‘When I Was Your Age’: Differences Between Growing Up in the UK and Korea

‘When I was your age’ . I stopped, hearing the words leaving my mouth. I inhaled hard, trying (and failing) to suck them back in. Instead I just choked a little and started laughing in front of my class, earning a few strange looks from students who already think I’m a little odd on account of that fact that I’m often humming, singing or explaining things with the aid of silly voices.

It did, however, get me thinking and that got me writing about some of the differences between the childhood and daily life I experienced and the childhood I’ve heard about, asked about and observed whilst being in Korea. Saying things are a little different here would be an understatement, I would never have believed how different until I got here and saw it for myself. The root causes of the difference are many and I’m no sociologist, though the psychology degree doesn’t hurt. Unsurprising they’re mostly cultural and historical (most things tend to be), though technology and government no doubt have a large role to play. Before I get started I should also point out that these are just my observations, and as I can’t claim to have grown up in Korea I really can’t say anything with certainty. If you have any comments or insight then please leave a comment, I’d love to hear some different ideas.

As I said, this all started after I uttered, quite by accident, the ‘When I was your age’ line. A cliché that to me prefixes some boring and quickly disregarded advice or information. I should start by explaining that one of the major causes of the differences between kids here and back home is the attitude towards education and its importance. Education in Korea (and in other areas of Asia), is viewed as one of the most important aspects of a young person’s life. From the age of five there is a fixed point in time that children and their families are preparing for, a point about fifteen years in their future. University entrance examinations. I know that I myself, having gone to Nursery school (Kindergarten), Primary school, Secondary school and College I was taking the same journey, but it was never the goal, just another option and one that I decided to take, though there are many who don’t. If you had asked me when I was nine years old if I wanted to go to university, I would have given you a funny look and gone back to whatever I was doing before the silly person came and started saying silly things. It’s just not something I would have thought about. Conversely, I think most of the students I have already have a target university and they’ll know the names of a few more just in case.

This focus on education effects the day to day lives of the children. My typical school day would involve getting up and going to school for 9am. It was finished by 4pm, most days though early French lessons after school occasionally got in the way. The rest of the day I was free to do what kids do, go to friends houses, have friends at my house, watch TV, play computer games. Judo, Scouts and all the rest. Here in Korea things are a little different. School starts and finishes around the same time but after that it’s a different world, after public school finishes the private education begins. These schools, called Hagwons, are the reason that myself and 25,000 other native English speakers are in Korea. Korean children attend Hagwons for the length of their school career up until they enter High school around age 17, and once they get to that point they’re in school from 8am to 9pm so there’s really no time for any extra schooling. Where I work teaches English and Maths. I have also heard places teaching music, Korean, Taekwondo and even golf. There are no doubt many more on top of that. So one major difference between here and at home is the workload. I can’t imagine introducing the same system in the UK would go down so well, not if it imposes on our precious free time.

Free time after school was always the good bit of the day. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed school, and now that I’ve finished I think it’s OK to say that. Even so, after school was always better. When I was younger my Mum was there to pick us up after school and make dinner for me, my brothers and often a few extras in the form of friends that we had brought home with us. This was in Primary school where free time often centred around two large forts, including a wooden one my Dad made. Later Mum went to university and we were old enough to walk to and from school on our own so we had the house to ourselves for a while. To be honest I wasn’t the most physically active of young people. Computer games were a choice activity, though I often saw my friends after school, we all lived in a fairly small area conveniently located between two parks.  My friends and I were given a fairly long leash when we were younger and I think we made good use of it.

From talking to my students I’ve developed an idea of how students spend their free time, and it’s a little different from my own. I’m not sure if different is necessarily bad, but I know which one I’d choose given the option. Most of the student I’ve talked to about their free time are aged 13-16. At the beginning of every class we begin by asking student questions to get them in a talking mood. The most common question are ‘How are you today?’ and ‘What did you do/will you do on the weekend?’.  I’d say about 70% of the answers to this question are computer game related, 20% are about visiting family and 10% other. Both boys and girls, though mainly the boys, are avid gamers. I’ve found that right now, Minecraft, a game that I have a little experience with, and League of Legends, are the top games. Immediately following these are mobile phone, or Handphone, games. These seem more popular with the girls. This gaming either takes place at home or in the numerous PC방 (PC Room) located pretty much everywhere. They function as gaming rooms where people, particularly young people, meet to play. It seems that after study, gaming is the next biggest consumer of time. This wouldn’t be so bad, and I’d be the first to say that young people in the UK play too many video games. The problem is that as these young people have so little free time after all the extra study that these games can consume all remaining free time, leaving little time for anything else. It also seems like some of them spend considerable amount of money on these games, both to play them but also to buy in-game items like weapons and magic armour.

One product of this upbringing is noticeable when student reach about 15 or 16 and their English ability is quite developed. I came to notice this with one of my classes, admittedly a small sample group but I’ve heard the same said by other teachers from a number of schools. I have one class that’s all mine, others are taught with a Korean teacher. It’s one of my favourite classes and every Thursday the student discuss, brainstorm and write an essay on a topic related to the weeks reading topic. I usually try and pick something controversial and relevant to keep it interesting. Most of the student are 15 or 16 years old and what I’ve discovered is a distinct lack of personal opinion. I thought at first it was because they couldn’t properly express their ideas in English, but during one discussion on ‘War’ one student piped up and said, ‘Teacher, I don’t care’. Many of the other student agreed. I was a little shocked. When I was 15 years old my friends and I talked about a range of topics, especially the controversial ones. Admittedly the majority of our ideas were in their infant stages, but you can’t expect too much. I was wondering why, and I think I’ve come upon an idea. Alcohol. In the UK it’s not uncommon for young people to drink a little, and sometimes a lot. I have found some suggestions that alcohol in Korea is easy to get hold of under-age  but with the heavy timetables and the amount of time spent at home I can’t imagine it’s taken advantage of. Conversely, alcohol in the UK can be quite tough to get hold of and yet young people drink. I don’t advise the use of alcohol, or anything else illegal, for use by young people, but if I’m right and it is a factor then I think it’s an interesting consequence. Another factor is that students are only really taught what they need for exams.

I’ve been talking too long so I’m going to stop now. I think one thing I could say to sign off is that the attitude towards education here is too pressured and though it produces highly intelligent individuals it also puts those individuals under huge pressure to succeed. On the other hand, in the UK there isn’t enough pressure and for some, school is just a road bump in the day, something to pass and instantly forget. Whilst there is much less pressure on students in the UK, I think there’s also less drive to perform well.

James Vs World

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