Living in South Korea during COVID-19: Masks, Magic Amulets & Shamanism
I have really been neglecting this blog, but I hope to add the handful of half-written updates over the summer. My excuse is that I've been busy with my MA and forthcoming book, have moved to another country, and spent two months recovering from COVID. (More on covid hallucinations later!)
COVID-19 and its displacement of life online has made it possible to take work and school away from the high-rent world of London, my home for the past 12 years. I decided to choose Korea as my next home (Japan was my previous) for reasons ranging from logical and responsible to questionable and reckless.
(1) In 2019, I was unhappy with work and asked my Facebook friends to recommend the best psychic they knew. The "best of the best", who specifically predicted that a friend of mine would be involved in a Nicolas Cage film, told me that "the spirits" were telling me that I needed to go to Korea. Well, that was weird. I had initially planned on moving there until about 8 years ago when London grew on me. I didn’t have anything on social media about Korea so this intrigued me.
(2) Later in the year, I consulted with two anthropologists who suggested that due to my interests in out-of-body experiences and religious sects, I should consider studying shamanism or new religious movements in South Korea. I was amused that it had come up again.
(3) I spent lockdown summer with my family in Canada, and on a trip to a furniture store with my sister, I saw a beautiful pink globe. I knew that my chapter in London was coming to a close. As wonderful as that time had been, like many people, I was unhappy with how the government (and a large section of the public) had handled the pandemic, and I felt unsafe. My neighbourhood had become a zombie apocalypse, with random violent outbursts, people sneezing on the street without masks, open drug use and attempted break-ins, and even defecating by the front door of my building (I wish I could say that this only happened once). I decided to spin the globe, and - my finger landed on Busan, the city I had initially planned to move to all those years ago (my dream was once to become a geologist there). I was starting to get fate-y vibes.
2 months later I took a leap of faith and booked my flight to Korea. What was meant to be a two-month research recce, turned into a five-month stint due to travel restrictions, during which I fell in love with the country (again) and nine months later I'm still here, with no solid plans to leave yet.
To enter the country without a visa, you need to provide the phone number of a Korean friend who can vouch for you and make arrangements if you get COVID. It has to be a citizen living in Korea, and they call them from the airport when you arrive.
Then it was desk after desk of paperwork and questions, discussing my passport with a group of bored policemen, and finally getting on a coach to the quarantine facility. There were only three others on the bus: an older German man and two Japanese businesspeople.
We drove for about ten minutes and, much to my delight, stopped at the Grand Hyatt. It cost £900 for two weeks (too rich for my blood, but much cheaper than the £1750 for ten days that the UK government currently charges). My suite was massive, with a bathroom bigger than my room in London, and views of Paradise City (see photo at top). When I got bored, I sometimes pretended I was in a sci-fi film while looking through the peephole at the decontamination staff, or imagined I was rich enough to afford the suite outside of a pandemic.
Train to Busan
On release day, the coach took us to the main station of Incheon, a large city just outside of Seoul. I was disappointed by how rusty my Korean had become. The last time I had been here, I was conversational enough to stop a fight or tell a ghost story, and now I couldn't even buy myself a train ticket. I pressed ‘English’ and bought my ticket, and to my delight, when I inserted it into the turnstile, it "remembered" the choice I made in the ticket machine and thanked me in English as I passed through. I appreciate a polite machine.
The train was about half full, but over the next hour as it approached the capital, it became an insane sardine tin on wheels. Although everyone wore a mask, I hadn’t been in a crowd since the pandemic began and almost felt a panic attack come on.
The train to Busan was the same story. A man behind me sneezes, another person coughs. I brace myself and cover my tin of coffee. Nobody else has the gall to eat or drink on the train, and I quickly fall into line. But the train takes 3 hours and 30 minutes and my foggy mind desperately needs coffee, so I find a nook between shaky carriages and chug it down.
The day after being released from quarantine, my jet lag seemed to return, and sleep and appetite eluded me. I went for my first hair appointment since the pandemic began, and when the hairdresser asked what I planned to do in Busan, I said I’d been recommended to research Korean shamanism. His eyes lit up - it turned out that he knew quite a bit about this subject and helpfully gave me some leads and stories. He gave me an example of why shamanism continues to exist in modernised Korea:
Say your child is ill, so you take him to the hospital, but the doctors can’t cure him; you’re Christian or Buddhist, but your church or temple can’t help, either. As your options narrow, people begin to recommend a certain shaman who helped so-and-so before. They cure your kid - somehow - and now you have proof that it works, so you might attend their kut, or subscribe to the beliefs associated with these rituals. (This is a two-way street; later, somebody tells me about their mother leaving shamanism for Christianity.)
Interestingly, Korean anthropologist Chongho Kim criticises Western anthropologists for romanticising Korean shamanism without understanding the role they play in their clients' lives. The stigma against them in society, he says, is at least partially justified as they often charge thousands of dollars for even a simple ritual, and many people have become “shamans” just because it pays well. In contrast, friends who had sought assistance from Siberian shamans said they didn’t charge for their services (although they might occasionally accept the odd bottle of vodka). However, the kut rituals are expensive - fruit and decorations have to be bought, and drummers have to be paid, after all. I'm looking forward to learning more about shamanism here, particularly in relation to out-of-body experiences and sleep paralysis.
Daily Life during Corona
Shopping malls, supermarkets and other indoor areas require you to sign in with your phone number and district, or with a QR code. After a squirt of hand sanitiser, you either get your temperature checked by a staff member with a wand, or step into the footprints marked on the floor, looking ahead at the screen to match your face with the outline around it. Most restaurants ask you to call a number, which automatically registers you as having visited the location.
My hostel was at low capacity; although there was room for over 100 people, I only ever saw about seven or eight people: the American girl who liked living a frugal life and taught me her technique for escaping sleep paralysis; the Caribbean girl who was working in China and was stranded in Korea while visiting her sister, the Russians who were happily stranded in Korea because ticket prices home had become 10x higher, and the friendly staff and their friends who dressed like vampires for Halloween. I wasn't too comfortable sharing a kitchen with a dozen people so ended up getting a studio (which I thought was haunted, but more on that later). When the cases would rise and I ordered food in, notes of gratitude and freebies were often included to show thanks for supporting their business during the pandemic.
One of the differences I noticed between the UK and Korea was what people seemed to think of as clean and safe. Unlike in the UK, everyone has to wear a mask both inside and outside in Korea (even when hiking in the mountains), however they don't seem to disinfect surfaces as frequently as they do in the UK. Also, while most establishments in the UK had switched to card payments, cash is still king everywhere in Korea (you can’t even use a card to buy a metro ticket).
I switched back to saying that I'm from Canada despite not having lived there for nearly two decades, because of the reaction I got when I answered "UK". While there have been funny reactions (the security guard who jokingly jumped back and yelled "Ah, corona!") my landlady's daughter informed me that we have higher cases because we are mean and inconsiderate to others. In contrast, according to her Scottish people have lower cases because they wear masks, because they are kinder (this greatly amuses a friend in Edinburgh). Generally, I find that people have bigger reactions to smaller numbers here, texting their friends to warn them to stay inside for a few more weeks when 60 new cases are announced that week.
Amulets against COVID-19
I also came across more magical ways of protecting oneself against COVID-19. Here are some bujeok, or amulets that have been made to keep the disease away. On the left, homemade amulets in a fashion studio yell and swear in a mix of Korean, English and Russian (just in case), and traditional bujeok, prepared by shamans, can be purchased online for about £20 ($30):
Next: Visiting fortune tellers in South Korea