Universiteit Leiden

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‘In South Korea, life goes on’

Aron is a second-year student of Korean Studies. He was in Seoul as part of the stay-abroad portion of the program when Leiden University took measures due to the coronavirus. He and his fellow students decided to let the last flight back to the Netherlands pass to stay in South Korea.

Hey Aron, where are you now?

‘I’m sitting in a cafe in Seoul, sipping my coffee.’

Drinking coffee in a cafe? That’s exactly what we can’t do in The Netherlands at the moment.

‘Well, I’m here because all the libraries are closed. So actually I’m in the cafe to study. But in general, life just goes on as normal here.’ 

So why did you decide to stay in South Korea?

‘Last week, the University called on us to return to The Netherlands, because there are fewer and fewer flights back to Europe. But we preferred to stay. For Korean Studies students, the exchange is a very essential part of our bachelor’s programme. We have to obtain our level four Korean language proficiency certificate (B2) this year and that’s much easier if you are in South Korea, even though the language classes have been postponed for the time being. It is at our own risk, though. We decided to stay, despite Leiden University advising us to come back.’

Are the universities open in South Korea?

‘Officially, the semester started in late February, but so far the host university keeps postponing the start of the semester every two days before the newly planned start date. However, we do expect the language classes to start soon. For now, it looks like we can start in early April.’

'I noticed that everyone dealt seriously with this crisis from the start'

How does the corona crisis affect daily life in South Korea?

‘When the outbreak started here, at the end of February, I noticed that people started wearing face masks more often. Almost everyone wears one. I was a bit sceptical because you sometimes read that masks aren’t that useful. So I walked around without a mask for a while, but I quickly bought one too. I noticed that people in the metro preferred not to sit next to me because I wasn’t wearing a mask. Face masks are also just part of fashion here. I had one made of cotton; you can wash it and change the filter.’

‘You will also find hand sanitizer everywhere: next to the card reader on the bus, in metro stations. And in public places, PA systems constantly broadcast reminders to wear face masks, not touch your face and wash your hands. There are far fewer people on the street than usual. Hongdae, one of the most popular nightlife districts that’s usually packed with people, seemed almost deserted.’

‘I also noticed that everyone dealt seriously with this crisis from the start. A few friends of mine immediately canceled appointments. They said: “Aron, of course, I’d like to have a beer with you, but I'm not going out because I live with my parents and I don't want to infect them.” I still get the feeling that the Dutch were more laconic about the corona situation in the beginning.’

What’s inside your fridge right now? And did you stack up enough toilet paper?

‘No, not at all, we didn't hoard anything. There is plenty to buy in the supermarkets and neighbourhood shops. The restaurants are also open, daily life just continues.’

‘I actually feel safer here than I would feel in the Netherlands, I think. In South Korea, a major outbreak of the coronavirus spread among a religious community, but immediately after, the South Korean government conducted a large number of tests. Such large-scale testing is still happening and it’s very efficient: there are mobile test posts that you can visit. After testing, you will receive the results by text message within a day.’

How are you spending your time nowadays?

‘The museums are closed, so I like to just study in cafes by myself. I do some Korean language exercises and I collect source materials for my thesis. It's great to stroll through the empty streets of Seoul. Recently my friend and I visited an empty Gyeongbokgung — the central palace in Seoul — which is normally overrun with tourists. Now, slowly you see more people on the streets, also because the weather is getting warmer again.’

What is your message for all students and staff members in this coronavirus crisis?

 ‘In this hectic situation, it is important to think about your own safety and that of others. Take your responsibility.’

By Ifang Bremer

An empty street in the usually crowded neighbourhood Seochon in Seoul. Image: Aron van de Pol.
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