Thursday, November 18, 2010

Suneong - College Entrance Test Day

Suneong is the traditional testing day for would-be university freshmen. Across the nation, wanna-be university freshmen flock to the university they would like to enter and take a rigorous examination of several hours. To show just how important education is and how focused the nation is on accommodating the huge number of testees on this day, the government requires companies start work an hour or two later to expedite the in-coming "freshmen" to the big universities around Seoul. Then in the universities themselves where the students are flocking, classes are cancelled in several of the buildings to allow setup of desks, cleaning of desks and removal of all papers and pencil marks from the desks, and then classrooms are locked and no students, professors, or anyone is allowed to enter. This entry restriction extends for three days: the day of setup, test day itself, and for some reason the following day as well.

Passing the test is all-important, or at least that is the attitude manifested by the vast majority. Unfortunately but thankfully not as frequently as previously, even suicides take place if students "fail" to gain admittance in the university they want. To augment their years of university preparation ... and indeed, all lessons in high school particularly, middle-school and even elementary school to some degree seem to be aimed at taking and acing the entrance exam ... and once that is accomplished, the university freshman year can be spent in having fun, drinking, making friends, and is seen as a bit of a joke. The freshmen year is often a "let your hair down" year and is a year of celebration because in Korea, once a student enters the more prestigious universities, basically he or she is assured success in life. Anyway, to augment their years of preparation, students' parents rush to get symbols and prayers for furthering their childrens' success. And this is one of the times of year when Buddhist temples, particularly around Chogyesa, flourish in the business of charms, talismans, well wishes ...

A younger brother of one of my university students oddly asked if he could leave class early in order to give his brother the Buddhist symbol for good luck that his Catholic mother had gotten for her younger son. My student was almost desperate because he had forgotten it in his dorm room and it had to be given to his brother BEFORE the exam so that his brother could gain blessings and luck during the exam by tucking it into his pocket. He absolutely had to fulfill his great responsibility as an older brother! My student is atheist (as tends to be the younger generations), his mother is Catholic and the symbol is Buddhist. When I asked about the irony of a Catholic purchasing Buddhist artifacts, he shrugged and basically said his mother, like many mothers, will do anything to have their sons succeed at the entrance exam.

After the exam, the Buddhist braided luck symbol (colors have symbolism but no one could tell me what they symbolize) was given to me. And supposedly, even though another person had used the "luck" chain (as I call it for want of a better term), I could still use it for an exam like my doctoral degree defense since each owner can use it once. Auspicious symbols are not limited by any means to "luck" chains but could be a picture of a Buddha or an auspicious word carved on a rock, the list is rather endless.

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