Leaving the Box: Dispatches from Government Quarantine in South Korea

Ben Weissenbach on the Tenuous Difference Between Place and Placelessness

Today is my fourth day in South Korea’s government quarantine, which I’ve come to think of as “the box.” Life in the box is strange. And the strangest part is not that I’m stuck in a small, sterile room on a continent I have never before visited. It’s not that I’ve ceded the rather personal responsibility of maintaining my body to a faceless techno-governmental apparatus. It’s not that my only direct social contact comes once a day, when a humanoid bundle of PPE rings the doorbell, scans my forehead with a thermometer-gun, and swishes away.

No, the strangest part is that I’m not sure I want to leave. For all the radical constraints of the box, I feel free here in a way I haven’t since the pandemic began. Part of me would like to stay here even after my fourteen days are up.

Of course, there are some straightforward reasons to like government quarantine: The room is quiet and comfortable, an excellent place to read and work. Being stuck in here removes the choice of physical or social activity, thus eliminating, much as a long flight would, many of the usual “what-ifs” and anxieties about how to spend time. And perhaps best of all, the organization that administers my current fellowship is footing the $100-per-night bill. No small matter for an English major freshly graduated into a dumpster-fire economy.

But those explanations don’t really address the deeper appeal of the box. There is another reason I want to stay here—and I think it derives, paradoxically, from what this place is missing.

I think it lies in the fact that this is not really a place at all.

*

Moving to South Korea was not the plan. The plan was to spend the year in Nepal, working for an environmental NGO. Then COVID-19 fed my plans into a blender. Nepal closed its borders, and my fellowship director advised me to move to Seoul until Nepal opens—and so last week, I took a transpacific flight, shuffled through six hours of winding customs lines, and slept through a two-hour government shuttle before being hygienically ushered to this clean, comfortable box on the seventh floor of an international-hotel-turned-quarantine-facility. Thus began a layover of indefinite length.

For all the radical constraints of the box, I feel free here in a way I haven’t since the pandemic began.

But my box is comfortable. Indeed, the WiFi is excellent. There are plenty of well-placed electrical outlets. The lighting is bright but unobtrusive, the curtains thick enough to block out the sun completely. The HVAC system can be adjusted to increments of half a degree Celsius—I leave mine at an even twenty-five—and the water pressure in the shower leaves nothing to be desired.

My box is a mélange of grays, creams, and taupes; synthetic fabrics, polished metals and plastic woods. I think the walls must be soundproofed or made of concrete, because there is nothing to hear aside from the slight whir of the HVAC. Nor is there anything to smell, except for occasional meals—lukewarm, plastic-wrapped bundles of rice and I-don’t-know-what that appear outside my door, as if from nowhere at all. After eating, I collect food scraps and packaging and deposit them in the orange biohazard bags provided. These disappear from my doorstep as miraculously as the food arrives.

I spend my days trying to figure out what the hell is happening to the world, and what I can hold onto as everything outside the box changes. This usually takes the form of reading. In one book I’ve brought, The Absent Hand (2019), landscape writer Suzannah Lessard describes spending two weeks in a Sheraton hotel room—a space similar, in its total lack of character, to my box in Korea. Lessard coins the term “atopia” to describe this “opposite of place,” which offers freedom from discomfort at the expense of context.

“When you stay so long in such a place, you begin to see through not to bones or to an underlying structure but to something more like the lack thereof,” she writes. “It’s a feeling of no foundation.”

For Lessard, who grew up in the pastoral landscapes of rural Long Island in the late 1940s and 50s, atopia is profoundly disorienting. “So much of our sense of humanity is bound up in our older conception of landscape, from our creatureliness to our aspirational nature,” she writes. “Atopia in its overt form negates both our sense of dependence and of transcendence. It seems very hard to find a footing in.” Upon first entering the room and finding the window curtains closed, she flings them open to reveal her surroundings, as if gasping for air.

I spend my days trying to figure out what the hell is happening to the world, and what I can hold onto as everything outside the box changes.

I, too, have a window. It looks out over a concrete parking lot beside a small marina just off the Han River. The lot is filled with small boats, elegant and white, suspended in aluminum cradles over the dark pavement. But unlike Lessard, I am not particularly comforted by my surroundings, which instead strike me as unwanted friction—distractions from my search for the real. Unlike Lessard, I tend to keep the curtains closed.

*

My box contains a mini-fridge, a flat screen TV, and an electric kettle. There is a pair of minimalist black and white paintings over two twin beds, a high-watt swing lamp on a desk, and an electric bidet toilet seat in the bathroom. The toilet seat has eighteen buttons to adjust seat warmth, water temperature, and the pressure of the spray, which can be made to pulse or oscillate. A warm air dryer turns on at the end of it all, leaving no task to the user but the one.

Once in the morning and once in the afternoon, I take my temperature with a thermometer and record it in an app that an airport official installed on my iPhone. The PPE golem arrives to scan my forehead shortly before dinner. Meals arrive three times per day, at hours that initially scramble my circadian rhythm, but which I come to anticipate—not so much for the strange and mediocre foods, for which I work up little appetite, but for the ritual of unpacking and eating them. Otherwise, time remains altogether detached from my static material surroundings, an abstract adversary as I address the all-important question at hand (i.e., What can I hold onto as everything beyond the box changes?).

I search the internet, which Lessard calls “the quintessentially foundationless realm.” I skim articles about vaccines, travel bans, death tolls. On day seven, a friend sends me an interactive web exhibit produced by a young Chinese student at the university from which I graduated last spring. The artist, named Wendi Yan, was separated from friends and stranded on the opposite side of the world from her family when the virus struck. She channeled her disorientation into a vivid collage of videos, digital illustrations, and written language that expresses her sense of powerlessness.

“We think we’re individual points floating with no restraints,” writes Yan in words that drift up the webpage as I scroll. “We are, in fact, points in a vast & messy net…” A cloud of dots murmurates over screenshots of headlines—stories on US-China conflict over the origins and handling of COVID-19. “The news was tearing you into two parts. . . You felt your sense of reality was truly falling apart.”

Otherwise, time remains altogether detached from my static material surroundings, an abstract adversary as I address the all-important question at hand (i.e., What can I hold onto as everything beyond the box changes?).

Yan feels torn between global space, in which the conditions of her life are being reshaped, and the here and now conveyed by her senses. The former is insensible, and too vast and complex to fully comprehend. The latter is absorbing, but deceptive in its transience, like a tide pool at the edge of a churning sea. Where, precisely, does real life occur? What, exactly, can she hold onto?

Faced with epistemological crisis, Yan passes lockdown designing hyper-real digital shapes that populate her exhibit—“Slimy watery metally bubbles . . . lost in dense and brightly-colored fogs. . . in between the 2nd and 3rd dimensions.” She laments: “I want to hold them and feel their form and temperature in my palms. But even the experience of creating them was disembodied. . .”

Yan’s shapes express distrust for her immediate surroundings, and a corresponding desire to construct some more substantial realm for herself, insulated from the radicalized contingency of modern life. I relate to this impulse. Yan’s exhibit recalls the closure of college campuses last spring, and in particular one strange afternoon that came two days before our university announced that students would be sent home.

The weather that afternoon had been unaccountably beautiful. The temperature was 21 Celsius, the sky clear and sunny, and yet beyond such metrics there was a texture and feel to the air, a smell of decomposition and growth, that awakened the body and drew one into the present. “I know I’m feeling spring in the air when I’m listening to ‘move on up’ on repeat,” I texted a friend. Students gathered en masse in shorts and short-sleeves on the campus green to celebrate being young and healthy and alive. After the dark and cold of winter, this was the first day of the year that truly felt like spring.

That day, a few hours earlier, Iran had released 73,000 prisoners in response to the virus. A few hours later, Italy extended lockdown measures across the nation. Within weeks, tens of thousands of Americans would die from the virus, millions would lose their jobs… we all know the rest of this story.

Yan’s shapes express distrust for her immediate surroundings, and a corresponding desire to construct some more substantial realm for herself, insulated from the radicalized contingency of modern life.

That afternoon still bothers me. Here was perfect sublimity; there, on some invisible horizon, was pain, isolation, and death.

*

Time continues to pass without friction. Meals appear on schedule. Partly-filled water bottles—carried absent-mindedly from desk to bed as I work—litter my nightstand. When space on the nightstand runs out, I gulp down the remaining water and toss the empty bottles into an orange biohazard bag by the desk.

Except for during the temperature checks and occasional video calls, I spend most of my time in bed, naked. The HVAC system renders clothing unnecessary for warmth, and the isolation removes the social imperative. There’s no reason to shave, either. I hardly move, except for the odd set of halfhearted calisthenics to take the edge off the endorphin withdrawal, yet in the absence of other odors I begin to notice the smell of my own body. I find myself savoring these smells in a primal sort of way, sniffing absentmindedly as I work. I seem content to let my body vegetate, like some tuber in a test tube.

My mind feels active, bordering on overactive. I pick things up and put them down without noticing. I skim international news and sift a sea of sensational headlines, half-truths, and raw disinformation. I read novels and nonfiction. I work slowly through dense phenomenology. I take deep, dreamless naps. I call “the situation room” to ask for more coffee packets. I open the curtains and close them again.

On day eleven, piqued by Lessard and Yan, I search deeper into the meaning of place. According to human geographer Yi-Fu Tuan, “place” refers to space imbued with localized human meanings—mediated both physically, through the senses, and conceptually, through symbols and histories. Space, by contrast, refers to the empty, abstract properties of extension described by a topographic map, or an architectural design software. “What begins as undifferentiated space becomes place as we get to know it better and endow it with value,” writes Tuan. “Place is security, space is freedom.”

But over the past few centuries, the security of place has become increasingly illusory. Modernity is distinctive, according to sociologist Anthony Giddens, for the disembedding of space and time from local contexts, and the rise of globalizing systems that, in turn, reshape those contexts. “What structures the locale is not simply that which is present on the scene,” wrote Giddens in 1990. “The ‘visible form’ of the locale conceals the distanciated relations which determine its nature.” In other words, all “places” in the modern world are shot through by global forces—economic, political, technological, military, social. Modernity brings new forms of security, Giddens explains, but on the whole it resembles a “juggernaut”—an “engine of enormous power” that “threatens to rush out of our control and which could rend itself asunder.”

My mind feels active, bordering on overactive. I pick things up and put them down without noticing. I skim international news and sift a sea of sensational headlines, half-truths, and raw disinformation.

Since Giddens made this analogy, the world has hardly stabilized. The internet is supercharging globalization, collapsing the physical world and creating virtual ones. The threat of nuclear holocaust remains, even as biowarfare, pandemic, and the worst case scenarios of climate change have come to the fore. Oxford philosopher Toby Ord recently estimated the probability that humanity will drive itself totally extinct this century at roughly one in six. The risk of less-than-total, but still incomprehensible, catastrophe is far higher. And there is no opting out of this grand experiment: The greatest risks of modernity loom over all of us, wherever and however we live.

So we go about our lives, denying this truth like death itself. How to wrap your head around the fact that abstract forces can nullify everything you know and love? Yet COVID-19 tore the veil from our eyes, if only for a fear-sharpened moment. Our senses hadn’t alerted us to its silent, invisible landfall—but ignorantia juris non excusat. In those terrifying early days of the pandemic, the vivid immediacy of the quotidian gave way to a more ultimate reality.

What part of me likes about the box, then, is that it does not even pretend to be a place. Here it is easy to forget for hours at a time that I have a body at all. Free from sensory distraction, I can spot global risk from a distance, barreling towards me at inhuman speeds. I can study the world without having to contend with the messiness and confusion of daily life. I float free, disembedded from the beguiling particularities of any here and now.

Yet even as I embrace the placelessness of the box—that is, even as I disengage from my surroundings, dissolving into media, trying to buttress myself against the next collapse—I have the vague but persistent sense that I am missing something essential, perhaps the thing itself. I feel my mind, for all its activity, growing narrower, dimmer. I haven’t had a strong emotion in days. The world closes in around me, thoughts become circular, fields of awareness fade—so that even as I read Giddens’ Consequences of Modernity, even as I work through Heidegger’s fundamental ontology, I feel empty, and a bit lost.

I continue to ask, What can I hold onto as everything beyond the box changes?

But I also find myself wondering: Is this real life?

It may be time to leave.

*

On August 27, Typhoon Bavi whirled up the west coast of the Korean Peninsula and made landfall southwest of Pyongyang. It was one of three typhoons to hit the Korean Peninsula in two weeks, the most active season in Korea’s recorded history. Such storms, fueled by record-high sea surface temperatures south of Japan, are expected to increase in frequency and magnitude as the ocean warms.

And there is no opting out of this grand experiment: The greatest risks of modernity loom over all of us, wherever and however we live.

Inside the box, all was quiet. I parted the curtains and opened the window and outside, the world seemed to be consuming itself. Whistling winds blew the trees flat. Veils of rain gusted across the sky. Wet, wind-blasted air swirled in the lee of the hotel, misting my hair and face. The rich smell of the tropics filtered into my nose, lungs, mind—breathing feeling into the body, inflating entire dimensions of the mind, freeing me from myself, though I hadn’t known myself a prisoner.

The problems would not blow away. The wind heralded new risks and tragedies and contradictions. And yet a tightness in my chest, a deep grasping, released.

Life has always been terrifying, I thought. Quit holding on so tight or you’ll miss it.

Below, rain was flooding the parking lot. Droplets blasted against the boats and turned to mist. And as the rain continued to beat down, I imagined the water rising so high that it lifted the white boats out of their cradles. I imagined the tide sucking the boats into the marina, drawing them into the roiling river, and sweeping them far, far out to sea.

Ben Weissenbach
Ben Weissenbach graduated from Princeton University in 2020 and is a 2020-21 Henry Luce Scholar based in Nepal. His writing has appeared in National Geographic, The Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian, and other publications. He is now writing a book on climate change in Alaska.





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