On January 5 of this year I went into the main campus of the university where I teach in Korea. I had been nominated or selected/chosen/drafted in to help with the writing of what is notorious here in the land of the morning calm, that what is, is the pyeon-ib (편입).
The pyeon-ib is a test for students who are already in a university who want to enter another university, usually one that is better. To get in they have to take two tests, one of which is an English exam of 60 questions. Myself and three other English faculty members were here with a few others from scientific, mathematic, and other humanities based subjects to shape upwards of 8000 hopefuls vying for only a few hundred spaces.
This test is categorised (by who I have yet to find out) as a high-stakes exam, so that means that people will to go to any amount of means to pass. Now, while I’m not sure what this means, no chances were taken and our group of about thirteen were shuttled off to ‘a secret location’ which wasn’t that secret but was certainly isolated deep in the hills surrounding Seoul (I won’t say in which direction but you can take it for granted it wasn’t to the west). Needless to say there are plenty of hagwons already in the business of preparing students for specific university pyeon-ib exams.
We got out of the bus in front of where we would be located for the next seven days. Surrounded by a lush pine forest and an untouched covering of snow in what would be a grassy opening in the summer, it looked ideal I thought, and in between finishing the exam I imagined myself taking poetic wanders in the trees to think about the world and…then I was informed that we would be locked indoors and only allowed outside for an hour a day.
When we settled in to our rooms and were mid-meeting discussing our strategy an assistant knocked on the door and commandeered our mobile phones, and this wasn’t the end of it – we weren’t allowed to check our email either for a whole week, a whole week! I couldn’t believe it. I’m the kind of person who checks my email at least once an hour let alone once a week. After about thirty minutes I began to have short outbreaks of perspiration and near nervous breakdown, but they fortunately died down after a few days.
It wasn’t all that bad, I suppose. It was good to get away from the email for a while and become a little less obsessed with other people trying to get in touch with me. One of my cowriters expressed many my own thoughts – it was much needed detox. We did have internet and could check the news whenever suited us, not mention any other websites (I even checked here a few times but didn’t post anything for some reason – I wonder if I posted the answers would anyone have noticed?).
So I settled down to write the test. It was a bit of kick actually writing a really hard test which I had been advised that we were writing for students to fail. Because there are so few places, the fewer students who do well the better so that there are less students on the same score or something like that. Of course, it took me a few days to actually get the hang of the structure which is very different to the kind of test I’d like to give – the fact that students essentially just have to tick boxes and not actually use their English language ability. A test of understanding doesn’t really benefit anyone who needs to communicate in English, but I’ll go into this later. As was explained to me, this isn’t going to happen because the logistics of checking 8000 test papers as quick as possible is beyond the reach of a university, and I imagine that the same excuse is used for all tests here in Korea where the powers that be continue to follow misguided means of teaching people how to function outside the classroom, but as I said, more in this flavour of ranting later.
Of course the handy thing was that despite being isolated from family and friends, not to mention fresh air (so close but so far), we had anything and everything we wanted. There were a few tables set up with all kinds of food and snacks to keep those nibbling tendencies well and truly fuelled. Every morning there was a newspaper, including an English one for myself. Every night we would gather around in the television room and have a few beers, and several times fried chicken and other niceties were ordered in for us. The few beers got a little bigger in quatity as the test gradually finished, and then on the last night we got properly rat arsed, with yours truly instigating a respectable sing-song, something I’ve never seen in Korea before. Did I mention I managed to sneak the best part of a bottle of whiskey home with me too?
But something still hung between ourselves and the reality of outside the walls.
A recurring image I have of this lockup could possibly typify my feeling; the daily sight on the ground floor of the front doors chained together and bright sunlight catching the lock and chain in a dark silhouette like arms crossed in a big X, an X that has always meant NO (not ‘no’) to me in Korea. All that happened indoors, regardless of the lessons learned and good or bad times had, didn’t matter because those doors stopped the world from going in or out. We were at the whim of the world we were assigned to, objective slaves to the future of the few thousand who had given up their lives to try to go to a, for want of a better word, better university.
My next post will try to figure out the overall testing and educational practices in the country I make my livelihood from – don’t expect many answers.