The entire country of Korea came to a halt this morning. Businesses opened late, flights were grounded, high schools closed for the day, and people were encouraged to stay off the roads. Rows of flags lined the streets and emergency personnel stood ready to assist. If you think it sounds like the start of a war you wouldn’t be too far off: the third grade high schoolers were off to do battle with the Suneung, their university entrance exam.
The closest thing the suneung might be compared to is the SAT, but it’s like an SAT on steroids carrying an axe and chasing you up a mountain. It is the end all, be all test that determines what university they gain entrance to, which subsequently determines their job and marriage prospects. It is the test they’ve worked their ENTIRE LIVES for, and it is the test that will then determine the rest of their ENTIRE LIVES. The hierarchical system in Korea does not leave much room for flexibility. So no pressure, right?
The suneung is a day around which suicide rates soar. In the education obsessed country, nearly every facet of life for youth is geared toward preparing for this test. Students attend academy classes after school and then go to study rooms to cram until 2am, only to return home and begin again at 7am. The entire family plans their lives around supporting the student. A third grade high schooler preparing for the suneung is known as the “king” of the family; vacations are postponed, younger siblings deprioritized, and parents worriedly dote on the studying teen, while simultaneously pressuring them to study harder.
It’s all a very sad reality, but rather get into the ethics behind it all I thought it would be interesting to focus on the traditions and superstitions of the actual test day.
1. Emergency Help: If a student sleeps through their alarm or gets stuck in traffic, they can call for emergency help and a police car or ambulance will whisk them off to their test. Taxis will also sometimes volunteer to drive students to their testing center for free if needed. If a student forgets their ID (a requirement to take the test) at home, policemen will drive home to retrieve it for them.
2. Cheering: Parents and other supporters will line up outside the testing center to wave encouraging signs and cheer on the students as they approach the building. Many students cry at this point.
3. Praying: On or before test day, parents and family members will hike or travel to religious sites to pray to Buddha for their students to get a good score. In Daegu they go to Palgong Mountain and pray to Gatbawi.
3. Bad Luck: It is bad luck to eat seaweed soup on test day. Seaweed is slippery and it could make the test answers “slip” out of your memory.
4. Good Luck: It is good luck to eat yut, a traditional Korean candy. Yut is sticky and will make a student “stick” to the university they want to go to.
5. Gifts: A good luck gift is a fork so you can “stab” the right answer. Another good luck gift is a (toy) axe so you can “chop” the right answer.
6. Well wishes: When wishing the students good luck on their way to the test, people will say encouraging words to focus on the journey to this moment rather than on the test at hand. They will say, “you’ve worked so hard” rather than, “do well on the test”.
What kind of superstitions and traditions do you have in your home country for a big test?