Thursday, March 19, 2009

Korea makes me sick

I just got over my third illness since coming to Korea. I don't know exactly what it is, but I seem to be getting sick much more than usual. So I decided to use these lemons for a blog post lemonade. Let the complaining begin.

The first time I got sick was my first week here. The night before I started school, I was hunched over the toilet, promising myself to not call in sick to my first day of work. At the time, I thought my body was rejecting this place altogether. I thought jet lag, culture shock, and anxiety had conspired against my plans in Korea. I thought about going home and suffered through the first day of work. Luckily, the next day I got a call from someone I had eaten with who said she had also gotten sick. Nothing but a case of food poisoning.

Food poisoning, by the way, takes a full week to get over. It was a pretty horrible experience and a bad way to start my year. I'll spare you the details. I should mention that the food that made me sick was from the frozen food section of my supermarket. Nowadays, I trust the nearby outdoor market for grocery shopping and, for the most part, avoid pre-packaged foods. Americans should be thankful for the FDA. Luckily the Korean diet relies heavily on root vegetables, like sweet potatoes, and fermented vegetables, like kimchi, so I am eating more vegetables than ever before and don't have to worry about them going bad.

The second time I got sick was laryngitis. Strangely, it was the only time I had symptoms of laryngitis, the hoarse voice thing, without having a full-fledged cold. It had all the intensity of a cold, but was focused on my throat. Since my job is to speak English for hours, I had a few days of pathetic job performance before it cleared up. I blame this one mostly on working with kids. I have heard first year teachers often get sick before building up immunities. I work so closely with so many kids, it was inevitable that I would get sick eventually. Especially considering that the viruses are different in other countries, this probably won't be my last time with a cold.

One good thing about my bout of laryngitis was that I was able to experience the medicinal side of Korean culture. When I came into work hardly able to speak, my boss asked me if I wanted to go to a hospital. When I declined, he took me to a pharmacy or yakguk (약국). A Korean pharmacy is nothing like an American pharmacy. First of all, almost all the medicines are behind the counter, though they are not prescription. You are expected to describe your symptoms, and the pharmacist decides what medicine is appropriate. This really limits your choices and preferences. When I have a runny nose, I know I need antihistamines. In America, I can browse a variety a medicines and choose between pills, liquids, efferescents, time-releasers, night-timers, etc. In Korea, on the other hand, the pharmicist has all the know-how and you just get what they give you. Also, it is so cheap I doubt it has the doses I expect. Maybe this is why Koreans go to the hospital even for minor colds.

I had a more positive experience with the other side of Korean medicine, folk remedies. As I have said before, Koreans view almost all food as having some medicinal properties. Eat invigorating dog stew if you are tired, pigs feet for clear skin, and kimchi for digestion (to name a few colorful examples). There is even a soup said to be a hangover cure. Of course, it is easy to be skeptical when you are told everything you eat is good for one thing or another. On the other hand, sometimes your Korean grandmother does know best. Dog-stew is rich in protein, pigs-feet is loaded with collagen, and few foods have more fiber than kimchi.

So what did I do for a sore throat? I drank ginger-jujube tea. Jujubes are not just a tasteless cavity-pulling candy, they are also a delicious dried fruit. This ingredient gives the tea a fruity flavor and provides lots of vitamin C to strengthen the immune system.

The next ingredient is ginger. Ginger is a root vegetable that really gives this tea a punch. It burns the back of your throat better than Fisherman's Friend.
To make the tea, you just peel the ginger like a potato, slice it, then boil it with some jujubes. Let is boil for about 20 minutes and add some honey to sweeten. I highly recommend this tea
if you have a cold. It is both delicious and made me feel much better. Beats chicken soup any day.

After I had the tea, I did a little research about other medicinal foods in Korea. One food really struck me as the ultimate health food-- ginseng. I knew very little about ginseng until recently, but it seems to be insanely healthy. If what I read on the internet is right, ginseng in one form or another has been part of every medicinal culture in the world. It plays a huge role in Chinese medicine, from which Korea borrows heavily. Medical research has borne out claims that it improves mental function, stabilizes blood pressure, and even prevents cancer. In Korea, ginseng is very popular even today. Red-ginseng, a more designer product, is often given as a gift. There are even stores that just sell different kinds of ginseng. I decided it couldn't hurt, and at two bucks a root, is a cheap way to improve my diet. They way I eat it, I peel it like a potato, slice it, and eat it fresh with honey. I also picked up some red-ginseng tea.

On to my most recent illness. A few days ago, I developed an extremely bad head cold. No coughing, but constant sneezing, watery eyes, and runny nose. I went to the pharmacy, said "cold, water, eyes, nose... I have", and got some unknown medicine that didn't work. Then it rained and I felt 100% better. What happened? After talking about this with some Korean teachers, I discovered I was never sick at all. I had just suffered from the noxious dustcloud that comes to Korea every spring from China. Apparently, a huge cloud of dust and sand from the Gobi desert floats over China to Korea in the springtime (picking up China's poisoned air on the way, I suspect). It even leaves visible orangey dust on your clothes. Weathermen give warning when it is coming and people stay inside or wear masks when they go out. After it rained, I guess the dust settled and I stopped feeling sick.
So I decided I will have to buy a surgical mask and wear it around town if the dust cloud comes again. Someday you may see a picture of me on the blog wearing it. The caption would have to be "acculturation".


  1. The dust cloud problem reminds me scenes from post-modern fiction, like White Noise or 1984 or The Road. Crazy! Go buy yourself a mask!

  2. Eeewwweee.....this just doesn't sound good to a concerned mom. Yes, buy the mask! Hope you feel better!
    Should I send you a Haz Mat suit???!!!

  3. Ditto your mom's comment ;) Get that mask! Sounds like care package time with good ol FDA-approved cold remedies, too... [mary]
    You are right, student teachers and first-year teachers seem to catch everything...
    Sure hope you are feeling better and stay inside if another cloud comes!

  4. Graham,
    I've been checking your blog regularly -- fascinating look at a culture I don't know much about. You should turn this into some sort of book when you return. Really! Can't wait to hear more about the education system.

  5. Erin--

    Thanks for the idea. I will definitely write about the education system at some point. It is a really interesting subject. It is best in the world in some ways, but in other ways the worst! For later.

  6. hey graham- thanks for the peek into korean medicine. store up those folk recipes and bring them home, we'll test them against placebo. glad to hear you are doing well. and keep up the good work on the blog, even though i dont post often know that its keeping me entertained.


  7. Thanks for the ginger Jujube tea recipe. I'll use it next time I have a sore throat or there is a dust storm! :)
    OH my goodness, although I feel for you, being sick without mom there to pamper, this post made me smile a lot. When I was in Guatemala and bed ridden for three days my family there was insistent that I drank too much cold water and only let me drink tea. I was so dehydrated.

  8. I lived in Seoul for thirty-four years. The "Yellow Winds" came in the spring. They could be so bad that they got in your eyes, in your nose and between your teeth. In a bad spring you can write with your fingers on your car or windshield! I now life on Hawaii's Big Island. Soils here have been analyzed and there are layers of dust from the Gobi here from centuries ago. It enriched the soil. It still comes each year, but it is barely notice. When we had a bad 'Yellow Wind' in Korea that dust has been recored as far away as Wyoming.