Why I Chose to Stay in South Korea (COVID-19 Update)

When COVID-19 hit Korea, the thought of coming home to the United States never crossed my mind. When the US urged all American citizens abroad to come home, again, I did not flinch.

I’ll admit, I didn’t want to write a COVID-19 post and I refuse to say the “c” word (rhymes with forona), because honestly, it’s become a trigger word for me and potentially the entire world. Emotionally, I can’t read another frantic headline or listen to Trump talk himself into a dark hole.

So, why am I finally writing a post and adding to the mix of COVID-19 media? 1) People keep asking me about it. 2) I think writing about my experience in South Korea could give hope to countries who are currently in eye of the storm.

This post will cover how COVID-19 spread in Korea (funny story…), what life is like right now, the effect on ESL teachers in Korea, why I chose to stay in Korea, and some resources to help you get through this time.

Note: I’m sorry if anyone reading this is personally effected by the virus; whether you or someone you know got the virus, you had to change travel plans/cancel trips, you lost your job, or your mental health is struggling from the social distancing period. It’s a difficult time. I hope this post gives you some sort of hope or light or helps in some way. Please reach out if you need someone to talk to. E-mail me at or DM me @courtneytheexplorer anytime. xoxo

How It Went From 0 to 100 in Korea

There was a spike in cases in Korea for two reasons:

1. A Korean cult member of Shincheonji Church of Jesus contracted the virus and spread it throughout the church. Shinecheonji’s cult leader supposedly told members not to get tested. This ultimately lead to Korea’s sudden spike in cases and patient 31 (the cult member) was labeled the “super spreader” of South Korea. (Crazy, right?!) Cult members in Daegu, a city about 2 hours north of Busan, make up approximately 60% of cases in Korea. The church has since apologized and urged its members to get tested.

2. Korea tested everyone and their mother. The government made testing accessible and affordable to citizens and foreigners almost immediately. Part of the reason why Korea’s numbers were higher than other countries is because they test so many people (over 350,000 people as of March 25th according to the KCDC).

How Korea Handled The Situation

Korea immediately told everyone to stay inside (and their citizens actually listened). Schools closed and people for the most part stayed inside. Trains and stores weren’t as crowded. Streets were never completely empty, but there were less people out. Korea also announced if anyone with symptoms left their house, they would be fined up to 3 million won ($2,500 dollars).

Note: throughout this time, there were never fights over toilet paper or empty grocery store selves.

Korea kept everyone up to date. Anyone who got the virus had their last where-a-bouts blasted out via emergency alert. My phone went off multiple times a day showing where exactly patient 7 or patient 12 were the week prior. For example, patient 8 was chilling at the Baskin Robbins across the street. *Baskin Robbins closed immediately* Patient 11 lives 3 blocks away and went to Korean BBQ before getting tested. (These scenarios are not exact. They are just to show you examples. Although, there was really a patient who went to the Baskin Robbins across the street from my apartment. lol)

Korea put temperature checks everywhere. We got our temperature taken before being allowed into Shinsegae Department Store (fun fact: the largest department store in the world is in Busan, South Korea near my apartment). They put checks in bus stations, airports, and places where groups of people would potentially congregate. Our gym even takes our temperature everyday.

If anyone had symptoms, they were tested. The national testing capacity reached 15,000 tests per day. Testing is accessible and affordable for citizens and everyone within Korea. You don’t have to show ID or have money to be tested. Testing is free (or very little). There are 43 drive-through testing stations throughout the country.

I’m impressed, as a foreigner, observing all the effort Korea did for its people.

What Daily Life is Actually Like

The first COVID-19 case in Korea was on January 20, 2020. On February 23, the first Busan resident was diagnosed and on February 24, school was canceled until further notice.

I went through a mix of emotions. First, I witnessed COVID-19 in China, not really believing it would come to Korea or be anything to worry about. Then, the first cases were announced in Korea, but were all the way in Seoul, hours from Busan. I still felt safe.

When the virus came to Busan, I started to panic a bit. The unknown is scary. I wore a mask and didn’t touch anything with my hands. I washed my hands so much that my skin started to age and crack (I’m exaggerating). I joked that I had washed my hands more times in the first 2 weeks of the virus inhabiting Busan then I had my entire life. (More exaggeration)

I practiced self-isolation and tried to stay in my apartment more than usual. Then, at some point I began to chill out. Numbers in Korea started to plateau and so did my anxiety.

Then, COVID-19 hit the United States and all hell broke loose. I have friends who work in hospitals and in the travel industry. The news went wild. I found myself scrolling for hours reading frantic headlines and only talking about the virus. It was utterly consuming. The lack of testing and the way the US government and president handled the situation was depressing and alarming. So, I deleted all my social media apps. My only contacts to update me on the virus are my friends and family back at home.

I’ve been off work for a month. School is supposed to be back in session April 6th (my 29th birthday woot woot), but could be pushed further. It seems Korea is being extra cautious which is reassuring. I’ve spent this time writing, reading, hiking, and exploring a bit.

This Saturday as I ran on the walking path near my apartment, I noticed things look almost back to normal. Families are outside enjoying the warm, spring weather and blooming cherry blossoms. Traffic is back to normal. It’s calming to witness. Hand sanitizer is at the front of most stores and in every subway stairwell. Most people are wearing a mask. People are still cautious, but the panic has died.

I have faith in the next couple of months, life will return as normal. I will have lived through this pandemic and tell my grandchildren how I was “stuck” in Korea during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Pre-pandemic at Gamcheon Culture Village – Busan, South Korea

ESL Teachers in Korea: What About Your Job?

Some teachers chose to leave Korea and return home (which is totally understandable). If you were abroad and chose to go home, I understand. It’s your life and you should go wherever you feel safest.

Korean public schools are on a mandated close by the government until April 6th. Hagwons (private academies) can choose to follow suit or remain open.

Standing in front of a traditional Korean building on a school field trip - teaching in South Korea - Courtney The Explorer
Pre-pandemic on a school field trip outside of Busan, South Korea

Some hagwons have shifted to online teaching and are continuing to pay their employees full salaries. Others closed completely and are paying teachers 70% of their salary. Some ESL teachers aren’t so lucky and are unpaid during this time. The hagwon system is notoriously deceitful, so I honestly didn’t expect much from my hagwon.

The first week at my hagwon during the outbreak, we worked mostly full-time for our full salary. We were required to work on syllabus and got our classrooms ready for the new school year. The second and third week we worked a collection of full days and half days for full or half day pay, relative to hours worked. We were asked to create packets filled with educational worksheets for our kindergarten and elementary students to study English while at home. I used a phonics book and created a packet of various coloring and easy writing activities for my first year kindergarten students. In addition, we were to create introduction videos introducing ourselves to our new students and instructional videos for the elementary students going over the at-home material. If we finished our duties, we could help organize the teachers room or choose to go home and not get paid.

The fourth week (last week), we were off school completely with no pay. Some (favorited) teachers were allowed to come in and work on things and get paid. Unfortunately (or fortunately), I am not one of those teachers. (lol)

Legally, hagwons are supposed to pay their employees 70% of their wages if they choose to close down. With the rarity of COVID-19, the government has announced the law may change and it is currently pending whether hagwons need to pay their employees or not.

Because of COVID-19 and the choices of my hagwon (and myself), my March payment will be close to nothing. Luckily, my rent is paid for and I can stretch my February paycheck over the span of two months. There are many teachers and people in worse situations. I am grateful to have worked a little bit this month and also been given time off work to relax and reflect.

Some teachers are opting to work for online teaching companies during this time. I’m pretty sure it’s not 100% legal to teach online with another company while teaching in Korea. But, I think it’s a great idea for teachers to make some extra cash especially if your COVID-19-cation is unpaid. (see below for online teaching companies I recommend)

Why I Chose to Stay in Korea

I’m not going to lie, I debated whether to leave. I thought about escaping to Bali or Thailand not knowing when my next paycheck would be, what was the point in staying? I weighed out the pros and cons and ultimately decided (and was somewhat forced) to stay put for financial reasons and travel bans. Coming back to the states was never in my mind. Without insurance or an apartment to go back to, it didn’t seem feasible. Although, I know ultimately my family and friends would help if I ever was forced to come back.

In Korea, I have a place to call home (a tiny studio apartment). I have a fully stocked fridge filled with vegan treasures from Costco and the local market. I am surrounded by mountains and walking paths to keep myself busy. I have a comfy bed, a TV, and a washing machine (first in-unit washing machine in my life!!). And to be honest, I don’t have much of a savings. Korean health care is cheap. If I were to contract the virus anywhere, I believe Korea would be the safest place.

On the top of Yangsan mountain just outside of Busan, South Korea

Will Korea be my forever home? Hell nah. (lol) But, I feel grateful to be here during the pandemic and I have no plans of leaving until my contract is over (in August).

Final Thoughts

Thank you to nurses, doctors, therapists, airline stewardess, pilots, government workers, grocery store clerks, and anyone and everyone who is putting their life at risk to help the general public. You are heroes. You are all incredible.

This will pass. Protect your mental health, your physical health, and stay (virtually) close to people who make you feel warm inside. I believe every moment and experience is fate, everything is predetermined. We can’t stop the bad things that happen in life. We can only control how we react and handle the bad shit.

As always, eat your greens, journal, and meditate for a couple minutes a day. Create a routine that calms you. We will get through this hard time and be better because of it.


Things that have saved my mental health during this time:

  • Reading (current reads: What I Was Doing While You Were Breeding and Ten Years a Nomad)
  • Meditation (I frickin’ love the British man’s voice on the Headspace App)
  • Social Media detox
  • Writing/journaling
  • Hiking
  • Running outside (I really like Runkeeper App)
  • Working on my blog/youtube channel (find creative outlets!!)
  • Taking an online course (education is the smartest thing to do during recessions – The Business of Travel Blogging and Slaying Social’s Pinterest course are two courses I recommend)

Other resources for you:

  • Plan Your Next Trip (while you have some extra time!)
    • Quit Your 9-5 and Travel the World
    • 12 Ways to Travel the World For Free
  • Need some extra cash? Teach English online!
  • Cook + Eat healthier: How to Eat More Plant-Based
  • Podcasts I Love and Recommend

Thanks for reading, xoxo – comment below with your COVID-19 experiences or ways you relax and stay motivated! Did you choose to go back to your home country? Or where are you in the world? How have you stayed busy?

Save this post for later (and/or share with friends!):


  • Michelle Segrest
    April 15, 2020 at 10:29 pm

    I truly appreciate your detailed insight and perspective on this topic. It’s easy to only think about ourselves and our own situation during such a confusing and chaotic time and not consider what other people around the world are going through. I admire your courage for sharing this and appreciate your candor.

    • Courtney
      April 15, 2020 at 10:40 pm

      Thank you so much for your thoughtful comment. We are all going through something similar and different – I think it’s important to share our stories. Hope you are doing okay as well!

  • Cecilie
    April 16, 2020 at 4:09 am

    Hi Courtney, I completely understand your reasons for staying. It sounds like you are coping well and life is good in South Korea.
    We had a crazy story; leaving South America in a hurry, flying to Lisbon and settled here for about a month now. People forget that lives are more complicated than just going back to your homecountry.

    “Why don’t you go home?”

    My boyfriend and I don’t have a home, we are full-time travelers and on top of that my country closed its borders to him (we are not from the same country). So, we don’t really have a choice if we want to be together. We are enjoying our life in isolation in Portugal. The sun is shining here and we can finally get a lot of work done on our YouTube channel and travel blog.

    Take care!!! 🙂

    • Courtney
      April 16, 2020 at 9:24 am

      Yes! Very true! I have a friend who’s separated from her partner because of the citizenship differences. I’m happy you guys found a country where you can both be safe. Portugal sounds like a dream! I love your blog and YouTube channel! Cheers to your guys future 😊

  • Derek
    April 16, 2020 at 5:45 am

    I’m also an American expat and going back to the States was never a questions. I knew they would be ill-prepared and have no national healthcare – I stayed in Denmark and am much better off. Before things escalated globally I also thought about finding a nice beach to ride it out, but things are okay so far. Stay Safe!

    • Courtney
      April 16, 2020 at 9:25 am

      It’s hard to decide where to go! But yes, the US doesn’t seem like the best choice for a lot of expats. Glad you are healthy and safe! Take care!

  • Jay Artale
    April 16, 2020 at 7:10 am

    It was so insightful to read your first hand experience of the outbreak. It’s so difficult to find media sources that don’t sensationalize events. I know we have this problem in Turkey. The foreign press gives the country a hard time, and friends and family worry like mad about us when we’re there. Meanwhile we’re relaxed and calm, carrying on as normal. Thanks for sharing your story, and well done for waiting it out…

    • Courtney
      April 16, 2020 at 9:27 am

      That is so true! It’s hard when everything is normal and people around you are freaking out. Definitely relatable! lol Take care and thank you for your comment 😊

  • Agnieszka Stabinska
    April 16, 2020 at 9:20 am

    What an adventure, I hope you are healthy and safe. I know that it wasn’ t an easy decision for you. The virus interrupted my life trip. After 8 months of travel, I had to return from the U.S. to Poland. Unfortunately, I couldn’t stay in the U.S., But I am happy that I am safe and with my family. Take care, and be safe!

    • Courtney
      April 16, 2020 at 9:22 am

      Aww wow that’s hard. Happy you are safe with family! Hopefully you will be able to get back to your adventures soon!

  • Kelly
    April 16, 2020 at 9:39 am

    I loved reading your articles. It was very uplifting (unlike the US articles). Canada has handled the pandemic very much like South Korea. We don’t have a lot of testing, but our schools immediately closed at the beginning of March. Our non-essential businesses closed, beaches and parks closed and people now work from home.

    • Courtney
      April 16, 2020 at 9:41 am

      Thank you so much for your comment! It’s crazy seeing how different countries react. I would expect nothing less from Canada, seems like a wonderful place to be! I hope this urges the US to shift a bit. Anyways, glad you are safe! Cheers to future traveling 😊

  • Bolupe
    April 16, 2020 at 12:02 pm

    It is delightful to read your honest opinion and gain understanding into your decision to stay in South Korea. Your family must have been worried. It is also impressive the way the South Korean government ensured testing was a big priority and enforcing a lockdown quickly saved lives.
    In the UK, you have to be really ill before you’re tested and as a result, the numbers are raising rapidly and we’re hoping things get better soon.

  • Doibedouin || Travel Blogger (@BedouinDoi)
    April 16, 2020 at 1:36 pm

    True! We have all seen how South Korea dealt with the situation and flattened the curve. Kerela has already taken on its footsteps here in India. I just wish every State does the same. Given our huge population in India, it is better to be very strict in the lockdown phase but alas the citizens are taking it very lightly!!!!


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