Elwood 5566

A Day of Reckoning – 'Suneung' (수능)

Posted in bathhouse Ballads, Education, Korean children by 노강호 on October 28, 2010

D Day countdown

As I write, across Korea thousands of third year high school students, known as ‘go-sam’ (고삼), will be religiously counting down the days. Some began the count  at ‘D  Day  minus 365,’ others, more traditionally, began at  ‘D Day minus 100.’ Today, is ‘D Day minus 21.’ And within the space in which I have written this post, in exactly three weeks time, the futures of thousands of teenagers will have been significantly determined.

‘D Day’ itself will present about 600.000 of the nation’s ‘go-sam’ students,  with one of,  if not the most, important experiences of their lives and certainly their most important exam. The suneung (수능) or CSAT (College Scholastic Ability Test) is the Korean, standardized test taken by all final year high school students and although some alternatives are now offered, and more are supposedly on the way, for most students it is the sole qualification required for entry into Korean universities.

Of all the standardized tests globally, the suneung is seen as one of the most rigorous. The path towards that moment of academic reckoning begins in elementary school and every step in the development of academic ability from infant study onwards, is a preparation for the suneung.

 

a late arrival is given a police 'escort'

Taken on the second or third Thursday in November, the suneung temporarily transforms the face of Korea and on the day there is a sense that  the entire nation is backing the candidates. The transformations are a reflection of  the pivotal role education plays in society and despite the  professed importance other nations give to ‘education,’ in most, only a national catastrophe or war would be sufficient to suspend capitalism or national defence. In Korea education stops everything, back in Scumland UK, it stops nothing and I can remember sitting the equivalent of the suneung exam to the accompaniment of persistent rifle fire from the nearby military base.

 

The Korean equivalent of Room 101

The exams last one day and are divided into a number of periods during which exams are taken in subjects such as: maths, social studies, English, sciences, vocational studies and  foreign languages. The exams are largely multi choice. To guarantee candidates arrive in school armed with equipment, entry permits, a ‘fighting spirit’ and ready to do their best, a range of national procedures and contingencies come into effect:

♦All other students begin school after 9.am.

♦To help ensure transport system work to maximum efficiency, many businesses begin work at 10am. This includes the Stock Exchange! Yes, there’s only one Stock Exchange, it’s in Seoul and probably nowhere near a school,  but it’s the thought that counts. For a few moments the success of students is of more importance than the economy.

♦During the periods when listening test are being conducted, planes cannot land at airports and those waiting to land have to circle above 10.000 feet. Even air-force movements are curtailed, within reason, to ensure silence at the appropriate times.

♦Korea Electric Power Corps places 4000 workers on standby in the event of power failures and each examination center, of which there are about a 1000, is sent a technician to monitor power supplies and await any emergency.

♦Police assist on the roads approaching schools and are also on hand to transport students who’ve encountered problems. Nerves thwart the plans of the best intentioned candidates.

♦Since 1993, there has been no evidence of  suneung questions being leaked. In the days immediately  prior to D-Day, specially selected professors are imprisoned in a hotel, denied any form of contact with the outside world, the hotel windows blacked out, and equipped with a library of resources, they  formulate the exam questions. No doubt the hotel is 5 star, but nonetheless, they are kept in  solitary confinement  until the exams are officially over.

♦Schools are also supplied detectors with which to scan students for devices, hand-phones etc, which could be used to cheat.

♦Female teachers in high schools on the day of Suneung are not allowed to wear high heeled shoes or perfume.

 

'suneung exams transport support' provided by the military

 

Police support

Beyond official and bureaucratic procedures adopted to ensure both fairness and a conducive examination atmosphere, a host of other  practices have developed aimed to improve the chances of success. Eating anything sticky on or before ‘D Day’ is believed to enhance ones luck. Sticky things cling to the wall and do not fall and so by chewing on toffee (엿), or sticky rice cake (찰떡),  it is hoped you grades will hold fast and not slip into the gutter. Conversely, eating anything slimy, such as seaweed soup (미역 국) might incur bad luck and see your chances for the university of your choice slipping away. At the same time, one must avoided uttering any word expressing failure, falling, dropping, sinking, sliding or slipping.  The reason obvious; if it’s muttered, it might happen. Parents and relatives will travel to mountain temples to say prayers and leave slips of paper on which are written the names of loved candidates, or they will attend special services in churches where small Bibles can be purchased in which you stick a photo of your son or daughter, all in the hope of currying divine favour. I doubt many believe success or failure is determined by the consistency of ones food,  use of language or  even prayer but anything which can be used to bolster the spirit is a valid psychological  weapon in  the quest for exam success and highlights the desperate measure to which the importance of exam success drives individuals.

 

Parents praying for the exam success of their children. I did the same thing here with a friend's family in 2001.

 

messages of good luck at the start of the final 100 day countdown

 

'go-sam' students being greeted by their juniors on exam day

plenty of rousing support

supporters

On D-Day, parents will crowd around school gates, some will pray and other will hold their Buddhist bracelets in reverent anticipation.  Candidates are often greeted by 1st and 2nd grade students as they arrive. Colourful banners wishing students good luck are waved and sometimes juniors will perform the full bow at the feet of those about to be tested. It is also common for juniors to rally the spirits of  their stressed seniors by singing rousing songs before the exams commence. My last high school had almost 2000 students and it raised the hackles to hear 1200 boys singing in unison from all the classrooms under the 3rd floor, where the suneung candidates waited for their exams to commence.

 

Boys singing after the completion of exams

 

a mother prays at the school gates

The exam

And when the exams finish, all the text books and notebooks used by the students throughout the year are unceremoniously tossed from the go-sam windows, often on the 3rd floor.  Of course, the pressure isn’t off as from 6pm onwards, newspapers can publish exam questions and the agonizing process of  self assessment begins until the results are finally released. And of course, as with every exam in Korea, only those with perfect scores are allowed to feel any satisfaction and even this is down played.

 

legitimate vandalism

relieving stress

 

Finally!

Undoubtedly, Korea has one of the best educated populations globally and though we might want to qualify the nature of that ‘education,’ we cannot dispute their success in terms of literacy and the sciences. Objective subjects and languages are much easier to assess. When it comes to the arts and subjective thinking, Korea has problems but however flawed or misguided we might perceive the Korean education system, it has facets worthy of admiration and parts perhaps worthy of emulation. Coming from Scumland UK, where dumbing-down is fashionable, bone-idleness excused, and the fruits of study and erudition watered down into a melee where belly dancing becomes an academic pursuit which has parity with mathematics or physics,  it is  refreshing to work in a culture where  education has too much significance rather than little at all.

 

results

To all 2010 go-sam (고삼) students about to face the suneung, ‘fighting’ (화팅!)

For a selection of video clips giving a general idea of the various suneung activities

Creative Commons License

© 林東哲 2010 Creative Commons Licence.

Giving Summer the Finger

Posted in Comparative, Diary notes, Education, Korean children by 노강호 on September 3, 2010

Goodbye to all that!

The summer holidays finished last week and one of my students notes in his diary.’This week school finished and we had to change our hair and faces.’ Gone are the ‘poodle perms‘ the vibrantly painted finger nails, ear-rings, temporary tattoos, and dyed hair. Unlike many western countries where teachers battle with hair styles and make up, in Korea it’s all removed before the term starts. Of course, Koreans will tell you the same battle ensues in their schools but they are skirmishes in comparison.  I’ve taught one boy who was forced to run 10 times around the sandy ‘parade ground’ in only his boxers because his trousers legs were too narrow, and a beating because your hair is a centimeter too long isn’t uncommon.  And the ‘budgerigar club’ that exists in every British secondary school (ages 12-16), little cliques of girls who sit for hours on end brushing each others hair, moronically starring in mirrors and slapping on cheap make-up like little Jezebels, all during lessons, is in its infancy.

Painted nails

A little re-touch needed

The irony, of course, is that school never really finished and the vacation that was, was never really a vacation. One of my students spent the entire summer at a cram but claimed he loved it. Packing your son or daughter off for the entire summer isn’t what I’d do if I was a parent.  Another boy spent two weeks in a military boot camp,  ‘thanks, mum!” Another three students, siblings, spent the entire summer in an English school in the Philippines but their English is no better than when they left. So, with summer drawing to a close it’s back to the study routine, constant tests, the after school classes and reading rooms and don’t forget piano lessons and taekwon-do! As for the poor the third year, high school students (고삼), they have the biggest exam  (수능) of their lives looming. An exam which will not only determine their academic future but very possibly the background of their future partner as well as their occupation. DD (‘D’ Day), and that’s exactly how Koreans identify it, is 76 days away and every third year student will be counting. Their vacation was great! They didn’t have one!

 

Creative Commons License© Nick Elwood 2010 Creative Commons Licence.

Return to Korea (Korean Accounts 2. 2002-2003)

Posted in 'Westernization' of Korea, Bathhouse, Diary notes, Korean Accounts 2 by 노강호 on September 29, 2002

I arrived back in Korea, in September 2002, after agreeing with Mr Joe that I would do a six month contract. After my former mistrust of Joe, it might surprise you I returned to work for him but I suppose my feelings towards him mellowed and in addition, I really wanted to return for an extended spell. In the year since I was last in Korea, much has changed. Now there are many more westerners than there were two years ago. The evidence of westernization is striking and there are even more Macdonald’s burger bars, Baskin Robbins ice cream parlours, Pizza Huts and Burger Kings. On the main road through Song So, that leads to Kemyoung University, in addition to the MacDonalds and KFC, there is now a Baskins Robbins parlour, a second one is presently being built, and a Pizza Hut. All these facilities are within a 10 minute walk of my front door. I am also sure that I am seeing more fat Korean kids than I did before.

I am living just around the corner from my old apartment and in fact I could have looked out my former bedroom window onto the side of the building I am now living in. This time I am in a one bedroom apartment which is next to a Chinese Medicine establishment and looking directly onto a barbecue restaurant and restaurant which is being built and as yet has not opened.

Pak Jun-hee and his family left the old restaurant where I spent every Saturday evening teaching Ji-won. I don’t think the restaurant, which was behind the Shin-woo (신우) supermarket on the main road leading directly down to the university, was bringing in custom.  They have moved to a restaurant just around the corner from where I live which is just a few doors down from the bakers and the Hapkido School. The restaurant is very small and sells pork (삼겹살) or beef barbecue. Even though the restaurant can be very busy, I think the returns are less than adequate and the family is struggling a little.

I have been up Warayong Mountain several times with Pak Jun-hee and though it is a struggle to get to the top it was well worth it. Warayoung is the mountain which lies directly behind Song So.  Last weekend was the Korean festival of Chu-sok and so we had Friday off. The weekend was a bit boring as all my Korean friends headed off to their family tombs. However on Sunday, after our mountain climb, Pak Jun-hee, took me to his house. It is in an apartment on the 10th floor of an apartment overlooking the street his restaurant is on. It was a special occasion as I have never been here before. The house was smallish but comfortable and as usual very open planned. There was a cabinet with a lot of liquor miniatures in them as Sun-hee collects these and then quite a few large jars, like parfait jars, with various fruits in them pickled in alcohol – these are Pak Jun-hee’s. Ji-won was really excited to see me and showed me his room – simply a bed on the floor, his work desk and books.  Apart from some teddy bears, his sister’s room was much the same – a complete lack of pop posters, fashionable clothes, music systems, computers and all the consumerist crap that western teenagers have to have. What was more interesting was that rather than their rooms being dens in which to hide themselves away and pretend to be individual – their rooms were completely open to the house. I don’t think privacy is such an important issue here. Sun-hee returned from town and cooked us some food and then I watched a Tarzan movie with Ji-won and his sister. This week Pak Jun-hee started a new job. In the mornings he goes to work on a construction site. He leaves home at 6am, returns home at 6pm (all for around 30 pounds a day), and then in the evening works in his restaurant which Sun-hee closes at around 4 am. They are saving money for Ji-won to go to university. What a life! And I moan at having to work anymore than 6 hours a day.

The exam period for middle school kids (13-15 years old) is here and it so noticeable; the streets are teeming with kids going to and from the Hakwons. They study in these until 11 or 12 pm and in Di Dim Dol, my school; they can buy cakes and noodles because they do not have time to eat a meal at home. I have had several private classes cancelled though I still get paid for the lesson. This week in the elementary schools (7-12 year olds) sports day and as always everything in Korea happens at the same time. The kids sit in classes with stamps on their arm telling you whether they came 1st, 2nd, or 3rd in the various competitions – running, jumping, dancing etc.

At the moment my routine is really good; in the morning I study Korean, then I go for lunch, then to the mokyuktang (Han Song), and then work. I finish work at 8 pm, go straight to Pak Jun-hee’s to eat and at 10 pm I do some private lessons. My Korean and Hanja are really improving. I sat in the green tea bath at the mokyuktang on Friday talking, to an old man and managed to learn that he was 68, weighed 65 kilos, was 1 meter 60 tall, had three sons, one which lived in the USA, that he was a grandfather and had been the Los Angeles. We got talking as he said he recognised me from another mokyuktang bath house and the whole interaction excited me as he spoke no English at all.

Several times a week U-chun and I meet up and spend time chatting in a restaurant. We have been visiting this place which sells oysters – nothing but oysters and for around £10 pounds you can have a big meal for two – usually something like oyster tempura, smoked oysters and oyster soup served with a variety of salads, kimchees and ray fish in spicy sauce. (This restaurant was originally a North Korean restaurant that we visited on our first get together, back in 2000. I re-visited for oysters, several times in 2009 but it has since closed.)

Yesterday David and I went down to the part of Song-so near Kemiyoung University. I wanted to buy a CD as I have been listening to the same music for almost six weeks. Then we went to this excellent restaurant down near the university. It was supposed to be a Spanish style place but there was nothing Spanish about it at all. The place was really weird – just a sort of cocktail bar and restaurant with nothing but sofas and tables. A rather large room just filled with big comfy sofas. David (이영선) said Korean’s think this place is western and he was surprised at my expression when we entered because it isn’t western at all. We ate squid and octopus fried rice and Japanese style pork cutlet.

I do get a bit pissed off at the way Koreans laugh whenever I try to speak Korean. Even U-chun will sometimes have a little giggle. In a private class the other day, I mentioned my arm was sore and the two boys burst into a fit of giggling. One of the boys, Kim Young-jun (김영준) is a bit slow at telling the time and I told U-chun (유천) that he’s a bit slow. She teaches him maths privately. ‘Oh! He’s stupid.” she said. ‘I regularly have to hit him or make him stand in the corner of my front room with his arms above his head.’

Like I said, everything was going well but in Korean things can always change. On Monday, I discovered that the Tasmanian teachers in Di Dim Dol, Matt and Debbie, had done a bunk and left the country over the week-end. Well, now I have been told that tomorrow and until further notice, I must work the hours 10-12am, 1-2pm, 3-8pm! I wasn’t too pleased. When I got home I went to Pak Jun-hee’s and he could tell I was angry but he calmed me down. Later I decided to write a letter and outline my concerns. In the morning I didn’t go to work and handed the letter to Keith as he went to the kindergarten. I then met U-chun and we spent the morning at Baskin and Robbins. A bit of ice cream cheered me up. I had told the school I wouldn’t be going to work until 3pm and that I would work their hours for 2 weeks and then decide what I was going to do. When I went to school, Nell the kindy head, called me into her office to discuss things. The turnout was that I have a slightly longer break in the afternoon but to be honest the quality of my life is shit. Now I work 10-12am, 1-2, 3.50pm or 4.35-8pm. I don’t really have time to do anything substantial and there is no time to train as by the time I get home there is really only enough time to eat, socialise or study for an hour and then go to bed. The problem is Joe is running two schools with one set of teachers and things will get worse in October and November when Nana and Wendy leave.

There has been a lot of stuff on the TV here about five boys who disappeared 11 years ago. Anyway, the boys are known as the ‘frog boys’ (개구리 소년) because on the day they disappeared, they were going to collect frogs. They lived right behind where I live and went into the Warayoung Mountain where they disappeared. There have been loads of police around and several thousand soldiers were drafted in as the boys bodies have been discovered buried and with what might potentially be bullet holes in their skulls. For the last few weeks they have been gradually piecing together each boy’s skeleton. One boy’s coat was tidied at the cuffs. It’s on the TV every evening and has gripped the nation as it has been a mystery here what happened to them and of course the boys’ parents have been on TV. It has been very sad.

When I ask Koreans about this incident they approach it in quite a strange way. I think events like this are so rare that they don’t really have a rationale for them. When I ask Koreans what they think happened I get responses like, ‘they were murdered’, or even stranger, ‘perhaps they were murdered.’ Really!?’ To suggest the boys might have been sexually abused isn’t the first or even second conclusion Koreans come to. The police seem to have had a history of naivety in the investigation. A few weeks ago they suggested the boys had frozen on the mountain despite it being March when they disappeared and them being not too far from home. (The fact they were buried didn’t seem to make any difference.) The boys were found in an area that at one time was close to an army training camp and they now think that a boy may have been accidentally shot by a soldier and then the other boys shot to cover up the incident up.

I went for 4 sessions of acupuncture on my arm as I have had a slight pulled muscle in it for several months. In total the treatment cost me £30 pounds this being exactly 4 times cheaper than getting treatment in Wivenhoe plus several sessions lasted over 2 hours. Now I know why Korean doctors have empty offices as all the problems which clog up the western surgery, the back problems, pulled muscles, etc all go to traditional centres in search of relief. Let’s face it; western doctors are crap at dealing with such problems. Anyway, the treatment seems to have worked but what was most interesting was that I had had another strain in my back which has niggled me for nearly two years. I had treatment earlier in the year back in the UK and after two sessions with there was no improvement. I didn’t notice popping when they manipulated my spine. The Korean doctor, using exactly the same technique, popped my entire spine and the problem disappeared.

I haven’t seen too much of Ji-won as in less than four weeks he has his exams and the whole of Korea is counting down until the day they begin. These exams are known as the ‘goa sam su neung’  (고삼수능) and are the final year exams of high school students.  For very many young Koreans this will be one of the most important days of their lives. We went to the PC rooms (PC 방) last week and they had to ask me if I gave Ji-won permission to be there as it is illegal for under 19 years old’s to be in them after 10pm. I have also found out that in some schools, boys are not allowed to have hair more than 3cm long and it is not to be dyed. They are also not allowed to wear trousers any narrower than 7cm at the ankle. Ji-won told me one of his friends was beaten for having highlights in his hair when it was in fact grey streaks -yes – some Korean kids have natural grey streaks in their hair and there is a Korean term for this. One of my private students, Hyun-min (현민), arrived at my apartment barely able to walk. His hair had been more than three centimetres long and so he, and a few other boys, had to strip down to their boxers and run around the sports five times and then do fifty squats. Hyun-min (현민) is 18!

©Amongst Other Things – 努江虎 – 노강호 2012 Creative Commons Licence.

Written Sept 2002