Living alone in Korea in the time of covid

Strap yourselves in for a covid-related feelings post, folks…

In the early days of covid-19, it was mostly contained to China and Korea. Back then, it looked like just another Asian virus and frankly, not the rest of the world’s problem. Panic spread as members of the secretive cult church Shincheonji drove the number of daily new cases to new peaks. Korea temporarily sold out of face masks, even though the international scientific jury still seemed to be out on their efficacy. I started to get random messages from friends and family back home, “Hana, are you worried? Are you thinking of coming back?”

But in the following months, as the global nature of the pandemic became clear, things changed. Korea became a model covid-fighting country. Fast, widely accessible testing and masks was the explanation; there’s certainly no social distancing on my crammed subway commute. I got tested—twice—and received the results within 24 hours. “Sounds like you should stay put over there”, friends and family said.

I thought I was doing well too. Korea has never imposed any shelter-in-place or lockdown measures. I still have a job and I go to the office every day. I go to restaurants and bars, which are all open. I see my friends, in person, and I video call my Australian friends. For the most part, I feel incredibly fortunate—almost guilty—for being here right now.

And yet. I live alone and sometimes I really feel it.

Korea’s currently in the thick of jangma, or monsoon season. This year we have been gifted with a proper jangma, with weeks upon weeks of forecasted rain. Recently, heavy downpours in Seoul have caused landslides, homelessness, and death. My friends asked for a literal raincheck on our Saturday night plans and so I found myself stuck in my apartment for most of the weekend.

With my work hours, I don’t spend a lot of time at home, and would prefer to unwind by exploring the city in my spare time. I like to be alone, with my own thoughts and subject to but my own whims, though usually in more public, vibrant spaces. But this weekend, faced with myself and my (perfectly comfortable) apartment that doesn’t feel like home, in my neighbourhood that doesn’t feel like home, my aloneness, unwanted, quietly turned into loneliness, spreading over me like a foreign skin and settling into my bones.

I experience loneliness simultaneously as a low-level panic that I will be alone forever and so I must do something urgently, and as zero motivation to do anything but binge-watch trashy 18th century melodramas with moderately explicit sex scenes on Netflix. I managed to a call a friend in Australia, but she was equally depressed, in the midst of a strict six-week lockdown period. I made a small lemon-yoghurt cake but accidentally over-baked it until the texture somewhat resembled a rubber sponge. I thought about washing my bed sheets and then about the 90% humidity. Time passed.

Recently I heard about the concept of touch deprivation, the lack of regular contact from other living things, which has been associated with poorer mental and emotional wellbeing. Research shows that everyday forms of touch—even a handshake or pat on the back—calm stress, convey compassion, promote trust and generosity, and reduce symptoms of depression.

Dacher Keltner, Professor of Psychology at UC Berkeley, writes:

“In a study by Jim Coan and Richard Davidson, participants laying in an fMRI brain scanner, anticipating a painful blast of white noise, showed heightened brain activity in regions associated with threat and stress. But participants whose romantic partner stroked their arm while they waited didn’t show this reaction at all. Touch had turned off the threat switch.”

This recalled my experience of getting both sets of wisdom teeth in Korea, on consecutive weekends. As I sat in the dentist’s chair, I was surprisingly terrified, and in that moment, I felt the impulse to hold someone’s (anyone’s!) hand. Instead I clutched my paperback novel tightly against my chest with both hands, feeling deeply sorry for myself.

Lately, I’ve also been thinking about how nice it would be to get a hug. Korea isn’t exactly a hugging culture. I know this partly because when I attempt to hug my favourite Korean aunt and uncle, it’s always awkward; my uncle stiffens and pats me on the back, maintaining some distance. I don’t want a polite hug. I want a long, full-bodied embrace that I can really melt into, perhaps even shed a tiny tear of relief upon the hugger’s shoulder. The problem is that I’m a little hug-averse myself—there are only three people in the world, who aren’t romantic partners, from whom I would feel comfortable receiving a proper hug. They’re all about 7,000km away. And I’m not sure when I’ll get to see them again.

In these desperate touch-starved times, I find some solace from my physiotherapist, who cradles my whole head in his one paw-like hand, as I attempt to coordinate my breath with his painful manipulations. Or from my friend’s three-legged cat, with the personality of a grumpy old man in feline form, who eventually ceases meowing and allows me to stroke his belly.

So what’s the point of this story? Sometimes living alone is hard. Sometimes my house feels more like a cage than a sanctuary; sometimes I find it hard to sit with loneliness and I want to jump out of my skin. I wonder about the people living alone under covid lockdown and if they’re coping.

But maybe all of that is ok. Hard but ok.

As always, there’s power and comfort in words. Like this little poem by Glennon Doyle (I haven’t read any of her books, have you? Let me know).

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