Friday, November 19, 2010

The Most Stressful Day in Korea

My high school is conspicuously absent of a third of its students today. They, along with every other high school senior on the peninsula, spent 10 hours yesterday in the most important round of testing they may ever face in their entire lives: the Korean SAT [수능]. Considering that they haven't taken a day - nay, even a waking hour - off from studying in over a year, I think it's well deserved. Though it is probably not very restful for many. This is, after all, suicide season.

Like most Americans, I grew up being told that I could be anything I want to be. There was constant reinforcement of this message from every media; that if you try hard enough, and are dedicated to your dream, that it is achievable. A closed door can be opened with enough force.

There is no such message in Korea. The door simply disappears. Students who score poorly on the K-SAT have to wait another year, when they are allowed take it for a second and last time. If they don't get a "doctor" score - one high enough to get into medical school - they will never be a doctor in Korea. (Of course, they could always move to that great shining beacon across the Pacific, The Land of Opportunity.)

The outcome of yesterday's exam will determine the possibilities for each student's future. It will light a fire under some dreams, propelling one student to a career as a doctor, just as it consumes the hopes of another as they smolder in the ashes of failure.

Though yesterday was an important day for the seniors, one which will make or break their plans for the future, stress wasn't limited to the students. Education is one of the biggest expenditures for Korean households - life savings are spent, debt racked up - and the hopes and dreams of every student are shared as fervently by parents, siblings, friends and teachers.

My senior year of high school was one of the easiest years of my life. It was full of positive messages pointing to endless opportunities in the future. After I was accepted into college, it became a carefree time of utter irresponsibility. I had no cares or worries of my own, much less of others. My parents didn't care what I chose to do, as long as it made me happy.

In Korea, where the lingering tenets of Confucianism make status and title all-important, one day - one test - will decide what that status and title are. It's no wonder that 48% of Korean students have considered suicide. The hopes and dreams of an entire nation rest heavily, tiredly, on 18 year-old shoulders.

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