11 Years Old and Barely a Moment to Be a Kid

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11 Years Old and Barely a Moment to Be a Kid

Bony and tall for 11, the girl looks drained - drained but relieved - as the bus prepares for the long trip home from Mok-dong. It is almost 5:30 on a recent summer evening. The girl has just finished her last formal class of the day, one of several classes she takes every day. Still ahead are private tutoring and piano practice at home.

Welcome to Kim Hi-yeon's summer vacation.

"Most of my lessons are OK," Hi-yeon, says sighing. "Except for computer class."

Once in a while, Hi-yeon will become enthusiastic about a subject that interests her, such as her favorite boy band g.o.d or that computer class, which she finds intolerable. But otherwise she is quiet and reserved. On the bus ride home, as other kids jump around excitedly in their seats, Hi-yeon sits still as a stone.

"I had a Chinese writing class in the morning, a two-hour art lesson in the afternoon and an English lesson with a private tutor at home before coming to the English institute," she volunteers in a quiet voice.

The classes are part of Hi-yeon's extracurricular activities during July and August - and this day is the least busy day of her week. Until she has to sit for more piano practice with her mother at 8 o'clock, Hi-yeon only has about an hour of playtime. Thus, she doesn't always get to watch her favorite TV sitcoms, such as "Non Stop" or "Golbaengi," or to even play outside with her friends.

Hi-yeon travels to Mok-dong every Tuesday and Thursday for two hours of English lessons with a native speaking teacher. It takes her 40 minutes to reach the class from her house in Yeongdeungpo by schoolbus, but her parents think that the language institutes in Mok-dong are superior to those in their neighborhood.

By 5:30 p.m., when the bus is ready to depart Mok-dong, the area around the institutes is packed with kids: preschoolers to junior high students. They rush out of the each building wearing backpacks decorated with their favorite Japanese animation characters, from Pocket Monsters to Hello Kitty. Hi-yeon had stormed into the parking lot amid the crowds of children and quickly secured a seat near the back of the bus, before the other kids get on.

Hi-yeon is used to the exhausting schedule. Her mother, Kim Jung-hee, 37, has pushed her daughter into such a schedule since the first grade. Now in fourth grade in Youngdong Elementray School, she is faced with even tighter schedule.

"Hi-yeon is doing fine so far, but you can never be too sure," Mrs. Kim says in the living room of the family's small, three-bedroom apartment. "She has managed to stay within the top three academic ratings in her school."

But you can never be too sure.

And one can't be too sure because Mrs. Kim is dubious about the merits of Korean schools.

"When there are 60 students in the class, the curriculum is inevitably focused on the learning pace of an 'average' student," Mrs. Kim says. "As a parent, I worry that my child has not always absorbed everything she learns in class."

Hi-yeon, who has been silently sitting by and playing a video game in the living room, interrupts to make this announcement: "I want to become a TV news broadcaster when I grow up."

Mrs. Kim smiles at those words and says her daughter recently shifted her ambition from being a TV actress to an anchor-woman after receiving an award in a story-reading contest held in school. In fact, Hi-yeon's bookshelf is cluttered with stories from complete collections of Korean folk tales to translations of classics from the West. "I've encouraged Hi-yeon read her books every day for about half an hour before going to lunch," her mother says.

Even with such encouragement, Hi-yeon, according to her mother, is not even close to the "excellence" demanded by the Korean standard of education.

"Parents in our neighborhood," says Mrs. Kim, "are more relaxed about child-rearing than parents in other areas of Seoul, such as Gangnam." In Gangnam, a wealthy district south of the Han River, fierce competition exists between parents and that translates into enormous pressure for children to do well in school. Typically referred to as "Gangnam Moms," these women, says Mrs. Kim, appear to believe that money can buy their children "better brains."

"I heard that lessons on certain musical instruments become trendy among 'Gangnam Moms' every year," she goes on. "It used to be violin and cello few years back. Now they are going after instruments that are even less accessible to ordinary Koreans with an average income, like clarinets and flutes."

Such an investment in education makes parents with limited incomes like Mrs. Kim, and her husband, Kim Young-chul, who works at a bank, become burdened with enormous guilt for not being able to provide their children with the same opportunities.

"As a parent, if people say these lessons are worthwhile, I want to be able to give that chance to my kids," Mrs. Kim says. Even though she understands that her kid isn't guaranteed to become the next Jo Sumi through expensive private voice lessons from university music professors, Mrs. Kim thinks it won't hurt to give it a try.

And Ms. Kim is not alone in this belief. There are increasing numbers of young parents in Korea who seeks specialists' help to assess their childrens' IQ level and send them off to after-school training centers specializing in education for gifted teens.

Ms. Kim says that her family is thinking about moving to another district, where Hi-yeon and her 5-year-old brother, Seok-yeon, can study in a more academically stimulating environment.

At those words, Hi-yeon looks at her mother and then, passively, looks away.

by Park Soo-mee

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