subsumed into a tribe, be it Wolverines, Buckeyes or Red Sox. Stadia are wombs, for sure.
Men have a more insistent need to get out, and that’s why they become long distance truckers, airline pilots, sailors and mercenaries, etc.
When Kurtz’ wife asked Marlow about her husband’s last utterance, Marlow answered, “The last word he pronounced was—your name.” Of course, it was, most famously, “The horror! The horror!” An overly familiar horror is equated with one in a diseased-infested and hostile jungle.
Waking this morning, I could have stayed in my guesthouse room to write this, but I chose to take the subway many miles away, because, to begin with, it was soothing to see folks on the subway. I’m always touched by the sight of old Korean women who dress like small girls, with frills, ruffles and cartoon figures on their clothing, and even on the subway, many of them don’t bother to take their ridiculous huge visors off. Dozing, one had her money purse carelessly placed on the seat next to her.
Wrapping this up, I’m at Lotte Mart, which is named after Charlotte of The Sorrows of Young Werther, by the way. To my right is some middle-aged guy in a cowboy hat, with two large books on his table, a very rare sight nowadays, of course. He’s also writing, but with a pen. At another table, four people are happily munching french fries. Shoppers’ babble fills the air.
It’s sunny outside. Water you must pay for, but sunlight and air are still free, though rationed. While you read these coronavirus missives from California and Vietnam, I’m getting back on that subway. I’m getting antsy. Life beckons.
Bill, a retired American living in Morro Bay, CA
There are definitely worse places to be stuck in right now than Morro Bay. It is about mid-way between the LA and SF metro areas, about 3-4 hours drive from each, and definitely not big city, so things are much less crowded and more relaxed here so far. The grocery stores require everyone to mask up before entering, but you can still walk around town outside to your heart’s content without getting dirty looks or police attention. The parking lots to all the beaches have been barricaded off, but you are still allowed to walk down there if you park on the street (with signs advising cars to park at least 10 feet apart!) Lots of food grows near here and the farmers markets are still open and full of food, so while we can’t always get our favorites, we probably won’t be the first to starve if the supply chain snaps completely. I retired about 3-1/2 years ago and no longer have a job to worry about losing, but income streams and even money itself are on uncertain footing nowadays. I’ve hedged as well as I know how against that eventuality.
My sisters, my wife, those few friends I have been able to stay in touch with, tradespeople I come into contact with—all seem way too concerned about the virus itself, and completely oblivious about the wider implications of what we are doing to ourselves. They believe I’m being overly dramatic when I tell them that things will likely never go back to “normal” again, especially in the US.
My habit is to walk a few miles every day, and I still do that with no issues. I’ve been out a handful of times, mostly to the grocery store and the farmers market for fresh stuff. There is a lot of little stuff we take so much for granted that we may not even notice it can’t be done until we need it and it isn’t there. Haircuts is one good example. The dentist is another; I was able to actually make two visits to the dentist, believe it or not—he said that as long as he doesn’t have to drill (which creates an aerosol), he can still accommodate occasional patients. I was unlucky enough to be awaiting a crown from the lab when the lockdown hit, and had a temporary filling that kept coming out, so he had me in to put in the permanent one. Being able to eat and enjoy it becomes a much bigger deal when you’re home all the time!
I made my annual trip to Taiwan back in November, and came home just before Thanksgiving, prior to the start of all this hoo-hah. My wife always stays longer, and originally was going to come back in late March, but the virus changed her plans. Taiwan seems to be handling this much better than most, with very few sick people and life pretty much like normal, so she feels her health is not as robust as mine, she decided to extend her stay indefinitely. I’m flying solo here in the US until she decides it’s safe enough to fly home.
Modern Taipei is a very sharp and modern city that no one would be ashamed or reluctant to call home. Unlike most big cities in the US, there are no “bad neighborhoods” anywhere in the sense of personal safety. You can wander to your heart’s content and never feel threatened or at risk. The Taiwanese themselves are congenial and friendly folks, and it is from the heart and not due to some outdated sense of deference to prosperous Westerners that used to be more common. Everyone behaves well on mass transit, and many young people still give up their seats for the elderly or infirm. More than once when I was studying a street map on the wall at one of the MRT stations, a couple of young people who knew decent English came up and asked me if I needed help finding something.
My wife and I have thought about selling out and moving over there, but I myself am concerned for Taiwan’s future. Here in the US the likely end game is that things will go off into the weeds, with the quality of life taking a serious turn for the worse for everyone but the uber-wealthy. But in Taiwan it still seems possible that a belligerent China may yet decide to force the issue, and end up in an actual war or under mainland occupation. The US may end up involved, or even worse, be instrumental in forcing such an engagement; if so, being a US citizen in what would become a China-ruled island might be hazardous to one’s health for a while.
Matt, 50-years-old, English language teacher at an international university in HCMC
This crisis has changed my life to the negative, but I really can’t complain too much. My daughter is now 8 and just returned to school last week. Her experience staying at home was stressful at times, but we adjusted and found a way to live together. My Vietnamese wife is an amazing mother and wife, keeping us well fed and keeping my daughter busy as much as possible indoors in a small apartment. So I’m lucky—I’m isolated but not lonely. I’ve been working from home since mid-March, though my students started online learning earlier, in February. I miss going into work—the social aspects of work can’t be overlooked, and most of my social life was based around seeing and talking to actual people and making connections that way. Socializing online is ok, but it’s not really my way. I’m still very lucky to have work, though it is part-time, and I don’t mind because it gives me more time for studying (see below).
Since September of last year I’ve been studying for a Master’s degree in Digital Technology Communications and Education by distance learning with a UK university. So the crisis was serendipitous in two ways for me: I was enrolled in a course on online teaching and learning when most of the world changed to remote online education. It was a great experience for me learning about the subject, actually practicing teaching online, observing my colleagues’ virtual classroom, and supporting my students in a virtual learning environment. Very much experiential learning. The other course I took was Digital, Media and Information literacy. The professor is excellent, and illustrated concepts in the course using the ‘information hurricane’ that has accompanied this crisis. I guess the main theme in the course is that we need to be literate, to make judgements about information, to communicate with others so that our dialogue helps us make better decisions. We see this process drawn out in the disputes about information relevant to Covid-19. How judgments about information that later proved faulty has resulted in poor government policy decisions in many Western countries.
I really don’t know what to believe. I’m most worried about another lockdown period. Having a young daughter at home all the time is stressful and cannot be good for her in the long run. I’m worried that Vietnam’s decision to suppress the virus rather than risk herd immunity will result in a second wave if they allow tourists back in without quarantine.
The situation in Saigon now is very good. Most people are cautious, very health aware, most wear masks in public, though life has returned. This all can change in an instant if another hotspot appears. I find it fascinating that the worst case of Covid-19 in Vietnam is the Vietnam Airlines pilot, who is British, 43 years old, only has 10% lung capacity left, cytokine storm has affected him badly. He said he had no family when he was admitted to hospital and now the doctors here cannot do a lung transplant—though there are willing Vietnamese donors—because there is no next of kin to sign the permission documents. How can a 43-year-old have no family? How can the British embassy be so inept that they can’t find his family? Vietnam is seemingly pulling out all the stops so keep the zero deaths from Covid-19 on their record.
For permanent effects, I read all the time about what alternative journalists and writers like yourself think the future holds. Today’s was Pepe Escobar writing about ‘biosecurity’ as an extension of Foucault’s biopolitics. Do you know Naomi Klein, who coined ‘disaster capitalism’ and ‘shock doctrine’? There is no question that tech firms will increase in power in future. Her latest article for The Intercept is sobering. I don’t know how you feel about this Slavoj Zizek character, but his writing led me to Naomi Klein’s article. His characterization of lockdown as us being in the matrix is apt.
I think a year from now my adopted country, Vietnam, will still be free of tourists as letting people in without 14-day quarantine runs counter to their suppression strategy, and no tourist will take a holiday that includes 14 days of quarantine in a military base! I think my home country, Canada, will be even more cold, unfriendly and isolating than it was when I left 10 years ago. I think it will take longer than one year for the virus to run its course and until then we will try to live the best we know how in a socially distant society.