By Flora Lee
Just to briefly describe the life of an average gosam: he/she gets to school by 7 to 8 a.m., and does practically nothing other than study, study, study until midnight or more—at school, at home or at private study rooms that cost quite a lot. In reality this brutal slog begins as soon as final exams end in one’s junior year if not as soon as the exam is taken by seniors (many students set a “D-Day” countdown application on cell phones or computers at 365 days and follow the countdown by days, hours, minutes and seconds and the rest can’t escape constant reminders from friends, teachers and parents). For students who wish to enter a prestigious university—called SKY here indicating Seoul National University (Korea’s Harvard), Korea
Of course, hard work pays off and those who score high on Sooneung are those who studied ever so ardently. What is frightening is that a lot of hard-working students actually fail to earn high scores. That is how I, as a gosam, felt as I counted down the days to D-Day, November 18, 2010. As those days hit 100, 50, 10, I was scared and I was worried and I lamented my poor score on mock examinations that we took almost every month. But I knew at the same time that fretting would not change anything. The only right choice I could make was to be calm and study—but that was hardest thing.
Anyway, the day that I never ever dreamed would come actually did. The weather was not as cold as usual. (Every year the day of Sooneung— sometime around the second/third week of November—is extremely cold and people joke that it is because the students are nervous and frightened!) I got up around 6 o’clock, had a nice breakfast of rice, some small fish, cooked veggies and beef. My mother prepared a dosirak for lunch, of rice and a few other side dishes of kimchi, beef and fruit. My 72-year-old grandfather drove me to the examination place along with my grandmother and mom. They offered words of encouragement while also telling me they’d prayed for me and had had favorable dreams.
The exam location was at Moohak Girl’s High School (students take the test
The first subject, Korean, took 80 minutes and consisted of listening, grammar, literature and general reading comprehension. Second was mathematics which took 100 minutes. After those two subjects I felt… nothing. I really couldn’t figure out whether it was easy or not, nor whether I did well or not but my friends seemed like they’d ruined the test and one even cried because she blew the math section. But apart from a few “It will be okays,” none of us said much and just ate lunch. A quick stop at the restroom, and the test was on again with the English section taking 70 minutes. Next came the two-hour parade of four social studies subjects, 30 minutes each. I took Ethics, Korean History, Korean geography and Economics. Last but not least was my language major French to fill up the last 40 minutes and at around 6:00 p.m., everything was over.
During the test, I personally didn’t feel much. It honestly flew by just like that. The only noticeable emotion was probably that Sooneung felt so normal! It was just like one of the many mock exams I had taken (that must be one of reasons we take so many). One of my friends left a proverb about the Korean and Mathematics sections saying: “Sooneung is nothing much but jaesu is something near.” Only gosams will understand the black humor poured into the sentence. It seemed like he was already readying himself for another year of test preparation.
The result? Unfortunately, I wasn’t a winner on the Sooneung day. I have to say that I cried and cried all that night because the scores of that day were something I had never ever seen. Mom tried her best to console me, told me that I did well and things would surely turn out for the best. She was ever so nice, but of course it didn’t do much to alleviate my deep sorrow. I still don’t know what exactly was the problem. Maybe I was nervous, maybe I was simply unprepared. I don’t blame anything. What is sure is that ruining the Sooneung was and still is an enormous trauma to me, and probably to all those who practically spent their life with a pen and a book and yet screwed the test. It’s a pain to face your parents or your teachers properly because you feel so sorry and guilty. However, what is also sure is that whatever the degree of difficulty, there are always students who survive. All the students who are satisfied with their scores deserve it, and I applaud them.
Sooneung has its winners and losers. And as a total loser who is anxiously anticipating the news about the only susi I applied to (early application with minimal Sooneung requirements—my only hope to go to college this year!), thinking about Sooneung to write this was extremely agonizing. Adults say that the test and university are nothing compared to the hurdles you will face later in life. Yet they also say that despite all that, they know and understand what Sooneung means to us. It’s a big, gigantic hurdle that appears so fearful. But most of us students have to jump over it at least once in a lifetime. Robert S. Eliot said, “If you can not fight and if you can not flee, flow.” Before Sooneung I thought that was the best way to think. After Sooneung, I still do.
Flora Lee is a graduating senior at Daewon Foreign Language High School where she majored in French. She hopes to get into college where she’ll fine tune her French skills.
Editor’s Note: One reason the exam might have seemed so hard was because it was so hard.
Update: Flora is now wrapping up her first year at Seoul National University.