Living in South Korea during COVID-19: Masks, Magic Amulets & Shamanism
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 for reasons ranging from logical and responsible to questionable and reckless (the opinion of a psychic and two anthropologists).
What was meant to be a two-month research recce turned into a five-month stint when I was stuck with no flights back to the UK, during which I fell in love with the country (again), and here we are.
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. Gratefully my friend Jihye had my back, because at the time I didn't have the kind of money you need to secure a visa.
After desk after desk of paperwork and questions in an empty airport, myself, an older German man and two Japanese business people found ourselves at the final stop. A group of bored policemen discussed my passport for a while, and then I was ushered onto the quarantine coach.
You can't choose your quarantine facility, unlike say Thailand or Papua New Guinea, so where you end up is a surprise. After a ten minute drive, and it seemed I'd won the jackpot: the Grand Hyatt. 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 had forgotten what little Korean I knew years ago, so pressed ‘English’ on the train ticket machine. To my delight, when I inserted my ticket into the turnstile, it "remembered" the choice I made in the ticket machine and blurted out "Thank you" as I passed through. I think it's important that our machines are polite.
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 started, and felt panicky.
The train to Busan was the same story. A man behind me sneezes, another person coughs. I brace myself and cover my vending machine 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. I have only seen one person in shaman garb so far, in a sushi restaurant at Busan train station, but I've passed quite a few inconspicuous homes with what I've been told are the tell-tale signs of shaman houses.
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 taught me her technique for escaping sleep paralysis into a lucid dream; 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 up as vampires for Halloween. Eventually I wanted my own kitchen and ended up moving to a studio (which I thought was haunted).
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, and traditional bujeok, prepared by shamans, can be purchased online for about £20 ($30):