There are certainly many countries in the world where it would be worse to be a kid than in South Korea, but in the developed world, I can't think of many.
Sure, kids are kids, and they are generally a happy lot. Wherever I've been I see kids making the most out of any situation, and the inevitable shrieks of laughter seems to be a universal language - kids laughing in Canada sound exactly like kids laughing in Korea or Ecuador or anywhere else, and it's nice to be around. One of the true reasons I like being a teacher is laughter is generally involved in my work as much as anything else.
Here in Korea, those kids are still laughing, just not nearly as much. If in Ecuador kids were trying to make do with playing games on steep hills or a patch of side walk, here is Korea it is kids trying to make do with a spare minute, because they don't get many.
What follows, I certainly don't pretend to know for a fact, but is from the information I have gathered through conversations with, and observations of, the students I've met.
Blogger's note: I do not work at an elementary, middle or high school. Instead I work at a Hogwon, which I think is Korean for after-school torture, working with kids from all three levels of schooling.
As my week started this Monday, I was not expecting anything different from my weekly routine, until I got to school. I was surprised to learn that kids returned to school this week after their school holidays and the evidence was as clear as mud on their faces. Red eyes, frowns, and irritability.
While it might not be surprising that I have no idea what's going on (as it is often the case), what was surprising was that I thought they had returned at the beginning of February. As it turns out, they did return in February - after having most of January off - to their 'old' schools and classes for two weeks - in the middle of their holidays!! And it was during these two weeks students found out where they would be going to school 'next year'. They then got the final two weeks of February off to make the necessary arrangements (books, uniforms, etc.).
So you may be wondering how it is I didn't notice the kids were gone for two weeks at the end of February?? Well, the truth is, the kids never, EVER stop coming to these academies - whether it is for English, Science, Math, or even Study Hour, these kids are always coming - 52 weeks of the year!!
So essentially, the school week sets up like this for most kids in Korea: 8:00 am off to school; 2:00 pm head home; 3:00 pm - 6:00 pm go to the academies; 7:00 pm - 9:00 pm it's Taekwondoe or a study period to make sure that the accumulated homework is completed. This schedule gets later and later as they go through school, with most high school kids getting home at roughly 11:00 pm each day. And this doesn't even take into consideration that they go to school on Saturday's too!! So it's school 6 days a week for roughly 10 months and academies 5 days a week for the full 12 months. It makes me sick thinking about this. These are kids!
So why all this schooling you ask?
Well first I believe it based on nearly 40 years of brutal colonialism/dictatorship at the hands of Japan. And then only a couple of years of peace after that, as communism and capitalism had it out on the pennisula for the better part of a decade before coming to an understanding that neither side was willing to give in, so we'll just agree to disagree, arm ourselves to the teeth, and hope neither side does anything stupid.
Second, I think it is based on a language barrier. See it was the Americans who triumphantly freed the Koreans from Japanese dictatorship, only to be replaced by the American style of colonialism which essentially gives you freedom, but gets you thinking it's not nearly as nice as the freedom enjoyed by Americans. So you better learn English to have greater access to America the Great.
In more recent times, the Asian economic meltdown in the late 80's-early 90's, and the effect "These Economic Times" is having and has had on Korea, certainly isn't helping.
For these reasons, I believe South Koreans suffer from an enormous inferiority complex, which has been handed down through generations, resulting in this constant effort on the part of the population to be better, which means for the kids - competition. Competition to be better than before, but more harmfully, competition to be better than the student next to them. See in the effort to be better, the Koreans have created an education system that is designed to identify and celebrate greatness, which in theory may not be bad, but in practice has had devestating effects on the psyche of kids. Students have repeatedly told me, "I have to get better marks than so and so, because his/her mother is friends with my mother, and my mom will kill me if I am not better than so and so!" Just nutty!
It has gotten so pervasive, students are given yearly standardized tests earlier and earlier. And these tests are not just measures of accountability, as so many have become in North America, but are tools to classify. See if you manage to get yourself into a certain percentile on a elementary test, you are elegible to go to certain middle schools - MIDDLE SCHOOLS!?! Essentially Grade 7, 8 and 9 at home. Then you go through another battery of tests over the next three years to see what high schools you are eligible for. And of course, depending on what middle school you went o greatly influences which high school you go to.
And in Korea there are two levels of high school - university entry and everything else. If you do not make it into the university level high school, you will not be attending university. EVER!! (at least that is how the kids understand it) Your future has essentially been decided at the ripe old age of 15. And to top it off, there are then select high schools for the trade you want to go in. Didn't make it to the university level? That's okay, have we got a high school for you - How about Tourism High School? Or Police High School? It's nuts. I can't imagine having to make a decision on my life at 32, let alone 15.
And all this testing and competition has had drastic and tragic results. Numbers from the National Statistical Office indicate that more than 1,000 students between the ages of 10 and 19 killed themselves from 2000 to 2003 (Asia Times, November 2005). The fact that 10 year olds are included in that number is sad. It's sadder than sad. And for those that do manage to get through each day okay, by the time they get to me, they are stressed, burnt out, and exhausted. Emotional breakdowns are common at hogwons, as students are constantly being measured by the state, and by their parents.
Blogger's note: you can refer back to the comment of kids needing to be better than the kids of their mother's friend here.
In the days leading up to the entrance exams for each level, temples and churches around the country are packed with mother's praying for the future of their kids. And on the day of the univeristy entrance exams?? Airports are shut, businesses open later, and traffic is diverted away from high schools, all in an attempt to ensure students get to their tests on time and have no distractions during them. This government initiative is done to relieve the stress of the day, but can you imagine what you'd be thinking heading into a test where they have shut down the airport for you?? I'd be freaking out!
There are of course teachers fighting back - there was an organized field trip across the country on the day of the middle school evaluative tests for 5th graders - 10 and 11 year olds - one of three state tests they would be taking in the school year. Unfortunately, because of bureaucratic and parental pressure, many did not take part. Those teachers that did were fired, and some were even attacked by parents for hindering the future of their little ones.
It is a sad situation, one I cannot wait to share with my students in Canada when they complain I've given them too much homework (which by the way I never do, because I think homework sucks too!), and one I hope they find a solution to soon.
In the meantime, I do my best song, dance and pony tricks to keep the kids laughing and hopefully feeling good about the 45 minutes they have to spend with me.