In the past one year, the pandemic has rendered commercial flights not only between South Korea and Vietnam but also between Vietnam and many other countries in the world scarce and unpredictable. There are many Vietnamese students studying in South Korea who have boarded what is so-called a rescue flight to return to Vietnam. Vietnamese students at Ewha are not of exception.
One question arises: Why are these flights called “rescue flights”? Are these students trying to escape South Korea? Do these flights serve as a salvation for students who are stuck in the country? These facts might be true for the early period of the pandemic – early 2020 – when South Korea faced its first ferocious wave of COVID-19. At that time, Vietnam did not yet have its first community case, was providing both free quarantine facilities and COVID-19 treatment, and thus was seen as a safe haven for Vietnamese people. That is why the period witnessed a huge flock of Vietnamese diaspora flying back into the country from very corner of the world.
The situation is different now. The quarantine regulations and medical treatment fees in Vietnam have undergone modifications, while South Korea has also made efforts to attend to the needs of foreign residents in the country, adjusting its regulations and introducing new ones to benefit this group. For example, new measures released in August 2020 exempts the COVID-19 treatment costs for Vietnamese people entering South Korea before August 24th. Although Vietnam still has a smaller number of COVID-19 cases in comparison to South Korea, the former has experienced three waves of the virus and put through the test of un-trackable cases within the community. At the same time, South Korea constantly sees a relatively steady number of cases, with upsurges from time to time. I wonder whether flying out of South Korea and into Vietnam at this time can still be considered “escape” or “rescue”.
Labelling these sporadic flights into the country ‘rescue flights’ puts the Vietnamese government in the position of a savior and portrays Vietnam as aperpetual safe haven. At the same time, other countries are perceived as sites of danger and harm. It is reasonable, therefore, to argue that embedded in this label is a nationalistic message where the dichotomy between motherland – Vietnam – and foreign land – in this case, South Korea – is accentuated and highlighted in Vietnamese people’s perceptions. Not only is this message conveyed to passengers on these rescue flights, but it also reaches the domestic audience. Media coverage of these flights reiterates the slogan of “Leaving no one behind in the fight against COVID-19”, depicting Vietnamese diasporas as “craving news about return flights to Vietnam”. On the one hand, such coverage partially reflects the truth. Yet when repeated without updates on the reality, which is bound to change after one year of the pandemic, such reiteration may paint a uniform picture of Vietnamese people living abroad being underprivileged and having no choice but to return to Vietnam for fair treatment. If coverage of these rescue flights can be diversified to narrate more aspects of the story, explaining the true motivations behind the decision of Vietnamese people abroad to find a way back into the country, updating the new reality of Vietnamese people’s living conditions during the pandemic outside of Vietnam, subjectivity of this group can be restored and pluralized.
“I just wanted to return to Vietnam because of some family business. I actually did not try to “escape” anything”, said a 21-year-old Vietnamesestudent at Ewha. Her comment is echoed by a 22-year-old Vietnamese student, who further explained that “since Korea, albeit constantly surrounded in covid headlines and chatter, is still a very safe and self-sustainable place for independent adults to take temporary shelter under, people won’t necessarily feel like they have to ‘escape’ from the place”. Their stories of boarding a rescue flight are different from the worn- off narrative of a Vietnamese stuck in a foreign country and desperately looking for a way to get back. It is likely that there are more passengers like her on these flights, yet they are all measured up against the same benchmark of “actively searching for a way out of the foreign country”. As the latter student reflected, it might be the “dramatizing media” that partially contributes to this dominant discourse.
Although it is undeniable that these flights build a bridge between South Korea and Vietnam in an era of closed borders, do they deserve a different name that better reflects their nature and avoids connotations that advance a political agenda? Should media coverage of these flights take into account subjective voices of the passengers, who may have more stories to tell than simply “wanting to leave the foreign land for the motherland”?Instead of a generalized, linear story, the narrative surrounding rescue flights may be more discursive and complex than it is depicted. Just like any other picture, if you look closely enough, there is always more than black and white.