South Korea has a distinct smell. Scents are difficult to explain as they are — let alone foreign ones — so I won’t bother with describing its exact notes. But if familiarity was an aroma, it was probably what greeted me outside of Incheon Airport two weeks ago.
Aside from its signature fragrance, there’s not much else about Korea that’s the same as it was when I was last here. Of course, a lot can change in eight years, and considering the vast impact COVID-19 has brought globally within the last two, I’d say it’s a relief I can smell anything at all.
Thanks to COVID, my abroad experience has been sprinkled with a handful of obstacles. Having to pay $250 for a PCR test at Atlanta Airport after having my carry-on gate checked — which contained several important documents such as the negative PCR results I received for free at my hometown clinic — was, at the very least, infuriating, and made me consider whether or not it was a bad omen.
As it turns out, PCR tests have become somewhat ritual. Not only does Korea require all inbound travelers to quarantine for seven days (either at a government facility or a relative’s home), but they’re also required to get tested within 24 hours of their arrival as well as a day before their quarantine period ends. In my case, I had to get tested three times: once after I arrived, once to confirm my freedom and once more after the second results tragically came back inconclusive.
PCR tests were really the only times I was able to go out. Otherwise, I was staying at my aunt and uncle’s apartment in Yongin, engaging in a newly developed quarantine routine.
Waking up took place anywhere from 5 to 6 a.m. — a side effect of adjusting to the 14 hour time difference — followed by breakfast around 7:30, a short intermission for drinking tea and consuming the immense amount of snacks my uncle bought out of excitement for my stay, lunch around noon and dinner around 6 p.m. In between those times, I was usually in my room, talking to family and friends back home and at UConn.
Homesickness hasn’t been an issue so far. If anything, growing up surrounded by Korean culture makes Korea a second home. But I still have a lot to learn — the language, for instance — which I’m looking forward to getting the hang of once I get to campus.
It’s been three days since quarantine ended and as of now, I have three days left in Yongin before moving into Yonsei’s dorms. Staying with my aunt and uncle has exposed me to a lot that I didn’t know about the Korean lifestyle — like the fact that they separate their trash based on material (plastic, vinyl, paper, etc.), an aspect which I find far more advanced compared to America’s usual way of handling waste.
They were also kind enough to accompany me to nearby restaurants and introduce me to a number of Korean dishes that I hadn’t tried before. Going out to eat chueo-tang (loach soup) was a nice way to combat the cold weather and get a firsthand taste of traditional Korean cuisine. The Korea Herald explains its ingredients better than me, but I can say that as most soups go, it definitely has a very healthy taste.
Authentic jajangmyeon (black bean noodles) was one of the foods at the top of my abroad bucket list, which I got to check off once my uncle took us to a local Chinese restaurant. Although jajangmyeon originated from China, over the years it became a staple within Korean culture and is basically considered a Korean dish. I also say “authentic” because out of all the times I’ve had jajangmyeon in the U.S., none compare to the one I had this past week. I easily see myself having it a lot more while I’m here.
Despite my excitement to finally see Yonsei in person, I have a feeling I’ll miss my aunt and uncle, both of whom I’ve gotten to know and gotten comfortable with being. COVID-19 procedures have prevented me from doing a lot of things on my own, which leaves the next two weeks to be eerily unpredictable with a chance of loneliness depending on how fast I’ll be able to mingle with other students. By then, I’ll probably be writing from either my dorm room or in the middle of cafe hopping. I guess we’ll find out soon.