The Banality of Korean Education

Around this time of the year, I hear as much Christmas and New Year celebration as college decisions and application news. My familial gatherings and phone calls always involve gossip about who got in where, who’s applying where and whether so-and-so should be taking the upcoming January SATs.

“It’s a Korean thing,” we would joke.

Ever since and even before the release of Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, the standard stereotypes and phenomena of the Asian education systems have been more known to the rest of the world. For many Asians, the brutal lifestyle of “study, study more, study till you get into Harvard” hits close to home.

I, a Korean-American raised both in the States and in Korea, was no different. But here I intend to focus on a more personal and specifically Korean aspect of this style of education that has affected me in ways that I could never have imagined.

Perhaps most well-known as “hagwons,” institutions and cram schools were attended by nearly all my Korean friends and peers since as young as first grade in elementary school. Growing up, a typical day would consist of school and hagwon every day, every other day focusing on a different subject. Winter break meant I would be introduced to the family tutor (who’s taught my older brother and his friends as well as my cousins) to get through all of Pre-Calculus. It didn’t seem weird– I was used doing third grade math in first grade, Geometry in sixth grade. And not to mention that Mom’s friend’s daughter had already finished Trig in seventh grade. It wasn’t anything special.

As I entered high school, I found myself constantly bored during class. Not just bored but also extremely sleepy. I was never home before 11, a curfew that the Korean government instilled as the latest time for hagwons to be in session. Each break I spent cramming in AP and SAT prep books into my head so that I would for certain score perfectly.

Why? The answer was simple, as told by my mother and universally shared by all other tiger moms–“for you to be successful.” Did it work? I got into a prestigious college along with all my other friends that suffered through a similar path. Princeton, Brown, MIT, Stanford, you name it, I have a friend that I attended hagwon with that got in. So yes, Mom, I did get into a college. I succeeded.

But am I doing well now, in college?

The frank answer is no. At least not to my satisfaction. I am no longer ahead in any of the subjects, I am no longer attending class outside of class, taught by another teacher that would teach me just the “integral” points that would help me ace the tests. I am no longer scoring the straight A’s with my eyes closed.

Instead, I have to work for it, all independently. I have to stay awake and alert in class, and expect that I don’t know anything about what will be taught today. The consequences of my hagwon-spent years slap me smack in the face–“You don’t know this, and there is no one but yourself to understand this to certain proficiency to pass the class.”

The sad fact is, it’s not just me. My peers and upperclassmen have told me in shame that they were going back to Korea for the break to “catch up on the OChem class that I failed” or “get ahead with multivariable calc before I go back.” These are not stupid people, all attending great schools. These are definitely not lazy individuals, either. They’re just experiencing the aftermaths of the institutionalized and droning education culture. And numbers prove this.

To be fair, my mother wasn’t as hardcore as she could have been. The average “hagwon time” I spent was significantly less than those around me. Yet I still feel the effects.

This break, the first one in years that I’ve not had to sign up for a class polishing APs or search for tutors, I’ve found it awkward to not pick up a pen to take notes and be read from a textbook. I’ve felt like I was going to get behind, wasting time.

It’s almost a disgusting thing, to have this feeling. In retrospect, after speaking to so many of the other amazing individuals I’ve met in college, I realized that I could have spent the exact same time doing so much more. I would have done just the same in school by listening in class and studying for school during school. I would have had the time to do things that we call “hobbies” for fun, not for filling up another section in the extracurricular section of the CommonApp (and yes, there are mothers who send their kids to hagwons to build hobbies that would be appropriate for this exact purpose).

I see this as a banality of the Korean education system. There are lots more, and people have written countless articles and books on the gross sides of this topic. We’ve been raised to be machines, producing answers the way we were told to memorize them. We’ve little to state as uniquely ours, and “fun” is term used to merely describe the rebellious nights spent partying, but only after the hagwon session ended at 11. We’ve grown to be helpless, craving the spoon that has fed us how to be boring for years.

Too many of us therefore feel absolutely lost in the world where success was once just getting into college. Okay, we’re here, so what are we supposed to do now? Mom? Is there a hagwon for this?

The Banality of Korean Education