Being Sick in Korea

June 13, 2011

Sick Day

I’m not exaggerating when I say last night I was so feverish I could have eaten a banana without peeling it and not noticed the difference. For some reason I feel compelled to keep spouting details of just how sick I was… sweating the whole night, barely able to stand, certainly not able to run (worst part), and yet… I still went into work for morning and afternoon classes?

Why, you might ask?

I didn’t consider the behavior one exhibits when sick as a cultural trait. After all, when you’re sick, I thought most people behaved the same way: in agony. But that’s not true at all (well, the agony part is). Some people are more likely to put on a brave face and go about their business like nothing is wrong with them, and this is an aspect of culture. Some want the company of family and friends around them when they’re ill; some prefer to be left alone, so as to not be an inconvenience. There’s a Japanese film I saw a while back about a young couple in Tokyo; the girl is diagnosed with cancer, and she chooses to break things off with him rather than admit she’s sick. He eventually finds out and stays with her to the end, but her reaction is telling. Is this purely a case of individual choice, or does your background influence your sick behavior?

I’m a bad example of American sick culture (trademark). From first to twelfth grade, I was absent precisely two days. Surely I must have been sick more often than that? Yes, I was, and I demanded my parents drive me to school anyway. The reason? I didn’t want to fall behind. School was so much the center of my life it was inconceivable for me to miss a day, to not turn in homework when the teacher told me too; this had nothing to do with strict teachers or parents. It was ALL me.

And apparently, my sick behavior growing up – I ended up staying in bed when I was sick at university – is pretty close to that of Korean people. The motivation is different. When you’re sick, you’re still expected to go to work to show diligence to your job. Students must go to school. You may recall me writing about a confrontation I had with my boss some months back regarding a student who was clearly too sick to focus on speaking English:

“Maybe you don’t understand… difficult to explain… this is Korean culture. Mother say ‘kids, go to school’ even when sick.”

At the same, I just chalked it up to “mother culture” or strict parents. But, of course, my American arrogance didn’t really let me hear what he was saying, and it took me some time, listening to other teachers’ stories and reading about Korean culture, to realize I had overlooked an important part of teaching in Korea. Yes, I’m sure you will find British and Australian mothers who tell their kids to “suck it up” and go to school, but in Korea, it’s about showing the effort, even if no results are produced:

While I understand this, having exhibited the same behavior myself, I just can’t agree with it. The germiest profession of all is teaching (not to mention at international schools!); you’re exposed to students from different environments, different immunities, different illnesses. While this combination seldom results in anything dangerous, it can be rather harmful for teachers and students alike:

– One sick teacher could mean one hundred sick students
– One sick student could mean twenty more

It’s a vicious sick cycle in Korea when no one is willing to stay home unless they’re deathly ill, enough to require a hospital visit. It’s a wonder I’ve been able to stay healthy this long, with my students constantly recirculating the same illnesses for months, if not years.

I don’t have a solution for this. All I can say for now is my hagwon boss is pretty accommodating: he’s seen how sick I am, and although he doesn’t tell me to “take a rest” at home, he has been willing to let me sit down in my classes and even cut them short. Still, it’s not enough. I want to be in Seoul this weekend, but if I continue working in what needs to be a high-energy environment, I won’t recover at all. If anything, I feel worse today than yesterday.

What are some things you can do in Korea when you’re sick?

– Drink green or ginseng (인삼) tea. I sure am.
– Anything with ginseng should work. Try the packets aged six years.
– “Take a rest” i.e. get some rest. I try so hard to teach them this fine point.
– Soju with pepper. Sweat it out.
– Enjoy a soak in a bathhouse or hot springs. I believe I’ll do that as well.

In the meantime, I hope everyone out there is feeling healthy, wealthy and wise.

2 Responses to Being Sick in Korea

  1. Chris in South Korea on June 13, 2011 at 8:53 pm

    Hopefully you’ve found a pharmacy to supply you with one of the magic boxes to cure what ails you.

    You’d actually want to avoid the jimjilbang if you’re contagious – ESPECIALLY if you look sick. Think about what you share at a jimjilbang – naked bodies, hot water… If you’re going to go, just take a quick shower and head to the hot rooms.

    On a final note, I don’t necessarily treat my kids any differently because they’re sick, tired, not feeling well, or whatever. The first time you let a kid slide (putting their head on the table, falling asleep, not responding to your question), the other kids will pick up on that and fake the same. If they’re GENUINELY sick, they’re taken to the front desk where one of the staff can call their mom or find some medicine for them.

  2. Jimmy on June 14, 2011 at 1:04 am

    I completely agree with this. I don’t see the logic in sending your children to school when they are sick, only so they can then go on to infect other children. It’s especially surprising when it happens in a society that is supposed to be collectivist, which is supposed to put the wellbeing of the group ahead of the individual.

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