Broke in South Korea

It never even occurred to me that I was broke. Broke in another country.

Before teaching in South Korea, I had the luxury of living at home while working a full-time job. This meant most of my earnings were deposited directly into my savings account.

Being in debt is a foreign concept to me and thankfully, I’ve never had the need to check my bank account for budgeting reasons. Until this month.

Lucky for me, I caught a cold that turned into laryngitis for the first time in my life. The perfect sickness for a teacher, right? I have no idea how my students even understood me at the end of the day because I was croaking like a frog.

I was pretty sure I didn’t have an acute throat disease, but I wanted to get a second opinion before showing up to work and end up scarring my vocal cords. So, I decided to take Korea’s medical system for a spin. I’ve heard positive things about the system such as its convenience and low cost.

Before I headed out of my apartment I noticed I didn’t have much cash in my wallet, or in any of the various pockets across my bags and luggage. I had around ₩30,000 left.

I checked my bank account. Not pretty.

My meagre savings.
After the ATM fee, it would be closer to ₩4,000.

I was sure I brought enough money for my first month here. I mean ₩1,000,000 (CAD $1,300) sounded like a solid amount. I even got ₩400,000 (CAD $480) for the partial month we worked on the first pay day. Even so, eating out, transit, groceries, and basic home supplies had drained it all.

Let’s hope Korea’s medical system is as cheap as they say it is.

Conveniently, there is an ENT specialist right across from work. I popped in and after some communication difficulties (because of the language barrier and my croaky voice), I was ushered into the doctor’s room. We both spoke a mix of simple Korean and English and the doctor determined that I had laryngitis.

The consultation took 15 minutes and cost ₩17,000 (around CAD $20 as of writing). They told me to go to a 약 (“Yak”, pharmacy) downstairs.

By this time, I was quite worried. More than half of my cash reserves was spent on consultation. I totally didn’t expect to get charged a consultation fee. A sense of anxiety was coming over me. Could I even afford the medicine?

I took my prescription paper downstairs to the pharmacy. In less than 5 minutes the pharmacist picked my pills and sealed them into individual sachets. Neat! She rung up the total, and… thank goodness the total medicine cost was just ₩11,000 (CAD $13). As emptied my wallet, I thought of the little rations in my fridge that would need to last for four days until my next pay cheque.

Medicine, individually wrapped

I walked out with my medicine and a huge sigh of relief.

This Washington Post article shows how expensive it is to be poor. Although the article is America-centric, many of the reasons apply in Canada as well. Things most people don’t think of such as overdraft fees, minimum account balances, not being able to buy in bulk, or delayed pay cheques can really keep someone in debt.

This whole post may sound silly to those who deal with situations much worse, every day. At the end of the day, my medical condition wasn’t serious. But, I’m thankful that this happened. This ordeal has given a little glimpse into a situation too many people experience all over the world.