We’ve all skilled some type of isolation over the previous 12 months as a result of COVID-19 pandemic — both sanctioned by the federal government or by private alternative. My most potent expertise of solitude was a mixture of each: 14 days quarantined in South Korea, per the nation’s strict journey insurance policies, after touring from New York to my hometown in December 2020 to go to my dad and mom for the primary time in seven years.
At a quarantine facility in Pohang, about 170 miles southeast of Seoul, I used to be given a room with an ocean view however no furnishings apart from a chair, a desk, and a small fridge. I slept on the ground and was not allowed to go away, even for train. Realizing that in two weeks I’d get to hug my dad and mom made it bearable. That, and the surprisingly unimaginable and plentiful meals, which might be dropped onto a chair exterior my door 3 times every day. A telephone name, not a knock, would let me comprehend it had arrived.
Right here is my diary of the mundane, exhausting, and weirdly scrumptious 14 days I spent on this Korean quarantine facility, through which I ate my emotions one bountiful dosirak at a time.
Day 1: The Journey
After a 13-hour flight, I’m shedding my sense of time slightly bit, however there’s a lot extra journey and processing to go. There’s a temperature test and countless paperwork demanding my quarantine deal with and get in touch with data. The workers calls the variety of the power to ensure the telephone is working, in case they should attain me. Everybody who lands in South Korea at the moment has to obtain a quarantine app on their telephone, which additionally permits officers to trace my location, making certain that I don’t go away my quarantine facility.
After extra kinds, telephone calls, and interviews, I lastly go away the gate, however I’ve to attend one other hour to take a delegated bus to the prepare station (to forestall native transmission of the coronavirus, overseas vacationers are usually not allowed to make use of public transportation). I resolve to have a fast dinner on the airport to gasoline up for the remainder of my journey. I deal with myself with the Korean cockle bibimbap set, served in beautiful copper bowls, full with three banchan and a soup. Meaty cockles arrive completely seasoned with large chunks of peppers and scallions, and I get a whiff of sesame oil as I’m mixing them with a steamy bowl of rice. That is precisely what I have to really feel like I’ve lastly arrived in Korea. I take an image with this beautiful copper dinner set and ship it to my dad and mom with a trio of crying emojis.
After the bus trip, I’m escorted to a separate holding house till I can board my prepare to Pohang. The town is situated within the province of North Gyeongsang, about 169 miles south of Seoul. As soon as once more, I’m reminded how far I reside from my dad and mom.
There is just one different quarantining traveler on the high-speed prepare to Pohang, and we’re given an entire automotive to ourselves. A police officer, completely coated in a protecting coverall, guards us your entire time, turning away any locals who attempt to sit close to us. I really feel like a strolling illness. I’m grateful that everybody is taking such severe measures, however the palpable wariness I’ve sensed from each particular person I’ve interacted with for the final 24 hours is extra exhausting than I’d anticipated.
As soon as I lastly arrive at Pohang station, I’m greeted by a workers member from the native well being division, additionally coated from head to toe in protecting gear, who confirms my data. After which, lastly, I catch a glimpse of my dad, who’s been ready for me to come back residence for such a very long time. All I would like is to run towards him and provides him the largest hug, however I’m not allowed. All I can do is wave at him, a sorry different, from 10 toes away.
My dad and mom and I are awkwardly smiling at each other because the workers escorts me to the automotive to take me to my remaining vacation spot. This seemingly unending journey is sort of over. It’s been over 30 hours since I left my residence in New York, and I really feel greasy and exhausted. Lastly, at 2 a.m. — after signing one final type, which says, “You aren’t allowed to go away your room throughout your quarantine” — I test into my residence for the subsequent 14 days, a small sq. studio with a desk and a TV. I’m buzzy and wakeful until 5 a.m. occupied with what my first meal will likely be tomorrow.
Day 2: Dosirak
Very first thing within the morning, I’ve to get examined. I ought to have been examined earlier than checking into the quarantine facility, however needed to await the subsequent day, since I arrived late. My mother arranges for the native well being division to choose me up. A driver arrives, which makes me really feel very VIP, even when the explanation for the particular remedy is that I’m a possible nationwide well being hazard. I’m despatched again after a barely painful nasal swab check with a free bag of hand sanitizers and KF-94 masks. Once I return to my room, there’s a present ready for me: my very first meal, wrapped in a white plastic bag, sitting on prime of the designated meal-depositing chair within the hallway exterior my room.
Early within the pandemic, the Korean government-issued comfort-food packages for quarantining people bought world consideration, stuffed with scrumptious instant noodles, canned tuna, ready-to-eat soups, rice, and extra. It was an appetizing different to the meals different quarantine people had — like those poor NYU kids who principally bought unhappy salad and heat orange juice. Reasonably than keep at an Airbnb or a government-assigned resort, I’d chosen to quarantine at a resort owned by POSCO, the corporate my dad works for. It had briefly been remodeled right into a quarantine facility — geared up with a cafeteria at which I can’t eat — for workers and their households.
The meals guidelines are easy: It comes 3 times a day in bento field type, referred to as dosirak in South Korea, and is left on prime of the chair exterior my room. Workers will name when the meals is prepared, and I can open the door to choose it up — the one time I’m allowed to open the door through the quarantine.
Cracking open my door to get my meal is the spotlight of every day
I really like dosirak, and the primary meal is dreamy. I’d been anticipating rice and perhaps a few banchan, however this dosirak is premium: 4 banchan, two most important entrees, a bowl of rice, and a soup, per set. By the point I return from my testing, they’ve already introduced each my lunch and breakfast, so I mix them to have a quarantine feast of braised pollock, spicy braised hen, seasoned spinach, rice cake-stuffed fish desserts, spicy uncooked squid jeotgal, egg, and dumpling soup, soy-braised potato and hen, crispy spring rolls, seasoned dried squid, seasoned garlic stems, radish with yuzu, kimchi, and spicy beef and radish soup. All of it for me.
The dosirak units have been sitting on the chair for just a few hours, so they’re lukewarm by the point I dig in. However I don’t thoughts. I really feel spoiled with so many decisions. I’m going straight to the braised pollock for my first spoon of rice. The fish absorbs the spicy, tangy sauce and goes completely with rice. With none break, I instantly attain for the spinach, one among my favourite banchan, adopted by sharp, spicy kimchi, and spicy beef and radish soup.
Contemplating the truth that most authorities quarantine packages encompass prompt, premade meals, I really feel extremely grateful to be consuming one thing that really tastes like residence cooking. It’s solely the primary day, however I begin getting emotional. Twelve extra days appears like an eternity. I simply want my household had been right here.
Day 3: The Care Package deal
It’s been solely two days since I began my quarantine, however who’s counting? My morning begins with checking my temperature and recording it on the app. Though I’m in Korea, 1000’s of miles nearer to my household, it actually doesn’t really feel prefer it. I nonetheless speak to my dad and mom through FaceTime, similar to after I’m again in New York.
My dad and mom resolve to come back go to me, though it solely means I can shout to them from my second-floor balcony. They ask me if I would like something from the market. I’ve an entire listing of issues I would like, however as a substitute I merely ask for “something that appears scrumptious!”
Households are allowed to drop care packages on the entrance desk of my quarantine facility, and the workers will deliver it to the room. Once I get the decision that my bundle has arrived, I open the door, anticipating just a few gadgets, however these are Asian dad and mom. Abundance is their love language. An infinite bag match to feed a household of 10 is ready for me.
I hear my mother screaming from exterior, “James! Let me see my son’s face!” I run to the balcony and yell again, “Mother! Why did you get me so many issues? How would I eat all of those?” We each know that I’ll haven’t any downside consuming the whole lot she introduced me, nevertheless it feels good to banter. After taking numerous footage and movies to share in our household group chat, we scream, “I miss you!” to one another. My mother shakes her head in denial of the scenario. “Simply 12 extra days,” I yell. “You waited seven years for me to come back again to Korea, so 12 extra days ought to be wonderful!”
Screaming “I really like you!” to my mother exterior of my balcony
I come again in and begin unboxing the care bundle. The primary mysterious black plastic bag is kkwabaegi, a Korean twisted donut, coated in sugar. It’s heat, chewy, and a wanted reminder that I’m certainly in Korea. You’ll be able to’t get this type of scent and style in New York. The following bag holds a tangerine protect for making tea. Triple-wrapped inside one other plastic bag are bundles of kkaetnip, or perilla leaves. There are a minimum of 50 leaves of kkaetnip and lettuce, which I plan to eat together with my dosiraks, adopted by a bundle of jokbal (Korean braised pig toes), an entire napa cabbage, a bag of Korean gyul (tangerines), eggs, crackers, and even beer.
I didn’t particularly ask for any of this stuff, nevertheless it’s my mother — she is aware of me. Then, in spite of everything that, I get the decision to choose up my dosirak. It’s all the time thrilling to see what varieties of banchan I get, however I find yourself saving it for later so I can bask in my jokbal unfold. I’ve collagen-heavy, chewy jokbal, accompanied with fermented salted shrimp, ssamjang, wasabi-heavy soy sauce, napa cabbage, kkaetnip, and lettuce, similar to how I’d eat it at a restaurant. This specific jokbal is understood for its diagonal slice, so I merely dip a bit into wasabi soy sauce to take pleasure in its extra-chewy texture. My favourite approach of having fun with jokbal is to make an enormous ssam, so I seize an enormous piece of lettuce with just a few jobak items, adopted by a dollop of ssamjang and fermented salted shrimp. I wrap all of them up in an enormous pouch and shove it into my mouth. My butt is heat from sitting on the heated ground, and I’m downing large jokbal ssams whereas watching Korean TV exhibits. On this second, I feel, This quarantine isn’t so dangerous, in spite of everything.
Days 4-7: Timelessness
Let me inform you extra about my quarantine room. It’s a typical Korean studio with minimal furnishings, which implies no mattress, no sofa, nothing — only a ground (which, once more, is mercifully heated — it’s 28 levels exterior). There’s no separate kitchen, only a small fridge. It’s typical in Korean tradition to sleep on the ground, particularly for members of my dad and mom’ era. I later notice that the quarantine facility purposely took out the beds to make their cleansing job simpler after the quarantining particular person leaves. Not less than there’s a jaw-dropping ocean view.
Each morning, I watch the dawn and take heed to the calming sound of the ocean waves. Though it’s freezing exterior, I open the doorways to the balcony large. Seeing the ocean each time I look out the window helps me faux I’m in some beautiful trip home that I may by no means afford as a substitute of a tiny room that I’m not allowed to go away. I really feel extremely grateful. Some government-managed quarantine amenities don’t even have home windows.
Right here’s my quarantine crib with a stunning sundown view
One grievance: There’s no microwave. If I don’t eat the dosirak immediately, I find yourself consuming it chilly, which was wonderful the primary few days, however now I’m critically beginning to miss scorching meals. The pleasure of heated aromas. The sensation of heat from the steam. Even the short tongue scald from sipping scorching soup. These are the sensations that get me labored up earlier than taking a chew — and you’ll’t get any of it from room-temp meals.
However the banchans are scrumptious sufficient, and once more I’m grateful to have something remotely this good, so I push via. I usually don’t have an enormous urge for food at 9 a.m. when my breakfast will get dropped, so I have a tendency to mix my breakfast and lunch dosiraks for an enormous noon quarantine feast. One dosirak combo is especially nice: soy-braised garlic scapes, seasoned salted squid, spicy hen with rice desserts, braised tofu, sesame shiitake mushroom, dried strips of squid, spinach, spicy stir-fried squid, kimchi, and spicy beef and radish soup. Out of all these banchan, seasoned salted squid was the star. It’s jeotgal, a meals class of salted preserved dishes made with seafood, and I can eat bowls of rice simply with this. Additionally, with a great deal of the kkaetnip that my mother gave me, I make large ssam with all of the banchan. I put three or 4 kkaetnip leaves on my palm with a spoonful of rice, spicy hen, spinach, and kimchi. I are likely to fill them up with a lot that my kkaetnip ssam appears to be like taut like a tennis ball.
I’m maintaining unusual hours as a result of I’m working remotely with my workplace again in New York. I hearth up my laptop round midnight and work till round 8 a.m. in Korea. I normally log out to relaxation and eat a big lunch just a few hours later, round midday. By 5:30 p.m., I’ve dinner, after which — if I’m fortunate — I go to sleep at 6. I get up at 11 p.m., and my weird day begins yet again. The routine, bizarre as it’s, provides my days some sense of construction.
Inevitably, although, my thoughts and physique begin feeling off. When a banana, wrapped individually in plastic, arrives in my dosirak on day 4, I really feel like I’ve received the lottery. That is the primary time I’ve acquired fruit with a meal, and my eyes nicely up with pleasure. I can’t determine if I’m genuinely this excited over a banana or if I’m shedding my thoughts. It’s most likely the latter.
I start FaceTiming my mother over lunch to assist with the loneliness. We don’t need to say a lot to one another; simply consuming along with her makes me really feel higher. She exhibits me her humble lunch: simply rice, napa cabbage, doenjang (Korean soybean paste), and seaweed. On the facility, I’m blessed with 12 completely different forms of banchan, six entrees, and three soups. My mother is glad that I’ve been consuming so nicely, however I really feel some guilt as she eats her rice with cabbage and no meat. I can’t wait to share a feast along with her as soon as I’m out of quarantine.
I’ve been facetiming my mother whereas consuming to assist my loneliness
Days 8-12: The Air Fryer Miracle
I’m lastly greater than midway via quarantine, and I’ve a tower of unfinished chilly rice, a few chilly soups, a great deal of prompt espresso, and some different random unfinished dishes all unfold on the shelf on prime of the fridge that I’ve dubbed the pantry. Since I can’t go exterior, there are trash cans on my balcony, the place I preserve a pile of unpolluted dosirak containers. The upper the tower of dosirak containers will get, the nearer I’m to the tip of my quarantine. I’m nonetheless desperately lacking scorching meals. I daydream a few effervescent pot of soondubu jjigae, a spicy silken tofu stew, and an enormous bowl of rice so steamy it fogs my glasses. I fantasize concerning the sensation of burning my mouth as I rush to eat just-cooked pork stomach.
All of the sudden, inspiration strikes. If I can’t have a microwave, what about an air fryer? I name the workers, asking whether or not it will be allowed. There may be slight confusion, hesitation, and a protracted pause over the telephone, after which, similar to that, the receptionist says, “Sure, you should use an air fryer.”
I name my mother, crying.
My dad and mom have a tiny air fryer that they don’t use, and this appears like destiny. They drop it off over the weekend, together with one other care bundle of goodies to get me via the subsequent a number of days.
Together with the air fryer, wrapped in a silky purple fabric like a treasure, my mother contains an cute oven mitt, nervous that I would burn my palms. There are different pleasant treats, equivalent to an assortment of fried things, like shrimp, squid, and potatoes. There are additionally steamed buns; juicy, plump Korean strawberries; tender persimmons, referred to as hong si; and eggs.
I reheat the fried treats in my air fryer and eat them. Sure, I burn my mouth, and I’ve by no means been happier about it.
To rejoice the arrival of my air fryer, I deal with myself to delivery Korean fried chicken and Korean pizza. I open the can of beer that I used to be saving from the final care bundle. Though I’ve beloved my day by day dosirak, it’s such a deal with to take pleasure in supply meals. The second I take the primary chew of Korean fried hen, I’m now not exhausted by my journey and bizarre schedule. It’s a style of residence that no Korean fried hen exterior of the nation may replicate. The hen is so crisp, juicy with a spicy kick, and it takes me again to my childhood, getting Korean fried hen with my brother. The so-called “Chicago deep-dish pizza” has fried shrimp, pineapple, purple onions, and a candy sauce that makes it uniquely Korean.
Quarantining on my own hasn’t been enjoyable; staying up for 30 hours unintentionally, consuming a lot espresso in order that I received’t go to sleep whereas working, being unable to go for a stroll moreover onto my slim balcony to throw away my trash, and coping with my loneliness and insecurities with nobody to speak to or distract me have all been low factors. I’ve spent hours simply looking at my face and my physique, criticizing. I’ve heard of some artistic individuals doing exercises whereas quarantined, however I’d moderately watch different individuals’s mukbang. Why do I really feel exhausted on a regular basis, though I don’t transfer in any respect? My thoughts is crammed with so many random ideas, and never all of them really feel nice.
However consuming unimaginable Korean fried hen and pizza, sipping ice-cold beer in my pajamas whereas wanting on the ocean on a Sunday afternoon? I couldn’t be any happier. Just some extra days till I get to be with my household.
Days 13-14: Mukbang
Because it seems, 14 days is actually no joke. I’ve spent virtually half a month on this tiny room, spoiled by scrumptious dosirak 3 times a day. And now, as a result of I handled myself with some fried hen and pizza, I’ve 4 saved-up dosirak, stacked on prime of each other, to take pleasure in as I like.
I’ve had three dosirak without delay, however 4? I problem myself. (Something for slightly pleasure.) I’ll attempt to eat 16 facet dishes, eight completely different entrees, and 4 completely different soups. Nothing is labeled, so I resolve to play a guessing sport as nicely. Early on I discovered that filming myself consuming and sharing the movies on social media took a little bit of the sting out of eating alone day after day, and this meal, I determine, will likely be a feast price sharing.
Having an air fryer is nice for cooking eggs and reheating leftover fried hen, nevertheless it’s not so helpful in the case of reheating rice or soup. And there are days — like this one — after I don’t really feel like consuming chilly dosirak, days after I want I may slurp scorching noodles moderately than eat rice. I discover myself complaining to myself about my scenario moderately than being appreciative. However then I attempt to keep in mind that so many individuals are struggling to get meals, not to mention a good meal, throughout this difficult time. There are ajummas, an endearing time period for middle-aged Korean girls, who put together these meals for me and ship them a number of occasions a day. Placing on a smile, I movie myself devouring 4 dosiraks without delay. I end each chew, and I’m as soon as once more grateful — if just for my metabolism.
By the point I start to get used to my new schedule and the routine of getting calls from the workplace to choose up my meals, it’s virtually time to go away. Earlier than I can formally take a look at, I have to get examined yet another time. Similar to the primary time, the native well being division comes to choose me up, and I’m excited to stroll exterior my room for the primary time in weeks, even when it’s simply to the automotive. The information will get higher: Expectedly, my check got here again detrimental, and I can lastly be with my dad and mom. The one factor standing between us is one final evening on the facility, and one final dosirak feast.
There’s spicy pork bulgogi, stir-fried anchovies, kimchi, steamed cabbage, hamburger steak, radish kimchi, steamed eggs, and a lot extra. To make my final quarantine meal further particular, I open the instant ramen noodles I’ve been saving. I can’t even inform you how a lot I’ve missed slurping noodles. As I’m sipping the new, beefy, spicy broth of the cup noodles with rice, I get emotional, occupied with this once-in-a-lifetime expertise I’ve had, quarantining in my hometown, Pohang, spoiled with unimaginable meals choices and gorgeous the ocean views and sunrises daily for the previous 13 days.
Self-quarantine will be troublesome — each mentally and bodily. However these Korean dosiraks had been true items and have become the spotlight of my mundane days. As soon as I’m out, there will likely be so many choices, however there will likely be nothing fairly as significant because the lukewarm dosiraks that introduced me a lot pleasure and happiness when there was little of both to be discovered.
My remaining quarantine mukbang
Day 14: Freedom
I can’t consider I’ve been quarantining on this room for the previous 14 days. I get a name from the workplace, saying that I can go away now. Shortly after, my mother texts me that she is right here. I look across the clear, empty room yet another time, soaking in all of the recollections and emotions. Remembering these sleepless nights watching Korean meals mukbang, these weekends after I felt so sluggish and began dancing across the room, peaceable mornings watching the dawn with the sound of fishermen heading to work. Every day has been valuable and memorable with completely different dosirak.
As I drag my baggage all the way down to the elevator, there she is, my mother. And I give her the largest hug one human has ever given to a different. I’m positive of it. I thank the workers for all of the work they’ve finished, however particularly for the air fryer.
My mother and I take dozens of images across the quarantine facility, letting everybody in my household know that I’m free in spite of everything. We head to the seafood restaurant close by, recognized for serving spicy seafood stew with a whole crab on top, to rejoice our reunion.
We sit all the way down to a feast with crab fried rice, jjamppong (spicy seafood stew), crispy pork, and smiles. These are issues I’ve been dreaming about since I arrived on the airport. I see the steamy bowls of jjamppong coming to our desk, and as soon as they’re put down, I instantly take a sip of broth. It’s spicy, tangy, and blisteringly scorching. “I’m so glad to eat with my son, lastly,” my mother says. I smile again at her and move her my bowl of noodles. “Attempt these too, mother. They’re so scrumptious.”