Friday, July 19, 2013

When Vacation Isn't Vacation

I've said it before and I'll say it again: Asian kids have the suckiest childhoods. Of course, this is just a generalized statement, not every kid I teach has a terrible upbringing centered around studying, but a very high percentage of them does.

Yesterday (Friday) marked the beginning of my elementary school's summer "vacation". I put vacation in quotation marks because in all reality, it's not a vacation in any sense of the word. Out of every 10 of my kids, maybe 1 or 2 have told me they are excited for break; the rest are dreading it.

You see, here in Korea (Japan also), summer vacation simply means that they don't have their regular 8:00-3:00 school classes. During the regular school year they all attend after school "academies" (hence my job). You have the basics: Math, Violin, Piano, Science, then venture farther down the line of absurdity and you run into Chinese Calligraphy Academy and a few of my kids even attend Jump Rope Academy. All children (and I say all with 99.9% confidence) attend at least one of these after they are finished with school in the afternoon. The older the kid, the more they attend. Two of my oldest students, who, in my opinion, have Nazi parents, have TEN of these to attend...after which they still have mountains of school homework to do. One of them, let's call him J-Student, told me he has about 10 minutes of free time a day. Ten minutes. (This kid is 13 years old, by the way.) No wonder Korean children get an average of five hours of sleep a night.

During the month that regular school is not in session, these academies are still up and running, so the kids still have hours and hours of studying/tutoring/violin playing to do. Not only that, but the month that school is out, countless "summer programs" pop up to ensure that there is no downtime during the day. Usually my students will have more academies to attend during summer break than during the school year...on top of the "summer vacation homework" they are assigned from regular school. The previously mentioned J-Student told me that during break he leaves his house at 10am and gets done with all his academies and heads home at 11pm. I wish I were joking.

Starting Monday my hours shift from 1-6:30 to 9-2:30. Since school isn't in session the kids can come earlier and get their dose of English. I also can't use the English Room next week because they are hosting "English Camp". I don't know about you, but unless it's Fat Camp, "camp" usually indicates fun. But here, it is just a more concentrated version of what they usually get in English classes during the rest of the year.

Last week in one of the classes I hate, I started talking about vacation and they all groaned and whatnot so I went on to tell them that in the US and Canada there is no Academy. (Yes, of course there are opportunities to stick your kid in anything from piano to math tutoring but he or she isn't in some kind of educational jeopardy if they don't attend them like here.) They then asked what kids do on summer break. Because I really hate this class, I gave them a big smile and said, "nothing". After the audible gasps, I continued on and said, "Yeah, summer break for kids: Wake up, play, eat lunch, go swimming, play, eat dinner, play, go to sleep." And although it's a terrible class, I still feel bad for the dismal summer break they are all about to endure, but the looks on their faces was priceless.

I've talked to fellow teachers about this before, but we're all really curious about what the next generation of Koreans and academies will be like. I've been told that the intense you-must-attend-34-academies-or-you-will-fall-behind structure has only been an integral part of their lives the last 20 or 25 years and recently has it gotten all-consuming in the way that it is. Are the students I have now going to take a stand knowing how hard they studied and not do that to their children? (Some of the Korean friends I have say they are in no way putting their kids through what they went through...we'll see.) Or will they grow up being huge hypocrites making their 9 year old kids study all hours of the night even know they know how miserable they are? But I've also seen first hand what happens if you don't put your kids in them...and that's just English. A new kid started with us last week who is in, I think, the 5th grade. He can't read. He barely knows his letters. But since they can't put him in a class with Kindergartners, they put him in the lowest level they can that has kids similar to his age. He's now in a class than can read perfectly well using their learned phonics and who can string basic sentences together and can answer non yes/no questions...all while he can't sound out words at all. All this is because of the system in place here: your kid doesn't go, your kid falls behind everyone else. Too bad. As a parent, you basically have no choice. (Except in the case of J-Student and others like him whose parents are just horrible.) And don't even get me started on the cost. Parents spend thousands of dollars a month to send their kids to these things whether they can afford to or not.

And don't think that all this studying guarantees any sort of good job. Usually, it's all for nothing. Because here in Korea there is such mass competition for the high paying jobs, very few actually get them. Back home, if you study your face off and have a lot of extracurriculars, you have a chance of getting into a good university. If you want to be a doctor or lawyer you will also study your face off in univeristy and continuing education. If you know you want that fabulous job, you study, study, study to attain it. But here, they study, study, study because they have to...despite the kind of job they want or will get as an adult. Basically, that guy who just made my Big Mac studied until his eyes were about to fall out of his head while in middle and high school and now, well, he's making Big Macs. I always feel bad for those I see working low end jobs here. I'm sure some are just like at home, the slackers who didn't do anything, who didn't go to college, or who really just can't find a better job that suits their degree, I know, I get that. But I also know that a lot of them did study just as much as the successful guy who owns his own business next door...but they're flipping burgers because of the agonizing competition here. I hate that for them, but all I can do is contribute my part in teaching them some English before I head back to the homeland in eight short months.

Even though the kids are miserable during break, I love going in at 9. Getting off at 2:30 means I have the whole day to do whatever I please...and usually that means going to the beach. Next week school, the next week...INDIA! (this is all ironic considering what I just wrote. Poor kids.)

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