Thursday, November 18, 2010

This is what you dream of as a kid

Everything that you do as a teacher in this country is coming to push or shove right now as 700,000 graduating high school students write their university entrance exams (suneung in Korean, CSAT in English if you want to talk about it but not be understood by anyone). This is no mere test, but something that will determine employment, status, marriage prospects and a general sense of self-worth for this year's graduates.

This is what I've seen so far:

- at the closest test centre to my house (one of 1206 in the country), hoardes of students were walking holding colourful bags. These weren't test-takers, but spectators carrying gifts, as well as blankets for the long wait outside. It was 2 degrees at the time and the test is about eight hours long, so it could be a long wait. This video shows the scene outside a high school in Gwangju.

- the news had nothing else to report this morning. The traffic discussed traffic conditions relating to the test, as in "today is the day of the exam, and this is how the traffic is looking". Many companies and schools (not mine) started later today to allow students to get to the test centres by the 8 am start time.

- even the weather report was about the suneung. SBS offered a graph showing the temperature over various parts of the test. It would be 2 degrees for the Korean portion at the start, but rise to 12 degrees by the time students hit the English-language portion. Whatever that means.

- pointing to what you can do in a centralized, homogeneous society with a very small area, all airplanes in the country will be grounded during both listening portions (morning and afternoon, English and Korean).

- this Wall Street Journal article discusses the various suneung-related sales and promotions. The best one I saw was at Myeongdong's posh Noon Square building, described as a Mecca of fashion by Koreans, but as a Myeongdong of fashion by Saudis. One restaurant promised a free cocktail to anyone who ordered a meal, though it was unclear if the sale targeted everyone or only high school students alone. The legal drinking age in Korea is 19, but students who take the test won't turn 19 until next year.

To explain the title, Korean kids dream of being soccer players rather than Seoul National University graduates, but then, they probably have nightmares too. Korea may have missed the boat on the cultural excess that accompanies football in America, but this is not a country that does anything halfway. Given the party atmosphere outside of schools, to be followed by drama, this day is roughly like the Super Bowl mixed with American Idol mixed with a weird science fiction movie about our meritocratic, automatic future.


38percentsure said...

Last year in my apartment complex, there was an announcement at around 7am and people/strangers went outside to wave & wish luck to the students going to write their exams. Korea!

Adeel said...

None of that where I live. Just stone-faced students and ash-faced spectators. Maybe the calm before the storm.

Thanks for the comment!