Do you know any high school kids?

UPDATE (24/11/2005): Uh, what happened? The roads weren’t blocked this time, nothing like last year when they were jammed insanely tightly. I didn’t notice anything out of the ordinary, actually. Maybe I was misinformed, but I wasn’t the only one… other people at work had heard the same as me.


If you do, please give them something nice tonight. For many of them, tomorrow is going to be a brutal day. Yes, tomorrow is the day of the University Entrance Exams. It’s a day of unbelievable stress, of pressure, of anxiety and it’s also the release from a year (or more) of scholarly bondage to these kids who, even the least studious, were subject to constant calls to study more, harder, and better.

By the way, for those of you who don’t know any Korean highschoolers: the traffic is going to be insane in the morning. Leave at least an hour early for anything, or perhaps try the back route. That’s going to be my strategy… 30 minutes early, and if the road looks bad, take the long way to the back gate of the Uni.

Lime told me an anecdote about the University Entrance Exams that I wanted to relate here; it tells you something about just how important they are considered to be in Korea. She told me that about ten years ago, such exams were also taken in the summer, and at that time, the concern was so high that kids would be able to take the listening comprehension part of the exam that a mass campaign was launched to eradicate the nearby trees of cicadas. I assume there was simply heavy spraying of pesticides, and apparently it was relatively successful; it was quiet enough to ensure the exams would go ahead. (No word on resultant illnesses or birth defects among the exposed, though.)

Lastly, I found a very interesting passage in a book written by a Scotswoman visiting Korea while under Japanese rule, about the effect of Chinese-language focused education in Korean history.

She was speculating on the relationship between an overvaluation of supposedly objective foreign-language examinations (and their linkage to governmental/bureaucratic employment opportunities) and the disrepair of the Joseon governmental branches and, I seem to recall her suggesting, the resultant ease of Japanese takeover. It was, needless to say, an extremely interesting passage. However, my scanner has once again decided to stop working, so I shall have to try reinstall software and try scan it tonight. Perhaps you shall get a chance to see it later, then.

16 thoughts on “Do you know any high school kids?

  1. Pingback: ESL Lesson Plan
  2. These tests are out of legend to me, stories told to me by my mother and father, cousins and aunts and uncles who live in Korea…my mom and dad telling me how easy we had it in the U.S., my Korea-based relatives sighing and fretting and fainting.

    “You’re lucky! The SAT’s are easy, you have it so easy, if you were in Korea, you would have to take the UNIVERSITY ENTRANCE EXAMS…!!!”

    I can’t imagine my entire life’s destiny determined by a test taken at the age of 17. That’s a lot of pressure.

  3. Yeah, I can’t imagine being subject to an exam that early in life that would affect the rest of my life. I think it’s a seriously mistaken method of directing the nation — kind of a gross mismismanagement of human resources on the national scale — and I think that parents and students alike ought to push for its abolition. But with the apparently still forthcoming closures in the universities across the country, this is only going to tighten things up and heighten competition — and misery among those who fail to score highly.

    However, I suspect that, like with clitorectomy and infibulation, the biggest advocates may well be those who’ve suffered through it themselves and been injured by it, and who think that if they survived it, why shouldn’t others also go through it? It makes me wonder what would happen if reunification happened peacefully and the need for a citizens’ defense army were removed: would the abolition of compulsory military service be accepted by those who’d gone through it? Something tells me there’d be a lot of tension about it. (Not that it’ll happen soon… there’s no sign of a quick fix on the way as far as I can tell.)

  4. good thoughts.

    one of the consequences of the entrance exams is, i think, the exodus of Korean students to foreign universities. i am hearing more and more students electing to take the SAT and applying to U.S. colleges (if they can afford this luxury, of course).

    i like your segue into military duty. that’s another thing to consider. because in the deepest parts of my gut, i know reunification will eventually occur, perhaps even in our lifetime.

  5. Hmmm. What makes you think that reunification will happen so soon, C(h)ristine? It seems to me that just the monetary costs (let alone the difficulties of integrating the two cultures) would make obvious the South Koreans’ desire to fend off any kind of real reunification until sometime in the future. Corporate insterests alone would fend it off, and that’s not even considering the interests of citizens doing the voting. I asked a young man once if he’d be willing to help pay the cost of reunification. When he said yes, I asked what cost he imagined. He said Korea would be instantly richer and better off. When I asked him if he had ever heard about this country called Germany, he was puzzled why I asked. When I asked him if he’d be willing to pay W500,000 for a cell phone that had cost him W50,000, he looked alarmed and said he’d prefer not to. (I know I was probably exaggerating, but inflation can be a bastard during unstable national crises.)

    When asked whether he’d accept such inflation the price of reunification — and pay such an increased price on food, housing, and clothing — he was very quiet. I think North Korean collapse could come within our lifetime, but I don’t want to be here when it does. It will be extremely messy; and unlike certain of my friends, I see no way that the border would suddenly be opened. And I’m not even getting into how your average Joe South Korean often characterize people in North Korea, either.

    As for the exodus of Korean students, I think there are many reasons for it; but the strongest, I think, is not the impetus to avoid the college entrance exams, but rather the impetus to attend Uni in the States, since even a middling college education in the States stands a better chance of teaching you something than many Universities here (with of course the exception of the national and better private Unis in Seoul). Many young Koreans I know also do not wish the education system on their own children, and for this reason consider emigration.

  6. Everyone keeps talking about “the money the money the money”–but the reality is that this is the only divided country in the world (Vietnam is one Vietnam, Germany was reunited, etc.) and the reality that families have been separated and are continuing to live apart in heartbreak. It makes me very concerned that all the financial reasons are really out of deep fear. There is no good end to that.

    When North and South Korea reunite, I hope to be there. It’s one of the things I want most to happen. For all the people who vocalize their misgivings about reunification, there are many others who silently pray every night for reunification. I know my grandmother did.

  7. Cyprus is also split, isn’t it? (Though the border is less so.) Kurdish issues (ie. demands for an independent Kurdistan) are nowhere near being resolved, and Kurds are still being deracinated in Turkey. It’s standard Korean rhetoric to give Korea a special-victim status it just doesn’t deserve — not because Korea hasn’t had it hard — Korea has had it incredibly hard — but because many other peoples have been victims of horrors in the last century and throughout history, and because it’s impossible to evaluate which nation’s suffering outweighs others’ the most.

    Now, as for families living apart in heartbreak; yes, this is true. And older people do pray every night for reunification, some of them anyway. None of this is untrue. But none of that is likely to make reunification happen soon, either.

    The middle-and-upper class of the younger generation is far different from its’ parents’ generation. They were born into a world where that division has always existed; they were born into a world where the flood of consumer goods and disposable income had just begun, or in any case it began when they were young enough to get used to it. They now spend hundreds of dollars (in Korean won) on cellular phones that can download movies and send video to other phones. Their consumption of electronics and hair products, of entertainment and of luxury goods, is as rabid as I remember anywhere in North America, and moreso than in some places I’ve been in NA. Korea basically has become a postmodern consumerist society, and such societies tend to have a lot less memory than their predecessor societies. These young people sometimes give lip service to the notion of living in heartbreak, but most often, they seem to have no real, visceral sense of the division as a division, which makes sense. It’s always been there, from their perspective. They don’t perceive a loss, any more than I perceive a loss in not knowing my second cousins in Britain and Australia whom I’ve never received a postcard or seen in photos. Make no mistake, the indoctrination continues — though the focus seems more strongly on hatred of American and Japan than on the necessity of reunification, these days — but I strongly doubt the willingness of the Starcraft generation to put its money (or time, or energy) where its mouth is. This is reflected also even in intellectual life: young novelists refuse to write ONLY about the Korean war, and older novelists criticize them for betraying the nation’s need for memory. (I read a few articles on this a while back, in the newspaper. Several older writers actually criticized young writers for choosing any topic at all that was unrelated to the Korean war and the division of the country.)

    Then there’s the poor in Korea: the families that subsist on a single income which is close to roughly a million won a month — about $800 or maybe $900 a month, American, I think. This is the kind of family where Dad has one day off a month, during which he sleeps. This is the kind of family that would just die for the chance to make even $400 a month more — they live in an apartment, they have clothes, but they’re not the rampant consumers that the middle class are. And it’s not like these people are that rare. These people very often lost massively when the economy collapsed, they were badly hurt and have not recovered in the almost decade since. While the rich sheltered money overseas and in investments, these people sent in their gold to shore up the national economy. Did they get anything back? Nope. Now they hang by a thinner thread even than before.

    Reunification — meaning instant, sudden reunification and the opening of the border — would affect these two groups in different ways economically. The value of everything would skyrocket, so that we’d be back to 1980s costs for 2005 technology and goods. The middle class and rich who have considered this carefully fear it because all that their parents worked for to give them — luxury, freedom from daylong toil, poverty — would possibly return, or at least some decline in standard of living would be incurred. The poor fear it for more understandable and reasonable reasons, for they’d suddenly be in competition for jobs with North Koreans willing to work for half what is being paid the working South Korean poor.

    Then there’s the social problems. North Koreans who have emigrated to South Korea very often report extreme difficulty fitting in, not only because of the ideology that was hammered into them up North, but because even once they’ve gone through the mandatory South Korean reeducation program, South Koreans are distrustful, resentful, fearful, and unaccepting of them. This is not my opinion, this is the opinion I’ve read expressed by North Korean refugees here.

    Lastly, there is the possibility that bad things could happen on the eve of reunification. As things stand, with the way the North is militarized and given Northern policy, reunification would not happen easily. It would likely happen as the result of an internal collapse in the North — something which, regardless of its other effects, South Korean Sunishine Policy helps to stave off by supplying agricultural, technical, and food aid to the North. I remember reading that analysts had described the prevailing trend of thought in Pyongyang thus: it was a 50/50 chance that the notion, “If we’re going down, we’ll take Seoul with us,” would win out. Having read what I have about the North, I believe the government and military there capable of this kind of evil. The fact they could do serious damage to Seoul even now probably runs through the mind of every one of the politicians responsible for the ten million people in Seoul alone (that’s not counting the subsurbs contiguous with Seoul). I can see why they want to stave off anything like what could happen on a really, really bad day.

    In any case, I think the major error in the popular conception of “reunification” is that it could happen on one day, or at one time. It will be a long, slow, expensive, and difficult process. But seeing the administrative and regionalizing problems that already plague just the South (for example, the enduring enmity of Jeolla province towards the ostensible descendants of the Shilla who brought about the end of the Paekche era some 1300-odd years ago, and which has often lurked the background in discussions of the governmental neglect of Jeolla province until recently), I have serious trouble seeing a quickly and stably reintegrated North happening on a timescale of less than a century. It doesn’t mean people wouldn’t try, it’s just that I’d prefer not to be present (ie. directly affected) by the attempt to rush it, should the prevailing political party of the time dictate that course of action.

  8. insightful. I think I have to get more educated now. I grew up under the tutelage of my father, who is one of those oldtimers who pray for reunification, who has always stressed the significance of the war and poured his memories into me. So I live with his desires and memory (and always, ironically, I guess in contrast with South Korea’s young writers, I write about the Korean War and if not that, the consequences of the War and division on a psyche). In communicating more with my younger 2nd cousins (who are in high school), I’ve gotten some insight into the Korean youth conscious (“Auntie, how come you care about this stuff more than we do? We don’t care at all about North Korea!”), but had no idea to what extent it had penetrated the entire generation.

    I’m one of those “old fogeys” I guess, that are concerned about the loss of memory, and that is why I write my fiction.

    Anyway, thank you for the insight.

  9. You’re welcome to whatever insight you can fish out of my site, but please don’t get me wrong: I don’t think it’s bad to want, or to write about, reunification. But the older generation’s desires and experiences are so out of tune with the younger that I think it’s easy to be misled if emotional input is mainly from an older Korean.

    How often have you been to/stayed in Korea? I’m curious simply because I’m more curious about how you depict Korean society in general in your writing.

    The idea of “loss of memory” is interesting here, because there are of course concerted “education” (we would call it propagandizing) efforts in school to convince children to remember and care about North Korea and to drive home the motto, “We must reunify.” But all evidence I’ve seen points to young people being very well trained at repeating the mantram, but not really interested in the follow-through.

    Understandably so, too. Being told that one shall have to live in poverty for a couple of generations for the right to do so has got to be a depressing prospect, especially knowing that the rich would be (a) profiting off it, just as they are already in Gaesong, and (b) fleeing the country (with as much cash as possible) as soon as things got too tight. I can, I suspect, barely imagine how it would feel.

  10. Hiya gord–I think, from a creative writing point of view, truth is all a matter of perspective. I’m writing my novel in first person, which gives me some leeway–the opinions are placed in the head and heart of my protagonist. So long as his opinions are consistent with his character, everything should fly.

    Basically, I like finding out all perspectives. They are all full of truth as people experience them. :)

    I have visited Korea about 10 times in my life, about every 2-3 years. My more recent stays have been for shorter lengths of time, but I pretty much used to spend entire summers at my grandmother’s house during my high school years. Very cool, and I know things have changed since the 1990’s in Seoul and South Korea.

  11. c(h)ristine,

    Things may have changed less in Jeonju than in Seoul. I should add a big caveat to the above noting that my experience is mostly in Iksan and Jeonju, not in Seoul.

    And you’re right, opinions are all possible as long as consistent with character, and with, you know, other stuff. (Modern physicists who believe in phlogiston are a bit unbelievable, for example.) I think there’s a huge range of opinions within Korea, and even more among Korean expatriates or 2nd-or-later-generation Koreans in other lands. The opinions, of course, are all possible.

    I’m just wary, as you suggested, about the social significance of misrepresentations of things like, say, Reunification. The things I sometimes hear people say scare me, because the simplifications often lead to kinds of dangerous thinking. Not that anything you said represents “dangerous thinking”, but I’ve heard some pretty frightening chains of logic rooted in all-too-common simplifications.

    I am curious whether you write primarily about Korean-Americans, Koreans in Korea, and in what context? I find I often write about foreigners displaced in lands that are not their own, though it’s not always North Americans in Asia — one tale had a German, an Indo-Australian, and some Kazakh truck driver/mercenaries in Uzbekistan; another featured an alternate history focused on an Opium War waged on British soil, with the main aggressors being the Northern Chinese; and of course, closer to my own experience, I wrote a novel earlier this year about a Canadian foreigner who gets killed in the Korean countryside and ends up wandering around as a ghost, even more isolated and cut-off than he was in life.

  12. Hello…

    Most of my writing is centered around people of Korean origin in America. Soemtimes new arrivals from Korea in America…sometimes 2nd generation Korean Americans. Mostly centering around the obligation towards ancestors, pressure to live up to history, …well, actually, I wrote about the central themes here in a previous blog post of mine. I’m personally interested in myths and folktales, so they often show up too, and my stories often take on teh structure of folktales and myths.

    Your novel sounds very interesting, though incredibly heartbreaking!

  13. Have you shopped your novel to an agent?

    I’m about 1/3 of the way through my novel. I’m an incredibly slow writer, and I just started a re-draft (after getting about 1/2 way through the novel, I realized there needed to be some significant plot restructuring, so I’ve gone back to the beginning to put in those changes). Fun.

  14. I haven’t looked for an agent yet — the book still needs some work, but more importantly, I’m not sure it’d be my best choice for a first novel to publish, anyway.

    I did the same thing you did, once. There was a novel I tried to write for several years, and several times I got close to finishing and realized it just wasn’t working. Actually, my case was more dire than I imagine yours is: for me, it was my Monkey Puzzle, you know? The hollowed-out gourd containing a treat… I kept reaching my hand into it to get the tasty treat, but time and time again, my fist (closed around the treat) couldn’t fit back out the narrow hole. I learned a lot working on that book, but it cost me years of writing time, and finally I had to just walk away from it. But the rewriting, I tell you — there was so much of it!

    Here’s to novels that get finished. (Like yours will soon be, I’m sure!)

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