Memorize, Exams and Results. Repeat.

From Korean Herald “Korea enters Suneung Mode”. Suneung is the Korean equivalent of SAT and A-levels.

A Korean-Canadian, I have lived in Canada for ten years. After completing elementary school, I left Korea, a rapidly changing place. Unfortunately, I missed the ever-changing trends of slangs, fashion and food. However, I fortuitously avoided the notorious Korean educational system.

Kids are sent to preparatory academies (after-school) before they enter an elementary school. Middle school students learn high school and university level math, science and English to win competitive high school admissions. High school students usually spend twelve hours per day on studying, which peaks during twelfth grade, when their tolerance to disruption or distraction is at its nadir. You insult them slightly, a punch could land on your face.

Right, they are studying for the College Scholastic Ability Test (CSAT, also “Suneung”), globally known for its difficulty. For example, CSAT has many sections, one of which is English; even native English speakers have trouble answering the questions. A top mark in Suneung could land you to one of the top Korean universities. Congratulations, you are then set for life. Just academics, no extra-curriculars, are needed to set yourself apart. Just one exam, not many like SAT IIs and Advanced Placement exams. Hell, people get accepted to a medical/law school by getting perfect scores on Suneung alone.

Link to this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ebGZPubfzL8

To prepare for the once-a-year momentous exam (mid-November), Korean kids are forced to participate in this life-long academic marathon. I have seen people who got exhausted early on. A person I know was ranked top 5% in his grade once, but now shuns away from academics due to his sheer hatred against the system and exhaustion. A potential academic superstar, he currently attends a sub-par school. The publicized class ranking system distresses students and parents furthermore. Sabotages are rampant. Jealousy explodes. Not just the children, but also the parents would be a part of the competition maelstrom.

Recently having completed my undergraduate degree in Cell Biology with decent marks at a Canadian university, where competition is fierce, I have vicariously experienced the diabolical Korean education system. However, I have given up my life for exam results twelve years later than my Korean counterparts.

I have blindly memorized lecture contents, just as the Koreans do. I have transcribed verbatim to what the professors said during lectures, just as the Koreans do. I have highlighted, underlined and memorized the transcripts, just as the Koreans do. Not surprisingly, the contents oftentimes evaporate out of my skull soon after I write my exams. I memorized, wrote exams and got the marks. Repeat. I just followed the system and a growing realization that the contents are painfully dull had to be shelved elsewhere in my mind.

The program has taught me to follow and obey the system and accept random facts, just like the Korean system. But what now? Could I do this even more? No, I need a break. I want to think again and ask questions. No more suffocation and shove of information.

Some Koreans can tolerate the system for their entire lives and be successful, whereas I have trouble accepting that I have spent four years of my life for the system. So, who am I? A Korean or Canadian? Have I so distanced myself from the Korean culture that I find blindly following the system unacceptable?

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