Sickness in Korea


The lack of private toilet time isn’t the only problem I have with working in a Korean kindergarten. Every few weeks I seem to get some new illness. Either due to the lack of hygiene from the kids (Hey, I’ll just sneeze in your face, ok?!) Or more annoyingly the kids who do understand hygiene and decide to use it against you (Hahaha! I’m going to cough right in your face…so funny!)

Inevitably you get sick, but you can’t do much about it. The annoying thing about hagwons is they open before the hospitals and shut after them. The working hours are so long that there’s no time to go to see a doctor. Unless you want to be the stupid white idiot who goes to the emergency room after work with a sore throat.

Worse than this, there’s an immense amount of social pressure to not take a day off. The unspoken rule seems to be that unless you’re dying, you should be in work.

The pressure is somewhat understandable. In order to make more money the schools have just the right level of staffing. Enough teachers to cover all lessons but not absences.

Back home in England and in Canada, I’ve never had a job where it would be the end of the world if I was sick. I’d just call up, say I’m sick and my boss would probably just say “All right, see you tomorrow.”

In Korea, I can just picture the reaction to a sick day. One of anger, disappointment and disgust. So when I’m sick I peel myself away from my bed each morning and groan my way into work like a zombie. Coughing all over the kids and teachers.

Unfortunately I’m not the only one being pressurised into going to school when I’m ill. The kids are too. Either because their parents are too busy working to look after them or don’t want them to miss a day of their education. (Which is lacklustre because I’m sick.)

The main consequence of all this is that when one kid is sick, the other kids get sick too and then soon enough it’s the teachers. Everybody is sick at all times. But since nobody stays at home this isn’t really a problem. We all come to school and soldier on. It works like a not very well oiled machine for everyone.

Eventually the machine breaks. Your body can’t take being sick and exhausted all the time, you have to say enough is enough. Not by taking a sick day, but by hading to the hospital on a weekend.

Hospitals in Korea are amazing production lines. You and dozens of others get quickly shuttled between departments and receptionists until you find yourself sitting across from a doctor who can help you.

The downside to this production line is each section has to process you quickly. Including the doctor. If the doctor spends more than a few minutes with you, the production line gets backed up creating a traffic jam within the rest of the departments. This has a ripple effect causing major problems all over the hospital.

To get you out quickly the doctor simply asks you a few questions, makes an immediate diagnosis and sends you on your way to the next stop. The final stop is always the pharmacy, which is thankfully just as efficient as everything else.

Back in England a trip to the pharmacy takes 20 minutes. You head in to the empty shop, hand over your prescription and you’re told to sit. The pharmacist disappears into the back of the shop where you see shelves stacked with pills. You sit there for what seems like hours wondering how it can take so long to get 10 tablets. (Are they literally in the back with the chemicals making them?) After a long wait they come back with your pills and basically tell you to piss off.

In Korea they just have a magical machine that does all the work for them. Your pills are sealed into little paper packets. Each packet to be taken with each meal. It takes 2 minutes and costs about the same as a bus ticket for the prescription.

This isn’t to say that Korea has an amazing medical system. It’s cheap but then you get what you pay for. The doctor doesn’t take long enough to make a decent diagnosis which I’m sure leads to misdiagnosis a lot of the time.

The solution to all problems is a bucket full of pills to get your body back to being healthy.

Or almost healthy, because in the life of a hagwon teacher you’re always going to end up sacrificing your health for another day of work.

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Photo by Emily Orpin

8 thoughts on “Sickness in Korea”

  1. Everywhere has it’s pros and cons right? I hate receiving the stink eye when I’ve been off sick. even worse when you made arrangements to come to work late because you need to go to the doctor or the bank, and you get the stink eye as if you’re simply being tardy. Oh and how we get reprimanded like children for being late, but when you work late no one cares

    1. Definite pros and cons. I think when I was living in Canada, unless I had a serious illness I would never have gone to the doctor as it would have meant extortionate medical bills. At least in Korea when you do manage to get to the doctor it’s cheap.

      1. my logic, i only go to the doctor if im sick enough to deserve some sick leave. i’m not going to pay R300 for a 3 minute diagnosis, just to go back to work again. so i only go if i know im gonna be at home for at least 3 or 4 days.

  2. I worked at a preschool in the U.S. a while back and the same attitude prevails! I spent that year sick every two weeks. As soon as I started to get better, I would catch something else. I was basically told to only miss if I was actively vomiting. I have a great immune system now though, so I guess it paid off in some ways.

  3. Actually, recently I had my first day off in three & a half years. I got the one illness I always told myself I will not work with: sickness and the runs. I always promised myself that if I was forced to work with that, then I would quit that day and leave them in the lurch. Fortunately, I have a more understanding school, a quiet English Village in the country, where despite only a few staff members, the amount of classes is much less. I thought to myself though, if I had been at one of my previous Hagwons, I would have been looking for a new job. That’s Korea for you.

    1. Yeah, one of our co-teachers took a day off after hurting her back. Our head teacher told us that if she didn’t come in the next day they’d be getting a new teacher. Kind of crazy.

      We had one kid who was so sick that we’d give him a plastic bag at the start of the lesson which he’d vomit into every few minutes. This went on for around two weeks. Also kind of crazy.

  4. This shit doesn’t happen at just hagwons. Imagine having a Korean parent. I still remember when I ran a fever of 104 in grade school. It was so bad, the teacher took me out of class. The school called my mom and she told me to walk home. She told me to take a nap, and then an hour later, she came back from work…only to drive me back to school. Of course I bombed my test that day. So my mom hit me with a stick for every problem I missed. Forget the bad media about Tiger Moms. My mom was Godzilla Mom. She said she would thank me for it when I got older.

    1. Yeah, there are definitely parents at our school that do this. One girl told me that if she gets answers wrong on the spelling test then she gets hit. I hate to say it though, but often these children are the ones that are best at English. Fear is a good motivator.

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