She helped South Korea when needed. In the pandemic, it rewarded her.


Sandra Nathan spent 1966-1968 in a South Korean town as a young Peace Corps volunteer, teaching English to high school girls. Fifty-two years later, Nathan, now back in the United States, received a care package from South Korea that almost made him cry.

Nathan, 75, felt increasingly isolated at his home in Stephentown, New York. Reports of the explosion in the number of COVID-19 cases in the United States had made her anxious to come out, where experts warned of the second and third waves of infection.

Then, earlier this month, she received packaging labeled “COVID-19 Survival Box”. It was a gift from the South Korean government that contained 100 masks and other items “as a token of our gratitude for your dedication to Korea.”

“It was like this box had been happening to me since 1968,” says Nathan, a retired labor and civil rights lawyer. “There was something magical about the box. Some people, Koreans, very far away, wanted to make sure I was okay; that I had what I needed to fight a bad disease. They behaved as if they cared about me and were responsible for me.

Decades ago, South Koreans felt the same about Nathan and 2,000 other Peace Corps volunteers. When young Americans were teachers and health workers from 1966 to 1981, South Korea was a developing country stricken with disease, dictatorship, poverty, and destruction left by the Korean War.

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South Korea is now one of the richest countries in the world and its response to the coronavirus pandemic has been touted as an example for other countries, even as it faces a slight increase in cases. In October, to repay some of its debt, the government-run Korea Foundation said it was sending its COVID-19 Survival Boxes to 514 former Peace Corps volunteers.

“Thanks in large part to the help received from the Peace Corps,” Korea Foundation Chairman Lee Geun said in a letter in the box, “Korea has since achieved an economic breakthrough.”

Nathan joined the Peace Corps after graduating from the University of Chicago. She was among the first volunteers to arrive in South Korea and was posted to Chunchon, in the north, where she taught English at a local high school. She was 21.

The country around Chunchon was beautiful. Its pines were graceful, and azaleas covered its hills in spring. But most of the streets were dirt roads. The children went out without shoes. After dark, Nathan could hear rats running through the ceilings. Plumbing was generally non-existent.

Sandra Nathan taught a class in South Korea in the late 1960s as a Peace Corps volunteer. | SANDRA NATHAN / VIA THE NEW YORK TIMES

“An ongoing debate among the volunteers was whether Time or Newsweek was more absorbing,” Nathan said in an email interview. “Toilet paper was not available. “

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Both magazines came with pages blacked out by government censors. Crude anti-Communist propaganda was everywhere. While in South Korea, North Korea captured a US Navy ship, the USS Pueblo, off its coast and sent armed commandos across the border to attack the presidential palace. South Korean.

On winter mornings Nathan broke the ice in a plastic container to wash himself. His school was a sad and messy place where the classrooms were heated by a single coal stove.

“I started to feel uncomfortably cold so that when I wasn’t teaching I would regularly follow the sun that swirled through the windows around the school building,” she says. “Even when it was very cold, the students did not wear coats to school or to morning assemblies, and probably no one had a coat.

But Nathan developed strong emotional bonds with his students, eager to learn English. She once took a poor and sick girl to an American military doctor for treatment for intestinal parasites, a common problem in Korea at the time. The girl’s mother later arrived at school and presented Nathan with several hot eggs, soft gray feathers still attached.

“The eggs, which I’m sure my student and his mother needed themselves, expressed such gratitude that I was on the verge of tears,” she said.

The irony of the reversal of fortunes during the pandemic has not escaped him.

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South Korea continues to keep the coronavirus largely under control, in part thanks to its aggressive contact tracing. Although he has recently faced a slight increase in infections, this is nothing compared to what is happening in the United States, where New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has announced tough new restrictions in the state of origin of Nathan.

In August, she received the offer from the Korean Foundation to send her the gift box. She agreed, wondering if this was just a PR coup for the South Korean government.

“I didn’t think much about it until the box arrived on Saturday, November 7, ironically the day the US presidential election was called for Joe Biden,” she wrote.

Nathan said she delayed opening the package for about a week because she wanted to preserve the wonderful feeling it gave her.

In addition to the masks, the box also included gloves, skin care products, ginseng candy, a silk fan, and two sets of silver chopsticks and spoons with the traditional Korean turtle pattern.

“I’m a practical person, generally reluctant to take ideas that are not based on fact,” Nathan wrote. “But there was definitely something magical about the box.”

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