South Korea during Covid – a foreign student’s experience of the capital amidst a pandemic. By Queen Mary English & Drama student and Turing Grant recipient, Rose Mudie

South Korea is well known for its beautiful landscapes, rich culture, and incredible food, but with the COVID-19 pandemic enforcing strict restrictions on what one could do in the country, my first term abroad was limited to what I could find to do by myself. Yonsei University’s campus was shut, theatres were closed, and social clubs were non-existent. So, despite the fear of being in a new country where I couldn’t speak the language very well and didn’t know anyone on the same continent, I forced myself to explore the quieter aspects of life as a foreign student in Seoul.

I arrived in August, in the midst of a blistering heatwave with average temperatures of 30’C and was thrust into the middle of the second bout of Covid in the capital. With large venues closed my initial plans of diving straight into local performances of theatre and dance were postponed, and with all the new time on my hands I decided to explore bit by bit my little corner of Seoul. Going outside and walking everyday made me comfortable with the local area; I befriended my local pharmacist after experiencing mosquito bites for the first time in my life and developed a little ritual of visiting a quiet little coffee shop down the road to get an iced coffee every Monday. Whilst these may appear as small insignificant things, the repeated actions and certainty of what the day held helped me to settle in during a time when I saw very few people. And it is in these small activities that the Turing Funding first came to influence my time in Korea; the extra money in my pocket made sure that I could treat myself to a coffee or a cake everyday without guilt of eating into my saved money for bigger trips and rent.

Eating is a HUGE part of Korean society; there is an old saying ‘Koreans do not eat to live. They live to eat’ and this is very true of the huge ‘dining-out’ culture in Seoul. With supermarkets few and far between, it is not expected of young people to cook in their own homes, but rather to go out for breakfast, lunch, and dinner and even a mid-morning coffee break. The thought of doing such a thing in London makes your wallet hurt but Turing again gave me the support to indulge in Korean classic dishes such as tteokbeokki, sundubu-jiggae, and naengmyeon. As the second wave fell away and South Korea tentatively began to re-open I pushed myself further out of my little bubble and took part in day trips with some friends I had met in my residency.

These are some of my fondest memories of first term – rail-biking around a lake, seeing the last leaves fall on Nami Island, eating spicy octopus in Busan, looking at floating lanterns in a Christmas festival, and discovering a local Jazz bar on the 6th floor of an apartment building. The experiences of travelling around Korea and seeing what the different provinces had to offer was a luxury that was made possible only by the grant received from Turing paying for travel, food, and cultural experiences such as visiting ‘Petite France’ – a miniature French village in the hills of Gyeonggi-do, complete with puppet shows and ice cream.

I was fortunately able to travel home for Christmas break and am now back in my little one-room Airbnb preparing for second term. Whilst restrictions were re-introduced during my time at home, I am hopeful that I will be able to tick off some bigger parts of my Korean bucket list with the help of the Turing funding. For one, theatres are open! And as a Drama and English student this is going to massively impact how I spend my time; I have already booked to see the Korean National Ballet’s performance at one of the largest theatres in Seoul at the end of February. I plan to take a week-long trip to Jeju Island in the summer, to rent Hanbok and go to the palace for the day, to spend some time at a beach, to climb Bukhansan, to take a traditional Korean cooking class…

University is unfortunately still not open so that is one aspect of student life I will not be able to experience but I am excited to see what the second term brings. The support that Turing funding has given me is seen in all the little aspects of my life in Korea; the fact that I am able to plan for these life-altering experiences without the fear of running out of money for rent gives me the freedom to truly throw myself into my time here. I can say ‘Yes!’ to the unusual day trips and nights out that I otherwise wouldn’t have been able to do.

I have attached some photos of my first term in Korea, but they cannot truly encapsulate what my experience has been like. This has been the best decision of my life so far and I am so thankful to the people who have made this life-long dream of mine a reality.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.