Vagaries of summer
Was summer ever here? Or were summers here? Of course, it was, as everyone still remembers the scorching heat in the first two weeks of August and the continuing humidity despite the typhoon.
What I meant to say is that the definition for summer has changed for Koreans. The going formula of summer had been flashes of heat in June, followed by a rather tedious and tepid monsoon season to be wrapped up with grilling heat of August. Global warming, however, has changed that. There is no formula anymore. The two months of July and August have been a kaleidoscope of summers akin to those in Southeast Asia and Korea combined. Did we imagine few decades back that the summer we knew might not be the same?
Such are the vagaries of the climate that prompted me to think about how other vagaries currently in motion will invariably shape a new Korea.
This summer, I saw groups speaking a mixture of Korean and English, going to and fro near the famous SAT-cram hagwon in representative middle-class and upper-middle-class areas of Apgujeong, Seoul, and the satellite cities of Bundang. These are middle and high school students with the means — the “tuition” for these hagwon can add up to $10,000 per student for the intensive two-month programs.
The fee is exorbitant for these schools that all but guarantee a rise in SAT scores. Albeit, it’s a small and privileged group whose families can afford to send their children to schools in the United States. If they are successful, they will graduate from a four-year college, land a decent job and most importantly aspire to a certain quality of life.
The image of these kids overlaps with the secondary school students who attend local schools. For some reason, they all look alike — in school uniform, with black-rimmed glasses, walking with air of edginess and irritation. Why not? Their load at both school and after-school hagwon is enormous, especially as the promise of the future isn’t all that rosy for Korea Inc.
The rumor mill of Korean parents is that unless your child gets into a special high school with emphasis on foreign language or otherwise, the chances of the child entering a prestigious four-year college in Korea are low. The job prospects for college graduates are dismal at the moment, and worsen if there are other competitors with higher-flying degrees and certificates.
Teenage angst is a universal thing and add to it the Korean combination of a work overload, parental and peer pressure and an obscure future, it will invariably double if not triple. Thus, it’s not surprising that there are increasing bullying incidents that can mentally harm and even kill these schoolchildren.
Admittedly, these may be two extremes of student groups in the nation. There are bound to be well-adjusted, happy academic achievers who are learning to deal with pressure under the guidance of teachers and parents.
Compared to some tiger moms in fast-growing China as recently televised on a local television program, the pressure on Korean students may not be that harsh. But, all in all, these students will grow up to, in their respective ways, shape the next Korea.
How they grew up, where they grew up and what they grew up with will stay with them, so it might be useful to imagine what these teenagers might be like as leaders as we live side by side with them. And the parents who invest or pour everything into providing for their children in this super-competitive era without a bona-fide social safety net, where will they be in a few decades?
And how about the group that largely lives away or aside from these pressures?
Small and once-poor, Korea is destined to be a competitive society but the dynamics of the competition have surely changed. It’s tougher and cruder. The stakes are fewer and higher. The vagaries of summer, I hope, will be replaced by the calm of fall, a good season to ruminate on things at large. But as biggest vagary of the year — the Dec. 19 presidential election — looms on our calendar, why not put some strategic ruminations on your radar.