The fourth in my interview series about what makes South Korea such a stressful society to be a part of. The final year of high school in Korea is often referred to as “the year of hell” as the grueling study hours and the pressure of university applications reach their climax. Park Eun Ah, 18, graduated from the public high school system less than two months ago and shares her views on the pressure and stress that young Koreans face as they enter the adult world.After doing quite a few of these interviews, I want to make it clear at this point that all of the people I have talked to are proud to be Korean and love their country. The topic being discussed is an unfortunately negative aspect of Korean culture, and therefore elicits appropriately negative responses. Note: None of these people speak English as a first language. They are of varying English proficiency levels from beginner to very advanced and in some cases translation was needed. To improve readability and cohesiveness, some gramatical edits have been made where necessary. In no way has meaning or context been altered.
Park Eun Ah, 18
High School Graduate
Where does pressure come from in Korea?
When I was little I didn’t have to study that much, but now they are studying in elementary school so that they can go to a good middle school or a foreign school. You know, they are little students, little boys and girls who want to play a lot, but they are studying at home and at academies.
Korean people always ask what university you have graduated from. It is like a status symbol. That’s why parents always want their kids to go to a good university, so that they can get good pay at their jobs.
I want to find a job that I really enjoy. I don’t really care about the money, but society doesn’t really want me to be like that. So my job is for society, not for me – and I think that’s not fair. For example, if I major in English literature, I won’t really get a job related to English. There aren’t enough jobs so I can’t do what I really want.
What Pressure Do You Feel Personally?
A long time ago [teachers] cared about students, but now going to university is the student’s responsibility and they do not help us at all. Teachers just tell us to study, study, study, and if we don’t study they don’t really care because its our future, not theirs.
If you care about your future there is a lot of pressure. In my head I think I have to go to a good university and I have to get a good job, so that creates pressure. Parents and teachers just say study, study, study. You have to do this, this, and this to get good [exam] scores and go to a good school. That’s pressure. We have to study so that we can get good scores. It’s just about scores, not abilities.
In high school we have grades; first grade is the best, second grade, third grade and so on. Ninth grade is the worst. But even if you get a first grade score, you might not go to a good university because, if the exam is easy, many students might get a first grade score. You have to beat the other students and it’s very competitive. The average could be 97%, and so the students would have to get 100% [to be competitive].
An average student goes to school at 7:30 or 8:00am and finishes at 4 or 5pm. We eat dinner at school. Then we have to study at school by ourselves until 10pm. Then we go home or to the library and continue to study until 1 or 2 am. Then we go to sleep and go to school again. That’s our pattern. That’s why people commit suicide. They study really hard, and then if they [botch] the exam, they get depressed.
I was depressed as well because I couldn’t get into a better university – I didn’t study enough. If I go to a low university, opportunities will be low. But even if you go to a really good university, you [might] not get a really good job. For example, some people graduated from a really good university, but now they are just teachers. And teachers get low pay.
I don’t really want people to feel pressure, but they have to. That’s Korea’s way, so I cannot do anything about it. It will never change. But Korean women are not having children [these days], so maybe in 40 or 50 years, there will be fewer children in university and it will be easier.
What is the Solution? When Will the Pressure Stop?
Never! Because after university I have to find a job and I have to get married. If [there is a] person who I really want to marry I have to think about his status. Love doesn’t matter. I really want to marry somebody who I love, I don’t really care about his status, but my parents will care. [They think] I can live a better life with a husband who can earn much money. I don’t want people to stress about their status, but I don’t think it’s possible.
I lived in NZ for 2 years, so I know it’s completely different than Korea. They play outside and do sports, but in Korea they don’t really have much time for sports. But even if I was born in New Zealand I would still feel pressure. There is nothing to do there. At night everything is closed after 10, so I have to go to sleep. In New Zealand people just stay outside all the time and relax, but in Korea there are many big buildings. I want to stay in Korea, because I am Korean. In Korea life is very fast, and I always do things very fast. That’s a good thing.