COVID-19. The era of staying home, keeping your distance, learning even more than you thought you already knew about hygiene and sanitation, and most prominently… the dreaded, almost unavoidable quarantine. If you have not had to experience quarantine yet, you are one of the lucky ones. Even then, if you have not experienced quarantine in a foreign country, you are still pretty lucky in my book (this coming from someone who had to quarantine because of having COVID).
Although not every country has the same guidelines and restrictions for quarantine, some are stricter when it comes to fighting off the pandemic. South Korea, especially the metropolitan area of Seoul, are one of those places where they do not mess with a virus like the world is facing right now. In fact, to even step foot into the country, you must receive a COVID PCR test within 72 hours of arrival. Not only that, but every individual who enters the country (with a few exceptions) is required to quarantine for 14 days– regardless of vaccination status.
In the United States, quarantine has a different look than it does in South Korea. Yes, you must stay home and be isolated, but if you do not have COVID and absolutely need to go out for essentials or just want to get some fresh air, you are able to do so. In Korea, it is mandatory that each individual stays in their room for the full 14 days without any interaction or the ability to go outside whatsoever. It might not sound too bad at first, but once you get past week one—well, let’s just walk through how my quarantine experience went, and then I think you will get the idea.
D.I.Y HACK #1: DON’T GO HUNGRY
The facility I stayed at for quarantine was a very accommodating hotel arranged through International Studies Abroad (ISA). They provided everything we needed for 14 days, including three meals a day at scheduled times, with the preselected options of Korean, vegetarian, and halal. Not having to figure out meals was a check off the stress list of all the things I needed to think about for not only the trip itself, but also the quarantine period; however, there is no flexibility with the meals. You get what you get, and for the most part, every bit of food in the box is some kind of Korean food.
Basically, what I am saying is, you might not like everything that you get, and for some meals, you might not eat anything at all in the box. Luckily for me, my mom and I packed a whole duffle bag full of snacks, so I at least had something else to eat if I did not like the meals. This will be my first tip: bring as many snacks as you can for quarantine, even if it seems like it is too much. In this case, what I thought was “too much,” was actually not enough.
It is also important to mention that most hotels or quarantine facilities in South Korea do not have a stove, oven, or microwave; the only cooking utility they have is a tea kettle that boils water. This is where creativity really needs to come in. For the first couple of days, I tried my best to eat most of the meals they brought, but there is only so much plain white rice one can handle. So, for lunch and dinner, if I could not eat what the facility brought, I would boil some water in the kettle and use it to make soup or mac and cheese. For the soup, this was an easy feat. All it needed was hot water, a bit of stirring, and to let the soup set for a couple of minutes, and voila– satisfying soup. Mac and cheese, however, posed a bit of a challenge.
I brought the microwavable bowls that needed to be filled to the line with water and put in the microwave for three minutes. The first time I tried this, I only added the hot water and stirred them as I would do with the soup. The result was not so satisfactory– slimy noodles really are not my thing. The second time around, the tiny light bulb flickered on in my head, and I had the bright idea to set the plastic bowl on top of the tea kettle (after adding more water to it) and let the water in the kettle boil for a few minutes under it to sort of mimic the action of the microwave. Cooking mac and cheese this way was not the most conventional method, but hey, I was hungry, and it tasted fairly good in the end.
If you do not have the luxury of soup or mac and cheese, or do not have enough snacks in general during your quarantine stay, there is another option. South Korea has an incredible delivery system for food and groceries. Unfortunately, in our hotel, we were not allowed to order actual delivery food, but we were allowed to order packaged snacks. I recommend websites such as e-mart or enkor. These two sites were quite easy to navigate—especially for foreigners– and both delivered orders within a day or even hours of when the order was placed. Plus, they accept foreign bank/credit cards.
After a week, I started running out of snacks and even had to start rationing what I ate of the snacks that I brought so that I would not starve each day. Then, some other students ordered from these places, and I decided to follow suit, which leads me to my second tip: do not be afraid to order more snacks if you are close to running out. It is better to be prepared than to suffer from not having enough. I ordered from enkor and had my snacks delivered to my hotel door the next day. I no longer had to stress about if I would have enough for the next meal, and since I only had one more week of quarantine, I could stop rationing my snacks.
So, do not be afraid to think outside the box if you must throw together a meal. It might not be the typical picture of a meal, but it still has the potential to leave you satisfied when hungry. While we are on the topic of creativity and thinking outside the box, it is important to know that having to stay in quarantine gives you multiple opportunities to use innovation to the best of your ability—especially when it comes to staying clean and comfortable.
You may not think packaged snacks can be turned into a real meal, but when it is all that you have, it becomes a blessing. Once again, creativity had to kick in as I created meals as alternatives to what the hotel brought. For most meals, I would have a combination of the following: a bowl of cereal with pecans and honey, soup, chips, and/or a sweet treat. One night for dinner, I had a bowl of cereal and a bag of honey apple twists. Another night, I used one of my soup packets and had that with two packs of graham crackers. I really used some brain cells to make a nice snack with the soup for this meal. After eating the first pack of graham crackers, I began thinking about smores I made back home. Then, it clicked; I had moon pies, a delectable trio of chocolate, wafers, and marshmallow. When combined, it tasted like heaven.
D.I.Y HACK #2: KEEP FRESH
If you are like me, cleanliness is necessary in every situation. I only brought a few sleep wear outfits since packing for international trips is limited and there are many other things that need to be brought also, so eventually during my stay, the clothes I wore all day and to sleep in became dirty. When I was down to two outfits, I realized something needed to be done and fast. Without a washer and dryer for my clothes, I was desperate for any method of getting them clean so I did not have to start sleeping in jeans or something else I had in my suitcase (which definitely would not have been pleasant).
As I sat on the phone with my mom one night, I suddenly remembered what my parents used to tell me about the “back in my days” stories like hiking over hills and through valleys to get to school and having to hand wash clothes in buckets. As I glanced around the room searching for an idea, the kitchen sink suddenly caught my attention. I practically tumbled over the bed to examine if it were a good fit for washing clothes, and after finding a cup to plug the drain, I started filling it with hot water and liquid detergent, practically giddy about the fact that I could finally clean my clothes.
Once my make-shift washer was ready, my mom walked me through ways of hand washing clothes, such as spinning the clothes around in the sink, lifting them up and down in the water, and scrubbing them with my hands. The sink was only big enough for one or two pieces of clothing, but I finally had more clean sleep wear that I could use for the rest of my quarantine. Now, you may be thinking, what about drying them? This entire situation gives me the ability to give you my third tip: use your resources.
Any open space where clothes can be hung is a nice choice. In my case, the room had two closets with space to hang my clothes, so I hung two shirts on hangers and laid the rest over open bars where the clothes could dry easily.
They usually took a day or two to dry, but if the air conditioner was on full blast, that time was cut down to at most one day. Washing and drying clothes this way was obviously not the most preferred method, but it gave me comfort whenever I could go to bed at night and sleep in clean clothes, and all it took was a little bit of using the appliances around me and some elbow grease.
You might not believe this, but prepping meals and doing laundry by hand kept me pretty busy for at least a couple of hours. Even so, there are still 24 hours in a day, and being isolated all day every day for two weeks really does take a toll on the mind. As I have aged, I have become a person who needs to be outside at least once a day and have some kind of human interaction, so having to stay in my room the whole time was very difficult for me, but what I learned in quarantine is that, even though it might be challenging, it is still possible to keep busy and maintain some level of social interaction.
D.I.Y HACK #3: AVOID GOING STIR-CRAZY
I will be honest. Having to sit in a room 24/7 for two weeks with little space to move around in is like sitting in front of a wall watching paint dry. Some days, I had to open the window and just breathe in the air for a few minutes to keep myself from going nuts. When the quarantine staff took us for COVID testing once at the beginning of my stay and once at the end, it was the happiest moments of my entire two weeks (minus the part where I got my brain jabbed by the testing Q-tip). It. Was. Difficult. And even more so when the only company I had was myself.
After the second day, I made it my mission to find some social interaction. I would video call my mom or the rest of my family at least once or twice a day. It was nice to see everyone, especially with being so far away from home and on my own. We had many conversations, and even a few laughs. For example, on a video call with my family, everyone was amazed by the heated bidet in the bathroom (this was a conversation that went on for at least an hour and was very entertaining).
Other times, I facetimed my mom and talked to her, and a few times, I even got to see my dog. If you have a pet, I recommend calling home and asking to see them. It was one of the most comforting things I had while in quarantine.
As a family-oriented person, this was a very precious ability I had in quarantine. Allow me to introduce my fourth tip: do not be afraid to call home once in a while and talk to your family. It might just be the thing you need most when you are alone.
Aside from facetime, all of us international students looked for loopholes in having interaction. The girls I flew on the plane with would host zoom calls where we would play games to get to know each other or just talk to each other about things we wanted to do in Seoul once we escaped quarantine. When ISA hosted activities during the week, people would work on them together or have conversations in the chats on live zooms. During the second of week of quarantine, however, evolved one of the best ideas yet—window talks.
Every evening around seven, the students on my side of the building would open their windows and talk about anything and everything—class registration, where everyone was from, majors, and places to go or see in Seoul. It was like a breath of fresh air, literally and figuratively. I do not know if it were like this for others, but once the window talks were over, I felt as if my social bug level had been refilled, and I could rest a little easier knowing that it would happen again the next night, and soon, we would be out where we could finally be together in person. If there is an opportunity to do something like this, do not hesitate to seize it. It is better to be surrounded by others, even if it is in a strange way, than to be alone in your thoughts for an extended period.
Aside from social interaction, there are also a few other ways to keep yourself entertained. I brought a book to read every day. I tried to limit myself to two chapters a day so that I would have something to do each day. I also brought a sudoku book for times when I did not want to read or be on my phone. Another option– and my fifth tip— that I highly recommend is to bring a journal to write about your daily happenings. This can be used to discuss what happened throughout the day, and it is also useful to reflect on your emotions or how quarantine life affects you. I wrote in my journal at least three times a day, and I know once I return home, it will be an incredible way of reflecting on not only my time in quarantine, but also my entire study abroad trip. Not only that, but I will be able to physically see how I have changed and grown as a person. Pretty neat, right?
D.I.Y HACK #4: TAKE THIS TIME TO GET TO KNOW YOURSELF
As I said, self-reflection through journaling became a major part of my quarantine days. Every frustration, mishap, good time, or breakthrough I had during my isolation turned into a part of the beginning of my study abroad journey. Maybe you are not a journal keeping type of person, but if you are going to take a trip as extraordinary and unique as this, I highly recommend you at least make a list about what happened in each day or post the pictures you have taken to record your trip.
Remember, this is just the beginning. You have the chance to make history and record each moment that you embark on throughout the entire study abroad experience. Every day, whether it be a good day or a bad day, I remind myself that I am incredibly blessed to have been able to even step foot into South Korea, especially during current times with the pandemic which no one truly knows the outcome of.
It is even more important to take some time to breathe and just be in the moment. If you are anything like me, life before studying abroad was seriously busy. I spent nearly every day completing academic work (even in the summer) or working almost full time. I never had an actual break. At times, it felt as if I was running without a second to just look in the mirror and see the person I was becoming. I never truly had the chance to see where my future steps were taking me because there was hardly any time to think about it.
While quarantining was not ideal for the start of my study abroad experience, the one silver lining I am finally able to recognize is that I had been granted the time I needed to just breathe. To learn about myself. To get to know me. To be able to see the path that started lighting up which leads to my future beyond my semester in South Korea.
If I said that total isolation for two weeks without being able to go outside was not difficult, it would be nothing but a lie. Things like these are easier said than done. There were times where I cried out of frustration, went through the motions of stress, tears, and hunger pains, wanted to go home, and simply missed the security I had at home where I did not always have to think on my own… but there were also times of genuine rest, relaxation, and peace that I desperately needed for myself.
So, my last piece of advice—and it is a very simple thing to complete, especially when you are stuck in quarantine—is to take a second to look at the sunset and feel the peace and serenity resonating through your body in the quiet mist of it all—that is how small moments of life with yourself should be spent.
Through this first grueling step towards freedom to explore and experience, I learned more about myself, what strengths and weaknesses I had, and how to start surviving on my own. I promise, there is growth in isolation.
By truly spending time with ourselves, we can start to face the reflection we see in the mirror, and with each step, we can learn something new about ourselves every day. It is a life hack that is essential for self-reflection and self-love, especially during these trying COVID times where we have nothing but time to get to know who we are at our core.