Join 3,517 readers in helping fund MetaFilter (Hide)


High school ends at 9:30pm
November 18, 2012 11:57 PM   Subscribe

Korean high school. What's life like for a Korean student? In one of the most competitive societies in the world, how does one find their place? What does it take to achieve your aspirations and goals?

On the day of the university entrance exam, thousands of Korean high school seniors will take a nine hour test that for many, will determine their economic and social status for the rest of their lives.

One student filmmaker is putting a face on this epic rite of passage; her documentary will take a look at the lives of five Korean teenagers on the verge of either reaching - or losing - their dreams. The film will follow the students during the most stressful time of their lives - their last year of high school. After studying for roughly 16 hours each day, their futures will boil down to this one last exam, the entrance exam.

- Koreans have achieved some of the highest test scores in the world (+). But the country also leads the world in two not quite so stunning ways- the highest rate of plastic surgery per capita, and a higher suicide rate than any other developed nation (+).
- Entire habits and routines of society are adjusted to accommodate students on the day of the test (+).
posted by hellomina (55 comments total) 33 users marked this as a favorite

 
Interesting post, but what does plastic surgery have to do with test-taking?
posted by KokuRyu at 12:00 AM on November 19, 2012


It's worth pointing out that intensive examinations are very much a Northeast Asian tradition that started in China, and spread to Japan, Korea, Vietnam and other countries that at one time may have used the Chinese legal system for government.

Frances Fitzgerald does a really good job discussing the test system in Fire in the Lake. Basically, there is an existing answer for everything, so all knowledge can be tested. Or something like that.
posted by KokuRyu at 12:06 AM on November 19, 2012 [3 favorites]


What does your father do?
posted by PeterMcDermott at 12:17 AM on November 19, 2012


- The filmmaker starts off with the test, but the video evolves into an exploration of the idea of "success" in the eyes of the students she interviews (e.g. doing well on the test and being "physically attractive").
- In anticipation of KokuRyu's second point, my earlier draft did comment about how stressful national examinations were not unique to Korea (with even a link to the Chinese version). But I took that all out for the sake of wanting to highlight a video that I appreciated.

The study culture is pretty interesting. Classrooms littered with desk nap pillows, for example (haha). I attended an international school in Seoul so I observed all this from afar, and I enjoyed Kelley's video for the insider perspective it provided.
posted by hellomina at 12:25 AM on November 19, 2012


Sad that these beautiful kids live in such a screwed up culture. Its the culture that's ugly (relative to it's idea of beauty). I thought the US was bad, but this? Sick.
posted by Vibrissae at 12:53 AM on November 19, 2012


My current academic program pairs students with those from the school's ESL program. The idea is that we, as developing clinicians, get experience communicating with individuals who have rudimentary English skills and a different cultural background, whereas the ESL students get to practice their English. I was paired with a young girl from South Korea. She was exceptionally beautiful. One of the few things she managed to clearly communicate with me during our brief conversation was the fact that she aspired to get plastic surgery. It was depressing.
posted by dephlogisticated at 1:15 AM on November 19, 2012


"what does plastic surgery have to do with test-taking"

It's competitive as hell over here when it comes to literally everything -- money, looks, education, connections, status.

Hence, the ridiculous suicide rate, even among middle and high-school students.
posted by bardic at 1:22 AM on November 19, 2012


Once upon a time in Korean high school.
posted by wuwei at 1:45 AM on November 19, 2012 [1 favorite]


When I lived in South Korea, my Korean coworkers told me that the point of plastic surgery was to get a leg up in life. The better looking you are, the better job you'll get. Since people include photos in their CVs, often unattractive people don't even make it as far as interview. I had a 10 year-old student tell me all about the plastic surgery her parents had promised her on her 16th birthday, and it was really common in my town to see high school students with the tell-tale bandages on their face as they recovered from nose jobs and double eyelid surgery (a la Clueless).

I know we have a similar problem in the West, but in my opinion it's much more pronounced in Korea.
posted by toerinishuman at 1:46 AM on November 19, 2012 [4 favorites]


Hence, the ridiculous suicide rate,

It is certainly more complex than this. The suicide rate in Scandinavia is also quite high and this is one of the least-competitive societies on the planet. Students are hardly challenged, everyone gets an A, poverty barely exists, and still the little buggers find reasons to be unhappy in life.

She was exceptionally beautiful. One of the few things she managed to clearly communicate with me during our brief conversation was the fact that she aspired to get plastic surgery. It was depressing.

I think that every time I see someone with a tattoo or a pierced face - quickly followed with an self-admonishment that a person's choice to disfigure herself is none of my business.
posted by three blind mice at 1:56 AM on November 19, 2012 [4 favorites]


three blind mice, except that when your mom tells you that you're ugly from the time you're a little girl, and the social pressure expectation is that you WILL get eyelid surgery, it's not much of a choice.
posted by 1adam12 at 2:04 AM on November 19, 2012 [4 favorites]


Very interesting. Anyone know if/where she publishes updates? The Kickstarter claims it will be finished August 2012, and the Website says sometime in 2013.
posted by Jakeimo at 2:10 AM on November 19, 2012


It is certainly more complex than this. The suicide rate in Scandinavia is also quite high and this is one of the least-competitive societies on the planet. Students are hardly challenged, everyone gets an A, poverty barely exists, and still the little buggers find reasons to be unhappy in life.

There is a fairly robust correlation between places with happy populations (such as Scandinavia) and places with high rates of suicide. One of the more popular explanations for this is that people who are depressed compare themselves to the satisfied people around them and feel still more pathetic. This goes pretty well with the usual explanation for high suicide rates in Korea: that the society is competitive and people who feel they do not measure up to their peers choose to drop out because they feel worthless.
posted by Winnemac at 2:11 AM on November 19, 2012 [1 favorite]


"It is certainly more complex than this."

It's not really a zero-sum game though, is it?

Ask a Korean person why they suicide rate is so high and (they'll probably laugh uncomfortably, which is kind of an Asian response to uncomfortable questions) and tell you exactly what I just said. It's a hyper-competitive society starting about age five or so.

"the little buggers find reasons to be unhappy in life"

How compassionate of you.

BTW, wiki on world suicide rates.

I can't speak for Lithuania, but Scandinavian countries aren't even in the same ballpark as the ROK.
posted by bardic at 2:11 AM on November 19, 2012 [1 favorite]


The suicide rate in Scandinavia is also quite high and this is one of the least-competitive societies on the planet. Students are hardly challenged, everyone gets an A, poverty barely exists, and still the little buggers find reasons to be unhappy in life.

Well, hardly getting a glimpse of sunlight throughout the year certainly doesn't help.
Plus, you've lived in Scandinavia yourself, so you should know that characterising it as "one of the least-competitive societies on the planet" is hardly correct. As anyone who has witnessed a "friendly" hockey game among Scandinavians will say, they can be fiercely competitive. And their often fearsomely good looks may not owe much to the scalpel, but they are usually the result of very hard work. I can't think of many things as miserable as being ugly in Sweden...
posted by Skeptic at 2:25 AM on November 19, 2012


I know pretty well nothing about Korea, other than what I've seen in their movies and melodramatic TV dramas, but one thing I do know is that Koreans see their defining national characteristic, the thing that makes them Korean, as something called 'Han'. Artists, singers, movies, etc. are all judged on the basis of the Han they display.

From Wikipedia:
Han denotes a collective feeling of oppression and isolation in the face of overwhelming odds. It connotes aspects of lament and unavenged injustice.

The minjung theologian Suh Nam-dong describes han as a "feeling of unresolved resentment against injustices suffered, a sense of helplessness because of the overwhelming odds against one, a feeling of acute pain in one's guts and bowels, making the whole body writhe and squirm, and an obstinate urge to take revenge and to right the wrong—all these combined."
I do like the idea that there's a culture that prepares you for the reality that life is shit and then you die. Though I hate the passive acceptance of that reality -- the idea that this is our immutable lot.

But given this, I don't find the fact that they have high levels of suicide at all surprising.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 2:26 AM on November 19, 2012


Oh man, there are so many things I want to say about this, but I'm on my phone and on the road for work this week.

It's a complicated thing, education in Korea, and the life that kids have to lead here is very different from the one I did. It isn't all bad, but one thing it surely is, is hard. I hope things change, but the roots are very deep, historically and culturally, and I don't think it will.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 2:29 AM on November 19, 2012 [2 favorites]


In regards to han, see my comment here. It's only one of what I think of (and teach to foreign employees of the Korean megacorp I work for) as a necessary-to-know group of Korean deep-culture concepts if you want to get a grip on Koreanness. Important, and fraught, but balanced by others.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 2:34 AM on November 19, 2012 [1 favorite]


Stav, does the kibeun, han, chemyeon, neunchi, bunuiki, and jeong stuff help you live your life in Korea? Westerners have spent similar efforts trying to decode Japan, but reading about honne and tatamae without ever having been to Japan is one thing; you can really only understand these concepts (like the ones mentioned above) by living in the culture.

What I'm getting at is that it's not particularly useful to investigate han out of context. It's not an insight, it's a stereotype, and it's probably simpler to say: "Korean society is competitive and hardworking. Society has always valued education. There is a reason why Korea, a small country surrounded by much larger neighbours, is a household name in North America - it's because people work their goddamn asses off."
posted by KokuRyu at 2:59 AM on November 19, 2012 [2 favorites]


I like the documentary. Some of the kids generalize from their personal experiences a bit much, but that's what kids do. I like watching them tell their stories to one of their peers (a debatable point) behind the camera.

The girl whose friend keeps attempting suicide touches a nerve. I hated the "exam hell" in Taiwan, which had an education system very similar to South Korea's. The Taiwanese government tried to move toward a more Westernized system, but the result has not been well received. Taiwan has fallen quite some distance behind South Korea in terms of economic performance in the last decade or so (competing in the same key industries), and it's often argued that Taiwan's university grads aren't as competitive as their Korean counterparts.

Tellingly enough, Taiwan has not fallen behind South Korea in standard of living, and Taiwan easily scores better on most (economic) equality measures. The "best" South Korean companies are indisputably a cut or two above their Taiwanese competitions (does anyone consider HTC a serious challenger to Samsung?) though, and lifting SK's economy further and further above Taiwan's. It's up to anyone to judge between the pros and cons of ultra-competitiveness.

RE: the plastic surgery debate

I don't feel comfortable judging individual decisions by ordinary people. Plastic surgery has probably played a role in the success of Hanryu, otoh. Looks are crucial in the arena of popular entertainment.
posted by fatehunter at 3:00 AM on November 19, 2012 [2 favorites]


Also, and this is perhaps putting too fine a point on it, but Wikipedia is half-right in that han can be a collective thing, but its, er, eldritch power is when the dark flower blooms in an individual heart.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 3:00 AM on November 19, 2012 [1 favorite]


Stav, does the kibeun, han, chemyeon, neunchi, bunuiki, and jeong stuff help you live your life in Korea?

In a way, I guess, but only an intellectual one. It helps me to be less angry about the things that I still find alien and strange after a decade and a half. I know that I will never truly understand, not having grown up swimming in that water. It doesn't help me to understand individual people so much as it does the culture as a whole. It's the same thing with (neo-)Confucianism -- nobody here actually consciously makes decisions based on 유교 precepts and concerns, but it's an underground river into which the roots of the trees of the cultural forest reach.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 3:08 AM on November 19, 2012 [5 favorites]


The exam system in Japan is a major reason why we don't live in Japan, and we are always always always tempted to move back. It seems so damn pointless to study like hell to get into a good high school, and then study like hell to get into a good university. It might make sense if our kids were inclined to study something useful when they get to university, like engineering, but going through hell for years and years to study humanities at a Japanese university, which would leave them with no employment opportunities in Japan or Canada when they graduate...

From what I understand, though, the United States also relies a lot on testing to get into good schools (Canada doesn't really).
posted by KokuRyu at 3:17 AM on November 19, 2012


A day in the life...
posted by vaghjar at 3:33 AM on November 19, 2012 [1 favorite]


I was a teacher at Daewon Foreign Language High School for four years (during two of which my students had the highest average SAT scores of any high school in the world).

I still work in Seoul, with top high school students headed to top colleges in the US (as well as a few every year to Oxbridge).

I know quite a bit about this...not sure what's useful to add, though I know I have nothing to say about han...nunchi, on the other hand...
posted by Joseph Gurl at 3:58 AM on November 19, 2012


I haven't taught kids here since 1998 -- you have way more to say about the actual subject of this thread than me.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 4:04 AM on November 19, 2012


I watched all 16 episodes of "Master of Study" and everything seemed to turn out alright for those kids.
posted by THAT William Mize at 4:31 AM on November 19, 2012 [1 favorite]


" the United States also relies a lot on testing to get into good schools"

Yes and no. If they wanted to, Harvard and Stanford and so on could fill an incoming freshman class with 100% perfect SAT scores (2400? It was 1600 when I took the thing.) but Harvard and Stanford and so on are explicit in their admission policy -- they are seeking intellectual, social, and cultural diversity. So yeah, American parents will spend lots of money on SAT prep programs but your kid is SOL if she has a perfect SAT score and nothing else (music, volunteer work, community involvement, art, writing, etc.).

So here's where I'll go out on a limb and state that while there are huge structural problems with US elementary and high school education (income inequality being 95% of the problem), our governing academic higher ed. philosophies are the envy of the world (even though many Koreans would never admit it).

As someone who taught college and high school in the States, we were constantly reminded to be on the lookout for a given student's "special ability." Which is to say, maybe they suck at math or history, but as a teacher part of your job is to identify an area where she can excel. If that is cheerleading rather than Shakespeare, so be it but guess what -- she can get a decent ride at a decent, non-Ivy/MIT/Stanford place if she's a good cheerleader, so more power to her.

My experience teaching elementary school for one year in South Korea and now at the college level is that the emphasis is on excelling in every subject, regardless of actual interest and/or inclination. To do otherwise in a Korean context is simply laziness on the part of the teacher and the student. From my Western perspective, it's the difference between working hard and working smart. What my Korean friends and students see as admirable hard work I chalk up as futile inefficiency.

In fact, Korean parents are kind of stunned to realize that a perfect SAT score will not write you a ticket to Yale. They pay lip-service to the whole "teach the whole child, not just the academic brain" thing but frankly, they don't believe one word of it.

Test score is everything here, even when the admissions department at Stanford tells them otherwise.

At the top Korean schools (SKY -- Seoul, Korean, Yonsei Universities) test score is still the gold standard. Extracurricular activities? Fuck that noise.
posted by bardic at 4:37 AM on November 19, 2012 [8 favorites]


To be fair, aren't extracurricular activities as qualifications for entry to universities kind of an American thing? I know colleges here (Norway) don't care a fig about that, and we're not nearly as competitive as the Koreans.
posted by simen at 4:50 AM on November 19, 2012 [1 favorite]


Recently I read a comment by a Korean-American girl (on a tumblr, no idea where it was from) talking about how she felt that the trauma of the war was still present in S. Korea, and the trauma of the sundering of the country, and that these things were often ignored when people talked about how "sick" and competitive Korean culture is. I don't have any more thoughts on that at all, but it was a new and plausible perspective to me.

Sometimes I also think that the plastic surgery/extreme competitiveness thing is sort of US values writ very large and performed as a tragic farce - I mean, it's just what we believe for the most part, that looking physically good is extremely important and that people bring their own inequality on themselves, but brought to the surface and named as an acceptable ideology instead of politely screened.
posted by Frowner at 5:19 AM on November 19, 2012 [3 favorites]


simen: "To be fair, aren't extracurricular activities as qualifications for entry to universities kind of an American thing?"

Yes, but there's a world of difference between "you have to have been busy and engaged at something outside of school" and "you have to have spent all your time studying for the test". You may work the same hours (ok, that's pretty damn unlikely, I don't know any American students who worked as much as a Japanese student, and Japanese don't work as much as Koreans)...ok, so let's just imagine an American who works the same hours — but only part of that is study. The rest, he or she gets to pick. Maybe she likes sports. Maybe he likes art. Maybe zhey like music. Or volunteering to help the disabled. Or...well, all kinds of things. As long as you have a hobby other than "playing video games", "getting stoned", or "watching TV", you could turn it into an enjoyable extracurricular activity which would help get you into university. That's not the case in Korea (or Japan).
posted by Bugbread at 5:34 AM on November 19, 2012


Recently I read a comment by a Korean-American girl (on a tumblr, no idea where it was from) talking about how she felt that the trauma of the war was still present in S. Korea

Again, I remember being struck by how the desire for reunification is a perpetual theme in Korean movies and television. Not sure why I should be so surprised, mind. Things like conscription must make it an omnipresent reality, but I think in Europe, we tend to regard it as one of those issues that was done and dusted at the end of WWII.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 6:25 AM on November 19, 2012


PeterMcDermott: "Again, I remember being struck by how the desire for reunification is a perpetual theme in Korean movies and television."

I was fairly surprised when I went to the wedding of a Korean coworker (born and raised in Japan, but, like many Koreans in Japan, choosing to keep his Korean citizenship instead of naturalizing), to a fellow born and raised in Japan Korean, and the main theme of his father's speech was "Just as this wedding brings my son and his new wife together, we can hope for the day when North and South Korea are brought back together". Seriously half the wedding speech was about national reunification.
posted by Bugbread at 7:19 AM on November 19, 2012 [1 favorite]


> the desire for reunification is a perpetual theme in Korean movies and television.

Reunification is a bit more complex and less uniform a sentiment than it's portrayed in the movies. Which I guess goes without saying.

I've talked with South Koreans who unreservedly and very literally wished all of North Korea was dead and gone, by whatever means. Which is also simplistic on the surface, but it's also clear that the popular sentiment regarding reunification that we hear in the west is nowhere near unanimous.

The Korean War that Americans participated in sixty years ago did not end. No truce has been signed, and if it's been a long since the last major battles and drawing a line of demarcation, many people are of a mind that open combat can resume at any moment.

The subway stations in Seoul have storage lockers with gas masks in case of an attack.

The abject poverty and inhumanity of North Korea's rulers have made North Korea a kind of clownish figure to us in the west, but they're still in a position to fuck shit up in a very real way. The right wing parties of South Korea can use the danger of North Korea as a convenient rhetorical spectre in political debate (there is a presidential election there next month), but all political parties there are forced to acknowledge the danger of North Korea and address it themselves, an incredible burden politically and economically regardless of the outcome of the war, in an era where international support isn't as freely given as it once has been.
posted by ardgedee at 7:40 AM on November 19, 2012


Koreans in Japan not surprisingly have a different perspective on national reunification compared to South Koreans at the moment. Through Chochongryon (Chongryon is the DPRK term), the DPRK has funded Korean schools in Japan and spread their propaganda, which includes a strong dose of the national reunification message.

Koreans in S. Korea are just not that obsessed with national reunification these days. Especially with young people, there is concern that reunification would come with economic costs that would ruin both Koreas.

As for han, I associate it more with the generation who lived through the Japanese Occupation and the Korean War. Personally I don't feel it's such a big part of the cultural and mental landscape of Koreans in their 30's and younger. A development in popular culture I am watching with interest is 병맛, which refers to a certain type of humor. It revels in absurdity, ludicrousness, and non sequiturs, and appearing poorly executed. I think it's an interesting counterpoint to the hyper-competitiveness of Korean society, as it's focusing on the "losers."

(High school in Korea was a long time ago for me, and anyway, as "go 3" is an experience that everybody goes through, it's not as terrible as people outside of Korea might think. Supportive friends and family play a big part, it goes without saying.)
posted by needled at 8:22 AM on November 19, 2012 [2 favorites]


It's interesting to me that so many of the kids in the classroom wear glasses, not contact lenses. Are glasses not seen as unattractive?
posted by The corpse in the library at 9:17 AM on November 19, 2012


Given the amount of waking hours devoted to studying and rote memorization, I'm guessing wearing lenses becomes an inconvenience to them (dryness, having to take them out before taking a nap on their desk pillow!!, etc).

Apologies for my excitation/obsession with desk pillows -- I have narcolepsy, but it was undiagnosed throughout highschool / college, so I have this fascination with the idea of napping at school.
posted by hellomina at 10:06 AM on November 19, 2012


Right, contact lenses are not very practical when you catch naps when you can, and you're studying when you're not sleeping. Lunch time, the 10 minute break between classes, "self-study period": all times to catch up on precious sleep.

But, the filmmaker doesn't say where the high school is located. I suspect there would be less eyeglasses in a high school in Gangnam.
posted by needled at 10:13 AM on November 19, 2012 [1 favorite]


I will confess that as a young student, I used to eavesdrop on all the local high school unnies because I was incredibly jealous and in awe of the camaraderie and level of wit in their conversations. It was like all their stress got bottled up during the school day and that energy was expended in their uproarious faux-lamentations on life. Those girls were funny and they knew it.
posted by hellomina at 10:21 AM on November 19, 2012 [1 favorite]


these things were often ignored when people talked about how "sick" and competitive Korean culture is. I don't have any more thoughts on that at all, but it was a new and plausible perspective to me.
Frowner

Can you explain what you recall about this perspective? I'm not seeing the connection between the war and Korean ideas about beauty and "success" as measured via competition, both of which are much older than the war.
posted by Sangermaine at 10:44 AM on November 19, 2012


There's an interesting idea somewhere in the documentary, but the whole project goes off the rails at 13:21 where we learn that this is supposed to be a cultural intervention to change academic and beauty standards.
posted by yellowcandy at 12:28 PM on November 19, 2012


Why do you think that's going off the rails?
posted by The corpse in the library at 12:33 PM on November 19, 2012


Can you explain what you recall about this perspective? I'm not seeing the connection between the war and Korean ideas about beauty and "success" as measured via competition, both of which are much older than the war.

I would if I could, but I can't! It was just a tumblr comment that I read reblogged from somewhere else.

I don't think it was framed as "no one in Korea was competitive or cared about looks until the dreadful dreadful war" so much as "the extremely intense competition and surprising emphasis on looks (I seem to recall that she was talking about the pressures on women in particular) are in some way a response to massive social trauma".

I found this of interest because as I've read more history and done more political work, I've realized how powerfully slavery and native genocide have marked American culture - that not only are black and native people directly discriminated against today, but the family traumas and community traumas of those things (and Jim Crow, and the residential schools) echo through family and community life. When I was younger, I thought a generation or two erased stuff like that, but for all sorts of reasons it does not. So I was interested in the remark about the war since it seemed very in line with what I know about the US.
posted by Frowner at 12:46 PM on November 19, 2012 [3 favorites]


The massive social trauma I can think of right now that could spur this degree of competitiveness is an unemployment rate of 22% for those aged 15-29, or 2/3 of those graduating college in 2009 were unemployed in 2010, or the proportion of people in their 20's and 30's with no work experience reaching record highs. The numbers get much worse for graduates of low-ranked colleges outside of Seoul.

The parents of the latest crop of college exam takers experienced the economic pain of the 1997 Asian financial crisis (the "IMF crisis" in Korea), when many companies and businesses shut down or restructured, resulting in large numbers of unemployed people.

Guess how you minimize your chances of losing out in the current economic climate? By attending one of the SKY (Seoul National, Korea, Yonsei) universities. How do you do that? By scoring well on the college entrance exams and having a high GPA. How do you do that? By studying 16 hours a day.
posted by needled at 3:09 PM on November 19, 2012 [1 favorite]


Korea has only been a developed country with a democratic government for a generation or so (20 years). People have to work hard, and have worked hard to make it happen.
posted by KokuRyu at 4:19 PM on November 19, 2012


Nothing like armchair psychological analysis of an entire nation. Ugh.

(And KokuRyu: It's hard to argue that Korea was actually democratic before, say, Kim Dae Jung...)
posted by Joseph Gurl at 7:34 PM on November 19, 2012 [1 favorite]


Here's something I wrote for an interview back in 2008 about the incredible kids in the Daewon GLP (study-abroad program; kids all planning to attend college in the US; about 95-100 per year back then, now down to 40-50), and I'm very, very aware that program is not representative of Korean high school life more broadly (then again, is any? It's this sort of broad-brush depiction I find most problematic...).

It was partially a response to people's responses to this article (for which I was also interviewed):
Yeah, they have long days (8:40-5 two days a week and 8:40-7:30 three days, plus mandatory study hall). Yeah, public romance is discouraged (p.d.a. is frowned upon in general in Korea), but there are plenty of couples.

Students do sometimes stand to avoid dozing off. Is that so bad? I wish they weren’t so tired, but at the same time, I’m impressed. At my high school in the States, students were often exhausted in class, too–never from studying; rather, from all-night beach parties or keggers in the woods–but they wouldn’t even bother to try to stay awake.

Really, though, I don’t want to try to defend everything about this place. I have my criticisms of the system, ones I’ll keep to myself in cautious optimism about the expected gov’t policy changes.

Like I said above,though, I hope readers can avoid falling into the same tired narrative of the one-dimensional, socially-inept Asian drone study-machines.

Because that’s not what I see: I see involved, curious, caring, motivated, enthusiastic students who also attend the World Sudoku Tournament in Prague, breakdance and rap (in both Korean and English!), finish dinner quickly so they can get a quick game of 3-on-3 basketball before class, create (and finance) a literary magazine of their own volition because they want their classmates to see what inspires them so much in Natsuhiko Kyogoku’s The Shadow Spirit or Bernard Werber’s The Ants, make elaborate posters to advertise the brackets for the upcoming club activity-vs-club activity basketball tournament (tomorrow, I believe, the Movie Making club takes on the Traditional Korean Music club in a game that most students will break from their studies to attend), teach English to disadvantaged kids at a neighborhood center, email me in the middle of their summer vacation to ask me to recommend secondary texts on Deleuze and Guattari, care deeply about the future (and present) of their country, and anxiously await the invigorating challenge of flying thousands of kilometers and entering a US University as a first year student.

This narrative, I guess, isn’t as tidy.
posted by Joseph Gurl at 7:43 PM on November 19, 2012 [5 favorites]


Joseph Gurl: "Like I said above,though, I hope readers can avoid falling into the same tired narrative of the one-dimensional, socially-inept Asian drone study-machines."

Good point. What I think a lot of folks who aren't in Korea / China / Japan don't get is that this is not "isolated hard workers keeping to themselves, nose in book for hours, friendless and antisocial". Since everybody is doing it, it means you see kids walking home from their cram schools late at night, joking and laughing with friends. You see kids asking their parents to send them to cram school so they can hang out with their friends. It's a very hard, but very social, study atmosphere.
posted by Bugbread at 8:05 PM on November 19, 2012 [2 favorites]


I used to think clubs at Japanese school was a complete waste of time - from middle school on, clubs run seven days a week, even in summer - but the more I think about it (and the older my kids get) the more I think that it's not a completely bad idea. As they get older kids typically want to spend time with kids their age (and not their parents), so letting them hang out together at clubs is actually a good idea - and they get exercise on top of it.

As for examination hell, my nephew didn't go to cram school and instead got into a pharmacology program via self-study. The cram school system (I used to run a juku) caters to a bourgeois need to do something, anything to get the kids into a middle class track, but doesn't really address education and learning. Kind of a joke.
posted by KokuRyu at 9:02 PM on November 19, 2012


KokuRyu: I own a hagwon ("cram school") and a lot of our work is teaching philosophy and broad humanities. It is true that at a certain point the "learning" stops and test prep takes over (we also do SAT and three AP subjects as well as college counseling), but we're definitely not the only place in Seoul doing "real" education and learning--I talk to kids all the time and know of a bunch of places where kids are exposed to big ideas and great discussions!
posted by Joseph Gurl at 10:38 PM on November 19, 2012 [1 favorite]


As for han, I associate it more with the generation who lived through the Japanese Occupation and the Korean War. Personally I don't feel it's such a big part of the cultural and mental landscape of Koreans in their 30's and younger.

Well, you're definitely better qualified to say than me -- actually being Korean and all! -- but I don't think you have to look very far into recent Korean Wave films (including the revenge films of Park Chan Woo and the rather crowded crime and punishment genre as a whole) to see manifestations of it all over the place. Or the violated-schoolgirl-ghost genre. Or, for that matter, the near-constant weeping of women that eminates from the television set during the evening drama schedule.

That old adage about a woman feeling han freezing the ground in spring isn't so far beneath the surface, I don't think.

I do think it plays a big, if, like so many other Things Of The Past, unconscious and sublimated role. But I most certainly could be wrong. I'm old, and no matter how much my friends like to tease me that I'm ajjoshi-riffic, I'm still an outsider.

Anyway, like I said before, I think it's just one ingredient in the delicious, delicious jjigae.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 1:14 AM on November 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


I own a hagwon ("cram school") and a lot of our work is teaching philosophy and broad humanities. It is true that at a certain point the "learning" stops and test prep takes over (we also do SAT and three AP subjects as well as college counseling), but we're definitely not the only place in Seoul doing "real" education and learning--I talk to kids all the time and know of a bunch of places where kids are exposed to big ideas and great discussions!

I'm going to go out on a limb and say that the Japanese cram school system is only concerned with passing tests - we helped D students become C students in junior high school, and eventually shepherded them into a good technical high school. The tragedy of Japan is streaming - there's the AP stream for the bright kids who are going on to greater things, then there are technical and commercial high schools that prepare others for stable careers in trades. And then there is the "minimum essentials" stream, which prepares kids for careers at a convenience store.

So our goal was to save as many kids as we could by helping them pass high school entrance exams, and stay out of the minimum essentials stream if at all possible. We tried to get kids into the excellent trade school, so they could graduate and immediately get a job with a utility or on the factory floor. We also worked to get them into the AP stream.

For post-secondary, we had guidebooks to every major private and national university entrance examination - they are all different, so we helped kids who wanted to go to Ristumeikan or whatever get in there. My job was to work with kids and help them pass brutally hard English tests that focused on grammar.

My nephew is bright and motivated, and his father has a PhD in genetics, and works as the director of a pharmacology research lab. His mom is a senior civil servant. So they know how the system works, and don't really need cram schools.

But what a system.
posted by KokuRyu at 4:44 AM on November 20, 2012


Joseph Gurl, I was also interviewed for that NYT article (I wasn't quoted). I don't think I know you - you must have been there after my time?

Having gone through the South Korean K-12 system, I have much to say but am not sure where to start.

It is true that the school hours are brutal. For my high school, we had to be at school from 7:20am to 9pm (to 10pm in the 3rd year - Oh the dreaded Go 3 year). On top of that, I also had a commute of 1 hour and 20 minutes each way. I literally went home just to sleep and shower. I fell asleep anytime, anywhere - standing in the subway, taking a quick nap on the desk during the break, in the dentist waiting room, etc., etc. Having to wear uniforms helped - not having to worry about what to wear (esp. in high school) gives you that precious extra five minutes in the morning.

Some people look at me like I'm one of the insane incessant study drones or someone scarred for life by institutionalization when I tell them about my high school life. Yeah, it sucked. But we did have a lot of fun and there was plenty of high school drama, which is inevitable when you lock up 35 high school kids in one classroom for 12 hours a day. There was always something to laugh about and gossip about. Many elaborate plans were devised to sneak out of study hall. One class even succeeded in getting pizza delivered to their classroom during study hall.

The highlight of the long day was lunch/dinner time and the late afternoon "English Listening Skills" hour - some kind soul played two episodes of "Friends" with Korean subtitles so we can "practice" our English.

Oh, but then, in my case, it really helped that my parents weren't so driven as other parents - I never went to cram schools or had private tutoring after school (yes, after 12 hours of school) or during weekends (Saturday was a half-day so we were released by lunch time). Back then, I even heard that one mother got rid of the bed in her daughter's room, so she can only take a quick nap here and there and study nonstop. It may not have been true but it very well could have been true. Yes, corporal punishment was still alive (and was allowed - now it's illegal, I believe). Yes, we got demerits for oh-so-many silly things (e.g. not tucking in your shirt, eating while standing/walking, not putting your hair up, etc.).

Oh well. Those were the days.
posted by Sparkling Natural Mineral Water at 12:09 PM on November 20, 2012


> I don't think you have to look very far into recent Korean Wave films (including the revenge films of Park Chan Woo and the rather crowded crime and punishment genre as a whole) to see manifestations of it all over the place. Or the violated-schoolgirl-ghost genre. Or, for that matter, the near-constant weeping of women that eminates from the television set during the evening drama schedule.

Heh, I think you zeroed in on the particular generation I omitted - folks like Park Chan Wook, who was born in 1963. This is the generation raised by the generation who lived through the Japanese Occupation and Korean War. They're also the generation that was born and raised during the military dictatorships - Park Chung-hee seized power in 1961, and it was 1993 before a civilian president came into office. Meanwhile there were the various anti-government protests throughout the 80's and 90's, frequently led by university students. Protests were violently put down by the government, such as in the case of the Gwangju Uprising in 1980. You could argue that the generation in their 40's and 50's got a double dose of han, through the violence remembered by their parents and the violence they were experiencing themselves in their daily lives. They're also the generation that's producing the cultural content you're mentioning above.

I don't see as much weeping women full of han in the movie and TV output from those in their 30's - there's nostalgia for the 90's (the early days of the internet, 1st generation idol group fangirls, pop music from the period), fourth wall breaking fan service humor, brutally honest looks at modern Korean courtship and relationships. You're more likely to see this on cable than on the regular broadcast networks, though.

I think han will still be around, but more as a cultural artifact that everybody acknowledges is important, that gets trotted out in discussions of Korean-ness but not really thought about much otherwise, kind of like hanbok being trotted out for the holidays and ceremonial occasions but not being a part of daily life otherwise.
posted by needled at 7:47 PM on November 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


a cultural artifact that everybody acknowledges is important, that gets trotted out in discussions of Korean-ness but not really thought about much otherwise, kind of like hanbok being trotted out for the holidays and ceremonial occasions but not being a part of daily life otherwise.

Absolutely, but I still do think that it and a bunch of the others -- complex concepts we need a paragraph of words to explain in English but have a single-word expression in Korean -- are both fascinating (perhaps more so to me with my word-drunkenness) and not unuseful ways to get a peek under the, er, hanbok.

I wish my Korean were better, because I'd definitely have a clearer picture of the way, as you describe, that the overculture is changing. So it goes, though.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 1:04 AM on November 21, 2012


« Older One dealt with her near-death experience by forcin...  |  With the recent release of the... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments