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South Korea’s Exam-Takers Have a Prayer

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Perhaps nowhere was the fervor of South Korean mothers for their children’s education more evident than on a dark, frigid mountaintop overlooking this capital city on a recent morning.

About 300 mothers of high school seniors had packed an open-air Buddhist temple Saturday evening to pray--all night--for their children’s success in a national college-entrance exam today that will determine whether the students get into the country’s top schools. Most had arrived by 8 p.m.; Na Moon Ok had shown up for her bowing rites a full seven hours earlier.

By the time the vigil ended Sunday morning, the mothers had worked harder than they might have in marathon aerobics classes: Up. Clasp hands in prayer. Bow. Down on knees. Head to floor. Back on haunches. Clasp hands in prayer. Begin again. By midnight, Na had already bowed 2,000 times, aching but determined to persevere. “If I try my best, it’ll help her,” she said, referring to her daughter.

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For most of these women, the all-night mothers’ “mass” was the longest and last service in the 100 straight days they’d been coming to the Do Sun Temple to pray that their children would ace the most important test of their lives.

Most of the students will have to settle for lesser schools: Only 15,000 of the 873,000 taking the test will be admitted to one of the top three.

The mothers’ obsession was but one manifestation of the South Korean phenomenon known as “senior syndrome.” Kids study for months, getting little sleep, and parents often shell out big bucks for tutors to coach them. Two-foot-long chocolate axes and forks, symbolic gifts given to the seniors to help them “spear” the right answers, are on sale in stores and special kiosks everywhere.

Everyone chips in. High school bands and cheering throngs of younger students will meet test-takers at school gates this morning to encourage the seniors to do their best. Workers will report to their jobs an hour later than usual to reduce rush-hour traffic so the seniors can get to the exam on time. And landings and takeoffs will be banned at Seoul’s Kimpo International Airport for 15-minute periods in the morning and evening so as not to distract students during the listening comprehension portion.

Even the U.S. military will halt training at its 90 bases in South Korea for nine hours “in respectful observance of Korean students’ national day of testing,” the U.S. military command said in a news release.

‘It’s Not Fair’

The students obviously feel the pressure: “It’s not fair,” said senior Chong Pil Gu, who was praying with his parents at a candlelight service Saturday evening at the Bong Eun Temple, across town from the mountain temple. “I’ve been preparing for college since elementary school, and it all comes down to just one day that will decide my future.”

But some say parents feel the stress as much or more. “Parents’ passion for education is driving the development of Korean society,” Lee K. Y. said as he and his wife left a packed worship service where they prayed for their son’s success in getting into Seoul National University. “As parents, yes, we suffer. . . . We share his hardship.”

Lee knows the physical symptoms of senior syndrome not just from his job running a private psychiatric hospital, but from firsthand experience: Dry mouth. Irritability. Anxiety. Nervousness. Insomnia.

In this status-obsessed and hierarchy-conscious society, it’s vital to ace the six-hour test for admission to the top three schools: Seoul National University, Yonsei University and Korea University, in that order. Their alumni tend to be Korean society’s elite, generally landing the most prestigious jobs and public offices. Competition is ferocious.

About a dozen other colleges are also considered in the top tier among the few hundred colleges in South Korea. Without the imprimatur of one of these schools, it is far tougher to succeed than in America’s meritocracy, where going to an Ivy League school certainly doesn’t hurt but is just one of many factors in one’s success.

Money Spent on Tutors

Despite the thousands of dollars some Korean families spend on tutors, studying for the exam doesn’t help much, said Park Do Soon, president of the Korea Institute of Curriculum and Evaluation. The private firm, which the government oversees, designs the mostly multiple-choice exam, which includes sections on Korean language and literature, English, math and physical and social sciences.

“But you can say to others, ‘You don’t need to study,’ except if it’s your kid,” Park said. “Because in Korea, you can’t get status or a good job without [doing well].”

The syndrome is actually in its infancy: The national exam was instituted just seven years ago. The goal was to have a comparative national gauge of students’ abilities. It replaced exams that students took in each subject. The 25% of the test-takers who don’t do well enough to get into their school of choice often spend the year after graduation studying in private academies, hoping to earn a better score.

Now the government is urging universities to consider other factors more heavily: grades, achievement awards, extracurricular activities and other accomplishments. Beginning next year, the government will give the universities financial incentives to do just that.

It won’t be soon enough, however, for the women who were building up their leg muscles on the cold mountaintop this past weekend.

Paek Hyung Jung, 51, like most of the mothers, came with a picture of her son, Im Yoon Hwan, attached to a laminated prayer sheet. Paek was using coins, switching them from one pocket to another after each set of 108--a number significant in Buddhism--to keep track of the number of times she’d genuflected. By midnight, her tally was 1,100, halfway to her goal.

Her shoes off, as is Buddhist custom inside temples, and brown wooden prayer beads in hand, Paek huddled with her cohorts on thin futon cushions they’d brought to cover the freezing stones in a section of the sprawling temple dedicated to prayer for students.

Pink plastic lanterns in the shape of flower blossoms, strung overhead with a senior’s name, birth date and good-luck wish attached, were the only things between the women and the glorious full moon. Hundreds of candles flickered, and the altar was stacked with fruit, flowers and uncooked rice offerings for the Buddha. Incense perfumed the air.

Several times an hour, the women chanted along with a Buddhist monk, all the while continuing to prostrate themselves.

Are the prayers too selfish? Not at all, said a Buddhist monk who gave his religious name as Do Woong. “Religion started from a wish-making process, but it doesn’t characterize all of Buddhism,” he said. “Even though people pray with their own purpose, they try to cleanse their minds that were once tainted by greed and coveting, and they dedicate themselves to the total purpose.”

By 1 a.m., the women, who were prepared to stay until the scheduled finish time of 6 a.m., got a reprieve. The monk leading the ceremonies told them that the service would end more than two hours earlier than planned.

Just after 3 a.m., Kwon Ki Sun, 52, arrived with his son. “I couldn’t sleep,” the father said. He came late so he could pray, but there was no room. After bowing his head several times to the Buddha, he turned to leave, planning to drive to another temple with more room. It will be his son’s second attempt at the exam.

Just before 3:30 a.m., the women chanted the same strains they began with hours earlier. “Thanks for staying all night,” the monk told them after they finished. “You did a good job. I hope that the overnight prayer will help your kids, your family and the whole community.”

Paek Hyung Jung, who was counting the coins, made it till the end, but she had long since lost track of her bows. She was almost too exhausted to move but felt good that she’d made it through the night. She hopes that it will be her last time.

She’s done similar vigils for her four daughters. Did they help? she was asked. “They all went to college. I don’t know whether it helped them or not,” she said. Now that it’s her youngest child’s turn, she’s no less nervous. “I’m just here,” she said, “trying to calm my own frayed nerves.”


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