Rites of passage

20071116_CSAT_dayYesterday, approximately 580 thousand South Korean students took the annual university entrance exam, CSAT (College Scholastic Aptitude Test). And like every year, the temperature suddenly dropped on the day, which we call “entrance-exam cold wave (입시추위)”. The CSAT is one of the most important events in the country. I mean, really. I understand many countries have their equivalents – SAT for the US, baccalauréat for France and A Levels for the UK. But Koreans, again, take it to the extreme. Yes, it is not a rumour that on the exam day the authorities ground planes, reroute traffic, and delay the start of the workday to ensure the smooth running of the event. Plus, the CSAT day is not the CSAT day without police cars and motorbikes racing with their siren wailing to help candidates who overslept to arrive at their exam sites on time, or the CSAT day is not the CSAT day without anxious parents praying during the whole 8 hours non-stop standing outside the exam venues or in temples or churches, depending on their religions, for their kids’ good performance. Now you see what I meant by ‘going to the extreme’. Life before the CSAT is, with little exaggeration, a long and continuous preparation for it, and the result of this particular exam will affect to a great deal how the rest of life will unfold. [photo (from Chosun Ilbo): candidates going through metal detectors]

I know for a fact that things haven’t changed much from my high school time, when we had classes, including COMPULSORY self-study sessions, from 7 in the morning to 11 at night. As you can easily guess, I was a very docile student. 🙂 So, what I used to keep telling my friends was that if my life ever went wrong, I would simply sue the Ministry of Education because they told us otherwise. I haven’t so far needed to consider that option – touch wood. More importantly, I kind of *forgave* them, whoever is responsible, after reading a column by the late Lee Kyu-Tae a few years back. He was a great journalist and my absolute hero. Not just for this post, I have always been trying to find a writer who is recognised outside Korea that I can compare Lee to, so that it would be easier for non-Korean friends to imagine what he was like. The best I came up with is Bertrand Russell, but make him a bit warmer and less opinionated. 😛

So, what did he say? He said, if I may summarise it bluntly, “yes, it’s not ideal, but let’s approach to the whole damn thing metaphorically and see it as some pubertal rite of passage like cases of self-mutilation found across early cultures”. That’s when I decided to take my high school time as if I climbed a rocky mountain in bare feet or something and move on. Only because he said so…

The following YouTube clip is apparently put up by a Korean high school student – someone from my school, I suspect. What a funny coincidence. A little warning that it is overdramatised (Come on, “We are the champions”?!). I still can’t stop the memories from flooding back though. Sigh.


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