Irish in Asia: ‘Last year I realised they don’t see me as part of this society’

Emigration Now: The Irish living in South Korea and Japan saw a swift response to Covid

 Kurashiki train station in Japan. Irish woman Jane O’Halloran, who lives in the Okayama prefecture, believes the high standards of hygiene in the country helped to keep the disease under control. Photograph: Photograph: We Ge/Getty Images

Kurashiki train station in Japan. Irish woman Jane O’Halloran, who lives in the Okayama prefecture, believes the high standards of hygiene in the country helped to keep the disease under control. Photograph: Photograph: We Ge/Getty Images

 

South Korea’s 31st case of Covid-19 was reported in the city of Daegu in February 2020. While infectious, a woman visited multiple locations, including a large church, before testing positive. Within a few weeks, the cluster had exploded. Thousands of cases linked to the Shincheonji church “Patient 31” had visited were confirmed, leading to the first major outbreak of coronavirus outside of China.

John Blood, from west Dublin, has lived in Daegu since 2013. He lives beside a hospital and remembers seeing army vehicles and workers in personal protective equipment on the streets at the time.

“Initially, it was handled really well. The week after [the outbreak] happened, nobody was going outside, everyone was staying home, there was no one using buses, the roads were empty, people were taking it very seriously in the beginning.

“The Irish people back home didn’t grasp how serious this was. They didn’t understand that wearing masks would be important for stopping or slowing down the spread of coronavirus. In South Korea, from day one, people wore masks.”

John Blood: ‘The Irish people back home didn’t grasp how serious this was.’
John Blood: ‘The Irish people back home didn’t grasp how serious this was.’

Eoin O’Colgain, originally from Celbridge but who’s lived on and off in Seoul since 2008, is a scientist at Sogang University. He had flown into Ireland from Korea in February 2020 and planned to travel around Ireland, the United Kingdom and Europe, for work but that plan soon fell apart.

“I was one of the first people to come into Ireland and realise that Ireland was not prepared for this pandemic. Korea had a spike before Ireland did and my coworker got it,” he said.

O’Colgain said he was worried about the contact with his colleague, so he tried to report it to the HSE, but couldn’t get through to anyone. O’Colgain went on Claire Byrne Live and Liveline to say that Ireland, where there was only one reported case at the time, was not prepared for what was to come.

Back in Korea, as outbreaks continued, Blood says the reporting became more and more focused on whether the patients were “foreigners” or not. “The way they started reporting cluster outbreaks around that time also changed. So, instead of saying there was a cluster outbreak here, they would actually say there was a foreign cluster outbreak here,” Blood said.

In March 2021, the government faced criticism after all migrant workers in South Korea’s Gyeonggi Province were required to get tested or face fines following multiple outbreaks.

Eoin O’Colgain and his family. O’Colgain says he was one of the first people to come into Ireland and realise that Ireland was not prepared for this pandemic
Eoin O’Colgain and his family. O’Colgain says he was one of the first people to come into Ireland and realise that Ireland was not prepared for this pandemic

In October this year, the ministry of health and welfare issued a press release saying special inspections for social distancing violations would be carried out around Halloween in “areas densely populated by foreigners and young people”.

With growing case numbers and the detection of the Omicron variant, South Korea introduced tighter restrictions in early December. People now have to show a vaccine pass to use gyms or visit pubs and restaurants. Initially, the vaccine status of any foreign resident vaccinated in a foreign country was not recognised. After the UK and US embassies spoke out about the “discriminatory policy”, the South Korean government reportedly agreed to address the issue.

“In all the years I’ve been in Korea, last year was the first time I actually realised that they don’t see me as Korean, they don’t see me as part of this society,” says Blood. “I’m an outsider. After the Itaewon outbreak, that was very obvious.”


Where the Irish live

South Korea There were officially 577 Irish residents in South Korea in September 2021, although the total Irish community there is thought to be larger, at about 700.

Japan Figures for 2020 from the Japanese Immigration Services Agency indicate about 1,200 Irish citizens are resident in Japan, plus an additional 200-300 children with dual nationality.


As Korea confirmed its first cases, authorities acted quickly to implement a strategy of widespread testing and contact tracing. Along with social distancing and mask-wearing, this brought cases back to almost zero within months and allowed most businesses to stay open.

“The restrictions that came in in Ireland were so strict compared to what we had here. I could leave my house whenever I wanted to, I was advised to stay home if I could, but I could leave, I could take the train and travel up to Seoul if I wanted to,” Blood says.

In Korea, initially, there were no mandatory closures of business. But with people voluntarily staying at home, O’Colgain says businesses were still hit hard. “It never quite locked down, but people wear masks everywhere. Korea has been cautious,” he says.

Jane O’Halloran (left): ‘I think that the native caution of the Japanese made the initial restrictions easier to adapt to.’
Jane O’Halloran (left): ‘I think that the native caution of the Japanese made the initial restrictions easier to adapt to.’

Jane O’Halloran, originally from Dublin, now works in architectural conservation and lives in Japan’s Okayama prefecture. She thinks the high standards of hygiene in Japan helped to keep the disease under control.

“I think that the native caution of the Japanese made the initial restrictions easier to adapt to. Mask-wearing is such a normal part of life here and there’s no tradition of shaking hands, let alone hugging so there are fewer opportunities for germs to travel,” she said.

On the other hand, she says Japan’s vaccine programme was slower to get going, adding that her friends at “home got their first shots well ahead of us”. As of early December, about 78 per cent of Japan’s population was fully vaccinated, while 80 per cent of Korea’s was.

'Of course, you have Skype and you have Zoom and Facebook and stuff but you can’t give somebody a hug over Facebook. Things like that are very hard'

For Blood, he thinks, overall, that the central Korean government handled the pandemic well. However, for the first four months, he was furloughed and said he received no support from the Korean government. Luckily, he had savings and friends to fall back on.

He also said he missed out on government support such as prepaid credit cards for groceries. Away from supporting businesses, part of the government’s support strategy for individuals and families was to send a cheque of up to one million South Korean won (€775) to families in the bottom 70 per cent income bracket.

O’Colgain said a friend of his wife’s, who he says works in the education sector, was furloughed and delivered takeaway food by foot to get by.

Blood had also planned to go back to Ireland while he was furloughed but his flights had been cancelled four times. “Eventually I had to give up, I couldn’t go home, I was stuck here,” he said.

People queue for masks in Daegu
People queue for masks in Daegu

Blood said he’d usually try to get home once a year. As time went on, he says it became difficult being away from friends and family in Ireland for so long. “It was hard, you know, my sister’s baby is not a baby anymore, he’s a fully grown toddler now.

“That’s hard, especially when parents are sick and things like that. Of course, you have Skype and you have Zoom and Facebook and stuff but you can’t give somebody a hug over Facebook. Things like that are very hard.”

For O’Colgain, the pandemic has given him time to focus on work, which he says has been more productive in ways with everyone being at home and online. “It’s kind of funny, a lot of things have slowed down a lot, the weddings don’t happen, there are a lot of social events that people are just postponing. You’re not really missing out on much. It would be nice to see the family again sometime soon.” he said.

O’Halloran says at first “there was that strange sense of solidarity” in everyone experiencing something on this scale. “At home in Ireland it seemed that people’s lives were much more intimately impacted by the lockdowns and funnily enough, that made me a bit homesick and I wished that I could be there and taking part in the unique shared experience.”

'We graduated into Covid so that was very bleak. It felt like there was nothing in Ireland to kind of grab on to. There wasn’t really much in the way of hope'

Unlike O’Colgain and Blood, O’Halloran has made it back to Ireland since the pandemic began but says the sense of distance affected her when she knew she couldn’t just jump on a plane. “I’m relieved that no emergency occurred and all my friends and family came through safely. The loneliest time was perhaps when we couldn’t even send a letter home because the airmail service was suspended. . . I like to send my youngest niece and nephew a postcard every week. It felt so strange not to be allowed to do that for a full year,” she said.

Nicola Browne from Athlone and Adam Moran from Dalkey, both 25, haven’t been in Korea long. They moved over in September 2021.

The couple graduated in May 2020 from a film degree into an industry that had almost shut down. Moran got a job in Dunnes Stores and Browne moved home to live with her parents. “We graduated into Covid so that was very bleak. It felt like there was nothing in Ireland to kind of grab on to. There wasn’t really much in the way of hope. We studied film and we both had wanted to try and work in film or radio and the moment we graduated the entire industry just basically shut down,” Moran said, adding that there was a real sense of despair in the cohort they graduated with.

“I definitely struggled with my mental health after graduating,” Browne said.

Moran says working in Dunnes was an “informative experience” during the pandemic. There was a lot of talk of being an essential worker, he said, but “it all felt very hollow a lot of the time because people can be exceptionally horrible. With Covid, people were just that extra bit on edge,” Moran said.

'There’s always a sense of having to leave [Ireland] to actually grow. It’d be nice to just grow at home'

These experiences made them want to leave Ireland. After working, saving, living at home, and getting their TEFL qualifications, the pair moved to Korea, the light at the end of the tunnel.

Browne and Moran say they love living in Korea. They like how respectful and polite people are and that there are lots of things to do that don’t involve the pub or drinking.

A huge difference for them is their quality of life. As English teachers, their rent is paid for, so they have a lot more of their income to spend on other things. “We went from a year and a half of working sh**ty jobs and being stuck in our rooms and not having an awful lot to do to here, where we’re always out doing something new,” Browne says.

At the moment, they don’t know if they’ll stay in Korea longer than their year-long contract. “I could go back but I’d probably be sliding straight back into a job that doesn’t really feel like it goes anywhere,” Moran says.

“I’d be going back to live with my family,” Browne says.

Partly because of housing and partly because of job prospects back home, they say they’d be sacrificing a lot of independence if they moved to Ireland. “We’ve been empowered here to live independent lives as adults. We’re both 25, it was about time anyway. But I see so many people that I worked with, that we know, who are in their early 30s who are still stuck living with their parents, living a kind of semi-adult life, which doesn’t seem very appealing,” Moran said.

“There’s always a sense of having to leave [Ireland] to actually grow. It’d be nice to just grow at home.”

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
GO BACK
Error Image
The account details entered are not currently associated with an Irish Times subscription. Please subscribe to sign in to comment.
Comment Sign In

Forgot password?
The Irish Times Logo
Thank you
You should receive instructions for resetting your password. When you have reset your password, you can Sign In.
The Irish Times Logo
Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.
Screen Name Selection

Hello

Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
Forgot Password
Please enter your email address so we can send you a link to reset your password.

Sign In

Your Comments
We reserve the right to remove any content at any time from this Community, including without limitation if it violates the Community Standards. We ask that you report content that you in good faith believe violates the above rules by clicking the Flag link next to the offending comment or by filling out this form. New comments are only accepted for 3 days from the date of publication.