|Donghwan Park next to his book shelf|
full of test preparation manuals
Like many kids, he attended cram schools at night, but he never paid much attention. "I was like a pendulum on a clock. I was learning by inertia," he said.
It wasn't until he reached high school that he had an epiphany. "I realized I had to change." He cut his Starcraft CD in half and went on a study abroad program in America, where he was one of a handful of non-white students at a public high school in rural Indiana.
"I lived without video games for 10 months," he said. "It's really a hard habit to break. Sometimes your hands feel shaky."
He came back an English speaker with new confidence and new focus. He started his first year of high school staring straight ahead at a goal of getting into the best college possible. "Three years of high school determine the next 80 years of your life," he said.
Two years later, he has made great strides. He starts the school day at 7:30 in the morning. After his last class at 4 p.m., he stays at school or goes to the public library near his house to study until 10 p.m. or midnight. Some nights, he goes to another late night study center, that's operated privately, to put in a few more hours. He has memorized whole books of English vocabulary words. Twice a week, he meets with a math tutor.
In S. Korea, it's hard to turn on the steam in the middle of the academic race. It's so competitive to get into top colleges that the best candidates typically have been the top achievers, the hardest workers, all along.
A particularly unforgiving aspect of the system is the way students are graded -- by rank rather than by score. "In the United States, if I did my best, I could get an A-plus," he said. "Here I have to beat all my friends."
Park showed me a recent mid-term report card that showed how he stacked up with the other guys at his all-male high school. In English he is 35th out of 564, in Korean 24th out of 565, in math 44th out of 302, in Japanese 250th out of 449, and in physics 202nd out of 305th. The lowest scores represent subjects that don't matter, ie. that won't appear on his college entrance test, he said.
The higher scores, while very good, he fears are not good enough. To be considered for the best schools, you have to score in the top 4 percent, he said. He's not there yet in all of his subjects. "I have to lose the gap. I have to beat those guys," he said.
With college applications coming up in a matter of months, he is pushing hard. He replaced all the history books and novels on his shelves with test preparation books. He spends hours at a stretch reviewing past tests and pre-tests, scrutinizing them and trying to understand the real meaning of each question.
In the future he would love to study again in the United States, to write important policy papers about North Korea, or perhaps to become a successful business man.
"But my dream is not important here at school. If I want to achieve my dream, first I must go to a good university," he said.