Sunday, 21 November 2010

Korea - The first university entrance exam

Hello everyone!

I walked into class on Tuesday and a girl offered me a glass of milk. I do love Korea. And milk. I felt you needed to know that. I also think I might be lacking a creative spark today. Speaking of that, it's becoming increasingly difficult to conjure up creative blog titles. Fifty weeks in, and I am finally beginning to run out of new activities. So apologies for that.


Other people have more serious problems than blogs, however. In particular, the third grade high school students across the country. Thursday 18th November was without doubt the biggest day of their lives. Now we have a stereotype at home of Koreans - Asians in general - being mind-bogglingly hardworking and obsessed with education. Well these two characteristics are weaved together for SUNUM - the university entrance exam.


Now I know we have university entrance exams at home, and that they are also very important to us. But imagine having to sit all of your A-levels on the same day. Imagine only finding out the location of your exam the day before, and that it can be in a different city. Imagine the level of competitiveness that has led to most of these students sleeping for less than five hours a day, everyday, for the past few years of their lives. For the sole purpose of studying. Just for this one day. Not nice, is it.


To say that this is an important day would be the biggest understatement since (insert funny here). Most workers have a delayed start to enable the roads to be clear for students to get to their respective exam locations. During the listening exams - one for Korean, one for English - planes are not allowed to fly over Korea. A no fly zone so students can listen to a dodgy British accent. I don't know what is more extreme - this, or the fact that if you honk your horn during these exams, you can be arrested.


Then you have to consider the poor teachers who have to monitor these exams. They have to stand up straight for the whole day - something in the region of ten hours - but that pales in comparison to other sacrifices they have to make, especially the women. No bright clothing. No heels. No skirts. No make-up. No perfume. Why, you ask? Well, apparently it can distract the students. And then the students sue the teachers. And invariably WIN.


One story a co-teacher told me was that a boy was coughing, but the monitor didn't give him permission to leave the room. He then stated that his whole day and life had been ruined because of this teacher's negligence, and sued her to the tune of $20,000US. And WON. With that in mind, all teachers had a two-hour meeting the day before to ensure that everything was done correctly.


The flip-side of all of this stress and the exam itself was that I got a day off on the Thursday. I won't get many more of these, so needed to make the most of it. I went for lunch with Min-Jin 민진, the substitute teacher at my school. As a temporary teacher, she also didn't have to monitor. Indeed, the reason she was at my school was because my co-teacher was actually helping to write the exam. Five weeks locked in a house on a hill in the middle of nowhere, and not allowed to leave, use the internet, phones etc. Before you give him sympathy, two points: he got paid over 10million won ($10,000US); and he said they spent the last two weeks just getting hammered. Lucky man.


Now the exam has occurred, Min-Jin's time at my school is over. I will miss her, as it is always nice to have someone around in school who is a similar age to me and has spent time abroad, so has a different style of humour to the standard Korean. Even if she refuses to have her face in a photo. It's not the only goodbye I'll have to say this month, of course.


I then headed down to Hwaseong fortress in Suwon. Big tourist attraction of Korea, even though Min-Jin hadn't heard of it. Korea used to have lots of fortresses, and Hwaseong is the one that has been preserved the best. Like Gyeongbokgung a few weeks back, it's very nice in autumn. A little bit on the chilly side, but it's a very nice walk. And very nice to be away from school and the potential to be sued for sneezing.


Love you all

Matt