Waegukin - living and teaching in Korea

Locked down in Daegu: Coronavirus, social distancing, and bonsai

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Mar 03 2020

At the end of December I went back to Australia for a seven week vacation. Yes, I have long vacations, but seven weeks was really maxing it out. I didn’t want to be in Korea, for reasons I won’t really go into.

When I got to Australia the country was, literally, on fire. The bushfires didn’t come near me, but they approached family and friends. Meanwhile the air was worse than Korea, the sky a permanent grey haze, and I griped because it wasn’t beach weather and I couldn’t go to the beach and swim as much as I wanted to. “What’s going on with the world!” I complained. Later, the bushfires stopped and the rains came. There were floods, hail storms. “This is ridiculous!”, I said, because I still couldn’t go to the beach as much as I wanted.

Still, I went to the beach a lot, and I took up bonsai as a hobby. It was very relaxing. I tortured a bunch of innocent nursery plants and put them in small pots and left them in the care of my mother, who promised to water them while I was gone. I saw my family and eventually, got tired of them.

While I was gone, the start date of my university was pushed back two weeks due to coronavirus fears.

Did I mention that a while ago I moved back to Daegu, and started working at a Daegu university? I think I maybe implied it. I haven’t blogged much in a long time. Korean life became too regular, and there was less “wow, Korea!” stuff for me to write about. Anyway, university got pushed back two weeks, and I could have extended my vacation. But it had been long enough, and you can only avoid real life for so long. There was a feeling of Autumn in the air, it was starting to not be beach weather anymore and I had given my mother too many bonsai trees to care for already. “Time to go home!” I said. Because Korea is, really, my home.

On the 19th of February, the night before I was due to leave, there were suddenly reports of coronavirus in Daegu. They were centered on the Shincheonji cult, a group of assholes I’ve had run-ins with before. “Fucking Shincheonji!” I said. (A lot of people have said “Fucking Shincheonji!” in the last two weeks.) But I checked the Australian government’s advice for travel to Korea, and Daegu. “Exercise normal caution,” the Australian government told me. And you can only avoid real life for so long. As a concession to the situation, I packed up some disinfectant and face masks to bring back with me and caught my plane back to Korea.

Everyone was in facemasks when I got off the plane. I put mine on too and caught the bus back to Daegu.

Now I’m in my Daegu apartment, in a city where, as I write this, in the 10 days since I’ve been back, the number of known infections has gone from 30 on the morning I caught my plane to 2,569.

Fuck. I could be in Australia right now, going to the beach and playing with bonsai trees.


Outside, somewhere in the empty streets of Daegu, the quiet is momentarily broken by the sound of someone sneezing.

(Yes, this creepy moment actually happened.)


In the first few days after I got back, there was a lot of reaching out and checking in with various people I knew. Koreans, some in Daegu and some outside of it, got in touch with me. The most common thing to ask was “Do you have enough masks?” It was as if “Do you have enough masks?”  had replaced the familiar Korean greeting, “Did you eat?” – a phrase that supposedly emerged during the Korean war, when people often didn’t have enough to eat. It was a nice way to show concern.

I went for walks in the fields near my home. I bought some things at the local mart, enough to hold me over if I got sick and had to self-quarantine. Everyone was in masks but the mart was open and still had plenty of things to buy.

Like everyone else, I hunkered down. I spent a lot of time on twitter. K-twitter provided me with a community. We were all in it and speculating together. It was good to have that. It was boring, but also exciting – I was at the center of the action.

On Sunday, I decided to go for a walk through the main part of my suburb. Sunday was a watershed day for me, and maybe for a lot of people. It was a nice day, early spring, and I didn’t want to hunker down anymore. There were other people out on the streets, too, though less than usual and wearing masks and keeping their distance and eyeing each other (I thought) somewhat warily. There was, I felt, a sense of shock at how much everything had been upended, but as others have noted, there is no panic here. A lot of shops were closed, with signs that spelled out, in varying degrees of specificity, their coronavirus plans. A lot said they would be reopening on March 9, or March 16. Some just said, “Closed because of coronavirus”.

A lot of things were going to open up again on March 9, or March 16. Schools, universities, my language exchange group. It all seemed very optimistic. I thought about how one person, Patient 31, started this whole mess, and now there were thousands of people infected. How were they going to find everyone with the virus? And if everything opened up again on March 9 or March 16, and there’s another person wandering around like that – well, what happens then? Do you shut it all down again?

A lot of people were having this thought. The mood seemed to change. There was no novelty or excitement anymore, it was just scary and boring. People were realizing this could last a long time. There was less reaching out and checking in.

My Australia thought – “You can’t avoid life forever” – was also a reality. The supermarkets still need to be staffed and stocked, the mail still needs to be delivered, the buses still need to run even if they are not full. Life has to continue, in some way. What was the answer?

The answer, it seems, is this: social distancing.


Going for a walk outside in the empty streets of Daegu. There is a wind. An advertising banner, weighted at the bottom, flaps and blows in the wind, its base striking the metal utility pole on which it hangs with an intermittent CLANG, CLANG.

“Bring out your dead….” I imagine someone calling. “Bring out your dead…”

(Yes, this creepy moment actually happened.)


Social distancing is an epidemiological phrase. It’s also an evocative phrase. “Social distancing” has been an issue for me in my life. I’m comfortable with a certain amount of social distancing; it’s one reason I live in a foreign country. But there have been times in my life when that has tipped over into something that is too much, and I feel alone and unhappy.

As a foreigner in Korea, social distancing is always an issue. I realized in my first year in Korea that foreigner friends go home eventually, and that has led to a certain amount of social distance with all the foreigner friends I’ve made since. With Koreans, there is a social distance because of culture, and also because of Koreans’ busy lifestyles – the pattern of school/university/job/marriage/kids so often makes “hanging out with my foreigner friend” something that doesn’t happen all that regularly.

As a foreigner also, unless you marry a Korean, your family will always be a long way away, and you feel that at times of crisis. There’s an instinct towards family and home at such times.

But “social distance” is what I’m going to be dealing with for a while. My university has now announced that after its two week delayed open, we will be going to online classes. The theory is that this will last another two weeks, but for me, I’ve lost faith the in magical power of two weeks to solve anything. There is no clear idea of how exactly online classes will work, but the sense seems to be “make it work as best you can”.

“Make it work as best you can” is what everyone is doing in Daegu at the moment. It’s an imperfect solution, but it’s all there is. It’s what we’re all going to be doing, for a while. But humans aren’t designed for social distancing. Globalisation tends to force it upon us, and the result of it, always, is ultimately dehumanizing.


For me, well, there is always Gmarket. I’ve started making bonsai in Korea. Not much, so far – actually all I have is a nascent moss garden, but some supplies and a ficus will be coming tomorrow. Online shopping still works, but now you get a notice asking if you want the guy to just leave it at the door, or leave it at the door and buzz you, or call and arrange something. More social distancing, but it’s necessary.

It’s something to keep me occupied in this strange time. It’s a good hobby; it encourages patience, and makes you accept the limits of your own power to create change. At the same time, it makes me confront a question that I don’t know the answer to, and which seems all the more important right now: am I really going to be in Korea in five or ten years time, to see this thing become a tree?

There are a lot of things I worry about. I worry about how all this will end. I worry about my life here, and the city I live in. I worry about my former nursing students who are now working on the front line (I texted one of them; it sounds crazy). I worry about my elderly parents in Australia, one of whom has a heart condition and the other, a lung condition. I worry about the unpreparedness of the US and the right wing religious nutjobs there, because those types have caused so many problems here. I worry about all the developing countries with inadequate health systems. I worry about the globalisation that got us into this mess and the way so many things seem to be going seriously wrong in the world. I worry about social distancing and what that means for me and my life here. I worry about the one person in this city who I would really like to hear from, but who I know won’t contact me, and who I won’t contact, either (there was a reason I didn’t want to be here during vacation).

But I’ll go on and go forward, and adapt as best I can, and try to do the right things. So will everyone else – because falling apart isn’t really an option, and there is no other choice. And you, too, wherever you are: get ready. Because this is a strange time, and it’s going to touch you, too. Best of luck to all of us.

Waegukin wrote these 1908 words on March 3rd, 2020 | Posted in Living |


One comment on “Locked down in Daegu: Coronavirus, social distancing, and bonsai”

  1. -dude says:

    Sorry you haven’t gotten any love on this post Waegukin. You sound a little down (understandably). It must be tough as yes people are sure to hunker down mainly with family these days. It must be pretty lonely. I have really enjoyed reading your blog today and wish you happiness and good spirits. The crisis will not last forever.

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