We’ve all experienced some form of isolation over the past year due to the COVID-19 pandemic — either sanctioned by the government or by personal choice. My most potent experience of solitude was a mix of both: 14 days quarantined in South Korea, per the country’s strict travel policies, after traveling from New York to my hometown in December 2020 to visit my parents for the first time in seven years.
At a quarantine facility in Pohang, about 170 miles southeast of Seoul, I was given a room with an ocean view but no furniture other than a chair, a desk, and a small refrigerator. I slept on the floor and was not allowed to leave, even for exercise. Knowing that in two weeks I would get to hug my parents made it bearable. That, and the surprisingly incredible and abundant food, which would be dropped onto a chair outside my door three times each day. A phone call, not a knock, would let me know it had arrived.
Here is my diary of the mundane, exhausting, and weirdly delicious 14 days I spent in this Korean quarantine facility, in which I ate my feelings one bountiful dosirak at a time.
Day 1: The Journey
After a 13-hour flight, I am losing my sense of time a little bit, but there’s so much more travel and processing to go. There’s a temperature check and endless paperwork demanding my quarantine address and contact information. The staff calls the number of the facility to make sure the phone is working, in case they need to reach me. Everyone who lands in South Korea today has to download a quarantine app on their phone, which also allows officials to track my location, ensuring that I don’t leave my quarantine facility.
After more forms, phone calls, and interviews, I finally leave the gate, but I have to wait another hour to take a designated bus to the train station (to prevent local transmission of the coronavirus, foreign travelers are not allowed to use public transportation). I decide to have a quick dinner at the airport to fuel up for the rest of my journey. I treat myself with the Korean cockle bibimbap set, served in gorgeous copper bowls, complete with three banchan and a soup. Meaty cockles arrive perfectly seasoned with big chunks of peppers and scallions, and I get a whiff of sesame oil as I’m mixing them with a steamy bowl of rice. This is exactly what I need to feel like I’ve finally arrived in Korea. I take a picture with this gorgeous copper dinner set and send it to my parents with a trio of crying emojis.
After the bus ride, I’m escorted to a separate holding space until I can board my train to Pohang. The city is located in the province of North Gyeongsang, about 169 miles south of Seoul. Once again, I’m reminded how far I live from my parents.
There is only one other quarantining traveler on the high-speed train to Pohang, and we are given a whole car to ourselves. A police officer, entirely covered in a protective coverall, guards us the entire time, turning away any locals who try to sit near us. I feel like a walking disease. I am grateful that everyone is taking such serious measures, but the palpable wariness I’ve sensed from every person I’ve interacted with for the last 24 hours is more exhausting than I’d expected.
Once I finally arrive at Pohang station, I’m greeted by a staff member from the local health department, also covered from head to toe in protective gear, who confirms my information. And then, finally, I catch a glimpse of my dad, who’s been waiting for me to come home for such a long time. All I want is to run toward him and give him the biggest hug, but I’m not allowed. All I can do is wave at him, a sorry alternative, from 10 feet away.
My parents and I are awkwardly smiling at one another as the staff escorts me to the car to take me to my final destination. This seemingly never-ending journey is almost over. It’s been over 30 hours since I left my apartment in New York, and I feel greasy and exhausted. Finally, at 2 a.m. — after signing one last form, which says, “You aren’t allowed to leave your room during your quarantine” — I check into my home for the next 14 days, a small square studio with a desk and a TV. I’m buzzy and wide awake till 5 a.m. thinking about what my first meal will be tomorrow.
Day 2: Dosirak
First thing in the morning, I have to get tested. I should have been tested before checking into the quarantine facility, but had to wait for the next day, since I arrived late. My mom arranges for the local health department to pick me up. A driver arrives, which makes me feel very VIP, even if the reason for the special treatment is that I’m a potential national health hazard. I’m sent back after a slightly painful nasal swab test with a free bag of hand sanitizers and KF-94 masks. When I return to my room, there’s a gift waiting for me: my very first meal, wrapped in a white plastic bag, sitting on top of the designated meal-depositing chair in the hallway outside my room.
Early in the pandemic, the Korean government-issued comfort-food packages for quarantining individuals got global attention, full of delicious instant noodles, canned tuna, ready-to-eat soups, rice, and more. It was an appetizing alternative to the meals other quarantine individuals had — like those poor NYU kids who basically got sad salad and warm orange juice. Rather than stay at an Airbnb or a government-assigned hotel, I’d chosen to quarantine at a resort owned by POSCO, the company my dad works for. It had temporarily been transformed into a quarantine facility — equipped with a cafeteria at which I can’t eat — for employees and their families.
The food rules are simple: It comes three times a day in bento box form, called dosirak in South Korea, and is left on top of the chair outside my room. Staff will call when the food is ready, and I can open the door to pick it up — the only time I’m allowed to open the door during the quarantine.
I love dosirak, and the first meal is dreamy. I’d been expecting rice and maybe a couple of banchan, but this dosirak is premium: four banchan, two main entrees, a bowl of rice, and a soup, per set. By the time I return from my testing, they’ve already brought both my lunch and breakfast, so I combine them to have a quarantine feast of braised pollock, spicy braised chicken, seasoned spinach, rice cake-stuffed fish cakes, spicy raw squid jeotgal, egg, and dumpling soup, soy-braised potato and chicken, crispy spring rolls, seasoned dried squid, seasoned garlic stems, radish with yuzu, kimchi, and spicy beef and radish soup. All of it for me.
The dosirak sets have been sitting on the chair for a few hours, so they are lukewarm by the time I dig in. But I don’t mind. I feel spoiled with so many choices. I go straight to the braised pollock for my first spoon of rice. The fish absorbs the spicy, tangy sauce and goes perfectly with rice. Without any break, I immediately reach for the spinach, one of my favorite banchan, followed by sharp, spicy kimchi, and spicy beef and radish soup.
Considering the fact that most government quarantine packages consist of instant, premade food, I feel incredibly thankful to be eating something that actually tastes like home cooking. It’s only the first day, but I start getting emotional. Twelve more days feels like an eternity. I just wish my family were here.
Day 3: The Care Package
It’s been only two days since I started my quarantine, but who’s counting? My morning starts with checking my temperature and recording it on the app. Even though I’m in Korea, thousands of miles closer to my family, it really doesn’t feel like it. I still talk to my parents via FaceTime, just like when I’m back in New York.
My parents decide to come visit me, even though it only means I can shout to them from my second-floor balcony. They ask me if I want anything from the market. I have a whole list of things I want, but instead I simply ask for “anything that looks delicious!”
Families are allowed to drop care packages at the front desk of my quarantine facility, and the staff will bring it to the room. When I get the call that my package has arrived, I open the door, expecting a few items, but these are Asian parents. Abundance is their love language. An enormous bag fit to feed a family of 10 is waiting for me.
I hear my mom screaming from outside, “James! Let me see my son’s face!” I run to the balcony and yell back, “Mom! Why did you get me so many things? How would I eat all of these?” We both know that I will have no problem eating everything she brought me, but it feels good to banter. After taking countless pictures and videos to share in our family group chat, we scream, “I miss you!” to each other. My mom shakes her head in denial of the situation. “Just 12 more days,” I yell. “You waited seven years for me to come back to Korea, so 12 more days should be fine!”
I come back in and start unboxing the care package. The first mysterious black plastic bag is kkwabaegi, a Korean twisted donut, covered in sugar. It’s warm, chewy, and a needed reminder that I am indeed in Korea. You can’t get this kind of smell and taste in New York. The next bag holds a tangerine preserve for making tea. Triple-wrapped inside another plastic bag are bundles of kkaetnip, or perilla leaves. There are at least 50 leaves of kkaetnip and lettuce, which I plan to eat along with my dosiraks, followed by a package of jokbal (Korean braised pig feet), a whole napa cabbage, a bag of Korean gyul (tangerines), eggs, crackers, and even beer.
I didn’t specifically ask for any of these things, but it’s my mom — she knows me. Then, after all that, I get the call to pick up my dosirak. It’s always exciting to see what types of banchan I get, but I end up saving it for later so I can indulge in my jokbal spread. I have collagen-heavy, chewy jokbal, accompanied with fermented salted shrimp, ssamjang, wasabi-heavy soy sauce, napa cabbage, kkaetnip, and lettuce, just like how I would eat it at a restaurant. This particular jokbal is known for its diagonal slice, so I simply dip a piece into wasabi soy sauce to enjoy its extra-chewy texture. My favorite way of enjoying jokbal is to make a big ssam, so I grab a big piece of lettuce with a few jobak pieces, followed by a dollop of ssamjang and fermented salted shrimp. I wrap them all up in a big pouch and shove it into my mouth. My butt is warm from sitting on the heated floor, and I’m downing big jokbal ssams while watching Korean TV shows. In this moment, I think, This quarantine isn’t so bad, after all.
Days 4-7: Timelessness
Let me tell you more about my quarantine room. It’s a typical Korean studio with minimum furniture, which means no bed, no couch, nothing — just a floor (which, again, is mercifully heated — it’s 28 degrees outside). There’s no separate kitchen, just a small fridge. It’s typical in Korean culture to sleep on the floor, especially for members of my parents’ generation. I later realize that the quarantine facility purposely took out the beds to make their cleaning job easier after the quarantining individual leaves. At least there’s a jaw-dropping ocean view.
Every morning, I watch the sunrise and listen to the calming sound of the ocean waves. Even though it’s freezing outside, I open the doors to the balcony wide. Seeing the ocean whenever I look out the window helps me pretend I’m in some gorgeous vacation house that I could never afford instead of a tiny room that I’m not allowed to leave. I feel incredibly grateful. Some government-managed quarantine facilities don’t even have windows.
One complaint: There’s no microwave. If I don’t eat the dosirak right away, I end up eating it cold, which was fine the first few days, but now I’m seriously starting to miss hot foods. The pleasure of heated aromas. The feeling of warmth from the steam. Even the quick tongue scald from sipping hot soup. These are the sensations that get me worked up before taking a bite — and you can’t get any of it from room-temp food.
But the banchans are delicious enough, and again I’m grateful to have anything remotely this good, so I push through. I generally don’t have a big appetite at 9 a.m. when my breakfast gets dropped, so I tend to combine my breakfast and lunch dosiraks for a massive midday quarantine feast. One dosirak combo is particularly great: soy-braised garlic scapes, seasoned salted squid, spicy chicken with rice cakes, braised tofu, sesame shiitake mushroom, dried strips of squid, spinach, spicy stir-fried squid, kimchi, and spicy beef and radish soup. Out of all these banchan, seasoned salted squid was the star. It’s jeotgal, a food category of salted preserved dishes made with seafood, and I can eat bowls of rice just with this. Also, with loads of the kkaetnip that my mom gave me, I make big ssam with all the banchan. I put three or four kkaetnip leaves on my palm with a spoonful of rice, spicy chicken, spinach, and kimchi. I tend to fill them up with so much that my kkaetnip ssam looks taut like a tennis ball.
I’m keeping strange hours because I’m working remotely with my office back in New York. I fire up my computer around midnight and work until around 8 a.m. in Korea. I usually sign off to rest and eat a large lunch a few hours later, around noon. By 5:30 p.m., I have dinner, and then — if I’m lucky — I fall asleep at 6. I wake up at 11 p.m., and my bizarre day starts all over again. The routine, weird as it is, gives my days some sense of structure.
Inevitably, though, my mind and body start feeling off. When a banana, wrapped individually in plastic, arrives in my dosirak on day four, I feel like I’ve won the lottery. This is the first time I’ve received fruit with a meal, and my eyes well up with joy. I can’t figure out if I’m genuinely this excited over a banana or if I’m losing my mind. It’s probably the latter.
I begin FaceTiming my mom over lunch to help with the loneliness. We don’t have to say much to each other; just eating with her makes me feel better. She shows me her humble lunch: just rice, napa cabbage, doenjang (Korean soybean paste), and seaweed. At the facility, I’m blessed with 12 different varieties of banchan, six entrees, and three soups. My mom is happy that I’ve been eating so well, but I feel some guilt as she eats her rice with cabbage and no meat. I can’t wait to share a feast with her once I’m out of quarantine.
Days 8-12: The Air Fryer Miracle
I’m finally more than halfway through quarantine, and I have a tower of unfinished cold rice, a couple of cold soups, loads of instant coffee, and a few other random unfinished dishes all spread on the shelf on top of the fridge that I’ve dubbed the pantry. Since I can’t go outside, there are trash cans on my balcony, where I keep a pile of clean dosirak containers. The higher the tower of dosirak containers gets, the closer I am to the end of my quarantine. I’m still desperately missing hot foods. I daydream about a bubbling pot of soondubu jjigae, a spicy silken tofu stew, and a big bowl of rice so steamy it fogs my glasses. I fantasize about the sensation of burning my mouth as I rush to eat just-cooked pork belly.
Suddenly, inspiration strikes. If I can’t have a microwave, what about an air fryer? I call the staff, asking whether it would be allowed. There is slight confusion, hesitation, and a long pause over the phone, and then, just like that, the receptionist says, “Yes, you can use an air fryer.”
I call my mom, crying.
My parents have a tiny air fryer that they don’t use, and this feels like fate. They drop it off over the weekend, along with another care package of goodies to get me through the next several days.
Along with the air fryer, wrapped in a silky red cloth like a treasure, my mom includes an adorable oven mitt, worried that I might burn my hands. There are other delightful treats, such as an assortment of fried things, like shrimp, squid, and potatoes. There are also steamed buns; juicy, plump Korean strawberries; tender persimmons, called hong si; and eggs.
I reheat the fried treats in my air fryer and eat them. Yes, I burn my mouth, and I’ve never been happier about it.
To celebrate the arrival of my air fryer, I treat myself to delivery Korean fried chicken and Korean pizza. I open the can of beer that I was saving from the last care package. Even though I’ve loved my daily dosirak, it’s such a treat to enjoy delivery foods. The moment I take the first bite of Korean fried chicken, I’m no longer exhausted by my journey and weird schedule. It’s a taste of home that no Korean fried chicken outside of the country could replicate. The chicken is so crisp, juicy with a spicy kick, and it takes me back to my childhood, getting Korean fried chicken with my brother. The so-called “Chicago deep-dish pizza” has fried shrimp, pineapple, red onions, and a sweet sauce that makes it uniquely Korean.
Quarantining by myself hasn’t been fun; staying up for 30 hours unintentionally, drinking so much coffee so that I won’t fall asleep while working, being unable to go for a walk besides onto my narrow balcony to throw away my trash, and dealing with my loneliness and insecurities with no one to talk to or distract me have all been low points. I’ve spent hours just staring at my face and my body, criticizing. I’ve heard of some creative people doing workouts while quarantined, but I would rather watch other people’s mukbang. Why do I feel exhausted all the time, even though I don’t move at all? My mind is filled with so many random thoughts, and not all of them feel great.
But eating incredible Korean fried chicken and pizza, sipping ice-cold beer in my pajamas while looking at the ocean on a Sunday afternoon? I couldn’t be any happier. Just a few more days until I get to be with my family.
Days 13-14: Mukbang
As it turns out, 14 days is truly no joke. I’ve spent almost half a month in this tiny room, spoiled by delicious dosirak three times a day. And now, because I treated myself with some fried chicken and pizza, I have four saved-up dosirak, stacked on top of one another, to enjoy as I like.
I’ve had three dosirak at once, but four? I challenge myself. (Anything for a little excitement.) I will try to eat 16 side dishes, eight different entrees, and four different soups. Nothing is labeled, so I decide to play a guessing game as well. Early on I found that filming myself eating and sharing the videos on social media took a bit of the sting out of dining alone day after day, and this meal, I figure, will be a feast worth sharing.
Having an air fryer is great for cooking eggs and reheating leftover fried chicken, but it’s not so useful when it comes to reheating rice or soup. And there are days — like this one — when I don’t feel like eating cold dosirak, days when I wish I could slurp hot noodles rather than eat rice. I find myself complaining to myself about my situation rather than being appreciative. But then I try to remember that so many people are struggling to get food, let alone a decent meal, during this challenging time. There are ajummas, an endearing term for middle-aged Korean women, who prepare these foods for me and deliver them several times a day. Putting on a smile, I film myself devouring four dosiraks at once. I finish every bite, and I’m once again thankful — if only for my metabolism.
By the time I begin to get used to my new schedule and the routine of getting calls from the office to pick up my meals, it’s almost time to leave. Before I can officially check out, I need to get tested one more time. Just like the first time, the local health department comes to pick me up, and I’m excited to walk outside my room for the first time in weeks, even if it’s just to the car. The news gets better: Expectedly, my test came back negative, and I can finally be with my parents. The only thing standing between us is one last night at the facility, and one last dosirak feast.
There’s spicy pork bulgogi, stir-fried anchovies, kimchi, steamed cabbage, hamburger steak, radish kimchi, steamed eggs, and so much more. To make my last quarantine meal extra special, I open the instant ramen noodles I’ve been saving. I can’t even tell you how much I’ve missed slurping noodles. As I’m sipping the hot, beefy, spicy broth of the cup noodles with rice, I get emotional, thinking about this once-in-a-lifetime experience I’ve had, quarantining in my hometown, Pohang, spoiled with incredible food options and stunning the ocean views and sunrises every day for the past 13 days.
Self-quarantine can be difficult — both mentally and physically. But these Korean dosiraks were true gifts and became the highlight of my mundane days. Once I’m out, there will be so many options, but there will be nothing quite as meaningful as the lukewarm dosiraks that brought me so much joy and happiness when there was little of either to be found.
Day 14: Freedom
I can’t believe I’ve been quarantining in this room for the past 14 days. I get a call from the office, saying that I can leave now. Shortly after, my mom texts me that she is here. I look around the clean, empty room one more time, soaking in all the memories and feelings. Remembering those sleepless nights watching Korean food mukbang, those weekends when I felt so sluggish and started dancing around the room, peaceful mornings watching the sunrise with the sound of fishermen heading to work. Each day has been precious and memorable with different dosirak.
As I drag my luggage down to the elevator, there she is, my mom. And I give her the biggest hug one human has ever given to another. I’m sure of it. I thank the staff for all the work they’ve done, but especially for the air fryer.
My mom and I take dozens of pictures around the quarantine facility, letting everyone in my family know that I’m free after all. We head to the seafood restaurant nearby, known for serving spicy seafood stew with a whole crab on top, to celebrate our reunion.
We sit down to a feast with crab fried rice, jjamppong (spicy seafood stew), crispy pork, and smiles. These are things I’ve been dreaming about since I arrived at the airport. I see the steamy bowls of jjamppong coming to our table, and once they’re put down, I immediately take a sip of broth. It’s spicy, tangy, and blisteringly hot. “I’m so happy to eat with my son, finally,” my mom says. I smile back at her and pass her my bowl of noodles. “Try these too, mom. They are so delicious.”