Ed Kim, 36, is an HR consultant who’s working from home in the Seoul metro area in South Korea with his wife, Yuni, and 2-year-old daughter, Lilly. The U.S. and South Korea reported their first COVID-19 cases on the same day, January 20, but life in the two countries since that date bears little resemblance. Kim started working from home February 10. This is his story, as told to Adam Hardy.
In the beginning, face masks were in good supply.
At subway stations, the government was passing out free masks to anyone who needed them. Subway advertisements were all about constantly washing your hands, wearing a mask, avoiding big areas.
A good three or four weeks into it, all the masks sold out.
Once the government finally got a big bundle of them, they made this [system], depending on the last digit of your ID card, you’d go to a pharmacy on a certain day, and you could buy two masks per week. If you have children, then you could bring their ID number too, and then you could buy two more masks. They have a computer on site, so every time you buy, they swipe your ID card to make sure you don’t buy more than two a week.
My day was Thursday.
When we first heard the idea, we hated it. There were long lines. The masks would sell out. We were like, “This defeats the whole purpose of the social distancing. Why are we gathering in big areas?”
But then I saw what was going on in other countries and thought, “Oh, okay, never mind. This makes a lot more sense.”
Another thing that the government would do here is constantly text message.
Please wash your hands. Please remember today to be cautious about doing this and that. Anytime someone got an infection, they would send a text. “Today, 27-year-old female was diagnosed… lives in this neighborhood.” Then you’d go on a website, and it’ll post her recent activity. Every place she’s been for the past two weeks.
My wife, Yuni, was all into it. As soon as the texts came in, she would double-check these places. We made our own calendar of places we visited in the past two weeks just so we could cross reference really quickly.
“We were nowhere near that area. Yeah, we were in this area.”
It was 90% of our conversations. We were just constantly talking about it. What’s going to happen with our work? What’s going to happen with our kid? Can we send her back to daycare?
Balancing work and chores is difficult at first. Make a clear game plan with your partner. Who’s cooking? Who’s cleaning, and who’s taking care of the kids? Oh, and no emails after 6 p.m.
With [typical] Korean work culture, they don’t really talk about things. My brother-in-law works at a pretty big company. They don’t work from home. [When the coronavirus spread,] they set up a heat sensor camera in the lobby. As people are walking by, the heat sensor just reads their body temperature on the spot so they’ll know if they have a fever.
Then I actually saw these cameras almost everywhere at one point. I’d see almost every office building had them.
“We set up this thermometer. We gave you guys masks. Cool. Now don’t get sick” — that was pretty much the extent of what they’re doing.
My wife, she’s a freelance graphic designer. About once a month for a week, she goes to her work at a magazine and does a late-night shift. They have a magazine. They have to publish it, so she was there. She says the first month was an absolutely horrible environment.
A couple of her editors went to Italy when Italy was peaking. So, immediately, they got tested. One of the guys didn’t tell anybody he got tested. He just went to work. That caused this huge commotion.
That was quite the scare considering how cautious we were. Really did get us angry.
A Slow Return to Normalcy
It was such a gradual progression of it going from a bunch of [government infection] messages per day to just three, to two, to one, to zero.
One day my wife and I were just talking: “Hey, we don’t see any more messages.”
Since then, it’s going back to normal. We’re having more jokes about it now. There’s a big joke going on that the divorce rate’s going to shoot up in Korea because families can’t stand each other anymore.
Adjust your sleep schedule to wake up earlier and get a couple hours of quiet time.
In Seoul, everyone lives in apartment buildings. You have to go outside to enjoy yourself. Very, very, very few people actually live in houses. You don’t have house parties in Korea. You don’t bring friends over. You go outside, go out to the restaurants.
Being stuck at home all day, we both put on about five kilograms [about 11 pounds]. Now, I’m going to the gym. My wife’s going back to yoga classes. She had an English book club that she signed up for that got canceled. That’s going to reopen soon too.
Very slowly, life’s picking up.
I still haven’t met with any of my friends or coworkers since February 10. The thing I’m most excited about is just getting out more. Going for drinks.
Coffee, beer, anything.
Adam Hardy is a staff writer at Codetic. He covers the gig economy, entrepreneurship and unique ways to make money. Read his latest articles here, or say hi on Twitter @hardyjournalism.