Featured image: Gangnam Daesung, one of the most “prestigious” hagwons in South Korea.
Korea is the land of hagwons and private tutoring. If you want to learn something, or more specifically, if you want to pass some exam, you name it, we have it.
The following few paragraphs are a reconstruction of the “upper-middle class” Korean mom and daughter as they progress through hagwons – much of this from experience I have teaching at hagwons, as well as supplementary stories from my friends as both students and teachers, and to a large extent, by observing my aunt, who is one of those mums.
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It all starts in primary school: Ballet & Piano, then English & Maths.
You want your kid to get a sense of art, so you send her off to piano lessons. Then, you hear about all those moms sending kids to English lessons and Maths lessons. You get anxious, because they teach stuff public schools don’t teach, and you can’t afford to send her to those private, English-language kindergartens, so you at least want to stay tuned to the tutoring, so she won’t fall back at school due to the unfair competition. So you send her to Maths and English maybe three times a week. (I’m not kidding, some of my friends worked at hagwons that are supposed to teach primary kids to “debate” in English) Because heaven forbid your kid gets bad grades and sent off to one of the ‘bad’ Middle Schools.
If you’re one of the richer moms, your kid went to English kindergarten and primary school, and although it costs a few tens of millions of won per year, it will pay off, eventually. You might also hire an English-speaking nanny altogether and have her read English books to your daughter (I’ve once seen a private ad for a tutoring job whose only description was “reading books in English”, but you had to have a “native English accent”. Unbelievably good money.)
Then we get to Middle School: English & Maths, maybe Science.
By this time you’re considering sending her for a year or two to Canada. The Philippines are cheap and they do speak English there, but you’re a little racist at heart and fear they might teach her ‘bad English’, with that ‘funny South Asian accent’. So you send her on a home-stay program somewhere in Canada, and you call her everyday because you never know, those “Western” boys might get to her, and she can’t afford to start having a boyfriend now, not now that she’s gotta start prepping for a good, private high school. If you’re a stay-at-home mom, your husband will rent a flat for the both of you, and all day you’ll be home on the Internet Navering information on how to improve her English, as a result of which you never socialise with the neighbours and your own English hasn’t improved beyond the “This, how much?”. In fact, you might screw up and start hanging out at the Korean church, or K-Town, and then bada-bam, your kid’s made a bunch of Korean friends! You try to understand her, because oh, she’s so far from home and misses her people! But before you know it, your husband’s put at least 50,000,000 KRW (50,000 USD) down the drain so you two could enjoy a long, long vacation in the beautiful nature of Canada.
So you come back, and start sending her to some other hagwons, and actually it’s really funny, because she’d be further down the line if she had stayed here and just took a bunch of prep courses. Anyway, you enrol her in pre-“Foreign language high school” classes, because those are the elite schools. Unless your girl has talent for the natural sciences, then you sign up for one of the “Science high school” prep courses. If you’re REALLY ambitious, you sign up for the “Minsago” courses, but if you wanted to send her to Minsago you’d already have been busy from primary school. And high school has to be private, because that’s where all the smart kids go – you need to get in that league!
Oh, finally, high school: English, Maths, Korean essay-writing plus a couple of online lectures:
Finally, the last stage into university-hood. You make your daughter pick up essay-writing, because now all the universities are demanding that too. This is her schedule by now:
08:00 Classes begin
12:00-13:00 Lunch break
18:00: Classes end
19:00-21:00 Hagwon #1 – Maths M/W/F, English T/Th/S
21:00-23:00 Homework, extra studying at home, online lectures
24:00-01:00 Go to sleep
_Total time spent studying: 12 to 13 hours/day
Of course, as she starts third grade, she’ll be sleeping 5-6 hours because of all the extra tutoring you will get her. She’s going to be splitting her 10-minute breaks between studying and making up for her lack of sleep.
And finally – she’s been admitted to university. Now she’s free from all this tutoring and hagwons! Not really.
Well, your daughter got into a fairly decent university in the Sky League – now what?
Her connection with tutoring is far from over, because now she has a good education on her badge, she can start tutoring for money! A private tutor from the Sky League makes anything between 30,000 to 50,000 an hour, and considering the money you put down on her getting good grades, it’s time she earned some of that money back. So her first year she tutors, drinks, and enjoys university life. Then comes Year 2.
Your daughter went to study something in the humanities? Chances are, she’ll want to study law in graduate school. She went to study something in engineering or natural sciences? Pharma or med school. Or really…it doesn’t really matter what she wants to do. It’s what she has to do to become successful! (Unless you’re one of those sleazy moms who just want to marry her daughter off to a rich man, but you’re not one of them are you? Don’t admit it if you are, because denial corks everything…for a while). Now she has to start attending hagwons again, and enrolling in online lectures. She might want to share the cost of the online course, so she’ll start sharing IDs with classmates or schoolmates.Come on, 200,000 KRW (200 USD) per course times 6 to 7 different courses? That’s pricy…or is it, considering what you’ve put her through so far?
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Studying will make you free (and rich, which really means free) is the religion we think we have to follow.
My grandmother couldn’t finish primary school. Her biggest pride in life is that all her children went to universities in Seoul. Her second biggest pride is that me and my cousin Han went to SKY schools. Her biggest ambition is that somehow Han/I will go to Harvard Law (the words ‘Harvard Law’ evoke in her the same feeling ‘$1 billion lottery’ has to any other person). Her second biggest ambition is that somehow I’ll one day say “Hey grandma, I’m gonna become a medical doctor!” and magically get into Seoul National University’s programme (she refuses to believe that some people don’t want to become doctors).
My mother applied to go to medical school (until recently, med school started at the undergraduate level in Korea) simply because it was my grandma’s ambition/wish.
When I was writing university application forms, my mother said “Do what you want. I don’t mind if you go to a community college, just study what you want to study”. In a way, many parents today are giving their children the freedom they did not have. They want to live the university life they didn’t have (which is creating a bunch of new problems. But I’ll discuss that later).