Last year, according to the World Health Organization, South Korea led the world in suicides per capita, surpassing even long time leader Guyana. There were 36.8 self-caused deaths for every hundred thousand people, or almost 4 for every 10,000, or 1 in every 2500. That's an incredible carnage. A contributing reason is certainly the singular definition of success as academic excellence and financial affluence. When even second graders are characteristically sent to after-school school like the one where I teach, it's no wonder that young people are overwhelmed, that they don't have time to relax and be kids.
Last night, two of my colleagues and I met up for dinner with an American guy who teaches with EPIK, and he told me that while his own schedule is fairly light, the Korean teachers with whom he works are at school before 8 AM and do not leave until after 10 PM-they eat both their midday and their evening meals in the school cafeteria, along with their students. The high school students mostly live in dormitories because they study so late and so hard that they do not have time to live at home and commute. On one level this is an admirable level of commitment, but on another it's simply absurd – and how much does it really pay off?
This focus on collective excellence is sort of a national boot camp experience, an intellectual agony in which all participate. And then the men have to go off to the Army for two years! So ultimately the guys have been Koreanized twice--once by the rigor of the educational system, and another in identification with the country in national defense. I had wondered why there was such intense camaraderie among schoolfellows: like people who've been in the same platoon, they keep in touch and meet together for social events throughout their lifetime. Now I know why. They have been in the same platoon (the same class). They've spent every waking hour together for years and years and years and sweated out successive exams. The exam to get into high school is almost as brutal as the one to get into college, or more so because it will ultimately determine how well the student will be equipped for the national college entrance exam. Middle schoolers study all night for months for the high school qualification tests.
I wonder if Americans have a different definition of friendship than Koreans simply because we have comparatively so much free time to choose with whom we associate. If you don't have uncommitted time to choose, you just have to deal with those people that you are put with. I'm not saying that Koreans don't hang out with people they like, but I think you are willing to put up with a whole lot more personality incompatibility when you've been through fire together, and you're part of the same group. On one level you may even loathe one another, but there's a level of connection from the shared academic hardship you've endured that can't be easily overlooked.
But all this pressure is certainly too much for a lot of people. They fail an exam and they feel the world has ended. They may lose their job, and they feel they aren't a success. And they hang themselves, poison themselves, or throw themselves from buildings. Suicide is the leading cause of death for people between the ages of 10 and 30 in South Korea. My students come to school when they ought to be home in bed clutching hot water bottles to their chests and zoned out on cold medicine. Some of them look so tired, even the little ones, and they fall asleep in class, their heads drooping over the desks. I've had third and fourth graders come in and tell me that they were exhausted, or sad. I hope and pray that I will be more sensitive to the rigor that they are enduring. I tend to act as if mine is the only class in the world. I do want them to behave and pay attention, but I also want to realize that mine is just one of an entire catalog of classes that they are taking after they get out of regular school, including math, science, and Korean language. I wonder if they have any time to just play?
I am so grateful that I had plenty of time to run around and goof off and read whatever I wanted when I was in elementary school. I did have an hour of homework each night – more than most, I expect, because it took me so long to do even basic tasks – but I got plenty of sleep, had supper at home, and wasn't overburdened. True, I am not a success nowadays in the Korean definition, as I do not have an especially high-ranking profession, nor do I make much money. And yet, I am generally healthy and happy and capable of engaging with the world. I do applaud self-discipline and high goals, but when everyone has an identical goal, it seems to me that it leads to disappointment more often than not.
This past week, I had a little fourth-grader looking terribly mournful in my class, and she told me sadly that work was boring. She said her homework was boring, and that grown-up work was boring. Poor little thing, looking ahead to a lifetime of drudgery. I told her that though her homework might be boring, grown-up work did not have to be boring. I showed her and her classmates my Atlanta brother's business website as an illustration of a job that was interesting, and I explained that my job was never boring because the people I met were interesting--that work could be fun if you were using your brain to learn or create something. I hope she was encouraged a smidgen.