Friday, December 28, 2012

Hagwons (Academies in English)

 The harbor at Tapdong during a winter storm

Hope everyone had a wonderful Christmas.  Between having Vicky here, skyping with family, great presents and tasty food, I certainly did.  To add to my joy, Friday began a 5 day holiday for me.  My school decided to close for the Friday and Monday before New Year.  I suspect this is mostly to give the director of my school some time off but I'm certainly not complaining.

With that downtime and the start of winter vacation for my students, I began thinking again about just how different the education system is here.  I've mentioned before that the kids here have more school and definitely have to work a lot harder than in the US.  What I haven't done is really explain what I mean.

First some quick background.  In Korea there are two types of schools.  Public schools and private schools, called academies.  Academies teach a huge range of subjects and serve many different functions.  There are academies for all the basic school subjects plus sports, music, art and others.  Anything a kid might need to learn is taught in at least some academies here.  They also function as an unofficial national daycare.  Korean parents believe these academies give their children an educational advantage and pay high premiums for them, often $300-500 a month or more.  Due to the costs and national obsession with education, children are placed under lots of pressure from a young age.

For an example we will use one of my students whose English name is Todd.

Say Hi Todd

Todd is a 7th grader, the 1st year of middle school here.  He gets up at 7am and goes to school at 8:15.  He stays until 3.  After school he goes to a science academy for 2 hours.  Then he goes to English academy for 2 hours (it's now 7pm).  Then he goes to math academy for 2 hours.  Then he finally goes home, eats dinner and does his homework.   He usually finishes around 11 to midnight.  Around big tests times (which happen several times a year here) he usually goes to extra academy classes on saturday and even sunday.

Sound fun so far?  It gets worse.  When he gets to winter and summer breaks (both last about a month), he doesn't have school but he still has his academies.  So even during his vacation he's still in a kind of school for 6 hours a day.

 Phillip, a 1st grader with a nearly identical schedule to Todd.  Crazy huh?

Now obviously not all of the kids have that ridiculous of a schedule (until high school.  Then they ALL have that schedule) but none of the students I see goes home before 6pm.  The upside to this is children who are very good at memorization and who do well on standardized tests.  The downside is kids who don't have time to be kids.

 Yes they're cute now but wait until you have to get them to sit and be quiet for 45 minutes.  It's impossible

Ironic as it seems (since I work for one), what I think would help the most would be to get rid of the academies.  Especially the academic ones.  Or at very least make them truly optional, not semi-mandatory like they are now.  Giving the kids more playtime and more leeway to be creative would definitely benefit them.

However since those changes are not likely to come any time soon, I'll continue to enjoy my job on Jeju and the opportunities to save and travel that it provides.  Happy New Year!

Friday, December 21, 2012

Christmas in Korea

The Christmas house we created to hang our stockings in

Hey everyone.  An interesting thing happened to the entire country of Korea on Wednesday.  Everyone had the day off.  But it wasn't a holiday.

Why you ask.  Because Wednesday was the Korean Presidential Election Day and everyone gets time off to vote.  In a totally unrelated development, the election turnout here was around 70%.  Any idea what US election turnout is?  (hint: about half of that)  And Americans don't get the day off to vote.  I'm sensing a hidden connection here somewhere.

Aside from a clear opportunity for my home country to improve itself, Wednesday was also a wonderful day for relaxing.  It's been cold and busy leading up to Christmas and the day off was extremely welcome.

Christmas in Korea is celebrated differently than in America.  It is nowhere near as omnipresent as in the US.  There will be a small tree in a store window here.  A few lights on a counter there.  Nothing like the grandiose displays of Europe and America.  Christmas here is seen as either A) a chance to spend more time with family (like pretty much every other holiday is)  or B) as a date day.  Often a gift or two is exchanged but rarely is there a tree packed with gifts as is common in the West.  As part of that, Christmas Eve is treated like any other day and is definitely a work and school day.  On the plus side, my academy has decided to have a Christmas Party Monday evening with the kids.

Our Christmas house without the cool effects

Christmas seems to occupy an interesting place here, similar to Halloween.  It's a Western holiday that is recognized and sort of celebrated.  However, since it's not a traditional holiday it's not given the same precedence as Korean holidays are.  As such Vicky and I set out to provide our own Christmas setup.  We have Christmas music playing consistently in our apartment, Christmas lights in cool patterns and Christmas movies are an evening pleasure we've indulged in frequently after work.  Vicky even made chocolate peanut butter balls Tuesday.  It was like Angels were dancing on my tongue.

That burst of joy makes me think of home and the loved ones there I can't wait to see again, whether family or friends.  And since I'm being sentimental (and/or corny), there's no sense half doing it.  So I'll finish with one of my favorite Christmas song lyrics.

"Although it's been said, many times, many ways, Merry Christmas to you!"

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Sick Days in Korea

Note:  This post has a dearth of pictures and discusses the difference between Korean and American approaches to sick days.  If that doesn't interest you, skip it.  If it does, read on.

With Vicky feeling under the weather the past few days I've been thinking a lot about the differences between Korea and America regarding sickness and healthcare.

In the US, if you're sick you stay home and get better.  Americans do this since rest speeds the recovery process and so they aren't around others when they are contagious.  Same for kids at school.  If your child is sick, they stay home so the whole school doesn't catch whatever they have.

Koreans take a very different approach.  When you're sick, it's a chance to show your dedication to your job.  So Koreans routinely come to work with all kinds of illnesses.  This is very important to them.  A result of this is that Koreans are allotted a very small amount of sick days.  In our case 3 days for the year.  After that you start losing pay for every day you're sick.  This works for Koreans.

Where this becomes an issue is when you thrown foreigners into the mix.  Parents sending their sick kids to school might be good for them but it means teachers get sick a lot more often.  Today I had no less than 1 kid per class who was sick.  You can guess the effect this has.  Vicky has already used up her 3 sick days for the year and it's only early December.  She went to school sick yesterday (only because she didn't want to use her last sick day) but today we agreed she should go to the doctor and stay home.

The root of this behavior is something I've discussed before; the belief that the group is more important than the individual.  So the individual should come to work every day no matter what so the group does not have to be shorthanded.  The flaw in this logic is that it gets more of the group sick and makes the group function less effectively for an extended period of time.  However Koreans, especially Korean bosses, don't see it that way and that's not likely to change.

This also extends to vacation time.  Bosses don't like employees taking vacation and as such, Koreans take the second fewest vacation days per year of any nation (they use an average of only 7 days per year.  that means a ton of people take LESS than 7 days off per year).  This helps explain why our bosses were reluctant to let us take our vacations when we wanted to take them.

As much as I try to be respectful and follow social norms, there are some thing I simply won't do.  Taking my vacation when it's convenient for my boss is one.  Coming to work when I'm sick and contagious is another.  I'm not getting everyone else sick and extending how long i feel horrible just to make my boss happy.  You have to draw the line somewhere.