Thursday, September 9, 2010

The Down Side to a Super Collective, Super Hard-Working Society

One of South Korea's leading english-language newspapers released some saddening stats about the rising suiced rates in South Korea. Though the ROK does have high suicide rates, it's an issue not really talked much about. Atleast not with foreigners who ask about it. There are a lot of good things to be said about South Korea. A LOT. But having a tonne of people in a very small country combined with a very VERY competitive culture where everything is about not losing face and you get more than a few folks cracking under the pressure.
During my first year here, the former President of Korea,Roh Moo-Hyun , threw himself off a cliff amongst accusations of bribery and financial scandal which had allegedly occured within his administration (Roh was succeeded by Lee Myun-Bak in 2008). It hit the country imensely hard. School classes were cancelled, jumbo tv screens were set up in public spaces so the public could watch the funeral and mourn. In Jeollnamdo at least, he was a well loved President and I saw more than a few of my co-workers cry about it. But nobody talked about suicide. Nobody questioned why he did it. Or if it could have somehow been avoided. The media and "Netizens" were ruthless during the time of the scandal (all allegations). The shame brought on him and his family by the scandal, whether it was true or not, left him only one option. I couldn't help but be stunned. How differently our western culture deals with shame and scandal. Most enjoy all the media attention and celebrity they receive, some even profit from it.
I see this pressure all the time in my school. Although most of my students consisently recieve straight A's, it is nothing to be proud of because everyone is getting straight A's. I have seen girls crying after receiving their grades on exams, not because they got a bad mark but because it wouldn't be good enough to get them into one of the top three Universities in South Korea (ie a 96 instead of 99). It's an enormous weight for teenagers to bear, all the expectation and honour of their family resting on them getting into the right schools. And these kids don't know that there's life after University, or even high school. They've been going to school for 12 hours a days since they were 6. All that matters is that you are the best. Unfortunately, there's only room for one on that podium and there's 55 million people here.

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