Shhh! Don’t disturb the natives!

S. Korea put to the test for high-pressure exam

South Korea fell silent for annual college entrance exams Thursday, rescheduling flights and restricting traffic as 650,000 students sat a test that will define their adult lives in an ultra-competitive society.

Preparation for the crucial exam starts from primary school, and so does the relentless pressure which has been blamed for everything from early burnout and teenage depression to suicide.

Success in the exam — meaning a secured place in one of South Korea’s elite universities — is seen as the key to everything from future careers to marriage prospects.

With so much riding on the outcome, the day of the test — simultaneously in 1,257 centres nationwide — sees the entire country go into “hush” mode.

The transportation ministry bans all airport landings and departures for a 40-minute period to coincide with the main language listening test.

The military also reschedules airforce drills and live-firing exercises and traffic is barred within a 200-meter radius of the test centres.

Public offices and major businesses, as well as the stock markets, opened an hour later than usual Thursday to help keep the roads relatively clear and ensure the students arrived on time.

Anyone who did get stuck could dial the emergency number 112, and request help from police cars and motorbikes on standby to rush them to the centres.

At Seoul’s Pungmoon Girls’ High School, junior students put up good-luck banners and lined up to shout encouragement as their seniors entered the exam room.

For the equally-stressed parents, for whom their child’s result will partly be seen as a mark of their parental aptitude and devotion, there was little left to do.

Mothers, one flicking through her Buddhist prayer beads, prayed outside the Pungmoon school gate, while others went directly to temples in search for some divine intervention.

The approach of the exam day tends to renew a perennial debate in South Korea about the country’s obsession with education and the pros and cons of the college entrance system.

The bottom line for many is that the examination itself is fair. Everyone takes the same paper, which relies on the multiple choice system to prevent subjective marking.

Security is absolute, with the hundreds of exam setters sequestered for more than a month in a secret location, which they are only allowed to leave once the test has been taken.

They are kept in total isolation, denied phone contact with their families and with everything down to their food waste subject to rigorous examination.

But if the exam treats everyone equally, critics say preparation favours the rich, and can be ruinous for poorer and middle-income families.

According to the Education Ministry, South Korean parents spent 19 trillion won ($17.5 billion) on extra tuition for their children last year — equivalent to about 1.5 percent of the national GDP.

Students average five hours sleep a night as the test nears — a level of physical fatigue that, coupled with the mental anxiety, leads to a discernible spike in suicides around the exam period.

Educational reformers also voice concern over the validity of the exam and the sort of students it produces, pointing to the lack of importance given to creativity or critical thinking.

An editorial in the New York Times on Thursday called the South Korean exam “brutal” and noted that the system goes into reverse after entering college, where graduation is almost guaranteed with even minimal study.

“The paradox is these ridiculous tests don’t necessarily lead to demanding college classes,” the editorial said.

“Rigorous thinking, reading and writing too often is simply not expected. Doing away with rigid entrance exams is just the first step. What needs to be debated is the quality of education once the students are admitted,” it added.


Practical Advice if you want to teach English in Korea

I was browsing Youtube and came across some good videos that explain a lot about being here in general as well as teaching English specifically.

First here’s a cool video that gives excellent practical advice from Tom Gates.(YouTube Channel, Blog)

A smart man and someone who knows what’s it’s like being here and being a teacher.  I’m sure he has his own sets of challenges because one thing he did not touch on was the ethnicity of the teachers.  There is quite a bit of bias against teachers are not ‘white’ or ‘physically fit’.  That’s not to say that all teachers here are skinny Caucasians but there are actually recruiters who actively post with clauses like “if you are not Caucasian, please do not apply” (The one in particular I know of has a lot less tact than how I put it.).  You must understand that Korea has been sheltered for a very long time and even today, they don’t really know what other countries are like.  Their mindset is one of uniformity(reinforced by their rules of society) and my East Indian wife got asked once “Don’t you feel left out in Canada?”.  They really don’t understand diversity and mainly because it’s not really taught in any of their classes.  I suspect that it’s because it goes against their ruling beliefs and thus are surprised when they encounter such things.

Now, there is the whole ‘Asians are hot, I wanna date/have sex with them’ mentality as well.  The above video touches on this topic but Michael Aronson goes into details about dating Koreans.  This playlist of “Dating in Korea” will both give you some more in-depth insight to the dating culture here as well as more details about the culture itself.

Korean School Kids

The kids here really are pushed really hard but that is directly related to the location of population concentration.  Essentially the more parents there are, the higher the competition to have your kid be more educated than the other kid.  There is even a kind of ‘limit’ to how many kids someone could tutor.  I have a Korean friend who tutors some kids and occasionally asks me to help out.  I get to be the ‘guest foreigner’ for them and something to talk about.  I found out that it’s hard to get references to get more students because the parents kind of ‘hoard her’ as they like her and don’t want any other student to have her teaching them.  That way they feel they are getting special treatment and have a great tutor as well.

Still, while in regular class, they do vary in personality.  Anywhere from too tired to work to ‘I got more energy than you can think of’.’  Here is a picture from one of my wife’s classes.  You can see the range of personalities. :)

Yes, the one on the right is sleeping.


Confusing #Koreans and math

There is s an easy way to confuse Koreans and it has to do with math.

You might be tempted to fall back on the apparent stereotype that all Asians are good at math and you would be smart to keep that in mind when you understand how rigorous their education system is at forcing students to memorize way more than any western educational system has ever done.  How many kids did you know that went for extra private math tutoring lessons?  Me, I didn’t know a single person who did.  Yet here, nearly all of the kids do.  They also go to math lessons, English lessons, music lessons as well add taekwondo lessons.  Many do this every night and even on Saturdays.  So the stereotype really isn’t a stereotype when its true.  An episode of the Simpsons elabourated this point rather well.

Marge: One month? That’s a heavy workload for a fourth grader.
Homer: I say this boy needs more homework. (I don’t have to do it with him, do I?)
Principal Skinner: No.
Homer: Pile it on! I want him to be Korean by the time he’s done.

Ok, back to math.  When I was in highschool, I sucked at math.  I mean, I literally squeaked by in marks in the 50s.  Seriously, I just did not study it at all.  Yet, after working in retail for a bunch of years such a skill was just naturally developed for fairly basic stuff.  While I ain’t gonna say I’ll whiz any type of algebra course(shudders), I certainly do well for quick multiplication and division.  What stuns me is how confused the Koreans get while working in retail.  Here is a prime example.  If I go to a store and the price comes to 9,300 won, I will hand them a 10,000 bill plus 300 won in coin.  They are immediately confused why I would do this.  I have to explain to them what I want back.  Two days ago the girl handed me back the 300 won and then proceeded to hand me 700 more won in change.  I kinda stood there with this handful of change in front of her looking like “Umm, I didn’t want a pocketful of change like this.”

There is a problem here, that has happened everywhere else too….capitalism.  For the most part, people only use their bank cards so change is used less than a squiggle on a signing pad.  This process has lent to the disassociation from the cash in your hand to simply making a mark on a pad.  Meaning people don’t place any significance on the money they spend.    So when you actually deal with change/cash, they don’t think like that as much any more and you confuse them.  It’s a very odd disassociation to witness.

30 Days of my new Korean-focussed blog and some major changes in my life!

Well, I said I’d give up all Social Media and focus solely on setting up this new blog for 30 days and I have done just that.  I also said that I would have one new post each day.  This was a little tougher than I thought but sometimes old habits of ‘being busy’ creep back.  Despite a 3-day lack, I made sure I made up for it and even wrote one post in advance!  So I consider that a win :)

Now that I have all my old and new content here, I can focus on expanding my connections and seeing where it will take me.  I still plan on being loosely affiliated with other social accounts but I no longer plan on utilizing them as much as I did.  To be honest, that one single revelation I had about “if you aren’t adding to humanity you are just part of the noise” made a big impact on me.  To this end, I have now enabled all kinds of social sharing, so that my posts can be read by those who don’t read a lot of blogs but I don’t plan on being on them extensively.

Now, that being said, time to update everyone on some changes that are happening very soon for me.  I am moving.  My wife accepted a contract in the very most southern part of South Korea (Sacheon).  This is going to be an awkward move.  Mostly because her current contract ends on the 23rd but the new one doesn’t start till the 1st.  That’s quite a gap of time where we are literally in limbo.  We are fortunate that the new contract recruiter has free storage for our belongings.  This alleviates some issues but the next question is, what about us and our cat?  Still working on this part.

Now, as for the place we are going, well not much can be said about it.  It only has a population of 114,000 and it on the southern coastal area of the country.  I had to go down to that area once and I did like it a lot.  People are significantly less in a rush compared to Seoul.  I would even consider driving there without too much worry.  Driving in Seoul?  Not without armor plating because I’d be sure to run the vast majority of idiots off the road.

I previously mentioned that I was considering University here.  This idea has been scrapped.  Korea has zero mechanisms for ‘adult admission’, especially adults with no prior university education, unlike Canada.  They will not budge on this and the Government has never considered this at all.  This is one, of many, areas where South Korea’s education system fails miserably.

So, I turned to online courses.  Of course, I will would like to attend KAIST.  Their course looks really good and they have a heck of a reputation, despite the number of suicides last year.  I found Open University in the UK.  They seemed to have a decent certificate course that was reasonable in fees as well as course material.  So I emailed them, told them of my situation (Being a Canadian who is currently in South Korea) and got told:

Due to government restrictions on higher education study in some countries, modules that have been approved for worldwide study are not necessarily available in all countries.  For example, in some countries students are not allowed any ‘contact’ with the distance learning provider during their studies; the definition of ‘contact’ taking any number of forms including online tuition.

The modules required for the T12 are not available to students resident in Canada.

Well, that just sucks.  Kinda defeats the purpose of calling yourself a ‘open’ university and brag about being ‘online’.  Yet another failing of educational advancement in modern times.  So, now I am hunting again to find someone to take my money(within a reasonable amount, not looking for some stupid $50k/year program) and be accredited.

Wow, Korean interviewing arrogance

My wife is currently seeking for a new teaching position because her current school decided that their teachers have to have an Educational degree to teach at their Elementary school.  I covered this briefly here but basically it’s a PR move.

My wife had a Skype interview and I had nowhere else to be so I just sat on the bed, out of view, and played a game on my Galaxy Tab and listened to the interview.  The interviewer, a Korean guy who spoke fluent English, was asking some very direct and significantly professional questions.  Speaks to his background and thoroughness but I felt that it was a little too much at times.  Regardless, no my place to tell him how to do his job.  Then came the kicker.  After one hour of interviewing they got onto the topic of “What happens if you were offered another position?  Are we your first choice?”  My wife, answering honestly because she is like that, said “No, you are my second choice.”  He then replied “If we are not your first choice then are we both wasting our time here?”

Wow, what arrogance?!  Seriously?  You only want to interview people who think you are your first choice?  This gets even more wild because he said he has taught in Korea as well.  Makes me wonder if he only ever applied to one school between jobs.  Absolutely ludicrous to think that you should only be interviewing people who want you and only you.

Most people don’t think beyond their own little world.

Update: My wife shortly (like literally 2 mins) after getting off Skype with him, from the recruiter.  The recruiter told her that the interviewer liked her.  Truly surreal.  I told my wife that she should have told the recruiter “Am I your #1 candidate for hiring?  No?  Are we both wasting our time here?”

University in South Korea

Education is one of the major stresses in a Korean’s life.   Even to the point that one of Korea’s top university, KAIST, has experienced quite a few of them and being a high-profile university where education is free, providing you keep certain grades, this has been making news for about a year with 5 students and one professor!

Here students write exams to get into Universities.  Not only does this exam dictate which university you can attend, it pretty much pegs you for life on what you will be able to accomplish…at least, that’s what everyone else will think.  If you think that’s bad, students also write exams to get into certain High Schools!  Oh, and if you have the money, then you can go to one of the Private Elementary schools where you are supposedly getting a ‘higher education’ but really, because it’s a business, they just manipulate the scores to keep the money flowing in from the parents.

Some might think that’s pretty jaded, if not an outright lie, but my wife currently works at one.  She was told that the students HAD to have an average of 90% on their tests.  When one of the tests came back at an average of 78% she was told that the ‘questions are too hard, make them easier’.  So, paying for education does not guarantee a better quality student it seems.

Here is a scan from another test she had to give with the wording to this very effect.

Korean Elementary Exam guideline

So, the education system needs some work, whose education system doesn’t?  Still, with over 100 Universities listed, it’s not like you won’t get in at all.  Unless you are a foreigner, who never went to a college or university and graduated from high school before most of the university admissions staff was most likely born.

I did a bunch of research and it seems that I cannot get into University here as a ‘mature student’ like I could back in Canada.  Here is the list of material requirements for KAIST (one of the only Universities that teaches its courses in English from Undergraduate and on….the rest are Graduate only if you want to be taught in English).

Required Materials*

1) Application Form

  • Complete application online(
  • Print it out and include it in the application package with other necessary documents.

2) Statement of Financial Resource

  • The form can be found in the online application.Select KAIST scholarship, if you are not financially sponsored by government or organization.

3) Application Fee, 80USD or 80,000KRW

  • Please submit a nonrefundable 80 USD or 80,000 KRW, payable to KAIST by credit card or bank transfer after completing your application.
  • You cannot edit your application once you pay the application fee. Please make sure to complete your application before you make the payment.
  • We strongly recommend you to pay the fee by credit card, which is the most simple and fast way to use.
  • Additional charges (i.e. bank charges) should be covered by the candidate.

4) Transcript

  • You are required to submit transcripts from each high school (and college) attended.
  • Official transcripts must be sent directly from your high school (and college) to KAIST.
  • Transcripts must include year by year record of all coursework from last three years of upper secondary school. The last year coursework in process should also be included.
  • If you are to submit a duplicate, the transcript should be authenticated with the seal of the issuing institution or a notary office. Simply photocopied documents are not considered valid.

5) Letters of Recommendation

  • Two recommendation letters are required. One from homeroom teacher and the other from math or science teacher.
  • Print and submit the Recommendation Forms below.

■ Recommendation Form for Homeroom Teacher [ATTACHMENT 1]
■ Recommendation Form for Math or Science Teacher [ATTACHMENT 2]

  • Recommendations on official letterhead will also be accepted.
  • Your teachers may send their recommendation letter directly to the admissions office. Letters should be signed and sealed across the back of an official envelope by the recommenders.
  • Photocopies or recommendation letters via email are not accepted.

6) Standardized Official Test Scores

  • Official Test Score Reports such as SAT1, SAT2, ACT, GCE A-Level, IB, AP, NCEA, high school leaving exam, university entrance exam, or other nationally/internationally recognized exam results should be submitted.
  • Official test results should be sent directly from the testing agency to KAIST. If the testing agency is unable to send the results, submit certified copy authenticated with the seal of the issuing institution or a notary office. Simply photocopied documents are not considered valid.
  • Institution Code of KAIST for SAT score report: 4433
  • You may attach a separate sheet to explain the exam procedure, competition rate, results, etc.
  • Certificate of National or International Olympiad can replace Official Test Score. Submit certified copy authenticated with the seal of the issuing institution or a notary office. Simply photocopied documents are not considered valid.

7) Certificate of Official English Proficiency Test (EPT)

  • Candidates whose native language is not English must submit the EPT certificate. Candidates whose official language is English are exempt from submitting the EPT certificate.
  • Candidates are recommended to achieve above TOEFL PBT 550, CBT 210, iBT 80, TEPS 550, IELTS 5.5 and TOEIC (Listening & Reading 750, Speaking level 6, Writing level 7).
  • For TOEIC, all three TOEIC score reports (Listening & Reading, Speaking, Writing) should be submitted.
  • EPT must be taken within two years from the deadline of the online application.
  • ETS can send your original copy of score report directly to KAIST admissions office. Score reports must be received by the deadline. If you are to submit a duplicate, the EPT result should be authenticated with the seal of the issuing institution or a notary office. Simply photocopied documents are not considered valid.
  • Institution Code of KAIST for TOEFL score report: 0195
  • IELTS takers are allowed to submit a photocopy instead of an original copy of score report. Test score will be verified via Test Report Form (TRF) number.

8) Copy of Passport or National ID Card

  • Submit a copy of your International Passport or National ID card.

Optional Materials

1) Honors and Awards

  • You may submit up to five honors or awards obtained during your secondary and tertiary education.

2) Secondary/tertiary School Profile

  • You may submit GPA rating system, college acceptance statistics, or other information that would help us understand your school better.


This is all the physical proof you need just to be considered as an applicant.  Problem is that the vast majority of those leaves me completely ineligible.  There is NO way that my High School records from 25 years ago are in any way shape or form, a reflection of me or my skills now.  SATs?  Canada doesn’t do SATs.  I was told that if I took one, that would be considered valid but unless I was near genius level on that, my mediocre high school marks would kill any semblance of acceptance to any post secondary education here.

So, this really only leaves me online programs from back home in Canada (or maybe the US).  The whole university process confuses me.  It should be a free course in of itself in order to understand it and the variations that exist.  Maybe I should look at colleges?  In either case, I need to do something while I am here, besides just improving my Korean.