School, tutor, hagwon: Fun- and sleep-deprived in Korea

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School, tutor, hagwon: Fun- and sleep-deprived in Korea

He’s dozing off again. After a hard day at school, he’s supposed to be spending the next three hours speaking exclusively in English, hopefully picking up on some of the nuances of the spoken word. But no matter how much I try to perk him up, I realize that it’s a fruitless endeavor. The kid is just too tired.
Growing up in the States with Korean parents, it seemed like all I ever heard from my father was, “You don’t know how good you have it.”
I would roll my eyes and say, “But Dad, I’m only 10. Don’t worry about it.” My lackadaisical attitude only made him angrier.
“In Korea, kids your age study so much they only sleep six hours a day! I know, that’s what I did.”
We had similar conversations on an almost weekly basis, because no matter how long I studied, it was never as much as those kids in Korea. At one point I calculated that if my dad’s numbers were correct, the average high school senior in Korea studied 25 hours a day.
As I watched my student nodding off, it seemed to me that the Korean obsession with studying to the point of exhaustion might be counter-productive. His sleep-deprived brain seemed to retain less and less as the minutes ticked by. Koreans, in love with overdoing things, were slowly sucking the life out of their children with their excessive educational system. Feeling sorry for the kid, I told him to take five. He immediately fell asleep.
In America, there is no hagwon. Kids here spend their days in school, nights at a hagwon and every minute in between doing work for both. And a lot of them even take a tutor on top of that. No wonder they can’t get any sleep.
I also didn’t get as much sleep as I probably should have growing up, but it was because I was playing sports or doing other extracurricular activities to become more well-rounded. I also wasted a lot of time watching Power Rangers, trying to figure out what exactly getting to “second base” meant, and finding a way to view the scrambled channels on cable.
And during vacation months, for every minute I spent playing sports and doing other fun activities, Korean kids were sitting on their backsides studying their youth away. In the States, vacation means going to the beach in the summer or sledding in the winter; in Korea it means intensive lessons in whatever your weakest subject might be. The kid I taught was actually looking forward to going back to school.
Looking back, maybe my dad was right. Maybe I could have studied more and tried harder to get into a better university. But if I had, I never would have found this out: Getting to second base really isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be.


by Steven Lee

Mr. Lee is a junior at Cornell University and a former intern at the JoongAng Daily.
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