By, Phoenix Robertson
Have you ever had a “Day in the Life of a Korean High School Student” appear in your YouTube recommended section or, perhaps, on other social media platforms? Chances are, you have seen videos like this many times:
While each vlogger’s videos are all slightly different, they all have a similar schedule. Students wake up early, arrive to class, study for easily over twelve hours a day, and still have time to hang out with friends.
As a long time fan of South Korean culture and media, I was also interested in why these videos were suddenly becoming popular over the past few years. To further understand why these vlogs have seen a surge in popularity and their accuracy, I interviewed my Korean language teacher, who was a high school teacher in South Korea for a decade, and a current high school student in South Korea.
In this article I will discuss the perspectives of a student, teacher, and parent on what the daily life of a South Korean high school student is really like.
Before I begin discussing the contents of the interviews that I hosted and my findings, I would first like to share about my story and why I have decided to write about South Korean high schools. I have been interested in foreign languages from the time I was eight years old and decided to start taking Mandarin classes from my neighbor. Since then, I have studied multiple other languages with varying degrees of success.
Even though the languages and cultures that I have shown an interest in have changed over the years, my reason for wanting to learn about other cultures has not. I learn other languages and about other cultures so that I can learn how to communicate with other people and to see life through their respective lens. In making the impossible possible, language learning is the closest thing to magic.
I originally started learning Korean in December of 2018 when I discovered K-pop. I loved the sound of the language and the upbeat sounds of the music, but I quickly grew tired of waiting for other people to tell me what the songs I loved so much really meant.
When I decided to take understanding this content into my own hands, I taught myself to read and write the Korean alphabet, 한글 which can be romanized as “hangul”. After mastering this, I started learning basic grammar and vocabulary. I spent large portions of my time in those early months of learning Korean trying to name and describe the items in the world around me. Around mid-2019, I realized that I could only get so far on my own, and I began to seek content in Korean that I could easily access wherein people speak conversationally (i.e. Korean vlogs) Listening to and watching these “Day in the Life” vlogs helped me learn casual Korean and words that I could use in my everyday life.
In 2020, I enrolled in a Korean language and culture school where I was, and still am, assigned weekly workbook homework, tests to study for, speeches to write, and projects to do. With this,I began to rely less and less on these vlogs to teach me about the Korean language and more about what life was like for high school students in Korea. I decided to write this article to explore the different parts of these vlogs and what life is truly like for high school students in South Korea.
The Perspective of a Teacher
In order to learn about the experiences of students in South Korean high schools, I wanted to interview both the students and the people that students interact with daily. To do this, I interviewed my current Korean language teacher, who was also a high school teacher in South Korea for ten years.
I asked him how different high school in South Korea is now from when he was a student, and he said, “when I was in high school, it was very competitive. Everyone wanted to go to the top three schools in South Korea. This started to change because high school students have too much stress and study all the time”. When he decided to become a teacher, he knew he wanted to have a good relationship with his students and try to help them deal with the stress that they were going through.
Due to the pressure that is placed on teachers of high school students in South Korea, and due to the societal importance of a good education, he knew that he wouldn’t be able to carry out this goal if he taught one of these classes, so he decided to become a physical education teacher.
When asked about what his relationship and classroom dynamic was like with his students in South Korea, he noted that “teachers were supposed to teach and students aren’t supposed to challenge them. Because I taught physical education, I tried to help them learn to not be as stressed and let them form good relationships with their friends”. He also explained that because students in most South Korean high schools move with their homeroom class, they have the opportunity to form very close bonds with their peers. Despite this, the academic culture in South Korea is still very competitive. Students are constantly placed in competition against their friends. According to my teacher, this “value system is not good. They always have to win… we are trying to fix this, but it’s a bad situation”.
The topic that originally sparked my interest in the experiences of South Korean high school students was the popularity of “Day in the Life of a Korean High School Student” vlogs in the United States, consequently I naturally wanted to learn how accurate these vlogs are from a teacher’s perspective. As could be expected with all things relating to social media, my teacher stated that “They leave out the negatives, because they are trying to show their positive points”. Due to the nature of social media, individuals wanting to glamorize their lives, it is certainly within the realm of possibility that students tend to exaggerate the highlights of their lives in these vlogs. To understand what aspects of these vlogs are reality and which are fiction I decided to ask a current high school student in South Korea.
In order to understand what aspects of these vlogs are reality and which are fiction, I knew that I would need an insider’s perspective. To gain this, I interviewed a high school student in South Korea, Jian Kim (김지안). Jian explained that in South Korea there are many different types of high schools and each student within each school has a major, so naturally every student will have a very different experience. The different types of high schools in South Korea are 영재고, 특목고, 특성화고, 자사고, and 일반고. 영재고, which can be romanized as yongjae-go, is a school for students who have been deemed gifted. 특목고, which can be romanized as teungmok-go, is a high school that prepares students for a special purpose. 특성화고, romanized as teukseonghwa-go, is a high school that is well known for a certain subject and provides an excellent education in that area. 자사고, jasa-go, is a private high school and 일반고, ilban-go, is a general high school. The general majors that students can pick from are 문과, which translates to “liberal arts”, and 이과, which means “natural sciences”. More specific majors can then be selected once a student decides if they are going to pursue a more 문과 or 이과 centered education. Jian is a 문과 student at a 자사고.
I was very interested in what the relationships are like between students right now since reforms are currently being made to the South Korean school system to try to change the competitive nature of schools. Jian stated that, “I think I have good relationships with my friends, because I live with my fellow students in the dorms”. At her school, all students live in dormitories on campus. She also said that she feels that she has a good relationship with her teachers, especially her homeroom teacher, since students at her school spend so much time in their homeroom.
Jian also told me about student culture at her high school. The high school she attends mandates that students wear uniforms to school. The school’s uniform is based on traditional Korean clothing 한복, romanized as hanbok. The school produces the uniforms in various colors, but the different colors are only available for a few years after they are produced. Students then buy these uniforms and trade them to other students. I think that this trading culture helps to bond these students together.
When asked about the accuracy of the “Day in the Life of a Korean High School Student” vlogs, Jian responded by saying that “I like to watch them, many are very accurate. I think most students suffer from studying, unless they give up studying”. She went on to say that when students give up on studying and doing well in school, they often have very difficult lives after school, as one of the main pillars of success in South Korean culture is good grades, high test scores, and attending one of the top colleges.
A Parent’s Perspective
The majority of high school students are not yet adults. They rely on their parents for food, clothing, shelter, and often advice on what to do. To understand how different the South Korean and American school systems are, from the perspective of a former student and now parent, I decided to interview the principal of my Korean language school. The principal lived in South Korea for her entire life as a child and then moved to the United States as an adult. She now has two children, one in college and the other in high school, who have only experienced the American school system. Please note that this interview was done entirely in Korean, so these are translations of Korean words.
When I asked the principal what her life was like as a high school student, she told me that “I have good memories of being a high school student, I had to study really hard, so I didn’t have a lot of freetime as a student, but when I did I had a really good time”. I then inquired what it was like for her from a parent’s perspective to watch her children go through the American school system versus what her experience was going through the school system in South Korea. She told me that “in South Korea during high school, you don’t really choose what classes you take. Your school decides your classes. In American high schools, you can pick everything. You can take easy classes or hard classes or both. That was really different for me”.
Many students in South Korea, and across the world, are currently struggling with the amount of stress that is placed on them, due to societal expectations and the pressure that they receive from their family and friends to do well academically. In my opinion, a global reform on the education system is necessary to lessen the burden that has been placed on today’s youth. If less stress was placed on students and if students were better taught how to deal with their stress, then fewer students would have to deal with the negative physical and mental health effects of dealing with a surplus of stress.
After conducting both of these interviews, I feel that my understanding of the experiences that South Korean high school students have has been greatly heightened. My viewing of the vlogs has also led me to the revelation of the kind of lifestyle these students actually lead off camera. While it is interesting to watch these captivating videos, it is important to recognize that not everything that appears in these videos is reality.
Thank you for reading this article, and I hope that you learned a bit more about the daily life of a South Korean high school student from the perspective of a student and teacher. This article is the first in my new series, Korea Diaries! This series will follow my adventures while I explore South Korean culture and the Korean language. Stay tuned for more, and thank you for reading!
Would you like to watch one of these vlogs for yourself? Check out this short list below of my favorite “Day in the Life” vlogs of South Korean high school students.