One of the most difficult cultural differences for many Westerners to accept in Korea is how sickness is dealt with in the professional environment.
At home, if you’re sick, you’re usually encouraged by your boss to go home, stop spreading your germs around the work environment, and rest up. You’ll be more productive with a day or two’s rest than you would be if you spent those days half passed out at your desk.
Not so in Korea. While Koreans will go to the doctor as soon as they catch a sniffle, they take the prescribed fistful of medicine (and usually a shot to the “hip”) and suffer through their time at work. It’s considered bad form to call in sick, especially to a school, where it means your co-workers have to scramble to cover your classes. While it’s standard to give 3 days a year sick-leave in a contract, you are encouraged not to make use of them. Some schools will only give you sick time if you are actually in a hospital bed.
Because of this culture clash, you’ll often hear that foreigners get sick more often than Koreans, with an implication that we are therefore weaker. There is no consideration of the fact that a minor cold or flu bug here is alien to our systems, and will hit us harder than it hits a Korean, who has had a lifetime to boost their immunity to this particular viral strain.
If you’re feeling a little under the weather, then the best advice is, suck it up, buttercup! Keep your sick days for being really deathly ill, because if you call in now you’ll face tougher times ahead. Some people have been fired for being sick to often, or had days of pay taken out of their salary. It’s not worth the hassle unless you’re really bedridden.
If you are suffering from a particularly bad cold or flu, go to the doctor. Get a note, get some pills, get the shot in the arse. These will help convince a sympathetic director that you need a days rest. But don’t expect more than a day.
One of my Korean co-workers was quite ill one winter, and needed to be on an iv drip several times a day. So she’d be in the hospital in the morning, come to work for a few hours, go back to the hospital over our dinner break, work for the rest of the evening, and then go to the hospital for the night. Whether this is an example of her extreme determination to please the boss by showing up, or of the boss’ extreme need for employees to be at work, I don’t know, but it was extreme.
For those of you working with children, remember, kids are covered in germs! Washing your hands often throughout the day will help, but since no one covers their mouths when they cough or sneeze, you are going to get sick. Make sure you fortify yourself with lots of vitamin C, healthy food, and plenty of rest. If you catch something, chicken soup, or sam geh tang does wonders, as does the Korean Mothers remedy of juk (rice porridge). And if all else fails, kimchi apparently cures everything!
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