By Cosette Nunez
Daniel Seho Park will never forget his teacher’s words. “Seho, you have lost so much weight, you must have studied so hard.”
This was meant as a compliment.
Indeed, Park lost almost 27 pounds in two years as he felt the social pressure from parents and friends to study hard and win acceptance to university.
In many ways, South Korea today remains a place still wedded to ancient Confucian values. One of the most important is a respect for learning and the learned. Few things are more honorable. And, in a small country with few natural resources, a well-educated populace is the engine of economic growth. That is reflected in the huge consumer export companies – such as Samgung, Kia Motors and Hyundai – that dominate the Korean economy.
Starting in middle school, South Korean students compete fiercely to win a coveted spot in one of the country’s universities. Park and thousands of other students turn studying from a habit to a lifestyle as they cutback on sleep, regulated when they eat and struggled not to fall asleep while studying.
“For most of my years in High School I have no memory of sitting or sleeping, said Park “For three years, I just slept for three hours every day.”
Students attend school from 8 a.m. until 4 p.m. and afterwards pay to study at Hagwons. These for-profit cram schools can stay open until 1:00 a.m. They provide desks without chairs so that students can continue to study without falling asleep. Students’ regular desks are numbered to represent where they stand academically to their classmates. This is but one of many ways the Korean system pressures students to compete for favor.
It works. Park preferred to skip lunch at the cafeteria so that he could continue to study endlessly with the other students.
He lived in a dormitory during his time in High School. There, students would come back from school and study until 3 a.m. He remembers praying every night for strength against falling asleep. The pressure to compete and belong to a group of studious friends overcame his desire to sleep for three years.
Parents commend their children for attending Foreign Language High Schools, and teachers wanted high test results even if it results in poor health or extreme weight loss.
Park still remembers the night when he contemplated death with a friend on a hill near their school. They both believed that death would be more peaceful than the confusing life they were living. This was a turning point in Park’s life because he decided that he needed to find a new way to study. He still wanted to win a competition so he decided to focus on long-term academic goals. This meant improving his English speaking skills so that he would have the chance to study in the United States.
Park now attends Dongguk University, a private Buddhist University which is located in Seoul. Dongguk is ranked 35th out of the top 100 Korean universities and is highly selective. In comparison, SUNY Stony Brook University is ranked 89th.
Park believes school and Korean culture has taught him that life is all about competition.. He considers receiving test scores lower than the majority of the top students is losing. And if you lose you will not be a respected member of Korean society.
Park will attend SUNY Stony Brook, starting this fall, studying for a degree in Business.
Says Park, “I want to see a different part of me opening up and having debates, socializing with others and having different experiences.I want to teach my kid in a different way than the Korean education does. That’s my whole point of going to the U.S”.