The Magic Fix

The Marmot links to a story in the Globe & Mail about Korean man who caned his teenaged boy in Vancouver so severely that he was arrested.

“The problem, as some view it, is the father loved his son too much,” said McKinley Ahn, a reporter with the Burnaby-based Korea Times, the paper in which the father’s article is to appear before May. “Not all Koreans do such behaviour, but I understand the father’s position. He sent his son to Canada, paid $27,000 a year for him to go to school in Canada, and the son did not care about his studies. The father could not accept that.”

So he beat him.

For three hours.

With a cane.

Until he couldn’t walk straight, and shuffled like an old man.

And he made the kid proclaim, between each strike of the cane, that the punishment was his own fault.

So the next day, when the kid got to school, the police were called and the father, “a South Korean national who is the CEO of a number of international companies” was arrested. How did the local Korean-Canadian community react?

The father’s arrest surprised many because caning is not an unusual form of discipline, said Sally Kim, a spokeswoman with the Korean Society in Burnaby.

“It was something that happened in the family and inside the home,” Ms. Kim said. “At one time, it may have been common to hit children like that but the thinking has changed. Even the older people in the community think it’s not right any more, especially in Canada.”

It may have been common? What does “may have been” mean, in this context? I know that corporal punishment isn’t so uncommon today, even in schools where it is technically illegal, but did people routinely beat their children quite so excessively as this? I kind of doubt it.

If I were that kid, I’d be having as little as possible to do with the father once I was old enough to get away from him. Till then, I’d be studying like mad.

I don’t particularly mind that this arrest made the father lose face. Corporal punishment may be less forbidden in Korea, but beating your child for three hours, hundreds of strikes, till he cannot even walk anymore? And convincing him this is his fault? And flying across the freaking ocean to beat your child? It’s all just too much.

Unlike the commenter bluejeans, I’ve never seen a coach beat students at the swimming pool. Maybe that coach is an oddity? I do know of violence at school, but still… three hours of it? Does “beat” here mean “whack”, or all-out “beating”? I’d differentiate this way: a whack is supposed to cause momentary pain, to drive a lesson home; beating is supposed to cause damage, and may be construed as discipline but really truly is violent. A “whack” is physical (and of course uncalled-for in many circumstances) but isn’t truly violent, where a beating is unmistakably a violent act. I wonder which bluejeans actually saw at the pool?

I can understand the father’s frustration, mind you; still, there’s a point where disciplining a child crosses over into venting your frustration and anger, and that kind of thing usually teaches a kid that parents are untrustworthy, dangerous creatures to be placated, avoided, and escaped from as soon as possible.

I also would suggest that it’s not that unusual for a kid in Canada to play hookey, let his grades slip a little, and so on… it’s more possible in Canada, it’s more acceptable to parents and teachers (who’d probably ground a kid for that sort of thing, not cane him senseless) and while it sucks that dad’s paid $27,000 to send his kid to this kind of educational environment, the old man should understand that adjusting to such a different culture and environment takes time. It’s totally understandable that a kid could go from being an honor student in his first year abroad, to letting his grades slip and playing hooky a little in his second year. In fact, that would be what I expect: the first year, he’s just trying to tread water, not get noticed, do what’s expected of him back home. As time passes by, and he grows more comfortable, makes more friends, and so on, it seems feasible that he would change his behaviour, relax a little, and act a bit more like the Canadian kids around him.

The father presumably didn’t send his boy to Canada to learn the culture, he sent him for the benefit of living immersed in English, and for the superior high school education. But it’s ridiculous to imagine the kid wouldn’t also pick up some of Canadian culture—the good and the bad alike—along the way. Playing hooky, letting grades slip: these are what normal kids occasionally do, exploring, as they are approaching adulthood, their relationship with authority and the systems in which they are embedded. It’s just that in Korea, I think this kind of thing goes on once you’re in University. Yes, that’s right, you’re allowed to act like a teenager a little and start to grow up once you get to University (or, according to Lime, once you finish your University Entrance Exams, in her experience); before that, there are too many really important tests to write.

Then again, there’s a part of me—maybe the would-be novelist?—that suspects there’s more to this story than what’s been reported. Considering the fear of shame that even comes up in the article, considering the mother’s reaction to the whole thing—she’s left Canada “to seek medical treatment” because she is “physically and emotionally ill”—I wouldn’t be surprised if there was some other grave mistake on the boy’s part that pissed the father off. A non-Korean girlfriend? Drugs? Some illegal activity? I knew a guy once who’d been in an ethnic gang in Vancouver and he said they were everywhere, always recruiting, feeding off the kind of old-world nationalism kids had been taught by their parents, and that for a lot of kids from overseas they were a way of bonding with other kids from the same background (something desperately wanted, especially by kids who experienced racist treatment), making easy money, and meeting girls. There’s no way that beating a kid is a kind of magic fix for him suddenly not being a kid, any more than sending him to Canada and spending a lot of money on him is going to make him a perfect student.

I’m not saying, “Hey, this boy was in a gang!” or something like that. But I wouldn’t be surprised if his mother had caught him trying pot (now decriminalized in Canada) or some rumor of him walking around with a girl downtown got back to his mom. All I know is, when my grades slipped a little in high school, it wasn’t because I didn’t care about school: I’d just met my first girlfriend and school didn’t seem to matter as much, for a little while. And then I got over it.

Without having the living hell caned out of me.

UPDATE: A commenter at The Marmot’s Hole going by the name “bluejeans” claimed that “The parents in South Korea really do care more about education than the parents in Canada and often this really helps the kids…” Well, I’m not so sure about that.

I had a discussion with a friend recently about this subject. She was telling me she knows two different families. In the first, the kids are books solid from 6am to 11pm, hakwons (aka “cram schools”) and school and more hakwons. In the other family, the kids don’t go to any hakwons at all, except music lessons and English lessons.

Now, hakwon enrollment isn’t cheap. These speciality schools are businesses, and they exist, primarily, for the profits. The scramble to get kids into them, regardless of the cost, drives many families to the point of tightening their belts, for the ostensible good of their children.

Ostensible, I say, because it’s debatable how much actual learning goes on in the majority of these institutions. How many times have I met students in low-intermediate English courses, who cannot string together two sentences, yet have a job teaching at a hakwon? How many times have I heard drunkard foreigners bragging that all they do with kids is play games all day, and since the games have some English in them, the parents think their kids are learning?

Sure, some kinds of learning are ideal for hakwons: music lessons are a great idea, as long as they’re one on one, or in small ensembles (at a somewhat more advanced level). Art classes, too, are fit for group study in a classroom. Arguably, advanced language study also is suitable, with a good teacher. But what’s more important is, these kinds of lessons are worthwhile as long as a mind has a little time before and after to reflect on what’s learned… in other words, as long as one is not being shipped from hakwon to hakwon, as so many kids are. When you teach children, it’s easy to spot the ones who have hakwon-holic parents: they’re the kids whose faces are pale and drawn, who look sullen until you realize, no, they’re just exhausted. As a result, they often perform at a much lower level than other kids.

That’s why the 6am-11pm kids I mentioned above, in the first family, do so badly, while the kids who only take music and English lessons, and are otherwise free to investigate whatever they like in their free time are reportedly so bright, so interested in many things, so clever. Their parents, both highly educated people, explicitly told my friend that they do not believe in hakwons, and that they also are opposed to enrolling their (very bright) children in the most prestigious school in the city, precisely because it’s such a stressful and competitive learning environment that children simply cannot function well as human beings when they are forced to study there.

Now, some parents would say these latter parents don’t care about education—else they’d be enrolling their kids in the best high schools and the most expensive hakwons—but really, I’d argue, they are simply opting out of a really dysfunctional system of education, as much as possible.

There are more examples of educational dysfunction here, of course: the exam-centered high-school experience; the drunkeness that saturates many, many people’s Freshman year at university (and sometimes the whole university experience); the way that military service interrupts college education, instead of directly preceding or following it—which results in a number of men coming back from a gruelling two years with almost no memory of what they learned in the first half of their degree program (though this is, I think, their choice: I’ve been told that there’s nothing preventing young men from serving directly after high school, except that nobody else does it); the ineffectiveness of the majority of the English education that happens in schools; the University Entrance Exams, which are pretty much the main concern of high school seniors for a year, and the (ridiculous) determinant of what kind of educational and therefore job prospects kids have after high school. Hell, one of the biggest criticisms Koreans have of Korea is the education system.

Which is to their credit. The problem is, the criticism doesn’t seem to materialize into anything like demanding changes. Whenever I hear people complain about the nation’s educational system, I asked them what they are doing to make sure their children and grandchildren are better served, and they always kind of shrug and have nothing to say. I don’t know if there are PTA boards, though I’ve never heard of anything like that. There are informal parental networks, which sometimes get things done, like getting someone they consider to be an abusive hakwon teacher fired—I know because I’ve seen it happen—but I’ve never heard of an overt, explicit group of parents lobbying for changes in curriculum, staff, or the educational system in general. There is some discussion of administrative change, by government organizations, but I can’t seem to find much in the way of citizen-directed criticism and reform.

Then again, the whole hakwon industry calls into question whether parents know what’s good for their kids in terms of education… I’m tempted to say, often parents mean well, but want a magic fix that will crank out educated kids. As noted in one of the articles linked above,

Koreans still favor form over substance and tend to value reputation more highly than current reality. Of particular note, too many people lack a proper understanding about the education sector, which only serves to worsen Korea’s educational woes.

However, I disagree with that author that purely applying market principles will fix this problem. Ironically, what may be needed is more public education about what a successful education is, and how it can be achieved—so that parents can start demanding that of the system, instead of simply demanding of their kids that they get into Seoul National University, or, at least, a university in Seoul.

3 thoughts on “The Magic Fix

  1. I was interested in your opinion on the hakwon’s. Been stuck in the system for two years teaching it was actually quite depressing, as much as I came here for the money, now that I have had years to aclimatize it is about results now.

    Regardless of what I want the whole English system has gone majorly askew and the learning has been replaced by ensuring the kids go home with a good impression. Hence the view that most teachers are clowns amongst the expat community.

    Yet even at the higher level, teaching adults, I often get the occasional person who has gone through the hakwons, middle school English and then High School English and I am forced to focus my attention on them more. The general belief seems to be that either a. after 10 years of studying I think I am really good, but in fact my structure and especially my pronunciation is horrible; or b. after 10 years of studying I KNOW that I am no where near ready and so I am to shy to let others see my faults.

    One on one’s are the way to go, if the law would change, it would be a much more competitive and benefical market, since we would be competing with each other and trying to maintain some form of reputation.

  2. Yes. I suppose the reluctance of the Korean government is related to the fact that having a mob of freelancers floating around the country would make them harder to track, and leave them with nobody officially “in charge of them”, or “responsible” for them should they need to be contacted, deported, or what have you. In addition, probably there are fears that schools would lack teachers altogether, since teaching one-on-one is both more fulfilling, and generally more worthwhile in terms of actual learning.

    I suppose it’d be hard to find any country that would let in mass numbers of foreigners to do freelance work, of course, so I can’t really criticize. But I do think fewer draconian laws about it all would benefit people: abolishing the “Letter of Release” and legalizing private lessons would be a start.

    One little addendum: I think that plenty of bad teachers would still survive within a legalized one-on-one system. As I said, I’m pretty certain a majority of parents and students don’t really understand how language learning is supposed to work, and they would consistently hire teachers who are likewise in the dark. But I do think more good teachers would get more good work, a reputation-system of sorts would probably emerge over time, and more real language learning would be happening all around.

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