Unlike the rather grim militaristic putting soft cranky students through their paces that was sports day at Baekyoung, sports day at Cheongpyeong High School was a really festive occasion. All the kids were dressed in all manner of trainers (track suits) and displaying all kinds of individuality and throwing themselves with zest into the physical competition. When the loudspeaker was not blaring Kpop, a whole cadre of students were playing traditional drums (which was really exciting) and the kids were all chanting/singing cheers, and it had the raucous feel and fever pitch of a football playoff.
There was even a teacher relay race that I wished I could have participated in, but nobody told me about it or asked me to. Since I haven’t joined the other teacher events I wasn’t told about this one: I guess joining in is an all or nothing proposition.
The day before was my evening conversation class, and I attempted to discuss teen issues in the news. I made the mistake of reading the articles to the first group, which was a total kill joy, but by the second group we were having a really good conversation.
One of the articles was about the discovery that interviews with defecting N. Korean students had watched a lot of S. Korean movies and dramas. My students weren’t impressed by this at all. I had to explain that it was against the law for them to watch capitalist influences, and that they had to do this in secret. No response. And then I had to point out to them that they can dream about travel and if they work hard enough, they actually can travel, but that for people in communist countries they couldn’t even entertain dreaming of travel. A couple looked sad afterward: I don’t think empathy for N. Koreans is part of their curriculum at all.
Another article was about a proposition by the Korean government to limit access to on-line games for six hours every day, during the hours students should be sleeping. Another proposition was to increasingly slow down the games until they are rendered unplayable. I asked the students what they thought of this, and they thought it was a good idea. (recently a S. Korean died of exhaustion playing games and even more recent still a young couple’s baby starved to death while they were playing a virtual role playing game where they had to take care of a virtual baby.
I told them I was surprised they were all for the curfew, as American students would be up in arms if their government dictated what they could and couldn’t do with their free time. “Oh!” One explained, “you mean freedom!” Yes. If a person wants to die playing video games, that’s their right. But, I explained, I didn’t think American students were as obsessed with games as Korean students were, so maybe it was a good idea. But personal liberties were carefully guarded in America, even in the face of some people being irresponsible.
One article comparing surveyed students in Korea, China, and Japan determined that Korean students were almost twice as unhappy. I asked the students if they thought this was so and why, and they all chimed in entrance exams. But, I countered, didn’t Japan also have these entrance exams? Yes they countered, but parents (makes pushing movement) much stress. I don’t know, I said. I heard Japanese parents were also very demanding of their children. They still maintained that they had it worse than all the other Asian countries.
The same article also said that the survey showed Chinese students valued academic success the most while Korean students valued money the most. I told them I was confused about this, because as a Confucian society I had read Korea valued academics above all things. They said that all their parents cared about is that they made money and so they must all be doctors, lawyers, and CEO’s. “Yes, but not everyone can be a doctor, lawyer, or CEO!” I exclaimed. “Yes, but that’s how it is and they must compete for that,” said Winnie. She went on to lament that this is why the school has no art teacher and why she can’t go to art school. Two of them both said, almost in unison, “I want to live in America.” Another student had tried to test to get into music school but failed. These are really sweet girls who really love music and art. But they are told they have to pursue money. I suspect their children will be given more options than they have been given.
And so, I skipped the other articles talking about how 1 in 10 Korean students have considered suicide.
The last article was four years old and talking about how Korean students send 60 texts a day. I went around the table and asked each student how many texts they make. Tiffany pulled out her two cell phones (which she can’t put down in my class – grrr) and told me over 200. When I gasped, she explained, “boyfriend.” The other students were either at about 100 or they said they made very few texts because their homeroom teacher took their cell phones at the beginning of the day and they didn’t get them back until 9pm. I asked Tiffany how much those texts cost and didn’t her mom get angry? There was some discussion translating the Korean answer into English, and 300,000 won came up (about $280) “You mean 30,000 won?” I asked. “No,” she said, “one time it was 300,000. My mom was very angry.” It turns out the second cell phone is from her boyfriend so she is free to text him anytime she wants and he pays the bill…Tiffany is a 1st year high school student, so her boyfriend must be graduated and working somewhere…
On my way home every evening, especially the late nights when I have the conversation class, it’s evident to me that the students have quite a rich social life. I mean, teenagers WILL be teenagers no matter what conditions they are subjected to. They will find a way. Even if they are in school for 12+ hours every day, you can bet they aren’t studying in earnest any more than American students. At most maybe 2 hours more prior to exams. They are doing very little real acquiring of knowledge, even if they are warming a seat and flipping through pages. So the way everyone is always counting the hours and comparing them to other countries just isn’t a valid comparison, because they are mentally shut down half of the time they are there.
Thrown together so many hours with a common enemy (math, English, draconian teachers, pushy moms and the college entrance exam) they are exceptionally close. During class and in between class there seems to much more joviality, horse-play, exuberance and comraderie than I’ve seen among American students. I also see a lot of coddling of the students by teachers and parents. It’s this I-know-we-push-you-too-hard so here’s a treat, I-know-we-push-you-too-hard so you don’t have to bother with this or that, I-know-you-are-obligated-to-do-this-or-that so I’ll ignore how rude you were, etc. So they’re constantly getting this message that they’ve got it bad from the very same people making it bad.
Sometimes I think part of Korean students’ belief they are unhappy is in large part programmed into them. Because I look around and they’ve really got quite a nice childhood. And an extra long childhood. An overly long, coddled childhood. It’s going to be very very interesting to see what happens to Korea’s economic miracle when these students, accustomed to tuning out and sick of competing, enter a work world still run by absolute authority. Korean society is depending on fear of not having money to be the true disciplinarian. But on that, I’m really not so sure…