Thursday, November 07, 2013

day of nightmare, day of relief

As a friend of mine recently tweeted, today, November 7, is a big day for Korean high schoolers: it's CSAT day—the day to take the dreaded college-entrance exam, or suneung. Taxis are ferrying students to their test sites; air traffic has been quieted to give students a chance to concentrate; parents are at Buddhist temples or churches, calling upon the divine powers to aid the kids in their quest for success.

Unfortunately, this is also "suicide season" in Korea, as a number of kids will inevitably throw themselves off the tops of apartment buildings in despair over their perceived test performance. Teen suicides tend to spike at this time of year: so much pressure is put on students to perform well on the CSAT that a few of them, every year, crack under the strain.

Life for a Korean student culminates in this moment. Everything the student has done, up to now, has been devoted to this day: from kindergarten onward, life has been About This Test. College will be a breeze once the dreaded exam is over; in fact, many Korean kids treat college as a four-year vacation, a time to relax, let the hair down, and do all the enjoying and experimenting and slacking that, up to now, has been forbidden because of the relentless focus on this test. College is a four-year reprieve from the grinding reality of Korean society. Well, not exactly: men are obliged to interrupt their college education with military service. But even the men, once they return to college, get to enjoy some off-time.*

Good luck, then, to all the kids today. May they score well, get into the college of their dreams, and breathe the relatively free air of campus life.

*Notable exceptions to this college-as-reprieve notion are the students who go to the so-called "SKY" universities: Seoul National University, Korea University, and Yonsei University. At those places, students are smart and driven. Not to say that students are all dumb and lazy elsewhere, but there's a distinct difference between the ambiance at elite colleges versus the ambiance everywhere else. And even at the non-elite schools, students can still experience anxiety and pressure—in English class, for instance, for kids are often asked to take exams and do projects that involve presenting, in English, in front of the entire class. Still, I'd contend that these stressors are nothing compared to the tension leading up to the CSAT. There is very little about Korean college life that would drive a kid to suicide.


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