On one of our first days here, when I was sitting in the Main Press Center, that same buzz echoed through the giant tent. Some of us looked down at our phones to see a notification, one that included a triangle with an exclamation point in the center and the words “Emergency Alert” – followed by a message written entirely in Korean. In other words, it included the perfect ratio of English to Korean to incite absolute terror.
We are in Korea. I do not expect the Korean emergency alert staff to cater to English speakers. But it struck me in that moment that, given the choice between translating one part or nothing at all, I probably would have preferred to live in ignorance, and just assumed the WiFi was out or something like that — you know, a real crisis.
Regardless, the message put into motion a plan I had decided during a particularly morbid stretch of thought on the 14-hour plane ride here. If, for some reason, it looked like the end was near, I wouldn’t text my family until I was absolutely certain of my fate. But I would get a head start on my friends, since (at least in my mind) that’s a slightly bigger group, and they’re more able to handle a scare.
So, not knowing what the alert said (and not being able to paste into Google Translate because, as one might expect for something built to inform as many people as possible about impending doom, it did not allow for copy and paste), I assumed the worst. I came here knowing the risks, understanding the proximity to North Korea, understanding the fear and worry that had caused for my family. I came here wondering about the true nature of those risks myself. Would I feel in constant terror? Would tension hover over everything?
Well, until that very moment, the answer had been no. But when I saw that notification, I made a natural assumption. The missile was coming. Implement the plan.
So I texted a couple friends, who had apparently decided to stay strong on my behalf. One responded a few minutes later. “Sorry, I’m on the phone.” Another responded a few hours later. “Sorry I missed these!”
Absent a response from friends who had been, to that point, near the top of my list, I figured I should be sure my time on earth was ending before texting my family goodbye. I frantically searched Twitter (while trying to be cool for my wholly unconcerned officemates), while remembering what another friend had done when she was in Hawaii for the missile scare: She and her husband went for pancakes, figuring they couldn’t do much better than that at the end. As I hunted for an explanation, I tackled that age-old end-of-days question: I can’t tolerate gluten, but in my final hours, should I go for a pancake anyway?
Eventually, I asked Twitter for help translating the alert: Fire in the countryside.
“Nice of them to let me know,” I thought. “At least I know who gets a Christmas card next year.”
Quickly, I put the incident behind me.
Not a week later, another buzz, another panic. I knew better than to text before translating this time. This time, the trouble was a magnitude five earthquake in the south of the country. Earthquakes meet my emergency standards. I gave them that one.
But over the last week, emergency alert after emergency alert rolled in. More fires in the distant countryside. High winds, a translation I found on Twitter as high winds nearly blew my phone out of my hand. Eventually, I started dismissing them like I do every notification suggesting I update my phone. I know others are reacting similarly. Most people don’t even care to find out what they say.
Before I arrived, I wondered if I would exist in perpetual anxiety at these Olympics. Fortunately, the South Korean alert system has alleviated all my fears by creating ones I didn’t know I had. Saturday night, when that latest alert hit my phone, I realized if the end was near, I would just assume there was a fire in the countryside, and therefore wouldn’t panic. At that point, it wouldn’t do much anyway. I haven’t found the pancakes here yet.
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