[Viewpoint] Our obsession to become the ‘best’

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[Viewpoint] Our obsession to become the ‘best’

It happened in my first year in middle school. I had just returned to Korea after completing elementary school in Brazil and Japan. I had lived abroad as an expat family because of my father’s work. Four days after I began my school life in Korea, there was a midterm examination at school. I received 10 to 30 points in all subjects except for English. My ranking in the class was 48th among 69 students. Whenever I moved to another country and started at a new school, I always struggled initially before getting accustomed to the new environment. So I was neither disappointed nor frustrated.

The shocking event happened the next day. The school divided each class into two groups based on the exam. Those with good scores and the those with lower marks were given separate English and math classes. At 48th in the class, I was, of course, in the lower group.

After a while, I began to notice a trend that I could not tolerate. Most teachers favored students with good grades. To me, it was unfair favoritism. Some students with bad grades received corporal punishment. They might not have gotten good grades, but some were great artists, athletes and singers. “Why do the teachers only favor those who are academically advanced?” I wondered.

So I told one of the teachers that it was hard enough to be academically behind, and being neglected by the teachers hurt my feelings. He smiled and said, “Then, you should study harder and get better grades.”

Thirty years have passed, but Korean society has not changed much. In school and at work, we all dash to become the best. From the moment we are born, it is our fate to engage in an infinite competition. I do not intend to deny the fact that Korea’s education hype has made it one of the top 10 economies in the world. Nevertheless, it is certainly not okay to tolerate excessive competition.

Japan has now been plagued by a low fertility rate and an aging population for a while, and the country is experiencing slumps in politics, the economy and social sectors. To Japan, Korea is enviably full of energy and vitality. Korean companies are thriving in various industries, and Korea boasts college entrance rates as high as countries in Europe and the United States, as 83 percent of students go on to higher education. Korean athletes and pop stars are enjoying international success. Many Japanese say that Koreans have accomplished success at a different level.

But Korea does not have a positive reputation in every field. Not so long ago, a television quiz program in Japan tested contestants on countries around the world. “Which country is the largest exporter of rice?” Thailand. “Which country has the highest infant mortality rate?” Afghanistan.

But then there was, “Which of the OECD member countries has highest suicide rate?” And, “In which country is the most number of plastic surgeries performed?” I was somewhat bitter to see the contestants struggling with the first two questions but not hesitating at all with the latter two queries: “Korea.”

About a month ago, The New York Times said that Korean society was “on the verge of a national nervous breakdown.” The World Health Organization and the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development have found that the happiness quotient of Korean children and young adults was the lowest among OECD members.

The obsession to become the “best” haunts us all and pushes some of the more vulnerable minds to suicide. Constant anxiety and stress are the byproducts of fierce competition.

In society, whoever places first gets the most attention. But it does not mean that those who place between second and last have to be miserable. In a competitive structure in which only the person placing first gets to survive, no one, including the first place winner himself, can become truly happy.


*The writer is the Tokyo correspondent for the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Park So-young
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