Every Friday I walk into my classroom happy that it is almost the weekend and am always sad to find out that my students dread it. It almost seems like some of them would rather have it be Monday than Friday. A few of them have told me that Sunday is their least favorite day because they have to work so hard. Isn’t Sunday traditionally a day of rest?
Life for a Korean kid is tough. Two Saturdays a month, Korean students have to go into their elementary school or high school to do more school work. It’s depressing to see so many students walking around in uniforms on their way to school on a Saturday. Saturday morning would be the only morning for most of them to unwind because on Sundays many of them go to church. A typical weekend, based on the feedback I get from my students, consists of homework, studying, tutoring, video games (if they are lucky), church, and maybe one other fun activity. I don’t exactly remember what kind of things I did on my weekends when I was in elementary school, but I do remember being excited it was Friday and having a good time. I can look back on my childhood and remember smiling and laughing. I wasn’t a stressed kid.
I know this is a cultural difference, but it is one that I can’t seem to accept. I just don’t like it. It feels like their childhoods are being painfully dissolved. And I, being their English teacher, am part of this dreadful process. It’s so easy to forget how old they are and to expect too much out of them. I’m always shocked to hear students tell me their age. They seem much, much older to me than they actually are. What eight-year-old in America works their butt off from nine in the morning straight through until dinnertime?
I constantly find myself acting like someone who needs to be put on bipolar medication. One minute I’m laughing with them having a great time teaching and the next I’m screaming trying to get them to settle down and shut up. And then I remember that they’ve been sitting all day and they are only kids, but they really are quite infuriating sometimes. Some kids just fall asleep in class or have a zombie-like look in their eyes. They are on autopilot and are just waiting for the years to pass so that they can escape the wrath of their parents and teachers.
I keep wondering if all of this pressure and stress that we (I include myself in this because I am now a part of this cycle) put on these kids will backfire into a 1960’s style revolution. Will this generation grow up to rebel against the imposed structure of Korean life? For their sakes I want it to happen, but I don’t think it ever would, at least not to the extent that it happened in America.
You see some form of rebellion in the drinking culture here. People work hard and party even harder. Alcohol is a huge part of life in Korea, and not just casually either, it’s a full force – let’s get so hammered we can’t figure out how to get home and just pass out in the bush over there – kind of drinking. Vomit puddles are not uncommon sights on the streets of Seoul, nor are passed-out drunk people in random places. This is such a common occurrence that there is an entire blog devoted to it called Black Out Korea, which features pictures of passed-out drunk folks all around Korea. I think this site is now accessible by invite only because it’s considered to be disrespectful since it mainly features blacked-out Koreans with foreigners posing next to them. The passed-out drunk people scattered across the country every evening are not something Korea is proud of.
Korean kids are well educated and talented at piano, dance, Taekwondo, inline skating, etc. by the time they go to college, but are they happy in the same way Westerners are? Last night at the bar across from our school, we were talking to two Korean guys at the table next to us and one of them said that Koreans work so hard and have no time for life, while us Westerners are able to work but make sure that we have time for life. It’s sad to think about.
To drill home my point, I’ll leave you with one last comment from my elementary school students. When I asked them about what they do over their summer vacations (which is one week in the summer not a few months), they said homework. They said they don’t like summer vacation. What kid hates summer vacation?!? They would rather be stuck in a classroom with me than on “vacation” stuck at home with their mother forcing them to do homework. Being a kid in Korea is certainly no walk in the park.