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Column: Living as a Korean in Korea
[ Issue 106 Page 6 ] Monday, April 18, 2011, 20:40:47 DongJae Lee iowadaniel@kaist.ac.kr

Many things may characterize what living as a Korean in Korea means to a person. Some say it’s the love for Kimchi, while others say the fast way of life. Personally, I say that it is the infinite, never-ending, deadly competition with other Koreans.

From an early age, Koreans are subject to a lot of pressure from their parents. Although the education curriculum indicates that children should learn Hangul, the Korean written language, during elementary school, those who actually enter elementary school without the knowledge of Hangul are left behind as they are not able to keep up with other classmates. This required level of knowledge that Korean 8-year-olds must possess will no doubt be seen as excessive in many western countries, such as the U.S.

As if that isn’t enough, elementary students also have to take mid-term exams and finals just like college students. Parents have high expectations for their children so they send them to private academic institutions or hire private tutors, paying them high fees. Besides the tests, elementary students must study middle school material in advance. Because too many students already know the basic material, the middle school teachers “assume” that everyone knows the material and quickly moves on to harder topics, leaving students who didn’t study in advance dumbfounded and helpless. They entered middle school expecting to learn the basic materials but instead are bombarded with things they’ve never seen or heard of before.

The cycle continues in high school. Before the middle school students graduate, they are expected to go through the high school material at least once. Many high schools focus on the College Scholastic Aptitude Test (CSAT) which the third-year students take to go to college. Many students do not take school work seriously, for they believe that private academic institutes and teachers have more to teach than school teachers. From the students’ point of view, school teachers are lousy and incompetent compared to private teachers or academies. A typical high school student attends at least 2 private academies and those who can afford it hire private tutors who charge more than an average worker’s monthly income. Those who are able to get private education score higher on their CSATs than those who didn’t receive such tutoring and the cycle continues with their children.

When Koreans enter college, they compete for Grade Point Averages (GPAs) which virtually determine their future careers. Those with good GPAs are accepted into more prestigious companies while those with lower GPAs go to smaller companies or do not get accepted, resulting in their employment into physical work such as construction work. They live their young and energetic teenage years studying in libraries. What is left after 25 years of studying followed by more studying? Sure, maybe a nice job and an academic diploma, but the students are left with no room for cooperation and consideration for others. They’ve spent their lives thinking that if they don’t do better than the others, they will fall behind and get lower grades. They have lived a life of competition that carries over to when they grow up to become adults, and everything is still about competing and doing better than others.

Sure, a healthy dose of competition is good for everyone, for it stimulates them to work hard and get good results. Many products which are currently on the market are the fruits of reasonable competition. However, the competition level has risen too high in Korea. And in extreme cases, people take their lives as a result, unable to withstand the competition and pressure. When feeling too much pressure from competition, why not take a break from work and relax for a while? Talk to friends, go for a walk in the park, or just simply sleep! Surely, life has so many things to offer and wasting it with competition and pressure is pointless. Learn to control the competition and your life will surely be more worthwhile and exciting.

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