Learning to live abroadIn the popular imagination, they were usually despised -- yuhaksaeng, or young Koreans who were sent abroad by parents to study.
The yuhaksaeng were seen (or imagined) strolling around the glossy boutiques of Rodeo Street in Apgujeong-dong, wearing outsized Versace sunglasses and carrying a cluster of white shopping bags, soon disappearing into posh cafes. When their Mercedes pulled up in front of a nightclub, waiters escorted them directly into a private room, where they would immediately order a bottle of 100-year-old whiskey.
This negativity, perhaps surprising in a country where education is supposed to be everything, came from the social class conventions the yuhaksaeng spurned.
To many, yuhaksaeng meant privilege, abuse of power and conspicuous consumption. Some yuhaksaeng were the children of parents looking for ways to rescue their sons from the military service. Others were high school students who wanted an easy way out of Korea's dreadful college exam preparation system. Regardless, going abroad often meant escape.
Nowadays, however, that hostile attitude has cooled. Many Koreans don't seem to care anymore about what others do with their money. The dramatic increase in college students flying overseas to learn English has also helped to diminish feelings about yuhaksaeng. Whereas going abroad once was an option only for the wealthy, Korea's rising economic clout has broadened that opportunity. But most important, the yuhaksaeng themselves are different -- they actually study.
Meet a couple of those students who have come home for the summer. They don't represent the typical yuhaksaeng culture in Korea, but they suggest possible alternatives.
She is leaning comfortably against a black couch in a quiet espresso bar in Apgujeong-dong, sipping a dark cappuccino. It's an unusually relaxing summer afternoon for Lee Seung-eun, 19, who had spent her past summer vacations at home in Mok-dong preparing for her SAT exams, uneasy about what was going to happen with her academic future.
But she's free of all of those concerns this summer. Her hard work, cramming and stress have paid off -- she was recently admitted to Cornell University, where she'll study engineering.
"My mother washed my red T-shirt and forgot to put it in the dryer this morning," she grouses about a soccer match in the evening. Clad in a pair of baggy jeans, a long striped shirt and Doc Martens, there is a genuine sense of persistence in the way she speaks. For example, when asked why she chose Cornell, she replies rather adamantly, "I just wanted to study engineering. That's all."
Seung-eun left home and her family when she was 15 to attend classes in Troy, New York, a three-hour drive north from New York City. Her ambition was to study in a traditional American boarding school that offered the best, most intense college preparation, which would help her be admitted to an Ivy League school. She chose Troy's Emma Willard School, a prestigious private institution for girls that consists mostly of upper-middle-class white students from around the United States.
"I expected the parties and dresses you see in 'Beverly Hills 90210' before I went," Seung-eun says while chatting with her old pal Lee Kyung-eun, a year ahead of her at Emma Willard, now a freshman at Cornell.
Instead of the Beverly Hills good times, she discovered 10 o'clock curfews, loads of homework and ghastly housemasters.
"At one point, I had wished the school fixed the bedtime for students so that other kids wouldn't study so hard all night," says Kyung-eun, a liberal arts major who says she was sometimes tempted to buy pills that would help keep her awake when studying for finals.
Having spent her early school years in Mokdong, a middle-class neighborhood in western Seoul, Seung-eun has seen many children who wanted to study abroad like her but couldn't afford it. She realizes how privileged she is that her parents agreed to support her education. A year's tuition is $25,000.
Kyung-eun, who says three keywords help describe herself -- embracing" "colorful" and "lucid" -- left home the year she turned 15.
"Korean students who are not determined enough usually have a difficult time getting through the school year," Kyung-eun says. "There are just too many temptations out there."
For Seung-eun, leaving home did not come easy. "It's not good to be apart from family at such a young age," her father said.
"It took me a week to convince my mother and six months to persuade my father," Seung-eun says of leaving home. "And when he finally said yes, we signed an agreement that I would catch a flight home immediately if my grades dropped." But even if her father hadn't agreed, Seung-eun says she would have waited until she graduated from college and studied abroad at her own expense.
Like many Korean students who are apart from their families, the two Lees are also guilty of spending astronomical amounts of money on phone bills in the beginning of their school years. For yuhaksaeng mothers, there are two prerequisites before sending their children overseas. One, get Internet access and learn how to send e-mails -- it saves an awful lot of long distance calls. Two, take English classes -- that way you will know when your daughter forges your name on a report card.
But after some five years away, the two are satisfied where they are now, especially when they meet old friends who are now university students in Korea. "Our lives had gone so differently within the past few years that we are busy hearing each other talk whenever we meet," says Seung-eun.
Kyung-eun says, "I've grown so much since I lived on my own, something I would have not earned if I stayed here."
Choate Rosemary Hall
Summer vacations are always great opportunities for high school students to improve their academic performances. Mostly pushed by their parents, they go to hagwons or get private tutors to help them improve SAT scores and weaker subjects. Being a high school student, I have not been able to escape those very same miseries.
Last summer I arrived at Incheon International Airport with grand plans for my vacation. I was to attend an intense SAT preparatory hagwon for a month. Believe me, I was determined to endure the grueling schedule of the hagwon at all costs. However, my patience turned out to be much weaker than I thought. I simply could not stand sitting in a stuffy classroom from 1 to 7 p.m., taking an entire SAT exam every day and scrupulously going over every problem. The entire process seemed too inefficient to bear. So I quit after two weeks and decided that I would study at home on my own.
Right. I spent the rest of my vacation achieving absolutely nothing. It really is pathetic that I could not stay two more weeks in the hagwon, especially considering that my SAT score improved 70 points over the first two weeks that I attended the program. So to sum things up, I did not have a very productive summer vacation last year.
I have similar plans for this summer. I am going to attempt to do some SAT preparation with a couple of my friends by forming a small study group. We will set a reasonable goal for each day, like memorizing 100 vocabulary words. I am also being tutored for math because I had some trouble with my calculus course last term.
This summer is my last chance to do some intense studying before I start writing my college applications, and thus I do not really have a choice other than to spend most of my vacation studying.
Heesun Lho (center)
Unlike previous summers when I attended summer-school programs in the United States, I decided last year to spend my next summer vacation in Korea. Being quite satisfied with my academics as well as extracurricular activities in school, I thought that my time would be better spent at home with family and friends, where I could improve on some of my weaknesses while also pursuing several activities that I had always wanted to do.
Among the most memorable experiences was spending precious time with my mom and the world of modern art. Last summer I had a marvelous opportunity to accompany my mom to one of the biggest art festivals in the world, the Venice Biennale.
I've had an interest in art ever since I was a little girl and I still love to draw. It turned out that not only did I get to visit the Venice Biennale, but I also explored numerous museums in southern France and Switzerland.
Just as important, I was able to spend quality time with my mom whom I hadn't seen in two months.
This summer is already shaping up to be quite eventful. As a part-time job, I'll be learning and keeping myself busy through an internship at the JoongAng Ilbo English Edition in Seoul.
I also hope to play tennis more regularly. This past year, I worked hard to earn a spot on my school's junior varsity team. I know that if I work at it, a spot on the varsity team is within my reach. All students at my grade level are keenly aware of the upcoming pressures of junior year. And so I've decided to study at a private institute several times a week.
The rest of my time will be spent with my family and friends and cheering madly for Korea's soccer team.
Finally, I will again be accompanying my mom to Venice, this time for a major architecture festival in August. The next two months of my summer break promise to be challenging and fulfilling, and that is more than I could ask for.
Seoul Foreign School
So here I am, finals done, good-byes said and yearbook signed. I should be packing, ready to unwind at some beach with sun, waves, women and good times. Instead, I want to pull out my sax and play me some blues. For some reason, it just doesn't feel like summer break. Maybe it's because I'm still being subjected to an endless cycle of tutors. Maybe it's because my friends are all going to the States. Maybe it's the fact that the best movies out right now are "Scooby Doo" and "Resident Evil." Whatever it is, I'm experiencing a severe bout of the summertime blahs.
You don't see many kids of other ethnicities at Prepmaster, or worrying about getting into 'Hah-bah-dooh' (Harvard). O.K, so maybe Asians are typically overcompetitive super-achievers and all these academic boot camps will eventually help us reap the good harvest. My question is, Whatever happened to living for the moment? What are we doing rooting our posteriors to chairs and practically grafting pencils into our hands on beautiful summer days?
I've been walking around Jongno and Sinchon recently. The first observation I made was, 'How sad.' During the past year, these places have changed so much, I don't even know where I'm going. Summer vacation is for alleviating academic woes and pressures. Instead, we are forced to look toward the foreboding prospect of SATs, SAT II's and college applications.
I envy former seniors. They are home free, running rampant in the streets obscenely late into each night celebrating their new 'adulthood' and casting away any remaining traces of youth. Juniors are in scholastic purgatory, the diligent already climbing toward a paradise of senior privileges and college acceptances, while the slackers remain mired under increasing piles of work. The class of '04, meanwhile, peers over the edge into the abyss of the notorious junior year that we must fling ourselves into for a year of judgment. Oh, to be an insouciant freshman.
As I look at my life prefabricating itself before me through mandatory community service, academic advancement and who-knows-what-else, I can't help but feel a little frustration. Or as adults like to call it, immaturity. It's not that I'm ungrateful or that I don't care about my future. I'm just wondering where my freedom went. Now that I'm done venting, I think I'll go to the COEX and catch a bad movie, or to City Hall to scream 'Dae-Han-Min-Guk' and compensate for my already lost days of summer break.
by Park Soo-mee