Unmasking American Exceptionalism

Published 11/07/2022 in Scholar Travel Stipend
Written by Haeeun (Blessing) Jee | 11/07/2022

After the mid-March breakout of COVID-19 in Spain and my rushed, multi-layover, 23-hour journey back to the United States, I did not know when I would again be on an airplane. And yet, in the beginning of August [2020], I was on my way to South Korea, seated one seat away from the next passenger. While the risks of traveling are significant during these uncertain times, my grandfather was very sick and my family was unsure of the next time we would get to see him, so we made the decision to visit.

As we settled in for our 12-hour flight, I thought about what I would expect to see and experience when we landed. Not in a broad sense—I had gone to Korea last year so I knew what the culture, food, streets, and pace of life would be like. Instead, I was curious about the specific conditions and restrictions in place due to COVID-19. Like many Korean-Americans (and people around the world), I had been aware of the successes that South Korea had had with COVID. There were so many thought articles, videos posted on Facebook, and news spots that vaunted the incredible statistics of containment and prevention. My parents told me giddily about how the South Korean government asked expats around the world whether they wanted to go back home to Korea (all-paid-for flights) and how foreigners landing in Korea would do mandatory quarantine in a hotel (all meals provided) for $100 a day.

This stood in stark contrast with my experience in the United States when I arrived in mid-March. I had concluded my teaching position in Galicia and packed up my apartment in a mere five days because of the rapidly worsening situation in Spain. Right before I left, the government established a national state of emergency, posted police checkpoints on highways, and reduced train operations to limit domestic travel.

In the U.S., the response felt tardy, decentralized, and contradictory. Los Angeles did a better job than most other cities, in my opinion, but in April, there were still people crowding around on beaches, shoppers without masks in Trader Joe’s, and folks who believed that they were not infectious if they were asymptomatic. Nowadays, we are entering another wave, and it almost appears like Americans have given up on containment and prevention and are just resigned to “herd immunity” or a vaccine — whichever comes first.

When we finally arrived in Incheon Airport, we were shuttled to the first entry point where our temperatures were taken and we showed our passports. After this point, we waited in line to talk with officials about our quarantine plans. There were airport officials, but also young army men in plainclothes (Korea has a two-year mandatory conscription for males). When it was our turn, we were ready.  Because my father had already gone to Korea in the month of June to see his father, we knew what to expect and had already downloaded the quarantine app and filled out the information. They looked over our apps, confirmed our identities, and called the guardian phone number to confirm that we were going to be staying at the quarantine location we jotted down. Because we used to have Korean nationality and because we have family members in Korea, we were exempt from the mandatory quarantine in state-designated locations for foreigners. Instead, we were able to stay at an empty apartment that my uncle's church manages to host visiting missionaries. The soldier called the phone number, my grandmother picked up, and she confirmed that we were staying at that address.

Then, we were in another line (another temperature check) and filled out the immigration entry forms, again providing the quarantine location and guardian phone number. When it was our turn to talk to yet again another airport official, they discovered a mistake: my mother had put down the wrong address number for the quarantine location. The airport official had looked up the address but saw it did not exist. We finally changed it to the correct one for all our forms and they let us through. I had been exasperated with the waiting (there were more people in the airport that day than usual) and the bureaucracy, but realized that multiple entry points were important for confirming information and catching mistakes like ours.

We picked up our luggage and walked out to the general arrival area of the airport, where there were airport employees waiting to help direct us to where we needed to go. In our case, we had to take the high-speed KTX train to Daejeon, where my grandparents live. We walked to the airport’s KTX location and were shuffled to a special waiting area for folks recently arrived in Korea (and therefore possibly untested). We could have gotten tested in Incheon Airport but the testing window had closed so we expected to get tested in Daejeon. After the hour train ride, we arrived at Daejeon Station, there were officials already at the platform waiting for us (they had been notified by officials in Incheon Station) who then sprayed us and our luggage down with sanitizers. They directed us out of the station (passersby avoided us because they knew we had just arrived from the airport) and took us to an outdoors area where we talked with another official to confirm our quarantine location. They let us know about the process and rules of quarantine (and issued another temperature test). We had missed the testing window again in Daejeon, but we were told that we just needed to get tested the following day. We were grouped with a few other people who were going to the same part of the city as we were. A city bus arrived, and the driver took everyone to their exact quarantine location (this was all free). We arrived at our apartment, and the quarantine began.

During quarantine, we needed to check our temperature twice a day with thermometers they provided us — once in the morning, once in the evening — and record the data in the quarantine app. The app also alerted us when the phone hadn’t been moved or opened in a few hours. If we didn’t check back into the app, the public health official assigned to our case would call us and ask if we were in the quarantine location. This meant that the app, and therefore the South Korean government, had access to our location and information on whether or not our phones were active. This may seem intrusive and suspicious to an American audience, but I understood that such measures had to be taken for the sake of public health. If this was the price I had to pay for the government to be able to handle the situation — and allow me to live a fairly normal life without a lockdown and of course prevent the deaths and suffering of thousands — then I was more than willing.

We got tested on the first day of quarantine at a tented location in the city. There was very little paperwork, and we did not pay anything or provide any insurance information. Our tests came back negative the next day and the public health department called us to let us know they would be sending over some food since we were not able to leave the apartment at all. We received a box including ramen, rice, and curry packets, along with lots of snacks. We received another box that had some materials to reduce the boredom and possible loneliness of the quarantine: a stress ball, coloring book with crayons, exercise stretch bands, etc. We spent the week playing Rummikub and Bananagrams, reading novels, and watching Korean TV.

As strict as the rules were, there was enough institutional flexibility that we petitioned and received permission to spend our second week of quarantine at my grandparent’s apartment after showing no symptoms. We still couldn’t go outside, and we still had to measure our temperature twice a day, but at least I could do it at my grandparents' place and spend more time with my grandpa.

A full 15 days indoors, and then finally, it was over. The day after quarantine, the sun was shining and I was overstimulated. People went around going about their whole business. It was like normal life, just masked. I cut my hair, painted my nails, went shopping, and even received physical therapy for a back problem I’d been dealing with — all things I hadn’t been able to do since March in the U.S. It was strange to see people sit around in a restaurant or a cafe with friends and family, like it was almost normal life — except when you entered, you had to write down your name and phone number and get your temperature checked. And once you finished your meal or drink, you were expected to put your mask back on.

That didn’t mean all Koreans followed instructions. Taxi drivers told us that all of their passengers who didn't wear masks were males. It was true; whenever we saw someone on the streets not wearing a mask, it was a man. This same toxic masculinity exists in the US. In a literal sense, it is toxic, as this behavior leads to greater infections and deaths. If we want to improve public health measures, we also have to face the significant challenge of overcoming societal norms or gendered ideas. Also, during the time that we were in Korea, there was a religiously affiliated, anti-government rally in Seoul, which brought together thousands of people not wearing masks. This event became a superspreader event and the case count in Korea was suddenly over 300 a day — nothing to Americans who are used to many more times that, but shocking for a country used to less than fifty a week.

How did the South Korean government respond? Immediately, chain cafes could only offer takeout coffee (a significant mandate for a country with a huge cafe culture) and churches went online. People were encouraged to stay inside and not see others outside of their household. The dings became more frequent. These were text messages from the government that notified you that there was a positive case discovered near your location; often, the exact location would be given. When we left Korea, the numbers were still rising but not as quickly as before, and it seemed like the government had reached a level of control again.

When we arrived in LAX, the airport officials provided us with a one-page fact sheet from the CDC. No one directly mandated us to quarantine or asked us what our plans were. We never got our temperature checked. Was it convenient that it only took about half an hour to get our bags and go through all the security checks? Yes. I thought back to the hours we spent at Incheon Airport when we arrived in Korea, and how, when we left Korea, they still checked our temperature three times. But I also thought about how unsafe I now felt, back in the States.

Critics say that strict mandates like the ones implemented in South Korea are draconian and detrimental to democracy. And that these measures can only take place in Asian countries where the people are “submissive” and “used to communism” and “group-minded.” I exaggerate, but versions of this have proliferated on social media and traditional media. First, let's avoid a Western-centric conception of democracy (heavily focused on individual liberties) and be open to the idea that democracy is playing out in those countries that are implementing strict measures. If democracy is defined as the institutional expression of the desires of the populace, and if the populace wants COVID-19 to be deftly handled, then responsible, strict measures can actually be measured as more democratic than what is happening in America. I lost some freedoms in Korea to gain more of other freedoms. Who is to say this is undemocratic?

Secondly, strict measures have been implemented in non-Asian countries like Spain, Germany, and Australia (where they have succeeded in flattening the curve at various moments). Besides a few outbursts, the populaces in these countries have for the most part obeyed the mandates. I don’t know which factors influence the kind of public health measures a country implements, or which variables shape the citizens’ response. I am sure countless future studies will look at how the political heritage, history, and culture of countries impacted how they dealt with the pandemic, and how the populace responded in kind.

One thing I do know is this: individualism is an instrumental element of the American psyche. This is neither inherently bad nor good, but in this current situation, it has contributed to cementing the United States’ position as number one in the world in cases of infections. My parents are constantly befuddled: Why, just why, would people not wear masks when there is a public health crisis happening? Why would people meet in crowds? How could a person not realize their actions have consequences beyond their own life?

If we, as Milken Scholars, want to “increase global prosperity by advancing collaborative solutions that widen access to capital, create jobs and improve health,” a good place to start would be open-mindedness and humility. As an American, I have ingrained biases and prejudices, but living and traveling abroad during the past two years have helped to break many of them down—especially the attitude of American exceptionalism that I didn’t even know I held. The myth of American exceptionalism has strained to account for the 238,000 and growing deaths attributed to COVID-19 in the U.S. We need to learn from other countries. We need to reckon with our individualism. It may be the only way out of this.