Part 1: The Arms Race (*metaphor stolen from Henry Em)
Before I left Seoul I had planned to write a follow-up portrait of my experience with the education system there. If first grade was about the training of protocol and relationships between people in the system, second grade, for me, was about the training of academic anxiety. In my first-grade post I was able to watch the jockeying for status and alliance as well as the expression of academic anxiety with a sense of humor and distance, but the longer I lived in Seoul the more I found myself acting and thinking in ways which betrayed an unconscious assimilation of the values of the system.
Even though I knew I would leave, five years spent breathing the air of the pressure cooker system has reshaped my sense of what a well-rounded childhood should be, has molded my sense of what a responsible parent should teach his or her children, and has provided me with an additional set of narratives to draw upon when thinking about success and failure, class difference, and global power dynamics.
It would be easy to blast the Korean education system. I could, as others have, talk about the unnecessary competitiveness, the fixation on Seoul National University and a job at Samsung, the rampant bribery, the reliance on private tutoring which impedes social mobility, the use of violence in schools, the problems with bullying, the over-reliance on testing and memorization. It is harder, I think, to describe and appreciate the difficulty of opting out.
A few months ago W came home with the assignment to write four bars of music in 3/4 time which he, having taken no music lessons, didn’t know how to do. I hadn’t looked at a piece of music in two decades and it took a while to pry the necessary teaching out of my crusty brain. I realized with surprise that we were in the situation I had heard so much about — because hakwon (sometimes translated as “cram school”) attendance is assumed, kids who don’t go to hakwon can’t keep up at school. When I think of hakwon I usually think of English hakwon; although public schools start teaching English from at least 3rd grade, kids who actually begin at that age are already far behind. But music, art, math, and early preparation for the next year of school are also common enough to become standard. Since almost all the kids in W’s class have studied a musical instrument from first grade, the teacher expected that they would all know how to do the assignment. Although my husband and I, concerned with possible ADD and with W’s stress level, had just several weeks adjusting W’s schedule in order to give him more consistency and more playtime, I immediately began thinking of ways to squeeze in some piano lessons. My instinct was not to spend time raging at the system but to think of ways to win for W the ability he needed in order to keep up.
It is in moments like these that the unarticulated desires emerge. I have long term goals for W, driven by an ongoing wish to correct the deficiencies of my own childhood and education, which shape the small tortures I put him through now. And while language is a big part of those goals, protecting his sense of self-worth for the long term is a bigger priority. I’ve read those books that talk about how boys in particular can check out of school from an early age if they start to feel stupid or incapable of doing the work. I have to decide, in that moment, whether it is better for my son to have less free time and take more lessons in order to keep up with the standard, or if it is better to guard and guarantee for him a childhood in which he has time to follow his own interests and play. Until now I have fallen on the “play” end of the spectrum, but how many hours of daily play do I cordon off for him? The longer I am surrounded by people whose 8-year-old kids come home from hakwon at 10pm the more my concept of the number of acceptable hours diminishes.
Second grade in Korea was hard for my son. His first grade teacher was strict but caring; when W (who hadn’t studied much hangeul before) went from 20% to 80% on his dictation tests she was full of praise for his improvement. W’s second grade teacher ruled like a dictator, hitting the kids’ hands with a ruler when they misbehaved and scolding them for every small infraction. One night when I was putting him to bed he told me with despair and certainty that he must be a 멍청이 — stupid, a dullard. “I don’t understand everything the teacher says.”
Last year as part of my classroom duties I served as a volunteer teacher, teaching English conversation to 6th graders in W’s school twice a month. I spent the first class sussing out their ability and interests in order to make the syllabus and was surprised that the students suggested debating topics like euthanasia and the FTA agreement. But there was a huge gap in ability between the students who had lived abroad (perhaps a fourth of the students in that class) and the students who had not. (The numbers aren’t representative because my son went to school in a district that is wealthier than most.) There was no way for the students who had not lived abroad to compete with those who had; they were doomed to lag behind. The practice of sending kids abroad to escape the pressure-cooker Korean education system has become common enough that kids who haven’t had that privilege cannot compete, and in a system in which kids are constantly ranked against each other, the gap between rich and poor is only growing larger. Parents send their kids abroad so that their kids can learn English (seen as necessary both for college entrance as well as job prospects) and also in order to have something of a real life (playing, exercising, etc.), but many also make sure that the kids eventually return to Korea so that they gain both the academic and social skills/connections required to be successful in Korea. However difficult this may be on the kids themselves, the parents feel they have covered all their bases; the kids will have the option of living in either society. A difficult childhood is seen as a fair trade for a more certain future. But the unintended side effect of that practice is an upward spiral of academic pressure in Korea itself. In some neighborhoods, being fluent in English and Korean and having lived abroad is becoming the standard, especially among those in the upper or upper-middle classes. And for those who are just middle class, sending a kid abroad (even if it is alone) is seen as the ticket to breaking through to a higher social-economic status.
A new hakwon market now caters to kids who have spent a few years abroad. My younger son’s kindergarten now runs an after-school program which teaches the American curriculum to elementary school kids. Most of these kids have lived in the U.S. for one or more years and are now attending Korean school, but their parents don’t want the kids to lose their language ability nor their familiarity with the vocabulary and methodology of the American educational system. The kids are effectively getting schooled twice, maintaining a foothold in both Korean and American educational and cultural systems.
As familiarity with both English and Korean becomes more of standard, parents and college students soon to be on the job market are looking increasingly towards other languages as a way of getting ahead of the pack. My Chinese classes in Seoul were populated by college students who told me that because the job market was flooded with English speakers, they were relying on their ability to speak Chinese in order to stand out and get a good job. When I found a Chinese teacher for my older son I needed to recruit some other kids his age to study with him in order to defray the cost of having the teacher come to our neighborhood. I was surprised how eager his classmates’ moms were to have their kids take on another language; the class ended up being composed of kids who already spoke English quite well (although for the most part hey hadn’t lived abroad).
My neighborhood, as I noted, isn’t typical, but I think it speaks to larger interpretation of the position of Korea in the world and the ways that people respond to pressures of this historical moment. Korea has only recently been awarded “first-world” status, so on one hand I think there is a sense that Korea has arrived economically, but with the giant of China trailing close behind, Japan still looming out of reach in front, and the U.S. (to whom Korea is tied economically, militarily, and politically) teetering, this status is tenuous and ethics of self-sufficiency, intense work, and social cooperation have a make-it-or-break-it kind of urgency. The willingness to force kids to maintain educational footholds in multiple languages and cultures is evidence of distrust in Korea’s educational system, of recognition that schooling is about cultural and social indoctrination as well as facts and skills, and of a sense that success (individually and culturally) in the next few decades will depend on the ability to forge international ties and to move back and forth between countries, cultures, and languages.
The sense I get from the parents I talk to is that they consider the education they provide for their children as the primary factor in the children’s future success or failure. They tell me stories about Korea’s historical domination by China, Japan, and the U.S. and how Korea doesn’t have any natural resources, so people are its only resource. A palpable consciousness of Korea’s place in the global order and the connection between individual and national fortune structure these stories and inform the seriousness with which they are told.
We are moving in an opposite direction from most of the families I know. They are spending a few years in the U.S./Canada/Australia and returning to Korea, instead of leaving the U.S. to spend some time in Asia. I can’t say for sure how people perceive us except to say for certain that they envy the ability to move with such freedom and to have such a good grasp of English. Our motivations in the beginning were more personal than educational; my husband and I wanted to make sure the kids could speak their grandparents’ languages, both literally and figuratively. Having grown up with something of an inferiority complex about being Asian, it was important to me that my kids spend some time in a place where everybody else is Asian. But that world no longer exists; the world in which my kids are growing up is a world in which the ability to speak and move across borders is an asset. Here, the decline of the U.S. (or “the rise of everywhere else”) is just a self-evident fact; the longer I spend in this place the more I see our efforts to educate the kids on two continents as the only logical way to prepare them for adult lives and good jobs.