Dispatch from South Korea: Korean SAT and the reaction to Obama

November 18, 2008

Editor's Note: This is a series of dispatches from Luke Zeller, who graduated in June with a bachelor of science in secondary education (English and communications) from the College of Education. A Schreyer Scholar, he earned a Fulbright Scholarship to teach English as a foreign language in South Korea. He arrived in early July, and spent the first six weeks in an intensive Korean language and culture orientation at Kangwon University in Chuncheon. Afterwards, he was placed with a host family to begin his teaching at a community school until July 2009.

Nov. 16:

I have mentioned before the obsession in South Korean education with a major national examination: the Korean Scholastic Aptitude Test or KSAT. This past week, on Nov. 13, the all-important, all-encompassing test took place. The KSAT is only offered once each year and is a large determinant for where students will go to college.

There is a level of pressure and secrecy surrounding this test that is unlike anything with the American SAT. For example, the seniors at my school only found out the day before the test where they would be taking it. I am not exactly sure why that is necessary; it just seems to add to the aura of the exam.

The test center for my school's students was about an hour away from Hwasun. The test-taking students met in front of the school at 6:30 a.m. for their bus ride that had a police escort. While talking to some teachers, I found out that there would be a pep-rally for the test-takers during the morning of the test. On this day off from school, I managed to rouse from slumber and take the chilly bike ride down to the pep-rally at 6 in the morning. When I arrived, I found a group of students from the younger grades setting up coffee packets, hot water, and little snacks for those about to ride the bus. They had been prepping since 5:45 a.m. in what turned out to be a very cold morning. Despite the chill and their lack of gloves, their spirits were high as they cheered for the seniors with funny signs and smiles. I had the honor of holding a sign that I did not understand. In Korean, it read, "We passed the test!" and, it had a picture of a toilet paper roll and an axe on it. Those who saw me with the sign laughed and boarded the bus. I made an appearance on all of the buses before they left for one last cheer with my sign that all the students seemed to enjoy.

I asked some of my students for an explanation of my sign. Why did it have a TP roll painted on it? After much Korean deliberation, a group of them said, without cracking a smile, "Because it solves a problem."

Ha-ha, well I thought that was great. A problem, it certainly does solve.

I have since learned that it is actually some kind of clever Korean pun that is a bit less crude than the meaning I ultimately derived. Ha-ha, but the toilet paper metaphor works for me.

I was really glad that I went to the rally with my students. Many of the students at my school are really sweet and sincere kids. My school is not a socioeconomically privileged school, and does not have a great history with the test, but the support that they showed for each other that morning spoke much more positively for them than any test score could.

Oh yeah, and in other news, we have a new president-elect in America. The amount of coverage that American politics received was kind of shocking. I don't remember the last time I saw much news about a foreign country's election in America.

In Korea, along with what seemed like the rest of the international community, people were pretty supportive of Obama. This was especially interesting because Obama's economic policies actually contrast with South Korea's. The president, Lee Myung-Bak, had gone with an economic model that mirrored Bush's. You may have heard about riots in Seoul back in March and April about American beef, which was a reaction against many of Lee Myung-Bak's bold policies that were being applied rapidly (not just American beef, although that was the focus). The reaction against Lee Myung-Bak may have fueled some of the Obama support, and it remains to be seen how the two countries will cooperate in the future. Certainly, the Obama-Lee relationship will be different than the Bush-Lee relationship.

I've attached a picture of a newspaper announcing Obama's victory. You'll notice "color" as the only English word on the page. It literally translates to "America won color" to be understood as, "A colored man won the presidency."

  • Korean newspaper announcing Obama's win

    IMAGE: Luke Zeller

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated November 18, 2010