They Must Know That You Are Diligent: Getting Sick in Korea

Getting sick is never fun. But it’s especially uncomfortable when you’re working in Korean schools and are don’t really get a chance to take a break. Here’s what it’s like getting sick while teaching in Korea. Packed with informative videos.

I can’t remember the last time I took a sick day.

And that doesn’t mean only here in Korea, I mean I can’t remember the last time I took a sick day. Period. I’ve never been big on sick days, mostly because I’ve spent the majority of my life working jobs where not going to work means not getting paid.

Guess what I have in my hands? Influenza! Photo by Michael Johnstone

Guess what I have in my hands? Influenza!
Photo by Michael Johnstone

When most foreigners come to Korea, they find themselves assautled by a battery of new bacteria, viruses, and contagious delights. My theory, though I’m not certain how scientific it is, holds that the majority of illnesses are probably localized. The viruses you run into in Canada, for example, by and large are not the same strains that you run into in Korea, on the opposite side of the globe. I postulate this theory because as I tell every new teacher: you’re going to get sick–very sick–for a long time.

The first few weeks you’re okay. And then all hell breaks loose in your body. A sudden plague of symptoms, from sore throats to headaches, coughing and hacking, sniffling and wheezing. You’re probably going to be sick for a month or two, rookie. You’ll be sick on and off for the first few months, at least.

"Teacher, have you seen my germ-cannon?" Photo by Michael Johnstone

“Teacher, have you seen my germ-cannon?”
Photo by Michael Johnstone

Part of this is close proximity with children. Those adorable little rugrats you’re playing with every day are cesspools of germs. They don’t wash their hands properly, they touch everything they see, and they have the tendency to sneeze directly in your face, if given the opportunity. Korean children, especially in kindergarten (but also in elementary) are far more physically affectionate than those back in most western nations. They love holding hands, sitting on laps, stroking your arm hair with fascinated bewilderment (Koreans typically have almost no hair on their arms and legs, even after puberty. They want to give hugs and they want to be piggybacked. And through all of this, they’re covering you with germs.

I show this video to my students every year, in the hopes they’ll cough and sneeze away from me.



But here’s the worst part, rookie teacher. The drugs here are not the industrial grade, body stoning, floating-through-the-air kind that you’re used to back home. Here you have to ask the pharmacist at the counter for all your medication–none of this “take it off the shelf” stuff. NyQuil? Not here. Medications are not very strong, so unless you fly over with a suitcase of the green dragon (which I highly recommend) you’re going to find yourself drinking an entire bottle of cough syrup and wondering why you can still feel your fingers.

Unfortunately, calling in sick isn’t really much of an option in Korea. At least not for Koreans. Unless you’re in the hospital, you’re expected to show up for work, not matter what the symptoms. Sure, you might have two or three sick days in your contract, but it’s going to be tricky to actually use them. Better to save them up and get a bonus at the end of the year–most schools will give you cash if you don’t use those sick days up. The problem is, they’re not hiring any more staff than they need, and substitutes are rare and difficult to get on short notice. So if you’re not there, the kids are screwed. Sure, you might have  a co-worker who is able to take your students, but how would you feel if you went in one day to find out that you had double the students to teach.

There was one instance in my first year where a foreign teacher called in sick and I got stuck with his class. Except our classrooms only accommodated 6-8 students per room. So I taught two classes at the same time in two different classrooms. Running back and forth between the two, I literally gave directions to one class, hurried to the other, gave their directions, and bounced back and forth checking work and answering questions. It was a triumph of multitasking, but not an experience I want to repeat. 

So back to calling in sick.

Korean society is highly competitive. Imagine a nation of high-achieving college graduates all fighting for a limited pool of jobs. Employers want the most dedicated employees, and if you’re hoping for a promotion in the next 10 years, you need to show that you’re the best and most dependable there is. And so everyone shows up coughing and spewing and passing on their delightful illnesses to everyone else they work with who in turn show up and cough over everyone else. You can see how this rather closely follows the plot to Contagion.



And the cycle continues. To make matters worse, springtime brings with it yellow dust storms that aggravate any symptoms you might have. Air quality can make a sudden turn for the worse, and suddenly you’re staring down the barrel of laryngitis, which I had never experienced in my life until moving to Asia.

I’ve been sick this past week. I’d love to do the right thing and call in sick so my students don’t catch whatever it is that’s making my throat swell up like a waterlogged sausage. I’d love a day off to get extra sleep and take a large quantity of NyQuil. But I can’t. Because the following day would likely end up like this:



Oh, and the bathroom situation isn’t much better. At least it’s spring?


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