Updated: Sep 27, 2020
Today officially marks a month since I’ve been back home. Yes, you read that correctly, I’m back in the United States. Keeping my last life update in mind, I was hoping this post would be filled with endless pictures around Europe of me smiling in front of the Eiffel Tower, slurping noodles in Italy, and settling into my new apartment and school in Poland.
Unfortunately, the coronavirus has once again canceled more of my traveling and now living abroad plans. At the end of the day, though, I’m extremely happy and grateful I’m able to have a place I call home to wait out this whole mess. Not everyone has been as fortunate.
Thankfully I can share that I haven’t shown any signs of having the virus. In many ways, having traveled internationally and living in a hotspot for over 2 months, I’m quite lucky and surprised I have contracted anything, or passed it onto anyone else. It’s been a long 2 ½ months essentially “running” from COVID-19.
If you keep up to date on my life update posts, you probably first remember me talking about COVID-19 when I shared I no longer was able to travel to China in January, and my trip to Taiwan was cut short. When I left South Korea on January 20th, I had heard rumblings of the coronavirus, but yet it was no real threat. In fact it wasn’t until I was in Taiwan for a few days that it really began to be discussed. Like I mentioned before, my trip to China ended up getting canceled from all tourism in Beijing, including the Great Wall, closing. This meant I had to change my flight from China to South Korea, and leave Taiwan earlier than planned. Like a dog with my tail in between my legs, I flew back to Korea where I spent the last few days of my break quarantined in my bed.
A few days after returning to Korea I went back to school where new changes were also implemented due to the ever growing concern of the coronavirus. We were all asked where we had traveled to, and I found out if I would have traveled to China, I would have been self quarantined for the next two weeks at home, due to not wanting to spread it to the students. We were also told that masks would now be mandatory to wear in the classroom. In the Asian culture, masks were widely worn even before the coronavirus, so this was no surprise to me. Having to wear them was a bit of an inconvenience, though. Imagine talking into a mask for 7 hours, 5 days a week. It got stuffy, and the intake of carbon dioxide made myself and the other teachers get headaches and lightheadedness. In retrospect, that was just a minor problem compared to how distracting they were for the students. If the children did not come to school with a mask, they were given 1 at school. Due to there being a short supply of them, our school only had adult sizes. Obviously those did not fit my 6 year old’s faces’. The first 5-10 minutes of class was spent putting knots in their ear straps to fit their ears, telling them not to “snap” the masks at their friends, to use their masks properly over their mouths, not as an eyepatch or as a chin strap… This continued throughout the entire day…Take in mind I was also teaching English, which is hard to teach without the students both not being able to see your mouth, or you theirs. “Our letter of the day is O! Make an O with your mouth!” Or teaching sounds where before we would “feel” the air come from our mouths such as with -th.
Apart from being told to wear masks at school, we really were given very little insight as to what other precautions to take. My school lacked communication, which was 1 reason for this, the other being the language barrier. As a “foriegn teacher,” I only ever spoke to the 3 other “foriegn teachers” at my school, and was only spoken to from 1 of the other 7 Korean staff members at the school if there was a problem. This meant most of the information I learned of was through the media or through google translating notices found on buildings and signs. Not a comforting time to be in foriegn country. In fact, at 1 point myself and other staff member were told we needed to have a mandatory meeting, set up by the government, about what precautionary steps we would need to take with the virus. Instead of partaking in the meeting, a picture was staged in front of the camera to make it look as if we attended. Knowing that I was leaving at the end of February, and looking forward to moving to Europe, I didn’t think much of what was going on and went about my daily life fairly normally.
As the weeks went on, my student’s stress with COVID-19 only grew. I taught 10 classes while in South Korea, with 7 of those 10 classes being with students in the “beginner level” programs, meaning the extent of their English vocabulary was very limited. Without words being spoken, you could see the panic and sadness grow in their eyes each day, as well as tears many times. My students with a deeper vocabulary would express how scared they were and how they “didn’t want to die.” My heart would break as tears would fall when they talked about how much they loved their grandparents, parents, and siblings, and how they wanted to live. A young child should never fear death, but yet here they were generally scared. Each desk sported a little bottle of hand sanitizer that the students made sure to put on repeatedly once the last layer dried. If myself, or a classmate, were to take off our masks for any reason, they would all insist it was put back on instantly.
By mid February many other schools in my area and throughout South Korea were closing. I worked at a private academy that did not have to obey the government recommended closures, though, so we stayed open even though fewer and fewer students were coming in each day. I was very much okay with this since at this point I still did not believe I would be at much risk with the virus, and there were no confirmed cases in my city, Cheonan. My last week in South Korea, we did close, though.
With having a very limited social life in Korea, I spent most weekends alone in my apartment, as well as 99% of the days after school. Weekends got to be long, so the thought of spending an additional whole week isolated was not an exciting thought. The language barrier meant I really only was limited to befriendly my 3 other English speaking coworkers, where the extent of our socialization was spent during our prep time at school. At one time, I calculated that I was only talking to another adult, in person, for just 5 hours a week. I was going crazy. Of course we ran into other English speaking people, but no real friendships grew from there, either. This was just 1 of the many reasons I chose to leave South Korea after just 1 semester, versus staying for the full year.
With the school closing and being asked to self quarantine for the week, I looked into moving up my flight to Poland to Tuesday or Wednesday, versus waiting until Saturday. Of course, this would have cost a pretty penny, so I made the most of my final days in Korea while finishing packing, closing my bank account, and saying goodbye to my coworkers. Day 1 of being in quarantine went by quickly with high hopes that in just a week I wouldn’t have to deal with the virus much longer and would be in my new classroom in Poland.
Then day 2 came. I woke up Tuesday morning to an email from the school I would be working with in Poland sharing that since I would be coming from South Korea, I would not be able to start working in their school until after self quarantining for 2 weeks upon arrival. I was devastated. As someone who needs to have a job and keep busy, spending 2 weeks in a new country without a job or friends, was not ideal. I thought about taking those 2 weeks to instead starting to explore Europe, but with many countries closing off travel for those having recently been in South Korea, I was also disheartened at that idea.The idea of going home for those 2 weeks was then a new thought. With my flight coming up in 84 hours, I would need to make a decision quick. It was on day 2 that I also learned that my Korean school did not plan on paying us during the closure, although we were paid on a monthly salary. After doing some negotiating with the owner of the school, and myself doing some research on Korea Labor Laws for foreigners, I was able to get my coworkers and I 70% of our weekly pay. Just another bump in my ever growing road, and the final step in Korean journey.
Early Wednesday morning, I was awakened to loud vacuum-like sounds. Having never heard my neighbors clean before, I was unsure of what was going on. Peaking my head out of my front door, I saw men, dressed head to toe, in hazman gear cleaning the apartments across from me. I later found out that the hair salon, found at the bottom level of my building, had a confirmed case of COVID-19. Many of the hairdressers who work in the salon live in my building, so I assumed they were all put in isolation and their apartments disinfected. Once the crew left, red tape and a sign were placed on their doors, as well as on the salon downstairs and to the door of my apartment building. After that, I never heard anyone in my building again. To this day I still do not know if I was supposed to be in my apartment building or not since I couldn’t read Korean or translate what the sign said.
One positive of day 3 was I was able to come across a free app that allowed me to make phone calls through wifi to the United States. With this I was able to figure out that if I was to cancel or change my flight to Poland, I would have to pay $250, on top of the flight fee of going to the United States. I called the airline several times, so many that I ended up getting some of the same representatives twice. They all knew me by name and how I wanted to get out of my flight, if my flight would still even be flying and not canceled. They told me to wait until 48 hours before my flight was to depart to get a clear answer as to what I would be charged and reimbursed, as well as if my flight would be canceled and I would get a full refund. It was on Day 3 that I also cleaned out my classroom and said goodbye to my coworkers. Although I did not have the best of time in Korea, it is still a little sad having to close another chapter of my life.
With my mind made up that I would be going home to wait out those 2 weeks, getting an email Thursday morning from another school in Poland that I applied to, had me rethinking my decision again. They shared that they would allow me to start immediately upon arrival, as well as would be paying me more to work in an administrative position versus classroom teacher. It was at this point that I called my dad to talk about how things were looking back home in terms of the virus, and discuss my options. Knowing how nervous and stressed my mom gets in regards to me traveling, especially during a worldwide pandemic, I tried to keep her out of all the talk to ease her spirits. I also knew, if I told her of the possibility of me being back home, there would be no way I could break her heart telling her that would no longer be the case if I were to still go to Poland. My dad, never being the man to tell me what to do, left the decision up to me as for my next steps. At this point I was just 36 hours away from flying to Poland. After hanging up with my dad, I once again called the airline back, where I exaggerated my situation in Korea and told them how I wasn’t able to fly, and that I was desperate for a full refund. Luckily I got a very kind representative, who through my tears, reassured me he would do his best and that my claim had been filed. He told me he had no way of knowing if my plea would be accepted, but that I had good odds and that he could help me book my flight home instead. At that point, after having a stressful week, and not being my happy social self over the last few months, I knew going home really was my best option. I asked the representative how much it would be to fly home and proceeded to give him my credit card number. Shortly before my order was confirmed, he shared that there was a better deal online, and that I should check on there before finalizing my order. Lucky I did, because sure enough it was listed $100 cheaper, and was leaving the next day, versus having to wait until Saturday night.
Day 5 came and left quickly as I finalized my plans, told my schools in Poland I would not be arriving that Sunday, but instead would be coming in 2 weeks after being quarantined at home for those 14 days. I called my dad to share my plans and when I would be arriving. With the US sharing that there would be increased security for those people coming from COVID-19 hotspots, I didn’t know what security would entail and if I would be able to go home straight away, or have to undergo a 24 wait at the airport waiting for results from a coronavirus test. We agreed that we would continue to keep it a secret from my mom, though, and surprise her with my arrival.
Saturday, February 29th finally came and I was on my way home. The bus to take me to the airport was empty, as well as the airport itself. Many flights on the screen showed canceled, but luckily United was still flying me home. I boarded my packed flight that morning, with several Army families to Dallas, Texas, where I would have a 16 hour layover. While on the flight I learned that all nonessential military was also being sent home, along with all American students studying abroad. Many people on the plane were wearing masks, gloves, and even goggles. There wasn’t a huge sense of fear of flying, but rather a greater sense of relief to be going home.
Once I landed in Dallas, I found out we were on the last flight United was flying from South Korea. With there only being 3 airlines that fly to South Korea from the United States, I was that much more grateful that I was able to get the earlier ticket and be back home. Once disembarking, there was no added security at all for me to get through customs. Although this was nice for me, it was very discouraging also. No temperatures were taken, no tests were taken, and in fact, besides asking if I had recently been in China, the customs officers did not ask any further questions as to where I was coming from, if I had any symptoms, or was in contact with any confirmed cases. Definitely more security could have been put in place in terms of prevention…
Although I initially thought I’d be able to wait out my 16 hour layover in the airport, as hour 3 came rolling around, I thought I’d spring for the extra $40 a cheap hotel near the airport. With my flight leaving at 9am the next morning, it meant I’d get a few hours of sleep in, as well as a much needed shower. As you can guess, the $40 hotel was definitely not even worth the $40 I paid. As the driver pulled up to the front of the hotel, I was left in charge of dragging my 3 bags to the door myself, as well as having to carry them up all 3 flights of stairs. Of course there was no hot water in the shower, and the toilet didn’t even flush. If I didn’t get the coronavirus already, I definitely was going to get it there. Fortunately I did get a few winks of sleep in between the neighbors yelling and swearing at their crying children.
Off to the airport I was the next morning to board my final flight from Dallas to Sioux Falls. I shared the airport shuttle that morning with a young biomedical engineer who was leaving for a month-long skiing trip to Switzerland and the neighboring countries. When I shared I had just returned from South Korea, I was surprised to not received a shocked reaction, and instead he stated how it was probably a good thing that I was coming from a place with the virus since I hopefully was exposed to at least a little of it and built up my immune system. An interesting and positive way of looking at things.
At about noon Sunday afternoon, I touched down in Sioux Falls. It still had not hit me that I was really home. Although I had been gone for 6 months, it seemed as if it had only been a few weeks since I was saying my goodbyes to my parents in the same spot. After running through the airport and passing all 10 people inside, I sprang through the doors to see and surprise my absolutely shocked mother. A 10 minute hug was exchanged with her, before I hugged my dad and a, “Oh hey, Megs” was shared from Philip. Clearly he had missed me the most.
While waiting for my bags to come out of the carousel, I shared with my family just what my life had been like in Korea for the last week. Now it's the new normal that we are experiencing here in the United States, but it sounded even more extreme a month ago when the coronavirus was still not widely talked about back home. We gave my grandma a surprise facetime, as well, where she was confused as to if my family was with me in Poland, or if I was back home. We had a little giggle over her confusion. Once the bellhop, Philip, heaved my many bags into the car, we were off on our way home. It was comforting to see so many familiar places and talk to my family in person again after so many months and so much confusion lately.
The next week was spent spending every second at home enjoying having endless great food to make and eat, as well as indulging in cookies and other sweets. For an avid baker, not having an oven for 6 months was rough. My family was more than glad to have me back in the kitchen as well. As week three of quarantine came, week two of being at home, I was able to substitute at my old elementary and high school for a few days. It was during this week that the coronavirus started to really explode in the United States, as well as in Poland. I was told that Polish schools would be closed for the remainder of the school year through June. Although disappointed knowing my plans to go to Europe were canceled, I was quite glad that I made the decision to come home versus going to Poland. I can only imagine what a mess I would have been in trying to get back to the US, not to mention how expensive it could have been. At this point I talked both to the administration at my school, as well as nearby schools, and was told I would be receiving full time work as a substitute for the remainder of the school year. This made me relieved that at least I would have a job while I figure out my next steps. It was during this weekend that I was able to make a trip to the Twin Cities to visit my college roommates, who are also teachers. While there, we watched as Governor Walz shared that schools would be closed for the next two weeks. My plans, once again, fell apart.
So, here I am, going on week 6 of quarantine. For the first time since I’ve been 16 I’m jobless, and have spent more time at home in the last month, than I had in the last 5 years combined. I’m spending my days making too many cookies and playing Susie Homemaker cleaning out every closet and cupboard in the house. For someone who likes to organize, I can’t complain too much. Having brothers and a dad who are constantly eating, also keep me busy in the kitchen. Yes, I would much rather be spending my days teaching some cute Kindergarteners in Poland, traveling to new countries every weekend drinking tea in London or in Paris having a croissant, I can’t imagine spending my days waiting out this pandemic anywhere else. There definitely is some truth to the saying, “There’s no place like home.”
Megan Makes the Move Back Home