Sick in South Korea

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After three years in South Korea I’ve finally fallen ill. It’s been a good run, but something eventually had to give. For the past two days I’ve been either perched on the toilet or writhing in agony in my bed in the prelude to another visit to the toilet. Graphic stuff, I know. Apologies.

If you’re teaching in South Korea chances are you’ll eventually fall ill. Most everybody who comes to the peninsula gets the ‘greeting present’ of a nasty cold or three before their immune system adjusts to the change in environment. My poor girlfriend Kimberly hasn’t managed to have a healthy day since she got here and I remember my first six months here being a string of frustrating head colds from which I’d never fully recover before the next one started in.

The first thing you need to know about Korea is that sick days are virtually unheard of. Koreans almost never take them, and I’ve had co-workers on the verge of collapse still soldier on. They say it’s a way to show their dedication, but it’s more about saving face and not appearing weak. Only in a country like Korea would employees be encouraged to come to work when they are deathly ill and possibly infectious. It extends to the children as well. The stink of kimchi vomit in my classroom still haunts me three years after I witnessed its explosive introduction into the world.

Public school teachers have the benefit of up to 11 sick days and they don’t seem to get the same harassment that we humble private school employees are subjected to. I had to actually fight to get three sick days in my current contract and the reaction when I’ve asked to use them has been akin to emotional blackmail. Lots of sighing and moaning and reminders that everybody else will have to work extra hard to cover for me. If I were capable of being away from my toilet for fifteen minutes I’d be doing something more entertaining that sitting in my bed watching episodes of (the admittedly very good) Bored to Death on my laptop. This isn’t my idea of a fun way to spend time away from work.

So, if you need the day off – don’t be surprised if your boss tries to guilt you into coming in despite your symptoms. They might even tell you that you have to work. I know my first employer took that tone with my co-worker and I when we had requested time to recuperate from our brush with influenza. But if it’s in your contract and you need it – TAKE IT! You’re not Korean and you’re sick. If you don’t think you can work, don’t make yourself miserable by going in.

If you do take a day off, you’ll almost certainly be asked to ‘go to the hospital’. Don’t be alarmed. It’s not as serious as it sounds. Koreans seem to use ‘hospital’ as a catch all term that includes the many private practices around the country – and even if you’re not in a city serviced by a number of English speaking physicians – most doctors tend to be educated enough that they can speak a few words of English. Coupled with your grasp of basic Korean, you should be able to make your symptoms known and get some advice. And if you’ve got an Alien Registration Card (a requirement if you’re teaching here) – you’re not going to paymore than 2000 to 4000 won for your visit. That’s the equivalent of $2-$4! You’ll obviously be looking at more if you need X-Rays or blood tests or the like, but that’s a pretty cheap visit by anybody’s standards.

Korean herbal remedies. Photo by Kimberly Calkins.

Prescription medication is also cheap. In the past two days I’ve been given all manner of random drugs (in nondescript packaging) and paid 4000 won for four days worth of medication. Much cheaper than I’d have paid back in Australia, and we’ve got a pretty fantastic healthcare system to rely on.

Of course, Korea’s also a country that is relatively new to Western medicine. Don’t be surprised if concerned co-workers ply you with various herbal remedies. During a vomiting bout earlier this year my employer’s mother brought me some disgusting fruit juice that I had to dilute and microwave before drinking. It very nearly made me vomit again. There’s weird ginseng drinks, disgusting dried herbal powders you’re supposed to chew or mix into water depending on who you speak to, and the various old wive’s tales as well.

“Eat kimchi,” is a common one. I was told to treat my current diarrhea with that particular spicy cabbage dish. I opted for the more conventional mix of bananas and dry toast. Now excuse me while I return to my porcelain throne…

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