Full immersion in a different culture was the plan back in August 2019, when Rika Opio signed a yearlong contract to teach English in the port city of Busan, South Korea. The museum educator and Pittsburgh Public School substitute teacher could never have imagined that her adventure would include experiencing another nation’s response to a global pandemic.
Rika has been back in Pittsburgh since early September, engaging remotely with students at Sunnyside Elementary on a daily basis as part of her regular assignment to the Stanton Heights school. During a recent interview she offered striking examples of how, earlier this year, daily life in Busan differed from what we experienced in the Pittsburgh area.
In response to the public health threat of COVID-19, South Korea went into lockdown at the end of February, with everyone strictly at home for two weeks. Schools, including the English language hagwon, or private academy, where Rika taught, remained closed through May. An enormous amount of effort was put into contract tracing. Anyone who had a Korean phone number would get the emergency alerts about those with confirmed cases. The alerts would say where that person lived and the places they may have been in contact with others. People who had direct contact with confirmed cases could get tested for free, and treated for free if they did have COVID. As Rika explains, “There were times when I would be awakened at night by my phone ringing with alerts for three minutes straight.”
Although Rika now recalls the weeks of lockdown and school closure as “a time when I tried to pick-up hobbies,” she summarized the nation-wide policies as “sensible rules that treated the pandemic as the serious threat it is.” Daily life began returning to normal in Busan by late spring. Rika’s English language hagwon operated at 50% capacity during its re-opening month, and attendance climbed steadily as the weeks passed.
Face mask wearing remained a key virus reduction strategy, and as Rika explains, “It was never a problem for students to wear masks. Korea has something of a culture of wearing masks to reduce disease transmission. The mindset is simply, you don’t want to infect other people.”
The teacher’s first hint that her life back in Pittsburgh would proceed under different circumstances occurred on her flight home. “On the International flight from Seoul to Dallas passengers sat in widely spaced seats, and everyone wore face masks. On the domestic flight from Dallas to Pittsburgh every seat was occupied, and most passengers didn’t wear masks.”
Patrick McShea works in the Education and Visitor Experience department of Carnegie Museum of Natural History. Museum employees are encouraged to blog about their unique experiences and knowledge gained from working at the museum.