“Ask me any question about America, and I’ll give you an answer,” I told my third grade students (9th grade US) one day. In order to encourage more conversation practice in English, I opted for a fun class dedicated to cultural discussion rather than a standard, lecture-based lesson.
“Teacher, what are pajama parties?” “Do all Americans carry guns?” “Tell us about American humor!” “Have you been to Las Vegas?” “What’s the most delicious food?” “What music is popular?” “American dramas and TV! Are they fun?” “Do you drive a car?”
After dispelling the notion that all Americans are gun-waving, obese, cheese burger-eating, gypsy-like hooligans, I proceeded to answer their questions in as much detail as possible, throwing the same questions back for them to answer about Korea. My students sat spellbound as I explained the concept of teenage girls getting together just to paint their nails, eat junk food, dress in light pink flannel, and watch romantic comedies. They roared with laughter as I demonstrated the different accents represented across the States, parodied the ridiculous slow-motion scenes of Korean dramas, and described the culture shock I felt when I first came to their country. We continued in light conversation, discussing everything from sarcasm to bus etiquette, until we broached the subject of school.
“What time school finish?” they asked in broken English repeatedly as if this question weighed the heaviest in their minds.
“Typically, school finishes at 3pm,” I explained with hesitation in my voice. I couldn’t understand why this matter was so urgent.
“Then, students go to Academy?” they inquired, a look of confusion plastered on each face.
“What’s Academy?” I asked.
“After school, we study. We learn English, math, science from tutors,” they said matter-of-factly. “American students do what?”
I had to pause and think. What do American students do? I remembered a conversation I had with my youngest brother when he was in middle school. “Shauna, so many people in my class are bored—not only bored at school but also bored with life. A lot of them just go home and watch TV.” Remembering his words, I relayed them to my class. Upon hearing the news, each mouth opened in shock. They couldn’t understand the concept of having nothing to do.
The conversation grew progressively darker. Some students admitted that they didn’t go home from school until 10pm. Others talked about how their current level of stress would only double when they went to high school. Then, one boy said a word that silenced everyone: suicide. I thought I heard him incorrectly, choosing to believe he had said “two side” or “move aside.”
“No, teacher. Suicide. Some students become so stressed that they kill themselves. It happens even in middle school.” The rest of the class nodded in agreement.
I couldn’t speak. Every time I tried, I could only mumble, “That’s so sad.” Collecting myself, I foolishly asked, “Are you sure?”
“We know people who have tried. We hear about it all the time—not here, but at other places,” the boy said.
The bell rang and our discussion on culture ended. I walked back to my office feeling grave and contemplative. “Are you okay?” one of my coworkers asked. I didn’t realize my face conveyed my heart so visibly. I told my coworker what I’d learned, and she only confirmed the sad fact. “It’s crazy, but it happens,” she said. At that moment, I began to see my students differently. I almost admired them for enduring this long.
At the ages of fourteen to sixteen, these middle schoolers, my precious students, already have gray hair. Not just one or two stray ones, but gardens. Fields. Jungles. They’re like weeds, parasitically residing and polluting the beautiful, blithe, black hair of childhood. Plucking them out would only result in a bald student population.
The pressure put on these kids is colossal. Education literally becomes a matter of life or death. Last week, for example, school was completely canceled on Thursday so as not to disturb the high schoolers taking their standardized tests next door. Flights were also banned on that day; airplanes are far too noisy and distracting. What if one flew overhead at an opportune moment and one of the students was unable to hear the listening portion of his test? Simply unacceptable.
My American mentality doesn’t understand this lifestyle at all. Sometimes, it spurns a Moses spirit within me. I want to scream, “Let my people go!!!!” to every overly ambitious mother who pushes her child to limits that straddle the stratosphere. I get angry when I think about it. It doesn’t seem fair or loving. Then, I have to remind myself to leave my biases, my presuppositions, my American-ness at home.
Once I don a Korean lens, I see why my students have weedy gardens of gray hair and why parents are so ambitious. Korea, as with most capitalistic countries, is founded on competition. Your performance at every level of school pre-college determines which academic soil you will plant your feet in next. If you consistently succeed, passing your standardized tests in high school with flying colors, you might have a shot at a big name university—the “Ivy Leagues”: SKY (Seoul National University, Korea University, Yonsei University). Education becomes a gateway, albeit narrow, to success. Names and reputations mean everything. When these fail, appearance becomes the new trump card. Beauty, or just looking the part for whichever career you desire, can take you far and open doors. This explains Korea’s obsession with plastic surgery. I was told that there’s an operation dedicated to obtaining the perfect look for a job interview. This also explains why my passport picture was photoshopped, removing every blemish and leaving only perfect, white skin.
There are many lessons to learn from all of this:
First, the next time you feel like procrastinating, taking school for granted, or being “bored,” think about Korean students.
Second, it is CRUCIAL to understand that every culture, every subculture, every person cannot be judged through a person’s own eyes. They must be understood within the context of their circumstances. An American might look at the Korean mentality as crazy, unnecessary, and superficial. I’m the first to admit that I have. What I’ve realized, though, is that this mentality has raised a country of extremely hardworking, dedicated individuals who take pride in the work that they do. From a CEO to a local barista to a bus driver, each worker performs his or her work with deliberation, precision, and pride. You seldom find a lazy Korean. This, in turn, has made them into a progressive, thriving, dynamic nation.
Finally, I’ve learned that if you find yourself with the unique opportunity to make someone’s day brighter by telling him or her the details of a pajama party, do it. Be the comic relief in a turbulent situation.
After considering all of this, I’ve realized that although I’m in Korea as an educator, this experience is an education . . . for me. I hope my experiences provide a bit of insight for you as well.
You can follow Shauna Chung’s blog here.