Breaking tradition during winter breakWhile many Korean college students are spending this winter vacation playing computer games, skiing or going on dates, Song Won-jin has been backpacking in Australia, Park Jong-ho has been working with disadvantaged children and Han Jean has been organizing a field trip for her Koreans and Religion class.
They're among a sizable contingent of Korean college students who take their winter break as seriously as they take their class work.
Unlike U.S. and British college students, who get two to four weeks of vacation and normally spend the time visiting relatives and high-school buddies, Korean college students have nearly three months of vacation. From early December through the end of February, many Korean college students take extracurricular classes, tutor high-school students or find other part-time work.
A handful devote their time to helping the needy. Mr. Park, 19, a Cheonan University student, is working with disabled and disadvantaged kids in the evenings after spending his days as a laborer. He plans to donate his earnings to charity.
"When I'm taking classes, I don't have as much time to work with disabled children as I'd like, so I'm using this vacation to visit disabled children's homes," says Mr. Park, a special education major who has been doing volunteer work with mentally and physically disabled children since high school. (He received an award from President Kim Dae-jung for his commitment.)
Mr. Park spends at least two hours each night with the children after working full days at construction sites. He earns 50,000 won ($43) daily and plans to donate 500,000 won to charity.
"I sometimes have doubts whether I'll be selfless enough to donate all of the money,?ut I really hope that I'll be able to fulfill my goal," he says.
Another student, a labor activist who asked not to be identified, is making cassette tape casings in a factory in Seoul's Guro industrial zone, where many sweatshops are clustered.
"In order to understand the plight of the people I wish to help and defend, I need to experience their way of life, even for a short period of time," says the student, who attends one of the country's most prestigious universities and who used a phony identity to get the job.
"I took this job to experience the life of a factory worker, to learn the beauty of labor," he says. "But to tell you the truth, I can't really feel it. The work is often physically difficult. But the most excruciating thing is to have to mindlessly do the same task over and over again. The workers are forced to become automatons -- they look like robots."
Ewha Womans University student Han Jean has been doing some organizing, though not of a political nature. She planned a field trip with her classmates from a Koreans and Religion class, which ended in December.
Last week, Ms. Han, her professor and 35 students visited the Taehung and Mihwang Buddhist temples in Jeolla province and a school that teaches traditional music, ceramics and kite making in Gwangju.
"Visiting Buddhist temples gives me peace of mind and allows me to learn about profound truths," says Ms. Han, a senior in environmental design. "Buddhism has been so close to the everyday lives of Koreans for so long that when we go to a temple we can experience the usual and the unusual at the same time.
"I'm thinking how to apply what I've learned from history. When I was a junior, I took a class on the design of urban temples. Since then, I've thought about modifying traditional temple designs." Ms. Han's goal is to continue developing the Buddhist way of thinking, and to incorporate it into her designs for modern schools, homes and public buildings.
For some hard-working students, winter break just means more time for study. Ryou Seung-hee, 22, who majors in English literature at Ewha Womans University, is taking a winter course to boost her grade point average and to improve her English skills.
In her Film and English class, students form small research groups and give presentations about the background of the movies they're about to watch. Afterward they discuss the film.
"Students are only allowed to speak in English," she says. "Those who talk in Korean lose points."
Ms. Ryou says that watching films from both literary and critical points of view have given her new perspectives on film. "Now when I watch a movie, I try to understand the details and what the director wants to say," she says.
"For instance, I used to think that 'Bridget Jones's Diary' was just a commercial Hollywood movie. But after taking this class, I've learned that it reflects "Pride and Prejudice." It's very interesting to see that the marriage conventions of the 18th century still remain in modern days."
Jang Jeong-hoon, 20, doesn't get any vacation. The Korea University sophomore is preparing for the gosi, a state-administered bar exam. Passing the judicial test is extremely difficult and requires years of study.
Rather than live at home, he has chosen to move to Sillim-dong in southern Seoul where some of the best hagwon, or cram schools, are located. The hagwon offer test-preparation courses to prospective lawyers. Mr. Jang has also signed up for a slot in a dokseosil, a privately-run study facility whose rooms are crammed with partitioned study desks and chairs.
"Since so many people who are preparing for the exam congregate in the area, it's much easier to obtain information regarding the exam and law, in general," he says. "And, perhaps most importantly, there are many cram schools, so I can save commute time."
Mr. Jang's daily schedule is quite tight. "I have classes from 8 a.m. to noon, eat lunch, and then take afternoon classes from 1:30 to 5:30 p.m. Then, I have dinner and go to a dokseosil to review what I learned that day at the hagwon. It's dead silent in the dokseosil, and people complain if you make even the slightest sound that disturbs others." It's well after midnight when he goes to bed following his long day's work.
Song Won-jin's winter vacation has been a far more pleasant learning experience. The 23-year-old spent a month backpacking in Australia. He traveled from Melbourne to Cairns via Sydney, Byron Bay and Brisbane.
The trip marked the completion of his 26-month military service. He returns to Hanyang University as a chemical engineering major on March 2.
"I traveled alone because I feel more freedom that way," he says. "I did skydiving and surfing in Surfers' Paradise, scuba diving and sailing in Airlie Beach, and rafting and horseback riding in Cairns."
Mr. Song says he decided to make the trip down under to meet backpackers from other nations and to become a more independent person. "I'm the youngest one in my family," he notes. "So every time I've tried something new, my family has intervened. I wanted to be on my own."
Traveling wasn't always easy, he says, because it sometimes involved a clash of cultures. On Fraser Island, Mr. Song paired up with eight backpackers; two from England, four from Sweden and two from Korea.
"It seemed that the other two Koreans had never traveled abroad or interacted with foreigners. They didn't know much about other cultures," Mr. Song says. "Those two guys put their food into one plate and ate it together. It looked kind of disgusting and, as a Korean, I felt ashamed."
Sharing from one bowl between family members and friends is a Korean custom. But it seemed odd to the others. Equally unappealing was the pair's appearance: Their faces were dirty from days on the road.
"After dinner, I sat around with my new foreign friends and we discussed Korea," he says. "After that, we could be much closer. They started to understand Korean culture and to even learn Korean. They became my best friends among all the people I met in Australia. I hope to keep in touch with them."
by Kim Hyun-chul
Interviews for this article were conducted by Park Sung-ha, Hee-won Moon and Chung Soo-min. Additional research was done by Jeon Yu-mi and Jennifer Suh. All are interns at JoongAng Daily during their winter break from various universities.