by Eileen C. Feikens, Director of College Guidance at Dwight-Englewood School, New Jersey (funded by Korean Parents Group at Dwight-Englewood School)
My journey with Sejong through Korea was equally enchanting and enlightening. My attraction to this opportunity was to gain a better understanding of Korean culture and society to see how both shape the goals of my Korean and Korean American students and families. Experiencing multiple facets of Korean life, I learned a great deal about the Korean mindset and attitude towards education and how important it is in the fabric of my students' lives and their relationships with their parents.
Visiting three different educational institutions, elementary, high school and university level, enabled me to witness firsthand the high level of discipline and dedication placed on their academics by Koreans. At each school, the students were incredibly focused and eager to learn. Their demeanor was one of utter respect towards their teachers and peers. This was especially evident during our visit to the high school English class, where the girls enthusiastically engaged us in conversation and showed genuine admiration for their teacher. Their curiosity was tempered only by their humility and politeness.
I was also struck by the length of time students spent on their studies, and the efforts their parents made to support them by being very involved in the school community through various volunteer groups. This emphasis on parental support was also clearly seen during my family stay. As my host sister is entering her senior year at University of Rochester and studying for the GRE's, she was highly disciplined in her approach to her daily preparation and study. Her willingness to dedicate long hours of independent study every day was daunting. Everything revolved around her study schedule. It was obvious that her performance on the GRE's was of great importance both to her and her parents and was the central focus of the family routine.
While I have often been impressed by the dedication and self discipline of my Korean students, I wondered what motivates them to be so driven. Through multiple conversations and observations and into the various facets of Korean culture, including its historical societal roots, economy, industry and spirituality I have gained a better insight as to the reasons why this emphasis on education is so pronounced.
The prevailing themes of filial respect, emphasis on the group over the individual and the observance of strict social norms are visible in all aspects of Korean culture. As a nation that is so densely populated, it was amazing to see how Koreans interact with such a high level of respect towards each other and their environment. Because space is at such a premium, it seems everything is smaller, more intentional and highly efficient. While traffic jams are the norm in Seoul, I never witnessed the aggressive driving one often sees in NY! Similarly, though the malls and streets were thronged with people, everyone was polite, seeming to be instinctually aware that in order to get along together, they must respect each other's space. In fact the only jostling I saw was among the many tourists! This respect for others has deep roots in the history of Korea's society, which is marked by its highly stratified order. Respect for one's parents transfers to one's teacher and boss and elders in general, loyalty to one's family transfers to loyalty to one's school or company. The manner to show such respect and loyalty is by being an obedient child, a high achieving student or productive employee so as to advance the success or standing of the group. This emphasis on group over individual is even seen in the communal/family style of eating. Whether it is Korean BBQ or shabu shabu, many meals are served around a communal grill or central dish, with each person taking their "share': Coming from the US, where the emphasis is usually on each person's supersized meal, I found the Korean style of eating to be more social and interactive, demanding a higher level of awareness of and courtesy towards one's dining companions.
The temple stay portion of my trip to Korea was perhaps the most impactful as it was through the discipline of the monks that I witnessed the epitome of selfless devotion. Just sitting in a lotus position on a hard floor was a challenge for me, not to mention the hours of chanting and meditation! To dedicate one's life to such pursuits is emblematic of the Korean ability to sacrifice one's personal comfort for the attainment of a higher understanding.
My participation in the day of cultural education also left a deep impression on me. Witnessing the coming of age ceremony, the wedding ceremony, traditional Korean dance and the preparation of tea and rice cakes illustrated the importance placed on detail and precision. The highly stylized movements and gestures are a language in themselves, and stand as testimony for the appreciation Koreans have for their tradition and history.
The historic and cultural reverence towards scholarly pursuits is even seen in the emblematic Harubang figure of Jeju Island. This symbolic grandfatherly figure is everywhere on the island, from chocolate bars to massive 30 foot stone sculptures and was historically used to identify the occupants of homes in ancient Korea. How the Harubang is depicted, with emphasis on the placement of his hands on the front of the torso indicated the profession of the occupant; if the left hand is higher, it signified that the head of the household was a military figure, as a soldier holds his shield with his left hand. The placement of the right hand higher signified that the home was that of a scholar, as the right hand was the hand used to write. Hence, the theme of the importance of scholarly pursuits is traced back through generations as a mainstay of Korean culture. Typically, peasants or farmers were unable to gain access to education, while the higher classes had the time and resources to engage in learning. Culturally, education equaled success and wealth.
Observing the accepted mode of societal behavior in Korea was a lesson in itself! The practice of bowing to one's "superiors", is alien to most Americans, but behind its quaint colloquial charm lays the core of Korean emphasis on respect. It was amazing to see how quickly the Sejong students, whether Korean American or just American adapted to this social rite. I, too, became acutely aware of how I must appear as being an "other" and was intentionally observant of my social interactions. Words like "demure", "reserve&' and "polite" came to mind almost incessantly. I was self-conscious of how I carried myself, the volume in which I spoke and the manner in which I did so. My self-consciousness made me reflect on how challenging it must be for my students who travel from Korea to live in the US to attend Dwight-Englewood. It is no wonder to me now that their parents send them "away': As a parent, I had often mused about that and how painful it must be for both the student and their parents to be apart from each other. Now that I have seen how education is revered in Korea and how parents will sacrifice themselves for the best educational opportunities for their children it gives me an even greater appreciation for the complexity of my students' situation. The emphasis on status in Korea: the right neighborhood, the right car, the right labels and the right job all point to education as the key for their attainment. If sending their child to the US for an education means that their child will have a better chance to succeed in Korean society, parents are more than willing to sacrifice their own comfort or happiness. It is no wonder then that given this context, and the overriding theme of filial devotion and respect, that my students from Korea have such a strong drive to succeed academically. So much is riding on their shoulders to do so. The focus on status is concerning in that I worry that students may start to judge their self worth by the perceived status of the college they are admitted to. Since the Korean university admission system is mainly determined by scores on the national admission exams, they tend to focus more on their SAT preparation than on extracurricular pursuits that will more deeply involve them in our school community.
So, how can I help them to achieve their goal? How can I best support them? I think the first step is to acknowledge their story and to let them know that I understand where they are coming from. It is equally important to guide them as they navigate the differences between their native culture and that of the US. As these two cultures often clash, i.e., the importance placed on individual expression vs. duty to one's family, their adherence to their traditional Korean values will certainly be tested. While the name of the college that they are admitted to will be paramount to both them and their families, and will be looked at as a measure of their achievement, their ultimate success will lie in their ability to take the skills that they hone here in the US back home and integrate them within their native culture. As their advisor, I now more keenly understand the underlying elements that frame their reason for studying abroad and I hope that my experience in Korea will empower me to connect with them more personally and productively.