Scramble for success

Posted: July 31, 2011 in Crime and politics, Social issues
Tags: , , , , , , , ,

For many (myself included) the happiest times were the carefree days of youth. A time when play spanned from getting up in the morning until the closing of one’s eyes at night. That blissful period of life is sadly missing from many children in Korea. From an early age, the youth of Korea are impelled into a highly competitive world.

As with most good parents, wanting the best for their children by making sure that they have rewarding opportunities in life is paramount. With this in mind, competitiveness for success in Korea usually starts from the age of three. Children are first sent to kindergarten – preferably an English pre-school – and the extra-curricular activities could well be bolstered by additional classes in the sciences, languages, mathematics, Korean, martial arts, music. So that by the time the children start their primary school (elementary) they already have the accepted foundations for success. However, whilst the child may acquire these advantageous skills, so can all of his or her peers. To be unique, more academia must follow. For instance, schooling after school with evening studies and weekend lessons that swallow a child’s precious free time. While not making for the most delightful childhood, this exacting regime ensures that for the parent behind the child every possible base is covered.

The heavy emphasis on education continues throughout childhood. Attendance at private schools working as late as 10pm can call for the use of tablets and caffeine to lever the still maturing mind and body to the limits. The pressure to succeed only grows stronger as they reach their teenage years and as they are on the brink of becoming an adult the intensity reaches its peak.

Before university, in their final year of high school, Korean students nationwide take the Suneung, The Suneung is a monstrous examination that takes place in November and lasts over six hours to provide the results that can affect the rest of their lives by determining the level of the universities that will accept them.

Last year, over 700,000 students took the test at the same time. The pressure was so intense that on the streets around the schools the police expected drivers to keep their foot off the accelerator and avoid using the horn. And, as if that wasn’t enough, it’s reported that planes were diverted so as not to distract the pupils. Meanwhile, mothers, fathers, family, friends and even celebrities all seemingly were as one to encourage the future makers of Korea.

Failing the exam or not getting satisfactory results means retaking the test and also falling behind the pack.

But failing or succeeding makes no difference to one particular aspect of what growing up in South Korea entails. From the age of eighteen, Korean men are required to undertake twenty-one months of military service. This may not be as daunting as it sounds as it can be carried out in a variety of ways based on fitness levels and basic aptitude tests. Also, as some kind of vague recognition for each month’s service they are paid the magnificent sum of 100,000\ ($90).

It is more or less up to the individual as to when they shoulder their military commitment. Some prefer to do it immediately after the Suneung, whilst others leave it looming over themselves as they continue their studies at university. Either way, it is compulsory and failure to report for service can lead to imprisonment.

Leaving university a success is, of course, not the end of the story. The next step is moving into a career. The problem then is that over-qualified graduates already saturate the job market with all competing for limited positions.

Should the university graduate be lucky enough to find a job and also a potential career, he or she can now look forward to long bouts of unpaid overtime with the frequent weekend commitment at the office.

Added pressures outside of work include impatient parents burdening their son or daughter with the need to start a family. Koreans are expected to mate and marry before the age of 30. After that time the dating pool normally begins to dry up. And as time goes by, it becomes more difficult to find the more desirable of the opposite sex and even people willing to date the lone individual who has already endured so much.

But looking on the bright side, with the assumption that a marriage eventually comes about and is consummated the former student enters a new phase of life for which no exam was set. After the successful sperm cell has won its way through its myriad competitors and fertilizes the ovum, nine months later the young parents will be gifted with a baby or babies. From there, it is important to the now seasoned competitor to provide for his family. In this endeavour he may or may not be helped by his partner but no matter what, it means longer hours at the office making sure that the child has the same opportunities as the parents had. And so the cycle continues. Most probably, ad infinitum.

© John Brownlie 2011

  1. JT says:

    This is a very good overview of Korean life here but I feel you left out one thing; WHY do they submit to this cycle? I am curious to hear your thoughts on this.

    The drive to succeed is not just a personal one, it is a family one. It is the same with marriage and parents usually have a say on who their children marry. Most Korean women (and their parents) would rather marry a successful man than a handsome man with an average income. The family wants the best for their kids so that the kids will maintain the family lineage and look after them when they are old. A good grade on the suh-nung means a good university, a good university (regardless of the grades) means a good job and a good job means a wife and a wife means a family.

    They do this out of duty to their family for the most part. However, times are changing and you will see more international marriages; more so in Seoul than here in Ulsan. That being said, it is still not easy for the couples because so much of the “happiness” in Korea is based on money and material possessions that give the person a sort of faux-status.

    I guess what I am trying to say is that a lot of what you mentioned boils down to money and status in today’s Korea. Sadly what Korea is producing are millions of children that are trained to fill in blanks and be “yes, men” in order to fulfill their parents dreams.

    • elbear1 says:

      Some very good points you made Jason. The bottom line is that they were born here and not in a western country. Society’s pressures and being accepted into their ideal mould means that it has become ingrained into their way of life in a very short time.
      After the Korean War many families were having more children in an effort to repopulate and bring the struggling nation into one of a booming one. Those long hours and hard work have now put RoK on the economic map.
      Today’s focus on offering the best for one’s child has shrunk the family size down to just one or two children compared with the much larger families of two generations prior. Thus the pressures are more concentrated and heavier on the already burdened child. Siblings are in part there to be able to learn from and share success and failures.

      So, why do they submit? Because they are told to do so and are not educated to think any different.

  2. Michele says:

    I love the way you wrote this piece. It is all – unfortunately true – leaving out the less than envious accounts of life at home when one does not achieve the goals of success – even kindergarten kids whose reports may not be stellar can be beaten because those comments from the teacher follows them throughout their scholarly years. Eighty per cent was not good enough for some elementary students I have taught who feared going home because the reprisal waiting for them. And so, perhaps it should not come as too much of a surprise when kids and teenagers either commit horrible crimes like murdering their parents (yes reported events) ,or opt out (commit suicide – the highest level in “developed” countries it is said.)

    • elbear1 says:

      Thank you.
      Yes you’re right, I thought it best to leave the abuse and the effect that has on people for another article. It’s horrible only being able to observe it.

      Thanks for reading.

  3. Stupid School:( says:

    HAHA I loved the last part. I just read this on my break from studying for finals(uni)…koreans are BEAST.
    I’m trying to apply for summer exchange @ a Korean University.

    Can’t wait to see what a korean university curriculum is like!!!

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