One thing that happens, no matter who you are, no matter what new country you decide to live in or how many vitamins you take, is that you are going to get sick in your new home. And in the first months of settling in, as you’re exposed to a slew of germs your body has never experienced, you’re going to be ill for weeks. Anyone who says they moved to China or Korea or Germany and didn’t almost immediately get the cold to end all colds is either a liar or a robot or—worst of all—a lying robot.
I’m sick. Again.
I’ve been fairly lucky by this point, only getting sick maybe once every other month after surviving that initial three week cold when I moved to Seoul. But this time I have strep throat, and I can’t really mess around with that.
Typically what I would do in the USA is head to the doctors or—if it was a Sunday—the small clinic in a grocery store down the street. If it was an excruciating pain, I’d head to the hospital, but as an American I need to be either in need of an amputation or have suddenly grown gills to go to a bonafide hospital. (Yeah, I didn’t have health insurance back home. One of the perks of unemployment.)
Then, if I was unable to move my sweaty, feverish body, I’d skip class or call in sick to work. In terms of work I’ve only done that four times in my life, and once was when I had such a high fever that I started talking to a loaf of bread. (Again, from strep.)
Things are a little different in Korea.
Most doctors and hospitals are closed after noon on Saturdays and all day Sundays, though you can find an occasional (expensive) clinic that is open. Some grocery stores have these too, but they’re often in huge chains like Homeplus that, by law, must close on the second and fourth Sunday of each month.
I have no idea what ancient Aztec god I offended, but I have always gotten ill on a Saturday night. And, of course this time, it’s the second Sunday of the month. The clinic is closed.
So, I say to myself, tomorrow I’ll head into the doctor’s as soon as it opens at 9 AM, stop at the pharmacy that’s always conveniently located beside a medical practitioner, and run to be at work by 10 AM. Korea has a different idea of what makes a good workforce, a good employee, and that does not include taking a day off for illness. In America, generally, I’ve always been told—or told those under me—to keep your sick ass home so you’re not the reincarnation of Typhoid fucking Mary.
I have absolutely no sick days in my contract. If I was dying, I have no doubt that my boss would send me home, but in Korea it has to be dire. One of my co-teachers broke her foot—at work—and went to the hospital to get a cast. She stayed the rest of the day to finish up teaching, and took exactly zero days off, walking around the school with crutches and ten kindergarteners in tow. Color me impressed.
If you’re an English teacher, there’s often no such thing as a ‘substitute teacher’ unless your school is overflowing with extra staff. Unlike in America where there’s a pool of help to call when a teacher is sick, in Korea you’ll likely need to either find your own replacement or suck it up. If you do head home as you are dripping with death, the other teachers have to rearrange their schedules to cover your classes. For me this is kind of a guilt trip, and the biggest reason I don’t want to call in sick…
Many people come to Korea with the idea that since they’re put into the nationalized health care program, most of their medical worries are over. And to a degree, they are. I’ll only pay USD$6 for my checkup tomorrow, the medicine won’t likely cost more than USD$5, and I even receive one tooth scaling per year on the plan! Not too shabby.
However, if something major happened, there is a huge chance I’d be up shit creek with out a paddle.
It does seem like every other month the expat community hosts a spate of fundraisers for friends who have come down with serious illnesses or been victim of an accident. I know a teacher who was fired for being in a hospital and not coming to work, thus also severing access to the health care plan. Luckily he eventually made it back to the States. These fundraisers—often paired with one taking place back in the expat’s hometown—aim to pay off the medical bills and purchase a plane ticket home. Fortunately, many times they are successful and ill expats are able to ‘escape’ the system.
Of course, I’d rather have insurance than no insurance, And it’s always possible to sign up for additional coverage from a travel insurance scheme via your home nation. Exotic illnesses are rare in Korea, but car accidents, for example, are not. In the time I’ve lived here, I’ve had one co-worker killed in a crash, learned of a local student being hit and killed a mile from my apartment, and actually been on a bus that slammed into a teenager riding a bicycle. (I’m not sure if he survived.) I’m not an expert on Korea by any means, but in the wake of the Sewol tragedy, many have been questioning whether Korea’s national ‘bali bali’ (hurry! hurry!) attitude is the best course. While it prompted the GDP and infrastructure to explode after the Korean War, some are now questioning what is being sacrificed when everyone is rushing. What safety is being pushed aside to add a few more cars to a ferry, to get to the bus stop a little quicker?
I have a lovely fever that’s switching my body from sweating like I’m back in Thailand to dreaming of a dowry of animal pelts to stave off the cold. My throat is raw and my body aches like I’ve run from a pack of zombies just two hours ago. (I didn’t run from zombies two hours ago. In fact, I napped for three hours like a cat on melatonin.) My boss is not a bad person; she just comes from a different culture than I do. So this morning I showered, dressed, even put on makeup, and was in the office before 10AM. I told the vice principal what was up—showed her my doctor’s note with the words ‘STREP’ and ‘CONTAGIOUS” and probably ‘DO NOT TOUUCH’ underlined. She backed away slowly, but said I’d have to wait for the principal to arrive in half an hour for the final verdict.
When she came in, she touched my forehead like I’m a ten-year-old (which, according to Confucian hierarchy I may as well be) and touched a mass of sweaty, burning flesh. She looked ready to puke at that, but told me to go home.
But, you know, if I felt better by 3PM, to come back and teach two classes.
(My co-teacher texted me not to come back.)