Packing up your life into a few suitcases and moving countries is never the easiest thing to do, but the sense of excitement tends to overcome the feelings of uncertainty of having to start all over again in a new home, job & country. Here my friend Breanna writes about her, and her husbands experiences moving from Yangon, Myanmar to Seoul, South Korea during Covid-19
I’ve wanted to move to Korea since the first time we visited in 2018. The access to nature, beautiful cities, and the food had drawn instantly drawn us in. So, when my husband, Brady accepted a job teaching at an international school outside of Seoul we were thrilled. Then, COVID-19 happened.
After a few major changes to our spring & summer plans, and being able to get from Yangon to South Korea (referred to as ROK here), we were both excited and nervous to move. South Korea had implemented a strict 14-day quarantine rule for all international arrivals. The airport in Yangon was closed to incoming commercial flights, so we weren’t sure if we would be able to leave, or what would happen once we arrived in Incheon airport.
Luckily, we had already secured our visas for Korea, so we were on the list of people allowed to enter Korea. The school also did an amazing job of preparing and setting us up for arrival so that we could self-quarantine in an apartment, rather than a government facility.
In mid-May, after the details of our accommodation were confirmed, we booked our tickets, as Korean Air was scheduled to resume flights on June 1. However, as that date came closer, it was announced that the airport would remain closed to commercial flights until June 15 (which has since been extended multiple times). We weren’t sure if our flight would be cancelled or what would happen. After anxiously checking emails for a few weeks, it looked like we were cleared to leave, so we packed up and tried to condense our life from the past three years in Myanmar into a few (okay, 8) suitcases.
The flight was scheduled to leave the night of on June 8th. We hadn’t received any airline updates, and decided that no news was good news. We got to the airport about 4 hours early, just to be safe. We were screened immediately as we entered the airport with a quick temperature check. Yangon airport was eerily closed. There were no lights on, no air conditioning, nor any restaurants or shops open. It was pretty uncomfortable to wait in line for over an hour for the check-in counter to open in the dark, muggy, hot lobby.
The rest of the process of getting through the airport was a breeze. Check-in was easy, there were no lines at all (our flight was the only one leaving that evening), and we were even able to grab a small pre-departure snack in the Mingalar Sky Lounge!
We were required to wear masks while in the airport and during the entire flight, and there were frequent announcements to follow social-distancing practices. Our flight ended up taking off about an hour late due to plane cleaning. The large plane seemed to be about 75% full, and we were served water and juice throughout the flight. Again, aside from the masks, nothing seemed too out of the ordinary. During the flight, we had to fill out form after form for typical arrival and customs information, in addition to a few health screenings about recent travel history and COVID-19 symptoms.
We arrived in Incheon at around 6am, to an empty airport. I was surprised how freely we were allowed to deplane and walk through the airport to immigration. Our first stop after a pretty short, but restless overnight flight was a health screening booth. Here, our temperatures were checked and we had to hand in a health declaration form. From there, we were shuffled to a busier area of the airport where we were to install the government self-quarantine app on our phones.
After filling out yet more paperwork, they verified that our apps worked and that the information was correct. They even called the school staff to verify our self-quarantine arrangements since we didn’t have a Korean phone number to do so ourselves. We quickly moved through the immigration booth, grabbed our luggage, and left the arrival area of the airport.
Once in the main airport lobby, we underwent one more final temperature check, and met our pre-arranged driver who was to take us to our apartment. The airport staff kept trying to shuttle us towards the bus that most people were taking, but our kind driver ensured the staff knew we were allowed to go with him and he would take us directly to get a COVID test, and then onto our apartment.
It was about an hour-long drive from the Incheon airport to our neighborhood south of Seoul. The neighborhood testing center wasn’t open yet, so we waited outside on a bench, taking in as much of the outdoor air and sunshine we could before starting the 14-day quarantine. After being swabbed, we were told we’d have the results within 48 hours and we were dropped off at our apartment. The rules were clear and strict: don’t step a foot outside or have contact with anyone for the full 14 days.
Thankfully, the school had stocked our apartment with essentials and food, so we were set! The first day was spent napping, and finally relaxing knowing that we made it to Korea safely! We also tried to make a sort of schedule to keep the upcoming days somewhat structured. I knew it was a perfect opportunity to get ahead of work, watch Netflix, and find some good home workouts.
We had to check in twice each day on the self-quarantine app, with a temperature and symptom check. It also was constantly tracking our location, so if we went too long without moving, it would set off a warning, then an alarm, and supposedly inform a health department officer. A few days in, the app froze while Brady was entering his temperature, and within a few minutes we were called to check if we were okay, so they were definitely monitoring the app closely!
On the morning of “day two”, we spoke with HR from the school who confirmed that our COVID-19 test results were negative! They also provided us with an itinerary of scheduled grocery drop-offs, take-out deliveries, and zoom meetings with colleagues. At this point, the reality of being stuck inside for two weeks was starting to settle in, but I kept reminding myself how this was not only essential, but that we had safely moved during a pandemic, so the least I could do was handle two weeks inside.
A few days in, we each received a huge box of food from the government. It was full of rice, Korean snacks, ramen noodles, treats, shelf-stable meal ingredients, Spam, kimchi, and bottled water.
I spent a good hour with a translating app scanning the packages to find we had been given some interesting items like stir fried spicy dried squid, pickled perilla leaves, and milk-flavored candy. The food was definitely a change from our typical mostly-vegetarian, fresh meals in Yangon (thanks to Kokkoya)! We came up with some good (and some not so good!) meal combinations for the next two weeks.
Staying in strict quarantine wasn’t as challenging as we had imagined. Since Yangon had essentially been on lock-down for weeks, we were used to staying inside and keeping busy. I caught up on sleep (it’s so refreshing not to set an alarm!), worked A TON, and fell into a decent routine for working out and cooking. It was nice to have extra time to catch up with friends and family back home over video chats, while also getting to know members of the school community here.
As 12pm on June 23rd approached, we spent more time looking out the window at the beautiful weather that passed by, looking up restaurants and things to do, and making lists of all the foods we wanted to find once we were out!
After we entered our final symptom/temperature check into the app, we stepped outside to a hot, sunny day met by friendly staff from our school who came to show us around our new neighbourhood! It was a strange feeling of accomplishment to have gotten through 14 days of quarantine together. I also felt extremely grateful to be in a country taking the pandemic seriously with strict measures in place so that we can now be out and about freely and safely!
Breanna is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist. She loves exploring, eating, and being outdoors! She’s currently based outside of Seoul, South Korea. You can find her at @knowledge.nutritionist (IG) and at facebook.com/knowledge.nutritionist for all things nutrition, wellness, and self-care.
Breanna’s friend Phoebe also wrote about their experience moving from Saudi Arabia to ROK, and she provides another interesting perspective and details on her move here
If you are interested in reading more, an immigration guide for Korea can also be found here