I made the mistake of talking to Swine Flu Sally for a few minutes during one of my breaks (after all, she lives next door to me). Somehow the director found out and organised an emergency meeting during the lunch break to discuss about how deadly serious the swine flu pandemic is, how it could shut the school down if even one child gets infected, and how under no circumstances must we break their half-assed quarantine by having any contact with Valerie. A paranoid hypochondriac who has no concept of how respiratory diseases and airborne pandemics work, fed on a diet of media hysteria, ranting at us for half an hour in Korean. This is why I love my job. Sarah awkwardly translated for her, but she was only saying like three sentences after a ten minute spiel. It was like that scene in Lost In Translation where the commercial director is talking to Bill Murray for ages and then the translator says “Um, he wants you to look at the camera.”

I suspect Sarah was toning down the recommendations a little, because she knew the native faculty would find the original script ridiculous. “Be careful in public,” I’m pretty sure, was originally “Don’t go to Itaewon or Hongdae.” Maybe even “don’t leave your apartments unless absolutely neccesary.” They have this perception that Korea is a hermetically-sealed, sterile bubble, and that only foreign contaminants could possibly be vectors for swine flu – probably from Japan, that’d be typical, just like those bastards to infect Korea with disease.

Like I said, they clearly have no idea how the spread of disease works. Let’s say that Valerie really does have swine flu (which she doesn’t). Even if I don’t have any contact with her this week, she’s still going to visit Homeplus to buy groceries to stay alive – where she’ll infect the staff and the customers, who will then pass it on to me when I pop in the next day to pick up my usual shopping load of alcohol and chocolate. Once the disease is in the country, it’s in the country. I’m more likely to catch it from the kids than they are to catch it from me, because they have contact with far more people in more diverse locations than I do (my average working day consists of teaching at the school, going to Homeplus, and then sitting in my apartment drinking wine and wondering why I decided to exile myself to this awful place). If you really want to ensure that there is no chance your students will catch swine flu, you need to dress them in biohazard suits and shuttle them from school to home along enormous plastic tunnels like the government used in E.T. Not slap one of your teachers in bullshit “quarantine” because she went on a weekend jaunt to Japan. For fuck’s sake. There have been four thousand cases of swine flu in Korea and only 4 of them were fatal. It’s not like we’re in the deepest basement levels of the CDC and sombody dropped a fucking test tube. It’s a standard flu strain that’s slightly stronger than usual, which happens roughly every three years. The only difference between now and the last thirty years is that we have a 24-hour news cycle that encourages us to freak the fuck out over every little thing. And like many other things that also exist in the West – an obsession with physical appearance, racism, excessive nationalism – Korea takes media-inspired panics to a whole new level. Throw in their natural hypochondria and it’s a recipe for frustration.

For the record, my flu-like symptoms disappeared with a good night’s sleep, leaving me with nothing more than a scratchy voice and a metric fuckload of phlegm in my sinuses. Naturally I tried to cough and sniff as much as possible during that farce of a meeting, but it’s just not the same as shivering weakly with pale white skin.

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