A long way from home dur­ing global pan­demic

Richmond Times-Dispatch - - FRONT PAGE - Bill Lohmann

Be­ing alone in a for­eign coun­try is an ad­ven­ture all its own, but be­ing there at a time of a pan­demic is, well, some­thing else en­tirely.

I reached my neigh­bor Hunter Mitchell last Wed­nes­day in South Korea, one of the world’s early hot spots in the COVID-19 out­break and where he’s been since De­cem­ber, teach­ing English and ge­og­ra­phy to young Korean stu­dents. In more re­cent times, he was quar­an­tined for a cou­ple of weeks, though he tested neg­a­tive for the coro­n­avirus.

It’s been quite the ex­pe­ri­ence, he said: peo­ple in haz­mat suits at a hospi­tal tak­ing his tem­per­a­ture (he had no fever or other symp­toms for that mat­ter,

but his school in­sisted on the test af­ter he took an early Fe­bru­ary trip to Ja­pan to pick up a Korean work visa, which has to be se­cured from out­side the coun­try) and late-night bi­cy­cle rides, while wear­ing a mask, on mostly empty streets to an un­crowded con­ve­nience store to get food and sup­plies.

All the while, he’s been hold­ing his breath that he doesn’t get sick in a place where he is not cov­ered by health in­surance.

De­spite all that, his phi­los­o­phy re­mains stead­fastly gri­nand-bear-it. Stuff hap­pens, he said (sort of).

“I’m in no con­trol of what hap­pens,” he said from his apart­ment in Cheongna In­ter­na­tional City, just west of Seoul, “but I can try my best to adapt to it.”

Mitchell, 23, is some­one my wife and I have known for a long time. He and our son, Jack, used to play to­gether when they were lit­tle, and they would spend hours dig­ging trenches in our back­yard. “En­vi­ron­men­tal ex­ca­va­tion,” as my wife fondly re­mem­bers it now.

“When I was a kid, I thought I could dig a tun­nel from my back­yard to yours,” he said with a laugh. “It kept us busy and out of the house.”

Mitchell grad­u­ated from Her­mitage High School in 2015 and then last May from Penn State, where he ma­jored in en­vi­ron­men­tal ge­og­ra­phy with a fo­cus in land­scape ecol­ogy. (Maybe all that back­yard dig­ging paid off.)

Like a lot of his well-trav­eled gen­er­a­tion, Mitchell is a sea­soned ex­plorer. Dur­ing col­lege, he went to Tan­za­nia and South Africa for ecol­ogy projects (at a time when the Ebola virus was a se­ri­ous con­cern in Africa). He also has spent time in Sene­gal, the Philip­pines, Ja­pan, Dubai “and the Bei­jing air­port.”

“I don’t know if Canada counts,” he said.

He wound up in Korea be­cause he wanted to teach and travel be­fore he em­barked on grad­u­ate school. He was fa­mil­iar with Ja­pan, but he was im­pressed by what he saw of Korea when he vis­ited there last fall: He liked the feel­ing of com­mu­nity though the in­di­vid­ual ex­pres­sion was very strong; he liked how the na­tion’s trans­porta­tion sys­tem is con­ve­niently stitched to­gether by rail, bus and bi­cy­cle trails; and he liked that Korea seemed to have a high de­mand for English teach­ers.

He ar­rived in De­cem­ber and was hired by a pri­vate school to teach English and ge­og­ra­phy to a va­ri­ety of ages. One class was for 3- and 4-year-olds. He en­joyed their en­thu­si­asm; they re­ferred to him as “Hunter Teacher.”

But on Jan. 20, South Korea con­firmed its first case of COVID-19. Since then, there have been more than 8,400 con­firmed cases of the dis­ease, in­clud­ing 84 deaths, though the coun­try has won praise for its ag­gres­sive test­ing — more than 250,000 peo­ple have been tested — and has been cited by the World Health Or­ga­ni­za­tion as an ex­am­ple for other coun­tries to fol­low. New cases have started to de­cline.

Mitchell has been im­pressed by the gov­ern­ment’s trans­parency and by the way it has set up ac­ces­si­ble test­ing fa­cil­i­ties and sends out daily alerts about the lat­est cases, let­ting peo­ple know ar­eas to avoid and how to pre­vent the spread of the virus, and has made masks avail­able at neigh­bor­hood phar­ma­cies. Hand san­i­tizer is ev­ery­where, in­clud­ing el­e­va­tors in apart­ment build­ings. Busi­nesses have cur­tailed their hours, but most have stayed open. On­line shop­ping is big, he said, as is restau­rant take­out and de­liv­ery.

“Gro­cery stores are still stocked with meat, pro­duce and even toi­let pa­per,” he said.

Mitchell was quar­an­tined away from his stu­dents be­gin­ning more than a month ago, even though his COVID-19 test came back neg­a­tive. The school shut its doors a short time later and has not re­opened. Kore­ans work­ing for tem­po­rar­ily shut­tered busi­nesses con­tinue to be paid a por­tion of their salaries, but non-Korean work­ers, such as Mitchell, don’t qual­ify for the pay­ments. He also is not cov­ered by Korean health in­surance.

“It’s a hard time be­ing a for­eigner here,” he said.

So he’s left his job at the school and lost his apart­ment, which was ar­ranged by the school. He will spend this week surf­ing couches among friends — and so­cial dis­tanc­ing from the greater pub­lic — un­til a flight back to the United States on Satur­day.

Are you sure, I asked, you want to ex­pe­ri­ence the height of a pan­demic in two coun­tries?

“Good point,” he said, but added: “I reckon I feel a lit­tle safer to ex­pe­ri­ence hys­te­ria with my health in­surance and our lo­cal Lidl.”

But he would like to go back. He ten­ta­tively hopes to re­turn to Korea in late May — if the coast is clear by then, virus­wise — and con­tinue teach­ing. His orig­i­nal plan was to live there un­til the sum­mer of 2021.

If Korea doesn’t work out, he might try Ja­pan or Sin­ga­pore.

His long-term ca­reer goal is to be a pro­fes­sor of ge­og­ra­phy.

“So I think,” he said, “the ex­pe­ri­ences I have now, both good and bad, are in­te­gral to that goal.”

HUNTER MITCHELL

Hunter Mitchell, who grew up in Hen­rico County, took this selfie on March 18 in Cheongna In­ter­na­tional City, South Korea, where he was work­ing as a teacher.

HUNTER MITCHELL

As the coro­n­avirus gripped South Korea, Hunter Mitchell, who was teach­ing English and ge­og­ra­phy to South Korean stu­dents, said he would go for bike rides at night on mostly empty streets in Cheongna In­ter­na­tional City. The pri­vate school where he was teach­ing has closed.

HUNTER MITCHELL

Mitchell (back) lost his job and his apart­ment when the pri­vate school where he was teach­ing closed. The 23-year-old will leave South Korea on Satur­day to re­turn to Hen­rico County.

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