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.
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.