So I went to Gangnam (Area south of the Han River) to visit my dad’s cousin’s (name is Victor) English hangwon “after school tutoring”.
“Mirrrikal!” (Those who can’t understand what was written, it’s “Miracle” in a Korean accent)
I’ve met Uncle Victor before and knew that he spent a lot of time in his youth fooling around, smoking cigs, and playing pool. He did not attend the SKY Universities and majored in flowers (I don’t know the professional term for that major. Gardening?) After doing his military service as a Special Forces Recon (Whaaaaat?? Did NOT know that), Victor “became a man and had his head on right” (grandma) and decided to study English. But due to the lack of mula, he could not afford to go to a hagwon to learn. Therefore, he taught himself by doing everything he could to learn. Whether it was through newspapers or T.V. (He loves Modern Family btw) he just stuffed his head full of English and was soon learning over 800 words a week. My grandma calls her son’s achievement a “mirrriKAL! mirrrikal-ya!”
“That’s because I got money!”
Let’s be honest, those who live in Gangnam tend to be monetarily better off. More money, more opportunities. I found out that the average well-off kid goes to four or five “activities” after school. These “activities” can consist of English hagwon, math hagwon, science hagwon, swimming, synchronized swimming, violin, and piano. I’m sure there are more. Oh yea, the swimming is NOT for exercise, it’s to refresh your brain so you can learn more. If each one costs roughly $300 a month… you do the math. Every kid I saw had an expensive rolling backpack and a smart phone/Galaxy. The class observed was three third grader girls. There would have been more that day but the next day was Korean Memorial Day so some of the kids went on vacation to Thailand or Guam. Anyways, the three girls, Gyubin, Julia, and Vivian were really cute, outgoing, and adorable. When I shyly asked, they even allowed me to play a card game called “Halli Balli”, which is the equivalent of “Spit” They seemed to be happy about their structured lifestyle despite their age. But when I was teaching them a small section of their class, they asked me what I did when I was in third grade. When I said, “Uuuh, well after school, I just came home and played outside,” Julia said in a longing voice, “ooooh you get to play?” I got responses such as, “I wish I could play outside!” and “I have free time but I read”.
“Childhood is not a game”
I expected groans, laughter, and smiles when I met these three girls. But I was not expecting how advance they were for third grade. At the hagwon, these girls were learning fourth grad material, writing essays on rhetorical questions such as “Should we keep animals as pets”, and had a very advanced level of vocab for their age. Picturesque, really?? It took a lot of effort to not just burst out an Italian House favorite, “Wow! I’m done. I’m so done.” I compensated with jaw dropping. The tutor explained that these kids’ parents were expecting their daughters to attend the SKY schools or Ivy League. It’s a massive long-term investment so mediocre college will not be expected or accepted.
Now as some of you are reading this, you may think how ridiculous all this emphasis on education is while others may think, “What’s the big deal?? I knew and did all this stuff when I was their age.” If you’re the latter, congrats. I guess I haven’t been around such learned children in my early life. However, for the former, it’s important to see the situation of these girls in a Korean perspective. I realized that my reaction to these “rumors” of the rigors of Korean edu was from an American viewpoint. We live in a land that emphasizes on freedom, “anything is possible”, “equal opportunity for all”, and “be all you can be.” Any hing of restriction whether it be a law or recommendation is seen as infringement on our “freedoms”. Despite Korea being a democratic country like the U.S., opportunities are limited, not everything is possible and sometimes, you can’t be all you can be. These barriers become more ominous if one does ont go to a prestigious university. One’s success depends largely on the connections made during college with classmates and alumni. Job opportunities at big corporation such as Samsung are at the mercy of school loyalty. If the corporation is headed by Yonsei graduates, then they will tend to hire recruits who graduated from the same school. Now of course there are exceptions to this scenario I just painted. Just look at Uncle Victor. Yet, how many Uncle Victors do you see in Korean society?? The cruel realities of Korean society produce such an extreme environment, an extreme solution is adopted.
“Gov’t run schools ain’t got nothin’ on hagwon!”
Another problem is the growing reliance on hagwon as the primary source of education. Public schools run by the gov’t are lacking adequate funding, failing to modernize fast enough, and teaching the young generation with an ever-aging teacher population. When I asked the tutor how the kids juggle school work and hagwon homework, she asked them whether school was difficult. Their responses were, “Ohh It’s so easy! English class is boring. We just learn, “Hi! Hello! My name is!” Therefore private education fills the gap that public schools cannot. Yet, the quality of education kids wish to receive is reserved for those with money. There is no gov’t co-pay or subsidy. Korean families are known to spend well beyond their means to send their kids to hagwon.
“Dealing with with people is the name of the game”
As I spoke with Uncle Victor over dinner, I asked him how his hagwon got to be so successful. He explained that it was through hard work but then told the story of how the hagwon first started. I won’t tell you the whole story but the lesson I learned was that the ability to deal with people. Being pleasant, patient, and accepting are all qualities that will help bring success. No matter how smart a person, if he or she cannot persuade people to follow, if he or she drives people away, then failure is bound to occur. It was a $100,000 lesson Uncle Victor learned. Basically about the cost of attending W&M for four years.
Like my good friend Steve Pao says, “Until next time!”