Thursday, February 27, 2020

Our “New Normal”: Life in Korea During the Coronavirus Outbreak

When I was ten years old, there was a huge flood.  We lived in Dhaka, Bangladesh at the time and though it was the country of my birth, I had never seen anything quite like it.  Sure, Bangladesh flooded pretty much every year.  It’s a very flat land, with rivers cutting through it that are fed by snowmelt from the Himalayas.  The annual monsoons coincide with that melting snow, so the rivers flood and cover much of the country.

But this flood was very different.  Almost no rain accompanied it.  There was just this gigantic mass of water growing every day, creeping ever closer.  It was at the airport, then it was coming down the main highway into town, then it was into our neighborhood, at the crossroad to our street, then inching down the street, then at our neighbors’ house.  

And then it was at our driveway.  Like a strange, living creature, we watched it under a clear night sky, the moon’s reflection on its surface gleaming like mercury as it seeped under the gate.  We stood for several minutes with wide eyes, wondering how far it would come.  Mom told us it was time for bed, but it was hard to fall asleep not knowing what we would wake up to.  

I keep thinking of that flood, as strange as it may sound, as I read the news about the novel coronavirus or COVID-19.  We first heard about it around New Year as it started to affect Wuhan, China, and it’s been inching closer.  Last week, messages started coming in from friends and family: “Are you guys okay?”  We were fine, we told them truthfully, and Daegu is about three hours from where we live near Camp Humphreys.  

My friends in Busan started experiencing shutdowns from the virus after cases were discovered there.  One reported her neighborhood grocery store being cleared out of produce, eggs, and meat.  The school my kids attended when we lived there went on “early spring break.”  I started feeling like that ten-year-old girl again, watching as the floodwater got closer with nothing to hold it back.

It’s not that I’m overly scared of the virus, not for the lives of my direct family — at least, not any more than I fear the flu or even the stomach flu which has sent us to the hospital a couple times.  I hesitate to say anything because there’s a lot of unknown, and I completely understand fearing the unknown.  But based on what I see in statistics, I don’t see a reason to panic.  We aren’t smokers and don’t really have underlying health issues.  I am concerned for those who are immunocompromised or have pre-existing conditions, or live in places with poor medical care.

If I end up wrong and my family does get really sick, please don’t send hate mail or “I told you so” ’s.  My perspective may be skewed by the fact that I grew up with the occasional cobra in my house.  

But also bear in mind, I’ve been through some pretty crazy stuff during my time here in Korea — like two strong earthquakes and a trip to the ER with my very sick son all within 48 hours my first month here, or the shenanigans of our neighbors to the north.  Plus, my family has teased me for years about my hand washing and sanitizing habits that are probably borderline OCD, and now my anxious habit is supposed to be the best method for prevention.

What I do find genuinely alarming is the fear pandemic, the rage and ugly comments on Facebook (especially if someone suggests remaining calm), and the barrage of panic-inducing headlines that  all but scream, “HOW DARE YOU NOT FREAK OUT?!?” 

On Sunday, we went to church, joking about how brave we were for going, but things were still mostly normal.  We skipped the hand-shaking part, where we are supposed to greet those around us, but to be honest, I don’t think most people missed it.  One of my friends told me that some services on post were canceled already, so we were lucky to be there.  We sang songs like “Eye of the Storm,” “It Is Well,” and “Good, Good Father.”  The worship leader picked them weeks ago, but they were perfect given what was on all our minds.   

After finishing the last song of the second service, I said to the rest of the music team, “I hope we’re all here again next week.”  I called Matt (who goes home with the kids after the first service) to say that I’d stop by the commissary to pick up groceries.  “I’m low-key apocalypse shopping,” I joked, but before I left post, I also made sure the car had a full tank of gas.  

All through Monday, I saw angry comments on local Facebook pages from family members, all but demanding that schools be shut down.  That afternoon, I picked up Skyler for an orthodontist appointment.  “They’re saying school will be cancelled by the end of the week,” she said as we drove away from the high school.  I wasn’t surprised, but had that same feeling as I did watching the water. 

Matt came home a few minutes before six, telling me that the garrison commander (GC) was about to do a townhall meeting on Facebook, and I should probably watch.  

What followed was an outline of the “new normal” for everyone here.  I don’t know exactly what to call it — a sort of lockdown/ quarantine/ health curfew kind of thing?  Soldiers can’t go off-post to any of the restaurants or bars in the area, and families are discouraged from it as well besides getting takeout.  No social gatherings of more than 20 people.  Schools are closed base wide with virtual classes starting, and all kids’ activities canceled. 

Canceled?”  Lilly repeated when she heard, a look of panic on her face.  She loves her rock climbing, parkour, and gymnastics classes so much. I nodded.  “For how long?!”  

“Well, this week for sure…” I didn’t know what else to say.  I didn’t want to tell her that this could go on for a while.

Tuesday, I was dreaming about snorkeling at the Great Barrier Reef when Matt’s alarm went off.  My eyes opened, and I heard rain falling.  The warm, turquoise water of my dreams was replaced by blankets and a dreary February day.  

“I was having such a nice dream…” I said, closing my eyes again, wishing it back.  I felt a certain sadness, thinking of the contrast between my dream and reality, and our spring break in Thailand that we’ve already bought plane tickets for, wondering if that would even happen now.  

Matt leaned over and kissed me, saying, “Well, I guess you don’t have to get up.  Nothing to rush off to.”  So I lay there for a while, thinking about the contrast to my usual Tuesday which is such an extremely busy day for me, I often have to grab Taco Bell from the food court on base to feed my kids dinner as we dash from one activity to the next. 

The day felt a little odd, like one of those times you’re in a place where you know you don’t belong.  Since Lilly, Wyatt, and Annalee homeschool, it wasn’t that different than normal, other than the pleasant addition of Skyler, but I kept feeling like I needed to go somewhere.  Instead when our work was finished, we made popcorn and watched an old black-and-white movie.  It wasn’t a bad day, but not one I wanted to repeat over and over without knowing when it would end, like a weird Groundhog Day.

We had more news by the end of the day: the garrison commander cancelled church — but we were expecting that.  Then a friend who lives in Hong Kong and has been dealing with this version of living for a few weeks already announced on Facebook that her kids’ school informed them they would continue virtual schooling until April 20th.  April 20th?!?!

Again, the floodwaters.  It was hard not to feel anxiety about the rapid changes and how long they might last.  

As I put the kids to bed, I read them their Bible story for the night.  It was about Jonah and the plant.  Most people who ever went to Sunday school know about Jonah and the big fish (or whale) that swallowed him whole.  But Sunday school never spent a lot of time on the plant.  Basically, Jonah’s all mad because God doesn’t bring hellfire and brimstone to Nineveh, and he goes out to the desert to sulk.  God causes a plant to grow quickly and provide shade from the extreme heat, which of course makes Jonah pretty happy, and then the next day sends a worm to eat it.  Jonah gets all angry at God and says he might as well just die, but God reminds Jonah that he’s not the one who grew the plant; in fact he had nothing to do with it.  Our chaplain preached on this last summer, and I’ve thought about it often — how I never hesitate to claim and enjoy God’s good gifts in my life, but when things get hard I get rant and rage and panic.  

I stared down at the page in front of me, thinking of the tight feeling in my chest, thinking it was funny that this would be the story we would read this particular night.  Most Tuesdays, I’m exhausted by bedtime from a day of mad rushing around.  Instead of panicking about what I felt like I was losing, I could be grateful for quiet day of family time.  I realized I needed to change my heart a little — or a lot.

Here’s what I know: I have an awful lot to be thankful for right now.  

  1. We are healthy — maybe the healthiest we’ve been all winter.  That’s a gift I don’t want to take for granted even though it’s ironic that at our healthiest we can go almost nowhere.
  2. We are together, and together is my favorite.  Jayna is at college, and all this does make me wonder more when we will see her again.  But six of us are here, with our very entertaining dogs.
  3. We are being taken care of.  The GC and other administrative staff here in Korea have an unenviable job right now, trying to keep panic at a minimum and sanity at a maximum while also mitigating risk to a huge group of people.  But they’re actually doing it pretty well, I think. 
  4. There’s a whole lot more — like a cozy home out in the country so that we can go outside without close contact with crowds (since that’s a concern) and a commissary nearby that is staying well-stocked despite the fears.

Here’s what’s hard:

  1. The unknown — mainly, What else is going to happen?  How long will our lives be like this?  I’ve read several articles including this from The Atlantic that suggest this will just be a part of our global health picture from now on.  There are no solid answers.
  2. The huge adjustment to our lives.  Even the library is closed now, a beloved destination for my kids, especially when the air pollution is bad as it frequently is here in Korea. (And I’m talking so bad it could affect our health).  Our world right now is basically our house and the outdoors around it, and the outdoors depends on the air quality.  
  3. Maintaining sanity.  Because of what I’ve listed above, I don’t think I’m alone in saying I have moments where it all gets a bit overwhelming.  I’m not sure exactly how many people are stationed just at Camp Humphreys, but there are also contractors, civilian employees, teachers for the base schools, etc.  It is basically a medium-size town.  And there are more in Daegu and Busan.  We are all trying hard to figure out this “new normal” while keeping our stuff together for those around us.  As I have said, it feels like there is an assault on staying calm.  Not only are there alarming headlines, our phones go off around the clock with emergency alerts from the Korean Emergency Alert System.I ask for prayer:
  1. For health of those in this country that has been my home for over three years and that the precautions would end the spread of the virus.
  2. For the leadership here, that they would know the best ways to deal with all of this.
  3. For the businesses in the area to not suffer too much.
  4. For good air quality days as we wait through this so we can at least enjoy the outdoors.
  5. For patience and sanity for all of us.

What I’m trying to do:

  1. Keep a sense of humor.  It’s not a matter of ignoring the serious nature of what’s going on, but what I think will help us get through this.  Any recommendations for good and funny books or movies is VERY welcome right now.
  2. Keep my family happy and entertained for however long it takes, even on the days we have to stay inside.  Again, ideas welcome, and bonus points for high-energy releases indoors.  At least no one is downstairs from us any more for rowdy dance parties!

So for all those wondering, that’s where we are.  Wyatt climbed into my bed this morning to snuggle as I wrote in my prayer journal and started singing songs from our church service last Sunday.

“Through it all, through it all, my eyes are on You, and it is well with me.”  May it be so.


1 comment:

  1. Thank you for this update and so many prayers for your family ! You have definately have had an interesting life! I love reading your blog!


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