WHAT’S IT LIKE TO BE A STUDENT IN KOREA?
Your God offered you the opportunity to start your life all over again – but here’s the fine print – as a student in Korea, would you take it? Well, the answer would sharply diverge depending on what type of drama you watched. If the bubbly lovey-dovey teenage romance drama like 하이스쿨: 러브온 (Hi! School-Love On, KBS, 2014) was your cup of tea, you would sign the contract in a heartbeat. On the other hand, you would definitely turn down the offer and walk away from the table had you recently watched 스카이캐슬 (SKY Castle, JTBC, 2018) – where the parents go as far as blackmailing, intimidating, and all sorts of hanky panky just to put their kids ahead of others to get them into prestigious colleges, and mostly to keep their egos inflated at the expense of their children’s freedom. It was a shock to viewers around the world who were used to believing that everything Korean high school boys and girls did was exchanging candies and love letters. SKY Castle is not about puppy love but a reflection of the appallingly grim side of the Korean education system. While it’s best to watch the whole series to understand what it’s like, let me quickly walk you through an abridged version of a day in the life of a typical Korean high school student. Take a deep breath and hang tight!
The first class starts at 9 A.M., 5 days a week, but you should get there early because you have to go through a rigorous screening process which might add extra minutes. When you get to the main entrance, the teachers on duty and the members of the student council check your hair length (if it’s over the certain limit, you will get a “free haircut” on the spot by the teachers), and whether it’s dyed or permed (both are prohibited). Also checked is the dress code – whether you are wearing the school uniform according to the school standards. (The rules on hair has changed after dubaljayuhwa 두발자유화 “Prohibition of Haircut Restrictions” went into effect in 2018).
“FREEDOM FOR OUR HAIRSTYLES!” HAIRCUT REGULATIONS
If you are used to seeing the hot and flashy hairstyles of K-Pop idols, you might have assumed that it’s what the typical Korean teenagers look like in real life! But Korean schools continued to maintain a code of strict haircut regulations until very recently. Considered as one of the last remnants of the Japanese Occupation whose education system was modeled after that of their military academy, it was criticized for depersonalizing the students, and it was finally lifted in 2018, and each school adopted more relaxed versions of regulations.
“Such intolerance!” You say loudly to yourself, as you head to the classroom. Okay, you are now in the classroom, and the class promptly starts at 9 A.M. A school day consists of 7 sessions, each with 50 minutes of lessons and 10 minutes of break time in between. Lunch is from 1 P.M. to 2 P.M. and is served either in the classroom or in the student dining room. The last session ends at 4:50 PM. Yes! Free at last? Not so fast! You have to attend extracurricular activities for
an hour. Then it’s feeding time again! After an hour of dinner, it’s already 7 P.M. It was such a long day! So… that means you can finally pack up and go home, right? Not so fast! After dinner is a 3-hour long late-night self-study session, which used to require mandatory attendance until very recently (most schools nowadays changed it into a voluntary system). Okay then, what do you do now with the precious extra 3 hours? Most students would go to hagwon 학원 (after-school tutoring companies) or get private tutoring at home. If you don’t want to fall behind (so much peer pressure!), you might want to consider one of the two (or both?) options, right? Oh wait… Don’t forget to do your homework! Ugh!
And that’s just how Korean high school students spend their day, and multiplying that by 5 is how they spend their week. The weekends aren’t off days either – studying continues at hagwons or at home by private tutoring. But the worst comes when you reach gosam 고삼 (short for “3rd year in high school,” graduating class) where everything intensifies! How bad? A famous Korean saying, “sam dang sa rak” 삼당사락 (“three hours (of sleep) you pass and four hours (of sleep) you fail”), will give you a pretty good idea.
So… What do you think? Does starting your life over again as a student in Korea still sound like fun? I’ll leave it up to you to decide, and while you weigh up pros and cons of each scenario, let’s do some digging as to why Koreans are so obsessed with education in the first place!
WHY DO KOREAN KIDS STUDY SO DARN HARD?
Does every profession deserve equal respect? Korean people in the past certainly didn’t think so. The traditional yugyo ideology called sa nong gong sang 사농공상, or “the four categories of occupations,” (scholars, peasant farmers, artisans and craftsmen, and merchants listed in the order of their social status) dominated the Korean society and led it to favor scholars, giving them more social status and prestige over those in other categories who were often looked down upon, even with contempt.
As for the noble people, the gateway to success and prestige was passing the state-wide civil service examination called gwageo 과거, to become a member of the state officials. It was of such importance that unsuccessful applicants would keep trying years after years, and many died without bearing fruit. These national traits still remain intact in the modern-day Korean society, but the fervor for education is so much greater than it was in the past. As previously learned, Koreans devote countless hours to studying so they can do well on the modern-day gwageo equivalent, suneung 수능, or “national college entrance exam.”
Like in the past, passing the exam with a competitive score will get you into a top university (the top 3 most prestigious universities are Seoul National University, Korea University, and Yonsei University – hence the name SKY Castle). Like in the drama, the parents would use every conceivable means to get their kids into one of those schools because it entails the opportunities for prestigious occupations and a connection to the successful alumni network. It was of such importance that unsuccessful applicants would keep trying years after years until they get into their dream university. For the guaranteed success and all the perks that entail, parents would invest a massive amount of money into education, hoping their investment will pay off.
SUNEUNG – THE BIG DAY FOR STUDENTS
The second or third Thursday in November every year, when the regular school curriculum is completed, is the big day every graduating gosam student anxiously waits for. suneung 수능, short for daehak suhak neungryeok shiheom 대학수학능력시험 “College Scholastic Ability Test (CSAT),” is a national exam that tests the students’ ability required for a college education. Topics include Korean Language, Korean History, English, Math, Second Foreign Language/Hanja (Chinese Characters and Classics), Social Studies, Science, and Vocational education, and the test results are an important element that affects the likelihood of getting accepted to a college. The event receives national attention (because everyone had to take the test as a student) and everybody would be walking on eggshells, which often don’t make any sense to the eyes of a foreigner. For example on the test day, airplanes stay grounded or circle around the airports to avoid making noise during the listening test session. The stock markets have a delayed start time while public transportation provides an increased number of rides to prevent traffic jams so that the test-taking students can get to the testing site on time. In rare cases (but happens every year), police cars come to the rescue of a troubled student running late by providing an emergency ride.
Outside the testing sites are the parents sticking chapssaltteok 찹쌀떡 (“glutinous rice cake”) and yeot 엿 (“taffy”) to the gate, both symbolic of passing the test. And while this day means a finish line for many students, those who are not happy with their scores would run the track again, in hopes of achieving the score needed to get into the college they want. Students decide to go for jaesu 재수 (“second try”), samsu 삼수 (“third try”), or even sasu 사수 (“fourth try”). For some students, the pressure is so enormous that they would go as far as taking their own life for letting their parents down.
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WHY DO KOREAN STUDENTS STUDY ABROAD SO MUCH?
Have you had a Korean student studying in your country? They are not a rarity because, as seen from the chart, Korean students are one of the things Korea exports a lot of! We know that studying abroad costs a fortune – the tuition,the living expenses and everything, but why do so many Korean parents still send their children to study abroad at an early age?
– To avoid the limitations of cramming education in Korea focused on college entrance and the stress from fierce competition.
– To take advantage of the advanced educational infrastructure and capitalize on the scarcity and premium of obtaining a degree from a prestigious university, which would give a competitive edge in finding a job in Korea.
On the monetary side, studying abroad was a privilege that only the wealthy could afford. For those below the middle class, it demanded an enormous sacrifice of their parents.
WHO ARE THE KOREAN “WILD-GOOSE DADDIES”?
Called gireogi appa 기러기 아빠 in Korean, the “Wild-Goose Daddies” are Korean dads who work in Korea and send money to support their underage children studying abroad and their wives who are also staying there to look after them. It’s termed so because they have to take a long-haul flight to visit their family, similar to how geese migrate by traveling a great length.
WHERE KOREAN STUDENTS GO TO STUDY ABROAD
2019 – 213,000 students (Source: Veritas Alpha @ veritas-a.com)
Asia – 78,861 (37% – China 50,600 / Japan 17,012)
North America – 71,108 (33.4% – USA 54,555 / Canada 16,495)
Europe – 36,539 (17.2% – UK 11,903 / France 6,948, Germany 6,835)
Oceania – 25,431 (11.9% – Australia 18,766, New Zealand 6,645)
Africa – 604 (0.3% – South Africa 490)
Central and South America – 457 (0.2% – Mexico 229)