Book of poems reaches out to lost childhoodsKoreans have always been passionate about education. Studying, and the good grades that result from it, is seen as a path to success and upward mobility. This is why Korean students have a reputation for being extremely studious and diligent.
Lee Ji-hwan, 17, attends Daewon Foreign Language High School. By any measure he is a successful Korean student.
Mr. Lee recently published a book, “A Child’s Nature,” in which he translated old Korean children’s songs and poems into English, in addition to writing some new ones himself. As anyone who has tried writing in his non-native tongue will know, it is quite a challenge. His English, however, is well-polished, good enough to write poems that seem impressive even to native speakers.
Mr. Lee’s fluency in English has nothing to do with an education abroad paid for by wealthy parents. He has lived in Korea his entire life.
“You don’t have to go abroad to learn languages. It totally depends on your effort,” says Mr. Lee. Even though he’s never been to an English-speaking country, his American SAT score is close to perfect in all areas.
He devours books like the “Da Vinci Code” in two days without ever reaching for a dictionary. Newspaper articles are easy too, he says.
Mr. Lee is preparing to go to college in the United States, preferably an Ivy League institution. He’s hesitant at first to provide a reason for why he doesn’t want to go to a Korean university, but he eventually admits to wanting to “broaden his views outside of Korea and come back as a bigger person.”
Behind his effort and ambition is his mother, who drew his attention to learning without undue stress. She elected not to send him abroad when he was in middle school, concerned that he might return with an “identity problem.” Now, however, his parents support his goal of studying in the United States.
The extent to which he worked to be “really good” at English is hard to believe. He practiced listening even while in the shower. His teachers recognized his English ability in his first year of high school, but he found mastering vocabulary a big challenge. He calls words the “bricks” of a language. “Without vocabulary you can’t do much,” Mr. Lee says, adding that after an intensive effort to memorize words, reading and writing became easy.
Mr. Lee’s motivation to write and translate children’s poems came from working as a volunteer to teach English to children. “Being with kids inspired me to write the book. Most Korean students don't have a childhood because of the intensive academic competition. I hope that my book can carry some dreams they lost,” Mr. Lee says.
What appears almost impossible, however, is not that he wrote the “dreamy” poems, but that he actually found time to do so. Mr. Lee wakes up at 6 a.m. to get to school at 7:25 a.m. After studying until 11:30 a.m., he takes a 40-minute lunch break. Then he spends another five hours studying, and after a one hour break for dinner, he remains in the classroom until 10 p.m. Most nights, he drags himself home at 11 p.m.
Mr. Lee’s situation, if not quite his ambition, parallels that of many Korean students. Here is one of his poems:
So long as the sun smiles at me radiantly, today is another new day, another fine day.
So long as the sun pats my back encouragingly, today is again free from worries, full of courage.
So long as the sun promises me a laurel earnestly, the sweat of my endeavors shall win me the prize.
by Choi Sun-young