A country goes silent…

Today is November 10th, 2011. I realize that tomorrow would be a much cooler date to post a blog entry (11/11/11), Particularly if I posted it at 11:11am…but there is nothing cool going on tomorrow that needs blogging about.

You may have noticed it has been over a week since my last post. I do apologize for that, although you should be thanking me for not posting when I have nothing interesting to say. I do hope that in the coming weeks I will be back to my old, adventure seeking self (I’ve taken a break from adventure seeking because I’ve had frisbee tournaments every weekend and a visit from my Dad over the last month and a half). This weekend is the final Ultimate tournament, a single elimination tournament that will determine the best of the best amateur ultimate players in Korea. My team finished the regular season in 3rd place so we’ve been given a buy into the second round, where we will most likely play our rival Busan team; The Heat. It should be an action packed weekend filled with frisbee, drinking and debauchery (Warning: *Weekend may not include debauchery*).

I feel as though I have tooted my own horn sufficiently at this point, so let me tell you a bit about today – one of the strangest days I’ve had this year.

I may have mentioned in this blog, or you may have read somewhere, that Koreans are pretty serious about their education. Just how serious? Well for one thing, they recruit thousands of young westerners such as myself and invite them into their elementary, middle and high school systems to teach English. If you were to do some research on Korean education, however, you are much more likely to run into articles about how Korean students are extremely studious and face alot of pressure to succeed. Korean students, particularly high school students, will go to school from about 8am until 10pm (or later) most days of the week. They go to public school during the day and when that finishes at 2pm they head to their respective ‘hogwons’ or private schools, for further instruction. The hogwons close at 10pm and the students go home and usually continue to study for a few hours before going to sleep sometime in the wee hours. They wake up the next morning, rinse and repeat. Here is a youtube video that illustrates a day in the life of a high school student:


But why? you ask. Well the reason is that every November high school students take the Korean SAT test that will determine their entrance to university. Do poorly on this test and you will not go to a good university. Don’t go to a good University and you might as well forget about getting a good job. The pressure put on students leading up to this test is immense and the gauntlet of studying and sleep deprivation that students endure is considered by some to be one of the leading causes of the freakishly high rate of teen suicide in Korea. The suicide rate is high enough that the Korean government has started taking steps to ease the workload of the average Korean high schooler. For instance, they recently imposed strict regulations that all hogwons are required to close by 10pm. In the weeks following the enactment of this law the police were raiding private schools that were trying to secretly stay open longer than the 10pm curfew.

So I guess what I’m saying is that they take this test pretty seriously.

However, the full reality of how seriously this test is taken did not hit me until today. Today I didn’t have to come into work until 10am – a full hour and half later than usual. Why? Well it wasn’t just me – every single school, office and workplace in Korea delayed their opening hours until 10am or later for the test today (some businesses close entirely). The reason is so the students are able to get to the examination centers without braving the rush hour traffic.

Sounds cool right? It makes sense to me at least. Why not put the entire country on hold for a high school test? It gets stranger though. For instance, if a high school student is late or believes they will be late for the test, they are legally allowed (even encouraged) to call the police and have a squad car pick them up and rush them to the exam – sirens blaring. Here’s another example: you might be surprised to know that my school is not using the school bells to singnal beginning and end of class. Nor will any other school. There won’t be any church or clock tower bells announcing the hour today either. Oh, and drivers can be ticketed or even arrested and charged for using their horns today. Criminals beware – you won’t hear any police sirens closing in on your bank robbery (or the banks alarm bell, presumably). The students at my school aren’t even allowed outside today during recess – they might make too much noise. It is pretty safe to say that Korea is probably one of the quietest countries in the world today.

Here’s the clincher – the one thing that absolutely knocked my socks off; Today, between the hours of 9am and 10am and 1pm-2pm there will be no aircraft taking off or landing in this country, because the students will be doing the listening portions of their tests. Maybe after reading the other examples you might be thinking – ‘Well yeah, that makes sense. The authorities are trying to cut down on noise for the day, and airplanes are pretty damn noisy!’ You are right about that, it is obvious and not all that shocking, but think about it this way: “There will be no airplanes landing or taking off in an ENTIRE COUNTRY because of a HIGH SCHOOL TEST.”

That’s f&%*$ed up.

Although, if I was a Korean high schooler (or the parent of a high schooler) I wouldn’t want to throw away 3 years of 14 hour days with no sports, very little social life and mild to moderate sleep deprivation just because I was distracted during this one pivotal moment.



About bnbnower

A recent graduate of Carleton University, set adrift into the real world with no tangible goals or properly defined aspirations, I decided to set off for South Korea where I am teaching English as a second language. In my spare time I read, rock-climb, play frisbee and watch movies and television.
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5 Responses to A country goes silent…

  1. Tyler says:

    That is absolutely, positively, undoubtedly, undeniably, unfathomably, beyond all imagination, Abe-Lincoln bat-shit insane. I knew Koreans took schooling seriously but holy christ.

  2. lunarharvest says:

    Wow that is serious! I had no idea they were so committed – I really like the video which sums up their daily routine lol

  3. Rebecca says:

    hard to imagine from here…..the no fly zone is maybe overkill?

  4. Lisa says:

    Recently I read a letter wrote from a Korea high school before he comitted suicide and i felt very bad for him. I mean it’s great that Koreans take school seriously, because they WILL succeed later on in life, but cmon 15 hours of school ..a day? I think parents put WAY too much pressure on their kids in Korea ): I think North Americans and Koreans should both change their mindsets. N.A = don’t take school seriously at ALL and waste their time doing drugs and doing illegal things, while korea takes school way too seriously. I don’t know which is better to be honest. I wish my classmates would take school more seriously but i don’t want to take school way too seriously too. I hope it gets better over time! – I’m Canadian btw.

    • bnbnower says:

      Hey thanks for the comment Lisa! I just reread this post and immediately felt bad about the flippant tone I used regarding the workload and stress that faces Korean students. I agree that the Korean education system could probably lighten up a bit, and it certainly seems that the government is taking steps to move in that direction. Students in the Canadian side of things definitely face fewer challenges academically than Korean students, though highschool and post secondary education offers plenty of its own unique challenges; Just remember that in Canadian culture, highschool is a time for experimenting with independance and learning life skills, rather than memorization of curriculum as it is here. As with all things, a person’s experience in highschool is what they make it. You can’t make other students take it seriously, but you can decide for yourself how serious it is for you.

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