Today is the day of the Korean College Entrance Exam.
Last night, I went downtown to see Girlfriendoseyo, and we had a very pleasant night. However, on the way through the winding alleys of Samchungong, we passed the entrance to a high school, and saw a cluster of underclasspersons sitting together, wrapped up in blankets.
You see, every year, High School Seniors take the High School Entrance exam, basically the most important test of their lives. Their score on this exam determines what University they can enter, and which university they attend, in this credential-obssessed society, basically determines your employability for life.
For example, despite all the efforts of the Education ministry to reduce the dominance of the three top universities in Korea (SKY: Seoul National, Korea, Yonsei Universities), 80% of the judges appointed between 2003 and 2008 were SKY graduates: a veritable stranglehold. You would find similar unbalances in most other sectors where power, money, and influence concentrate.
Because of the importance of the exam, students NOT in their senior year gather at the entrances of their high schools to cheer on their seniors, as they enter the school.
Today, roads will be blocked off to eliminate traffic noise around test sites. Airports will even re-arrange flight approach paths, so that airplanes' drone does not distract students in their seats, during the exam. Police wait by subway stations to speedily escort late students from the subway exit to their exam site, to help them arrive on time. High school seniors have been living on four hours of sleep a night for the months leading up to today; some parents even rent their kids a room in a goshiwon -- a cheap hotel -- so that they can study without distraction from their brothers and sisters, or from the TV or internet.
SeoulGlow made this video, interviewing students waiting outside a university's gates, a few years ago.
The dark side of the hope and expectations tied up in this one exam (and it's big: I've asked adults in their 30s, "What would you change about your past, if you had a magic wand?" and one of the most common answers was "I'd study harder in my last year of high school, to get into a better school: eighteen years later, people are STILL looking back at THIS test, as the turning point of their lives), is the depression and despair that comes with the fear of failure.
This article, "On a College Entrance Exam Deathwatch," suggests that probably 200 (mostly teen) suicides a year in Korea are directly connected with anxiety over this test. The stories the writer tells are sometimes shocking.
This is a story about students protesting the exam: they wore masks to hide their identities, because they were afraid they'd be put on some university admissions blacklist if their identities were known. They're just that afraid of not being able to get into a good school. A Korean Teachers' Union actually told their students to cheat as a way of protesting the exam. . . and were rightly called by Brian from Jeollanamdo for putting their students' careers on the line, rather than putting their OWN careers on the line, if they believed so strongly in their cause.
The exam is mostly multiple choice...and soul-killing, and emblematic of a lot of the things I criticize about Korea's culture (I even wrote about it on my "Five Things I'd Change About Korea" post. . . )
So if you know any Korean kids writing the exam, say a prayer today (their moms have been praying eight hours a day for a month now; you can at least spare one or two), and hope that this year, more students choose to skip suicide, and instead do that other awful things underperforming students do, and put their entire life on hold in order to study for ANOTHER year after graduating high school, just to get a better score and get into a better school.
The public school teacher exam was on Sunday, too, so a lot of people's futures are hanging on the results of this week's tests.
(the number of years lost to studying by Koreans taking these once-a-year-exam, including the civil service exam, the bar exam, the public school-teacher exam, and the high school exam, and the number of person-years of lost productivity, as well as the drain on the finances of the parents of these study-monkeys, ought to be calculated, in order for their impact/drag on Korea's economy to be quantified...I'd bet the only thing holding Korea's economy back MORE than all these years of work lost, from some of Korea's brightest people, is the gender empowerment gap.)