Workaholism vs. hygiene: Korea’s painful decision.

I lay down for a nap when I got back from the open day on Saturday, and when I woke up an hour later everything had changed. It was like the Head Cold Fairy had been in while I was asleep and sprinkled me with all sorts of fun germs. My head ached. My throat ached. My nose was not functioning correctly at all.

Fortunately, I acted promptly, and drugged myself with regular doses of Flu Plus and Lemsip. This, and a combination of staying in bed most of the weekend, drinking orange juice, and eventually going out for Western food (words cannot express my joyful feelings about this) last night, seems to have stopped the bug in its tracks so that I just feel a bit icky and sneezy today. Which is a very good thing, as until now I hadn’t actually thought about how I would cope with being in a noisy classroom whilst feeling like death. I’m guessing “not brilliantly”.

Now, you’d think, wouldn’t you, that Koreans in particular would be absolutely against a sick teacher coming into work and passing their germs on to several dozen children? Let me take a moment to set the scene for you. The whole country is obsessed with Swine Flu.  When I was signing my contract before leaving the UK, I was made to solemnly swear that I wouldn’t catch Swine Flu. Obviously if I hadn’t been given this instruction, I would have been out there actively trying to catch it. I was told that I would even be kept in quarantine for a week to make sure that I didn’t have it before I was allowed into contact with the children. Fair enough, I suppose.

When I arrived at Incheon Airport, I had to walk through a “quarantine zone” with all the other passengers, in single file, as a masked attendant studied a body heat monitor for signs of fever.

At the school, the children line up every morning in the entrance hall to hold their hands under some kind of hi-tech zapper thing that sterilises their skin, to reduce the spread of germs.

Several of the children are sent on school field trips wearing surgical-style masks.

There are “No Flu” hand creams everywhere – including, oddly, stuck as free gifts to multipacks of instant noodles in the supermarket.

However, Korea is (I am rapidly discovering) a land of contradictions. I wasn’t too bothered that they told me I’d be in quarantine for a week, and then brought me into the school the day after I arrived. Surprised, certainly, but not bothered. I am, however, completely baffled by their attitude towards sick leave.  Wouldn’t you think that in a place so deeply concerned with hygiene and the prevention of epidemics, anyone who so much as sneezed would be immediately sealed off and made to pass a medical test before they could come back into contact with the rest of the school? Wouldn’t you think that a coughing, sneezing, snottery teacher would be lynched for daring to go into a classroom full of healthy little innocent children?

Ah, but no. You see, this is where I am sensing real inner turmoil for the Koreans. Because not only are they particular about matters of hygiene, they are also workaholics. When the two come into conflict, you can see the distress it causes. Taking a day off work is a sign of weakness, of laziness, of failure. Your colleagues doing it is inconsiderate, irresponsible, thoughtless. Your employees doing it is unacceptable, troublesome, just Not Good Enough. If you want to be at home to recover, you’d damn well better get yourself into work first and prove that you’re sick, by throwing up several times, passing out, or similar.

Thankfully, I am not sick enough to need or want a day off – a good thing, since that would look really bad after only being in the job for a week  – but if I was only going by what I know of the strict hygiene rules and Swine Flu Fear that currently prevails in Korea, I would be certain that I’d get into trouble for going into work and risking everyone else’s health. Of course, I already knew about the work ethic and how it tends to win over everything else, so I went in. I sneezed violently as I poured hot water into my cup, and the school director paused uncertainly on her way to her office. You are sick? she inquired anxiously. Ah, just a head cold, I said, trying to play it down as much as possible for the sake of the poor woman’s sanity. Anxiety was etched plainly all over her face. You have a fever? she asked nervously. I shook my head. Clare unfortunately chose that moment to sail past whispering “H1N1!” in an ominous voice. Poor Jennifer looked like there was a tremendous battle raging within her. She couldn’t cope with the parents’ outrage if it came out that she’d allowed a Swine Flu-infected teacher to come into contact with their children. But nor could she cope with the thought of telling me to take a sick day, and knowing that I was at home in bed when I should be working, working, working.

And it seems that being present at work every day is always the winner over trying to prevent something that they’re otherwise so, so careful about. I just find that weird.

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3 thoughts on “Workaholism vs. hygiene: Korea’s painful decision.

  1. In Japan you would be expected to wear a mask to work if you have some sort of head cold (not quite sure how this works if you are trying to speak with it on.) My Japanese teacher won’t come near me if I have a flu and if I dare to sneeze during a lesson she looks at me in horror. She told me she has a duty of care to her other students not to come into contact with infected people. Actually this means no-one in Japan will come to visit me if I’m ill – in case I cause a terrifying plague that wipes out the whole city or something.

    If you get the cold or a flu in Japan you are expected to go to the Doctor – something we are told not to do. If it’s flu you have to stay away from other people for a period of up to 8 days. The problem with that is that many jobs have no sick benefits. My Japanese teacher avoids sick people because if she gets ill she doesn’t get paid.

  2. I thought I’d be told to wear a mask, but no. It seems that they’re fanatical about preventing potential infections, but when there actually is an illness they turn a blind eye because dealing with it according to their normal attitude would involve sending you home and isolating you. And that would violate the dedication to work rule.

    And now, as I sit here contemplating gym classes while feeling much more under the weather than I did yesterday, I can’t help but wish I was in Japan…

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