It’s Election Day in America, and I’m antsy. I’m in Korea, and it is an interesting phenomenon to be here right now, worrying both about the election and about the gargantuan national exam that is about to take place. My oldest host sister is a third year high school student, and in less than 24 hours, she will be taking the Suneung, the college entrance exam that is the culmination of 16 years of hard education and, in the words of the English teacher the next cubby over, “won’t ruin her entire life but will make or break the next ten to twelve years of it”.
This exam is a national event. Airplanes are stopped. Roads are lined by policemen. Everyone who knows a third year student buys gifts of chocolates or rice cake, clothes, camera lenses (to take an exam in Korean is to “see” an exam—the lens is a wish that the student “sees” it well), expensive dinners. I have come home every night this past week to steak dinners out with family friends from around the country and a new stack of Ferrero Rochers and identical Paris Baguette chocolate and rice cake gift sets (this bakery must make bank the first week of November). The phone buzzes almost nonstop at home with calls of well-wishes, and underclassmen have been running around buying gifts and making posters to encourage their seniors. It is a rally by the nation to support its students through an experience, a hellish rite of passage that almost all Koreans can collectively say they have had to or will have to live through. The students can only approach it as best they can, with as much confidence in their preparation as they can manage to muster, and with the courage and steeled nerves of a soldier headed off to war. It really does feel like the school, the families, the community, and the country are preparing these kids for battle. But strangely, more than solemness, the school and the community are buzzing with energy. I think they’re just ready for it all to be over.