Ida Therese Hovik, a Yonsei University freshman from Norway, takes an online class from her dormitory at the international campus in Songdo, Incheon, Tuesday. (Courtesy of Ida Therese Hovik)
As the COVID-19 pandemic continues and the new academic year began online in Korea, international students expressed both satisfaction at how the situation is being handled and the anxiety of being in a foreign country away from family.
“There isn’t any other country in the world I would rather be in right now. The good things are that it is being taken seriously, with rigorous testing and quarantine rules, and a culture that was preexisting in Korea when it came to the usage of masks,” said Jakob Minell, a junior at Korea University from Sweden.
“I’m very glad to be in a country that was ready from the beginning during this situation. It really gives me an ease of mind to think that if something does happen, I have somewhere to go be taken care of,” said Kiana Gerhert, a sophomore at Seoul National University from the US.
“I read the other day a phrase on internet that I felt it as mine ‘Thank God I’m in Korea,’” said Valeria Bastias, a Yonsei University senior from Chile.
Many international students in Korea expressed relief at how Korea is handling the situation compared to their home countries. Many find the daily alerts on people who were confirmed with COVID-19 and their routes, although excessive at times, refreshing in their transparency.
“There are so many handy things Korea developed to help out the people like the corona map or the mask map or the daily phone alerts. These things allow you to see the amount of conscience people have regarding these kinds of issues and how teamwork and empathy can become so powerful,” said Andrea Palacios, a Chilean student at Chung-Ang University, adding, “To be honest, I feel very lucky to be stuck here rather than anywhere else.”
However, many international students are concerned about obtaining masks.
“Many international students have trouble finding masks, since there are a lot of people not subscribed to the National Health Insurance,” said Gehert. Masks are being rationed at two per person each week, with each mask costing 1,500 won. One must hold a National Health Insurance policy to be eligible to buy these masks. While a revised law passed last year requires international students to subscribe to the National Health Insurance, the students were given until next March to subscribe.
“(International) Students also live in this country, and it is dangerous for Koreans if some people are not able to protect themselves,” said Ida Therese Hovik, a freshman at Yonsei University from Norway.
“Recently, I heard Seoul is handing out masks to foreigners, but I couldn’t figure out how to get them even after searching about it, so I am not sure how they are doing it. I wish accurate information can be spread both in English and Korean,” said Maryam, a Seoul National University student from Iran, who wished to be identified by her first name only.
Seoul announced on March 31 that 100,000 masks would be distributed free to foreign students and workers through 40 universities and foreigner support centers.
Now that COVID-19 pandemic is more severe in many parts of the world, the students feel a change in the attitudes of their families and friends back home.
“At first it was a bit scary hearing my friends and family worrying about me being here but now the situation is reversed, and I think I am more concerned about them being in Europe,” said Sara, a junior at Yonsei University from Prague, the Czech Republic, who wished to be identified by her first name only.
“My parents worry about me a lot, so I have to call them every day now. Fiji has just recently gotten coronavirus outbreak and so I’m worried about my family too,” said Az Ezmintha Revleena Singh, a sophomore at Yonsei University form Fiji.
Jakob Minell, a Swedish student at Korea University, takes an online class at his studio apartment in Seoul on Tuesday. (Courtesy of Jakob Minell)
As for the classes going online, many express relief that technology can help in this situation, as well as frustration.
“It is definitely better than not having classes at all and I am grateful every day for this,” said Sara.
“I think I speak for the majority of students here when I wish they adjusted the tuition fees, as online classes keep getting extended,” said Hovik. “I also wish the school would be able to decide if the semester will start or not as soon as possible. … International students don’t know if we will have regular lessons or not, so they consequently do not know if they have to stay in Korea or if they can go home to their countries before the borders close completely,” said Hovik.
According to the Ministry of Education, 160,165 foreign students were studying in Korea in 2019.
As foreign import of the coronavirus continues to rise, some international students notice a change in Koreans’ reception of foreigners.
“Some coffee shops and some restaurants around our campus are denying entry of Chinese altogether. They consider all Chinese to have the virus which is very disrespectful,” said Sun Qifeng, a senior at Korea University, recalling an exchange with a cab driver. “I took a taxi to Daehagno, and the taxi driver said to me while talking about the virus, ‘What’s wrong with you Chinese? Why do you bring the virus to us?’ which hurt my feelings. That I feel is totally unreasonable,” Sun said.
“For me as a Norwegian female student, I have not experienced too much difference. However, I know that many places refuse to let in foreigners, Chinese people especially, and that they often get talked about in a negative manner,” said Hovik.
“I feel so upset seeing this. This virus has spread to almost every country in the world at this point, and still we find a way to make it about race and nationality. Korea is not the only country doing this, of course. I have heard some really nasty stories about Asian people being treated extremely unfairly in European countries due to misconceptions regarding the virus,” she said.
“Virus does not discriminate, but we humans really do, and I find it disgusting beyond measure,” said Hovik.
By Lim Jang-won (email@example.com