Life as a Korean Kid

A shot from my elementary school days which were quite different from what a Korean elementary school child experiences today. That's me front and center!

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.

4 thoughts on “Life as a Korean Kid

  1. {{consists of homework, studying, tutoring, video games, church, and maybe one fun activity}}

    Aren’t video games fun activities?

  2. You are echoing the “Battle Hymn Of The Tiger Mom” uproar that recently flared up over here in the Land Of The Free. Seems some overachieving yuppie lawyer Chinese Mother wrote about torturing her kids into academic excellence for their entire childhood until the poor things could escape into Princeton, Harvard, Yale or some other snooty, overpriced MBA mill. A lot of people criticized her and her parenting style, saying she was raising neurotic automatons who sacrificed humanity for academics and the chance to be masters of the universe.

    Yet these Asian kids are eating our lunch. We sit around fat dumb and happy playing Call Of Duty and eating Cheetos while they are mastering Calculus. Our standing in the world for academic performance is pathetic. Maybe these Asian Tiger Moms are right.

    But then one wonders if after such a regimented upbringing whether creativity has been given enough free reign to grow. I have read that these kids might grow up to be technically competent adults, but they go adrift when forced to think outside a narrow, well defined domain. Americans seem to do better at that. And what about their happiness? Personally I would never torture my kids like that, no matter how competent at chemistry they might become (at the expense of being unable to enjoy a day off).

    Oh well. We can enjoy our life of leisure and play Call Of Duty while the Asian engineers design cold fusion. When they all go mad and kill themselves we can step in and modify the devices to make giant strawberry Slurpees out of soybeans while we watch Jersey Shore.

  3. I’m glad you aren’t going to torture your kids Uncle Rob! I agree with you about creativity as well. I’ve noticed that almost every single student has OCD about the way things need to be. They freak out when I move my crazy curls and my part goes all wonky. I must have a perfect part or else they freak out. They can’t think outside the box when it comes to some things. We also give the kids very little time to be creative. By the time they are 7 years old, they are only allowed to have arts and crafts once a week. But then again, some kids go to art class after kindergarten class a couple days a week.

    Once they get older, they have to write speeches and make posters, which would be a good opportunity to get creative. But their schedules are so jam-packed that some of their parents make the posters and even write the speeches for them, eliminating opportunities to explore their creative side.

    It’s comforting to know that there are happy and relaxed elementary school kids running around back home 🙂

  4. There is a simple reason behind the maniacal studying, a method I as a Korean found hard to understand. By failing to get into one of the SKY universities, you have pretty much sealed away any opportunity at an average to above average life.
    When you do not get your acceptance letter, pick up a hoe and get to work on a rice farm because you are doomed.
    If Americans had that type of gun behind their heads, I’m pretty sure we’d see a lot more TIger moms in America.

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