Getting sick in Korea

This week I developed one of the more intense colds I’ve had since coming to Korea. I’ve only had a handful of them (which I’m sure would be a different story if I were working in elementary), and they’ve never been an impedance to my general routine.

On Saturday evening I could feel it coming on – the dreaded sore throat. My boyfriend and I ate the Korean version of chicken noodle soup (닭 칼국수) for dinner, which was absolutely perfect:


Chicken, thick chewy noodles, 김 (dried seaweed), zucchini. mmmm

On Sunday the virus hit me hard enough to keep me in bed basically all day, surrounded by various electronic devices, eating Haagen-Dazs (which recently made a miraculous and pricey appearance at the convenience store), and watching Big Hero on TV (in Korea they change Hiro’s brother’s name from Tadashi Hamada to Teddy Armada because Japan is bad, rabblerabblerabble). My boyfriend also brought me 죽, which is rice porridge and something basically all Koreans eat when they’re sick. (Have I mentioned Koreans are excellent caregivers?)


Picture from this travel site. I was too sick to remember to take a picture, and besides, theirs is much prettier than mine would’ve been.

Monday was survival mode. After one of my kind co-teachers witnessed my voice give out on me multiple times while I tried to teach the 3rd graders about Thanksgiving (at one point helplessly gesturing towards the turkey on the PPT and whispering, “What is it?”, which everyone found hilarious), she bustled me down to the nurse’s office, where I received Ssanghwatang (also called Ssanghwa Gold):


This traditional Korean herbal medicine drink first tastes faintly of molasses and orange peel, then very abruptly tastes like tree bark and dirt. I don’t know how much good it did me but I suppose it can’t hurt!

The nurse also gave me a Lifesaver-shaped eucalyptus lozenge and a vitamin C pill. Koreans don’t do pain relievers. Good luck finding ibuprofen around here, even in the pharmacies.

Today, Tuesday, my voice decided to leave the building (err, my throat). For each of my classes today, I told the kids that they would have to listen very carefully. Their reactions to hearing my scratchy voice were very sweet, as many of them burst out with the textbook expression “That’s too bad! I hope you get well soon!” One class yelled “AWWWWW!” when I tried to raise the pitch of my voice and achieved only a squeaky sound. hahaha. And later, as I was walking around, one of the kids said, “Teacher, are you okay?” in an I know you said you’re okay for appearances’ sake, but are you REALLY okay? tone, which was cute.

On the downside, disciplining is much harder when you actually can’t raise your voice and you sound like a mouse.

In summary, while being sick in Korea certainly has its unique cons:

  • sick days aren’t really a thing – I mean, you have them, but unless you’re on your deathbed you should really come to work feeling like death just like everyone else, you lazy bum;
  • outside of Seoul, you probably need a trusted coworker or friend to come with you to the doctor / pharmacy to translate;
  • and if you’re really sick and need to visit the hospital, just… make sure you wash your hands… a LOT… if you can actually find soap and hot water… and don’t touch anything… and watch out for people carrying around their uncovered Dixie cups full of urine that could spill everywhere at any moment;

… it also has its pros:

  • everyone will try to take care of you (if you let them know you’re sick);
  • if you need to see a doctor and get some medicine, it will probably cost you less than $5, and if you’re good enough at acting and learn a few key Korean words, you might not even need a translator friend;
  • if it’s cold outside, you can come in and turn on the ondol floor heat and lay on your delicious warm floor.

Thankfully I was ahead enough on my lesson planning that I could afford not to do anything the last few days except focus on teaching class and getting through the day. But now that I’m recovering (except for my vocal cords), it’s back to the grindstone.

Stay healthy, everyone!


hello, fall

November has been outshining October this year on the autumn beauty scale.

My kids have been outshining their former selves on the behavior scale as well.

I have no idea what prompted it, but hey, I’ll take it. I’m halfway through a week of (relatively) polite, attentive, mild-mannered classes. Teachers say the full moon makes kids go crazy, but since mine were already there, maybe Monday’s supermoon had the reverse effect.

Started a Thanksgiving lesson today. I was tentative about having them make “hand turkeys” like most of us did in elementary school, worried that 15-year-olds would dismiss the craft as childish and boring – but to my surprise they got into it, painstakingly tracing their hands, detailing the turkey’s face, wings, and feet, and carefully writing what they were thankful for on the “feathers”. And contrary to what happens with most worksheets or handouts I give them, not a single one was left behind, crumpled, or thrown out after class. I’d consider that a win.

Tomorrow is the Korean SAT (수능), the university entrance exam that senior high school students have literally been studying for all year. I pray there won’t be any suicides. The already-high rates tend to spike during the week of 수능 as teenagers who have had it pounded into their heads for almost 18 years that their lives are worthless without {good SAT score -> good university -> good career} make the terrible and heartbreaking decision to end their lives. The stress and shame of receiving a poor score can actually be that horribly overwhelming in Korea. It’s a very deep societal problem.

A really sweet, kind 3rd grade student recently told a co-teacher and I that he was applying to a technical high school. He was really excited about it, but a week later he came to tell us that he failed the entrance test (yes, even high schools have entrance exams here) and was therefore giving up on going to high school entirely (which is legal). My co-teacher and I urged him to keep trying with other schools. Today he once again visited our office and told my CT in Korean that he wouldn’t give up. She told him to tell me in English. “Teacher… I no high school,” he said. “Ah! No. I won’t give up high school.”

The best part of every Wednesday is that my last class of the day includes one of the sweetest students in this school. He is a 15-year-old with autism/Asperger’s, always kind, always tries to participate in class, and always stays after class to clean my classroom, meticulously straighten the desks and pick up scraps of paper. As the year has progressed, we’ve formed a good relationship even though he can’t speak English super well. He doesn’t let the language barrier stop him from communicating with me.

Today he slowly but surely explained the bus system to me, including which bus companies run in our area, the bus numbers, and that on weekdays, the bus stop in front of [Apartment Name] has many people, but on weekends, it has not many people. Then, as always, he asked for my approval: “English Zone is… to clean… good?” and only left after receiving my thumbs up and “Yes, very nice! Thank you!”

autumn night.jpg

walking home from school, 5:59 p.m.

bright spots on a gloomy monday

On Mondays, I fear for my vocal cords.

(vocal nodules are sometimes called ‘teacher’s nodules’, you know)

But there are always bright spots, and today there were these:

  • A very small, very brief smile from a very sullen girl who hasn’t given me the time of day all year
  • This interaction during an offering/asking for food lesson:

Me: What would you like?

Girl:(wraps both arms around my hips from her seated position) I would like a boyfriend.

(turns to her male desk mate) Will you marry me?

(upon no response from him, turns to her other male desk mate, completely unfazed) Will you marry me?

Maybe that kind of unshakable confidence and hopefulness is what we all need on a Monday.


from my office window, 5:28 p.m.

Before Korea, after Korea

I’ve been thinking lately about all the things I can do now that I couldn’t do before I came to Korea / when I first arrived here, and also all the habits I’ve formed since coming here.

So without further ado, let’s begin the list.

How has Korea changed me?

I can now…

  • Fly internationally alone (I don’t like it, but I can do it).
  • Understand most basic Korean conversations around me – to the point where one of the P.E./head teachers has befriended me at lunch and taken to conversing with me where he speaks mostly Korean and I answer in English, which is entertaining for everyone. “I’m funny guy,” he laughed confidently the other day, to the amusement of all.
  • Ride the bus without freaking out (much). (To be fair, if you can’t get a seat and have to stand, you’d best secure a death grip on the nearest object within 2 seconds of boarding because it’s gonna be a wild ride.)
  • Eat very spicy foods like a pro – i.e., no more watery eyes, runny nose, or uncontrollable coughing. In fact, I now prefer for most Korean dishes to have a kick to them. In the same vein…
  • Eat all my Korean food groups like a good little expat. My taste buds have totally transformed in the last 2 years, narrowing my “can’t do it” foods to a very small list indeed. I find that Koreans often strongly connect certain foods with certain events or feelings. Hot, nasty, humid day? Mul naengmyeon (cold soup & noodles). Birthday? Seaweed soup. New Year’s Day? Rice cake soup. Feeling sick? Juk (porridge) or samgyetang (chicken & ginseng soup). Rainy, gloomy day, or feeling sad? Samgyeopsal (bbq pork belly) and soju. Stressed out or angry? Super spicy food and soju. Just climbed a mountain? Jeon (savory veggie pancakes) and makgeolli (rice wine). (Is there a pattern here? Koreans love their alcohol, man.) I’ve come to really enjoy this aspect of Korean culture, and have begun craving specific dishes based on particular emotions/circumstances myself. I’ve even conquered my nemesis, fish jjim, in spite of my former assertions that I was giving up on liking it. It, like everything else in Korean cuisine, has its time and place to be eaten. Namely, after a stressful day when you need something mega spicy to get rid of your stress and frustrations. With soju. Speaking of which…
  • Drink half a bottle of soju.

I cannot now…

  • Make small talk (disclaimer: not that I was necessarily great at this to begin with)
  • Greet people without a head bow
  • Speak without pausing every 2-3 words and monitoring my own sentences to make sure they’re not too long or complicated. I’ve heard this called “riding the brake” among foreigners here.
  • Use articles correctly. It deeply perturbs me how many times I’ve caught myself saying “This is dog.” “I will go to supermarket.” A and the are falling out of my vocabulary. Even worse, this week I caught myself failing at subject/verb agreement- “They are zombie.*” “These are apple.” send help. quickly.

*Halloween week, you know.