City stops for exam day

South Koreans pride themselves on a competitive spirit. This has contributed to the vast number of Koreans attending elite American universities and to the country’s consistently strong performance in economics and sports such as women’s golf.

The Koreans have a hunger for education, especially higher education. South Korea is a part of the Confucian cultural sphere of East Asia where for centuries education was the surest route to social success.

On November 19, I made my way from home to work at the Emmaus Centre (a centre for intellectually challenged people). It was 7:00am and the street lights were beginning to dim.  On the railings of the pathway I noticed big signs that read - Please, no noise-Exam Day.

Yes it was the day for taking the College Scholastic Aptitude Test (CSAT), the state administered university entrance exam which was being conducted all over the country with as many as a half a million high school students taking part.

Unlike other countries where such an exam is extended over a period of a week or two, here in South Korea it's confined to one day. Perhaps that is the reason why it is considered such a unique day and why such unusual and somewhat bizarre regulations are put in force or recommended.

All military aircraft are banned from taking off or landing during the period the students are taking listening tests in languages. Starting hours for public servants and big company’s workers are pushed to 10:00am to lessen traffic congestion that would make students late for their exams.

Drivers of vehicles are expected to refrain from honking their horns when passing schools. Policemen with motorcycles and ambulance drivers are on standby to assist any exam taker who may be in difficulty getting to the exam venue in time.

As I neared the Emmaus Centre, I was greeted with cheering voices, accompanied by the beating of drums and clanging of symbols. It was coming from the entrance of the high school across from the Emmaus Centre. About 100 students, boys and girls, queued outside the front gate greeting with a roar of welcome each exam taker as they appeared on the scene.

The latter were mostly accompanied by their parents and you could see the anxious mothers pass on a sweet into the hands of their son or daughter to wish them well. Many parents, mostly mothers remained outside after their children entered the test venue, some clinging tightly to their Buddhists beads or the Catholic rosary beads. Others had opted to attend their local temple or church to spend the day praying for their exam taking child.

A special institute bus arrived and out steps the grim-faced teacher to be followed by a string of students who were all geared up for this competitive big game. Those students probably for the past year spent their whole nights at this special institute, after spending their day at their local school from 7:00am-4:00pm. Some of the supporting students standing outside held banners or placards that read: "Just do it", Seoul University, others shouted “Sooneung Daebak,” which means “hit the jackpot on the CSAT”.

As I left the educational scene and began to stroll over to Emmaus Centre, my thoughts went back to those early years when I first began to offer assistance to the intellectually challenged in South Korea. The parents were so burdened with shame, that they came late at night to Emmaus Centre to seek assistance so that they would not be seen by anyone.

We do not offer academic subjects to the people at the Emmaus Centre, but rather the life skills to enable them to live independently in the community. Our emphasis is to let them know that they are loved and worthwhile.

I reflected that although the people from the Emmaus Centre were not sitting an exam today, their extraordinary transition into society could never be measured by an exam.

Fr Noel O’Neill has been a missionary in Korea since 1957.

Click here to watch video of Fr Noel O'Neil

Read more from The Far East, March 2012