Chinese New Year (Part I)

On January 15th, 2009, the owner of the school I was teaching English at in Korea met with each of the English teachers one at a time and told us that we would not be getting paid on time. Since it was actually pay day, we were annoyed, but he promised we’d get paid by next Friday, so we just continued on.

I wasn’t particularly happy in Korea. I loved my kids, and I had come to mostly enjoy teaching them (well, at least the kindies), but I was feeling isolated and I wasn’t making as much money as I had hoped I would (it was just after the recession started, and the dollar had tanked against the won, making the appeal of foreign teaching substantially less). To make matters worse, the constantly shifting weather gave me headaches, and talking for a living gave me a continuous sore throat.

But I was determined to be cheerful, so when my co-teachers invited me to karaoke on Friday night, I agreed. On Saturday morning, my throat was absolute agony, and by Saturday evening, I was forced to conclude that it wasn’t just a talking sore throat: it was strep.

By the time I made my self-diagnosis, the clinics were all closed until Monday. My throat was so swollen, I could barely turn my head, and every time I came close to drifting off to sleep on Saturday night, I would swallow, spasm in pain, and wake myself back up. I knew that, come Monday morning, I would have to go to the doctor and get a note, or I would be fined for missing school, but at the moment, I was more concerned with actually making it to the doctor at all.

Monday arrived, and I could barely open my mouth at all. At this point, I was starting to worry that I might actually have the mumps, even though I’d been vaccinated (because when you can’t sleep or eat, what are you going to do besides surf the internet and develop hypochondria?). I couldn’t take a taxi because I couldn’t talk to the driver, so I basically rolled down the mountain.

I stopped in at school to tell them that I was going to the doctor, and that afterwards I would be going back home to recover. The manager was not there yet, but one of the secretaries was, and she promised to pass along the message. I would still have to come back with my doctor’s note (it has to be handed in before you actually miss school), but at least they wouldn’t fine me for being tardy.

The doctor looked down my throat, winced, and wrote me a prescription without hesitating. I went down to the pharmacy and filled it, four pills every four hours, even though I had no idea what they were, and then went to the grocery story to buy what passed for jello and some popsicles. Then I screwed my courage to the sticking place and went back to school.

I already knew what I sounded like from trying to Skype with mum and dad on Sunday. I was also still really stiff-necked, and shuddering every time I swallowed. I had the following conversation with Manager Person:

Kate: I am very sick. Here is my note. It says I can’t come back until Thursday (which I knew because I had dictated it to the doctor).
Manager Person: Oh, but we need you. Can you come back this afternoon?
Kate: Thursday.
Manager Person: Tomorrow?
Kate (now nearly crying in pain): Thursday.
Manager Person: You can sit down while you teach.
Kate: I will make the other teachers sick. I will be back on Thursday.

And then I left. I spent the next two days eating the solid version of the juice you get in fruit cups, sleeping at the wrong time, throwing up, becoming overly invested in Deadliest Catch (I think that was mostly related to a reaction to the pills, mind you), and dodging phone calls from school, because they kept calling and asking me to come back in.

By Tuesday, I could eat soup without crying or puking, but I was exhausted. When Manager Person called to ask why I wasn’t at work (again!), I managed to hold it together until after she hung up, and then I went on Skype and asked my parents to buy me a ticket home. By Tuesday night, I was packed, even though my flight didn’t leave until Wednesday the next week.

I spent Wednesday laying the groundwork for my escape. I couldn’t tell anyone I was leaving, because we still hadn’t been paid, but I could set up a trip to Seoul for the long weekend, held in honour of Chinese New Year. I went to the train station and purchased what I am pretty sure was the last train ticket in the ENTIRE COUNTRY, and emailed a friend in Seoul to let her in on my plans. She and her husband were also unhappy in Korea, and by the time I had finalized my plan to leave, they had decided to leave as well.

On Thursday, I went back to school. I could barely talk and it hurt to talk for more than 10 minutes or so, but it was mini-Olympics for the kindies, so I mostly sat in the corner and let the other teachers do most of the work. When I got in in the morning, there was a huge cry of “KATE TEACHER!” and then I got mob hugged by about 11 kids. For the rest of the day they just kept coming up to touch me and say quietly “I am glad you are back” or “I miss you!” Not telling them that I was leaving was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.

When my two grade one students arrived, they were so excited to see me that they ran into my kindie class to hug me. The pair of them love to spell, so I taught them streptococcus and uvula (that last one took some explaining…thank goodness for cartoons!), and let them look in my throat, prompting the Line of the Week: “Teacher, may I look down Paul’s throat?” Hee! They were quite shocked when they saw the back of my throat compared to each other’s.

On Friday, we got half our pay, with the promise of the rest next week. This meant that I still couldn’t say good-bye to anyone. The long weekend gave me a chance of getting paid in full: we didn’t have school again until Wednesday, and if my pay went in automatically, I’d still get it before they realized I’d quit.

It was the longest day of my life. I loved those kids (more or less), and I also really liked my co-teachers, both Korean and otherwise. But at last, it was over. I went to the doctor to refill my prescription, because I was still sick, and then I went back home to my packed up apartment to wait for my train.



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