Contemporary Youth Culture in Korea

by Eun Mee Kim, Inhae Chon, and friends

Twenty-five years separate me from my daughter, Inhae, who is now fifteen years old. Our experiences in junior high and high school are similar in some ways but surprisingly different in many others. Writing this essay was a great excuse to peer into the lives of fifteen-year-olds, no doubt a challenging task for anyone in any culture at any time—especially when the person under consideration happens to be your own child!

The most important source of hope, anxiety, and frustration is the college entrance exam. Entering the college of your, and more important, your parent’s choice, appears to be an all-time favorite for the most stressful event in many Korean youths’ lives. Their whole education since junior high school is oriented toward the college entrance exam. Evening newscasts devote a great deal of time and attention to the general college entrance exam (equivalent to the SAT exam), which takes place only one day each year in early winter. In-depth coverage and analysis about such factors as the difficulty, content, and evaluation of the exam is the main focus of the news. It seems like the whole country comes to a standstill on the day of the exam: many schools are closed to become exam sites, office hours for major governmental offices and other public institutions are pushed back one or two hours in order to ease traffic congestion, and major newspaper and television stations send their crews to the exam sites for breaking stories. It is not uncommon to see a desperate student arriving at the last minute on the back of a volunteer’s motorcycle, having been rescued from a car or bus breakdown on the way to the exam. Mothers wait outside the gates the whole day, praying that their daughters and sons will do well. Sticky rice cakes and Korean taffy are stuck to the gates, which represent the parents’ wish that their children “stick” to college.

Preparing for college starts early for Korean students. Inhae and many of her friends have been going to cram schools since junior high. After coming home from a long day at school, Inhae eats dinner at five o’clock and, on three days each week, heads to her cram school. Cram school begins at six and ends at ten minutes past eleven. It is almost eleven-thirty when she gets home.

When students fail to enter the college of their and their parent’s choice, many spend the entire next year at a cram school preparing for the next college entrance exam. Since the exam is given only once a year, students must wait a whole year to try again. Some students try to get into college three years in a row. Being admitted to the “right college” is the most important goal in life. It is a major battle for many students and their parents.

During their precious spare time, Inhae and her friends watch television and go to movies. Entertainers and news about them are probably one of the most important items of gossip for teenagers. They are extremely interested in the lives of singers, television stars, and actors and actresses. They learn about the latest fashion trends, hit songs, and popular shows by observing these entertainers. This isn’t so different from our day. We used to spend a lot of time in front of the television set, wondering who and what was “in.”

Other things have changed, though. The most important equipment for Inhae and her friends is a cell phone. The cell phone seems to be the “thing” that no high school or junior high school kid must be seen without in Seoul! It has become indispensable, allowing them to communicate with friends at any time in any place, beyond the scrutiny of their parents. It quickly replaced the beeper, which was very popular only a year and a half ago. According to Inhae and her friends, over half of their classmates have cell phones.

The favorite pastime of Inhae and her friends is taking “joy photos” in small photo booths, found on almost every corner. These photo booths produce pictures with various frames and inscriptions printed on glossy stickers. Inhae and her friends all carry photo books, containing literally hundreds of these small joy photos taken with different people, They also enjoy window shopping at clothing stores, cosmetic stores, and music stores. After school and on weekends, they like to walk along streets filled with trendy shops.

When I was growing up, my friends wanted to become teachers, nurses, and “good mothers and wise wives.” Becoming a professional was hardly mentioned, since there were few role models. Luckily, things have changed for Inhae. When I asked Inhae and two of her friends about their aspirations, only one answered that she wanted to become a teacher. Although a teacher is no doubt an important occupation, it is heartwarming to know that this generation sees opportunities that appeared closed to mine. Inhae wants to become a graphic designer, and her friend Hana wants to become an anchorwoman. Although they have aspirations for professional careers, and are committed to having a job even after marriage, they are still somewhat bound by gender discrimination. They mentioned that certain jobs are more “amenable” to women, while others are not. I was surprised to find out that members of my daughter’s generation are still given the impression by their peers and teachers that they can’t do something because of their gender. Unlike myself, Inhae and her friends do not find discrimination particularly alarming. They seem to take it as a given and as a boundary with which they have to work. I hope their ideas will change over time, and they will become more active in breaking the gender barrier, which is still very firm in Korea.