I wish I could truly explain to you the night that I spent with my host family last Friday night. But I think, in the end, that it’s something that you would have to experience yourself to truly understand.
|My host papa. Isn’t he adorable? 🙂|
|I truly am one of the family… <3|
|They’re the cutest 🙂|
|They gave me all of his flowers and had me put them in my room! I can literally smell their love now… 🙂|
Students start off in elementary school already with long days – usually from about 8:00 am-3:00 pm. Middle school students get out a few hours later, around 5:00 pm. Even in middle school, though, the pressure has started to mount. My friend Elizabeth, another Fulbright scholar, says that her middle school host sister gets up at 2:30 or 3:00 am – every morning. When asked why she does that, she said matter-of-factly, as if it were completely normal, that she could get in 1 or 2 entire online lessons before school started by getting up that early.
But it’s my students, the high school students, that really bear the brunt of the enormous pressure. By the time you are a high school student, you spend an average of 15-17 hours a day at school. Many students arrive at school by 8:00 am, and often don’t leave until 11:00 or 11:30 pm. That includes weekends. The better schools have dormitories for the top students, so that they can “have more time to study.” I’m serious. That’s a direct quote from my co-teacher.
In a sense, it’s gotten even worse for me since I moved homestays. My old host sisters, to be quite honest, were not stellar students. But my new host sister is. And so, as wonderful as she is, living with her means that I also have to observe first-hand on a daily basis the amount of pressure that Korean students are under. It manifests itself with her physically, in frequent nosebleeds, numerous sores all over her mouth, and constant exhaustion. I’m not talking about the “oh-I’m-kind-of-sleepy-I-should-take-a-nap” type of weariness. I’m talking about bone-deep, unequivocal, complete exhaustion, the kind that makes everything, even just getting up and going to the bathroom, a monumental effort.
High school students in Korea have no life outside of school. They see far more of their teachers than they do of their parents. Many of them even live at school in dormitories. Almost all students eat at least 2 meals a day at school, and sometimes even the commuters end up eating all three there because of the long hours they put in. They bring blankets and pillows to school so that they can catch up on sleep in class sometimes. Boyfriends and girlfriends are virtually nonexistent. Most of the schools are gender segregated, and even if they weren’t, who has time to hang out?? They’re always studying. They have no friends outside of school, no outside interests, no hobbies…their life is studying. Period. I wish I could say that I was exaggerating, but alas, I cannot. I probably shouldn’t do this, but I always give a little cheer (both inwardly and aloud) when I see my students out and about in town at a time when I know that they’re supposed to be in school. I don’t care if they have to skip school to do it, these children need a life!!!
The pressure that they are under to perform is obvious. I gave English oral exams last week to my students. It was a simple exam, really – they were given 6 questions in advance, and then during the test I picked 2 of those 6 and asked them to answer me in English. Students only had to answer with 3 or 4 sentences to get full credit for completion, and the questions were simple things, like “What will you do during winter vacation?” or “What is your favorite movie?”. My students were in complete anguish. Some were so nervous they were unable to say even a single word. A few of them burst out crying. All of them were pale and jittery and nervous beyond belief. And that was just a simple test. It was nothing like the suneng, the big test that seniors take at the end of high school (more on that later).
And the thing is, the test wasn’t even a real assessment of their skill levels. They had the entire test beforehand. I was instructed to not give the lowest score, even if students did not say a single word. I was also told to grade on “effort,” not actual English proficiency, because “we want to encourage the students.” It was one of the worst cases of teaching to the test that I’ve ever seen.
Speaking of tests…the “Big One” just happened here in Korea a few weeks ago. All of those years of studying, all of the after-school classes and self-study hours and sleep deprivation that they’ve endured for their entire childhood, come to a head for the seniors on November 10th every year. This is the day of the suneng, the senior exit test. But this is no ordinary test. This is the test that will decide their entire future. The grade that they get on this test will determine their university, their job, their salary, where they live, even on occasion who they marry – many people will not marry someone who did not go to a university with a certain ranking. On November 10th, the entire country stops to cheer on the seniors. Planes stop flying. Buses and trains stop running. Many stores close for the day. This test is, quite literally, their life. It is what they’ve been working for for the last 12 years of their lives, and it is what will determine the rest of it.
The intense pressure to succeed has obvious affects on other areas of life. The suicide rate in Korea is the highest in the entire developed world – it has more than doubled in the last ten years. Nearly 10% of the entire young population considered committing suicide last year. The rapid increase has caused crisis hotlines to pop up. But the operators receive no formal training on how to handle potential suicide cases, and the numbers remain heartrendingly high. Elizabeth, who teaches in a middle school, says that several of her students have already confessed to attempting to commit suicide on multiple occasions. Imagine that….a 13 year old child trying to kill herself because of a bad test grade. It’s absolutely heartbreaking.
Korea is a remarkable country. For decades they have astonished the world with their nearly unheard-of economic growth rates. In 50 years they have gone from a third-world country to one of the richest countries in the world, a global superpower. Korean students consistently lead the global pack in test scores and academic performance. But such success comes at a price. And I can’t help but wondering if it’s too high a price.
I want to conclude this post not with my own words, but with the words of a Korean. This is a quote taken from the video below. It’s about 20 minutes long, but so worth watching. Please take the time to do so.
“I don’t know, there are lots of options or choices for them (Korean students who commit suicide). But actually they chose to die. Maybe they committed suicide because of their own expectations, or maybe they couldn’t see their parents because they believed that they had failed their parents…..but something is wrong. Truthfully, taking tests and going to college – the reason for studying -…committing suicide just because you didn’t do that well, doesn’t make much sense to me. But that in itself is a kind of representation of how there’s obviously a huge problem in our educational system.”
|The cast of Miso II|
Sunday I sang again at church. I went with a Korean named Sea-reum (Rachel) to the service. She actually asked me if I wanted to go with her; it was really nice to spend some time with a Korean for once :). After church we went out for lunch and, through a series of strange events, ended up in the field by the river’s edge with 2 of Anthony’s Korean students dancing the Merengue. Such things just seem to happen in Korea, lol….
I started a Bible study within the English church. This Wednesday was our first meeting. We met in a cute little coffee shop near where I live; six people (including myself) showed up. It was really nice to chill and talk about God and get to know other believers in a friendly, relaxed setting, and I’m looking forward to this addition to my schedule.
Friday night I had dance class again – this time it was East Coast Swing. That was INSANE. Even more so than Merengue. You try getting over 50 giddy girls who don’t speak your language to do a rock step. But they all had a blast – I got several hugs and lots of smiles and laughter, so I’m happy :). Anthony helped me again, and again, I was thanking him profusely. He’s such a good sport :). After the dance, my teachers wanted to take us out to dinner, so the entire English department + Anthony went out to dinner. “We will eat chicken,” my co-teacher told me. “Lots of chicken.” And that’s exactly what we did :). After dinner, I was thinking that we would go home. But no, it was time for round 2 – norebang! All of us except Anthony went – he had somewhere else he had to go. It was really funny seeing my outgoing and slightly inebriated co-teachers singing and dancing all over the norebang room. So that was fun – I sang a couple of songs that I barely knew (the selection of American songs is not the largest, lol). So after norebang, I was thinking that THEN we’d go home, right? Wrong. Time for round 3 – rounds of drinks at a bar! I went along for the ride, but didn’t drink much…but my co-teachers all respect that I don’t like to drink, so they didn’t push it. I was grateful for that.
Anyway, overall a good last week of September. Gotta go for now – gotta finish packing for Jinju! 🙂