BY HAJIN KIM
South Korea is a mystery to most of the world. You may think you have some idea of what it’s like, but it’s very difficult to know unless you’ve lived there. One thing you need to know is that South Korea is a very new country. The Republic of Korea (as well as The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) is only 75 years old. It has only been a first world country for about 25 years. South Korea has always been heavily affected by the West, especially the U.S., since the Korean War. To a lot of Koreans, America is “the shining city on a hill” that Korea should aspire to be. The fast development of South Korea’s economy has resulted in a politically and culturally conservative environment. The influence of the West has led to the idolization of the West. Basically, many–maybe even most–South Koreans believe that Korea is good, America and the West is better, and anywhere else is inferior.
The thing that I noticed most during my move from the U.S. to South Korea and during my now 7 years of living in South Korea was definitely the academic pressure. South Korea has a worldwide reputation for being centered around academics. As a child, everything you do seems to be related to your future. Whether it’s the after school English club you signed up for, or the volunteer work you do at the local library, it always has relevance to your academic achievements. So what does all of this lead to? What is the life goal of a Korean? Good question. Of course the answer will vary depending on who you ask, but generally it’ll go something like this: Making lots of money.
Let’s start from the beginning. As a toddler, there’s a chance you went to an English preschool. As I said earlier, South Korea is heavily influenced by the U.S. and English is seen as an element crucial to success. Parents will try to give their children any edge they can. Of course, since English preschools teach their students only in English and only use English, this usually causes dissonance which can lead to problems in language development. If you’re lucky, you gained some English skills that put you a cut above your peers.
When you start elementary school, you’ll start going to academies. What are academies? Academies are basically tutoring schools. You’ll go to academies during weekends and after school to study school curriculum a few years in advance. You’ll learn alongside 3~15 other students. If you’re lucky, maybe you’ll attend a piano or Taekwondo (Korean martial arts) academy. If you’re not, maybe you’ll attend English academy on Mon, Wed, Fri and Math on Tue, Thur, Sat. Depending on how religious your family is, you might go to a Korean academy on Sunday. Or, maybe you’ll go to church.
At middle school, you’ll start your stressful journey into the world of standardized tests. Of course, you were taking tests back in elementary, but they didn’t have any real stakes. Now, in middle school, your performance on the 12 tests you have during the three years of middle school will determine your high school (South Korea has 6 years of elementary and 3 years each of middle and high school). If you want to go to an ordinary public high school, your scores don’t matter. But anywhere else, such as the private foreign language high school I’m attending, has certain requirements for certain areas. My school (Gwacheon Foreign Language High School) is less competitive to get into. We only look at English and Korean scores from the 9th grade as well as your resumé and interview. Other more popular private schools look at a wider range of subjects, along with how much volunteer work you did during middle school, how many prizes you received from competitions, how many times you were class president, etc.
Needless to say, this process doesn’t help in properly developing a person for society. It prepares them for endless competition. Of course, South Korea is still a functioning society, but the people living in it have lives that are infinitely harder than need be. So you can imagine my struggle, living in a privileged neighborhood in the U.S. and then suddenly being thrust into an environment where everyone lives as if “kill or be killed” is the only rule. I found myself having to toughen up, grow thicker skin and, when I needed to, fight.
Those are my academic struggles. What about my identity? Well, I am an American citizen. I speak fluent English and have an American passport. This in itself is already a huge privilege that benefits me in countless ways. I can move between America and South Korea freely, I don’t have to study much for English tests, I am exempt from military service (South Korea has mandatory military service for all males when they reach 18, and I am exempt if I choose to give up my South Korean citizenship). So, I have always been surrounded by those who see me with great jealousy. There have always been those who look at me with contempt. And the reason for this goes deeper than my basic privileges.
My parents are Korean. They look “traditionally Asian.” As a result, I do too. The fact that I am Asian always became the subject of racism or prejudice. In the U.S., I remember always being asked, “Where are you from?” as if I didn’t belong. I’m sure all Asian Americans can relate. The fact that I looked Asian always implied to other people that I wasn’t American. At the time, I didn’t care much. Now, it feels a bit more insulting. So then, what is the environment in Korea? Honestly, it’s pretty much the same. Since I look Asian, no one in Korea ever suspects I’m American. Add that to the fact that I lack any foreign accent when I speak Korean, some people don’t believe me when I tell them I’m Korean-American. To them, an American is White or Black. An Asian can’t be American. So when people look at me, they see a Korean who speaks good English, as opposed to what I see: an American who speaks good Korean. To me, my good English is natural. It is not a privilege. To them, it is the ultimate privilege.
South Korea is a mostly homogenous society. What I mean is that everyone looks fairly similar (I can say that because I’m Asian). All jokes aside, Korea is ethnically homogeneous. As a result, Koreans have little to no contact with non-Koreans. They have very little contact with people who look different from them. This, in turn, results in racism. Korea is very racist. Of course, it’s a different brand of racism compared to the U.S, but it is racism nonetheless. I have managed to escape it, mostly, by looking Asian, but occasionally I am in the presence of woefully racist comments or jokes. Essentially, Korea is a country that has very strong Korean-supremacist biases and is extremely ignorant of other cultures, ethnic groups, etc. So what is it like? Being a Korean-American? Basically, you want to be treated as an American, but you won’t be, because in their eyes, you don’t look the part.
My living in South Korea can essentially be boiled down to being thrust into a system of competition I never asked for, and being treated as a Korean when I don’t want to be. Of course, you should know that my story is just that, a story. A single anecdote of a (rather privileged) person. Depending on when, where and how you live in Korea, your experience could be completely different from mine.