Living through a pandemic in a foreign land: Photo essay by UH Hilo student studying in South Korea

“So, day to day life for me is a little different than how it would be in the United States.” —Sienna Wareham, on life in South Korea during the coronavirus pandemic.

By Susan Enright

Sienna at ocean, mountains in background.
Sienna Wareham, about a mile north of Seoul on March 8, 2020: “This was in Gangwondo. There is a bus that brings you out here, but we went by car. It was early enough [during the pandemic] in Korea that people were staying in, but not as many as there are now. The roads had almost no traffic. There were signs posted everywhere to keep your mask on, but a lot of people kept theirs off. This particular area is part of the Hantangang Sky Bridge park area. There’s different spots you can hike along, and we went to this spot to get close to the river.”
University of Hawai‘i at Hilo business major Sienna Wareham is currently attending Hankuk University of Foreign Studies on a Korea Global Scholarship for one year. Hailing from Rigby, ID, Wareham is in her third year of study and already a senior. Last semester, she shared a photo essay about her experiences in South Korea. She shared her excitement at being there, studying business but also taking classes in Korean history, Korean popular culture, and Hallyu, which is South Korea’s export industry of pop culture, entertainment, music, TV dramas, and movies.

“Studying here will help my overall education in that I’m getting a real global view,” says Wareham in her photo essay last November. “Here, I have the amazing opportunity to meet not only Koreans but people from all over. We all talk about how different our countries are.”

But now, upon returning to Hankuk in February following a trip home over winter break, she’s found herself in a foreign land during a pandemic. The country she’s in has, so far, done a better job than many in mitigating and slowing down the spread of the coronavirus, but along with so many millions across the world, Wareham’s life has been dramatically changed, all while she’s trying to complete her studies.

Earlier this month, after she first submitted the following photos to UH Hilo Stories, there was a pause in her communications as she wrote the narrative. It turns out the pause was due to her falling ill. “I was actually sick for a while there (no worries, just an ear infection),” she explains in an email. “I found some interesting things out about the Korean healthcare system. For one, the ER can’t treat anyone without their Alien Registration Card. But the clinics around here are pretty cheap!!”

Below is the photo essay by Wareham of the sights at the university and around the area where she lives in response to the coronavirus. The captions and narrative are in her own words.

Where cameras check your body temperature

A table set up a lobby with lots of signs directing students to sign in and how to obtain information about Covid-19.
Check-In at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies, March 23, 2020: At the buildings still open, you have to check-in. On the sheet, you need to put the time, your name, phone number, and the reason why you are there. In the dorms, they have a camera that checks your body temperature. Photos by Sienna Wareham.


So, day to day life for me is a little different than how it would be in the United States. Korea, I think, might have gotten started too early with the social distancing. Right now, there are still people who go out, myself included, because we have been in isolation for a while. I am not sure when it started in Korea as I went home during winter break, but I know since I came back on February 18th the order has been in place.

I have gone out a few times with my boyfriend, and we saw a lot of people out with us. The public transportation is actually going to go on a reduced schedule starting April 1st. To protect everyone, the very last train is going to be at midnight. Right now, the last train is around 12:30 am.

Platform at train station with only a couple of people waiting for trains.
Empty Station, March 11, 2020: During rush hour, this station was empty. I had an appointment, and I was surprised to see that no one was on the metro. Not shown, once I entered the train, this guy took off his mask and just started coughing loudly. There were only eight people in the car. Afterward, there were just three people.

Since I took the photos, there have been some businesses that have now required masks in order to enter. It’s not too many right now, but I can see it rising soon. But on the days I stay in, I just wake up, cook lunch, work on my homework, cook dinner, clean up a little bit, and then go on social media before going to bed.

Classes for me are online. My specific teachers use the WebEx video meetings while others have just recorded lectures for students to watch. The school decided that the first two weeks will be online. But just recently they extended it to the first four weeks. I’m doubting right now that we are going to even have classes in person, but there is still a chance that we could meet in person.


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Photo essay: UH Hilo business major studies in South Korea


Story by Susan Enright, a public information specialist for the Office of the Chancellor and editor of UH Hilo Stories.