Hard-working middle-schoolers write about how coronavirus improved family life even as it increased stress in society | By Seth Mountain (Summer 2020 issue)
In the Spring 2020 issue of KQ, I reflected on what I saw to be the connections between past and present democratic struggles in South Korea and South Korea’s success in subduing the spread of the coronavirus. Near the end of my essay I wrote:
Whatever success South Koreans had in handling the coronavirus outbreak is also a testament to the vibrant democracy we now enjoy. Today, preserving that hard-won democracy depends on all residents taking responsibility for their own actions. We must act in consideration of others’ welfare, and avoid the risks that personal behavior, from sightseeing to profiteering, can bring to others.
Can this last? Can we show the self-restraint and collective sacrifice necessary to truly flatten the coronavirus curve in South Korea for good?
That was a few months ago. For the most part, the collective self-restraint and willingness to hold off on the old “normal” has paid off. There have been very few outbreaks. New cases continue to surface, but at a slow enough trickle to be maintained and traced easily. Martial law was never enforced, and a new, smaller-scale, but increasingly relaxed routine is becoming recognizable. Gatherings are still limited in size, but not regularity. Everyone wears masks. But cafes, parks and streets are often filled with people. People are living their lives, even having fun —- carefully.
What about schools? So far, the effort to get schools up and running has been gargantuan, and mostly successful. There are few countries in the world that value schooling and success through education more than South Korea. So it is unsurprising that, despite the restrictions on almost all large gatherings in Korea, there has been a massive push to make schools work as soon as possible —- even if it means some very careful measures. Students study and eat alone, enclosed in plexiglass cubicles, after getting their temperatures checked at the door, and are not allowed to socialize during break times. In some cases, they must work in rooms without air conditioning. Korea’s rigid schooling routine is known to be stressful and all-consuming. It is also credited for the nation’s success, and ability to get ahead of the competition.
The swift transition from online classes to full classrooms after just a few months is viewed as a great victory. But a victory for what and for whom? And at what cost? Is this success a testament to South Korean democratic values —- the same values of self-restraint and caring for others that have toppled past dictators and subdued the virus? Or does it stem from a different spirit and value system? Why is it necessary for students to be in school, despite considerable discomfort, cost and dangers, as soon as possible? What would happen if students simply took 2020 off?
I was curious —- what do students think? How do they feel about returning to school, or the “new normal” in general?
For most Korean students, especially those with lofty academic aspirations, the middle school years are crucial, and they are also brutally demanding.
As a part-time English tutor and independent teacher, I regularly feel awe, pride, worry and deep sympathy for the students I am blessed to work with. My concerns for their health and safety often outweigh my other feelings. Especially during the test seasons when it is normal to hear their stories of studying at academies and cram schools until around 10 p.m., then going home or holing up somewhere with classmates to continue poring over textbooks until 1, 2, or 3 a.m., only to rise early the following morning for more studying.
For thousands of students, this is normal life. So normal that imagining alternatives can feel pointless. For most Korean students, imagining a drastically different mode of education is as difficult as imagining Korea without war.
Coronavirus has changed everything about normal, and Korean student life is no exception. What now? Blessing or curse?
Over the past few months, I have been asking students how they feel about the new normal during this pandemic. Recently I shared the following questions with several first- through third-year middle schoolers
What positive lessons can we learn from/during this corona era?
If Corona was a person or supernatural being, what might she be trying to teach us? What has she shown us already, here and around the world, about ourselves? Our culture? Our values? Our relationships with nature, technology, education, government, and each other?
How has she challenged our ideas of what is “normal”? Can we go back to “normal” after Corona leaves? Should we? What, if anything, should we try to do/think about differently in the post-Corona future?
If you had to say thank you to Corona, what would you thank her for?
Below are five responses, written by hard-working middle school students from years 1, 2 and 3, ages 13 through 15. I have helped with minor editing, but the ideas and the essays are their own.
In each personal reflection, there is a lot we can all learn. Besides being interesting, the takes are also at times very funny, clever, and poignant. I am grateful to Sumin, Jung Won, Sooyeon, Yein, and Sang Hyo, for taking the time to share their worldviews with us. There is a lot of wisdom, humor, and sharp observation in the following reflections.
1. “I now have time to get to know myself more”
(Sumin / “Jasmine”, age 13)
Corona, the world’s worst problem in 2020, is also my crisis. I have been wearing a mask every day that makes me feel like I can’t breathe. I can’t spend precious time with my friends. I couldn’t even enter into school in my first season of middle school. When Corona started, the trouble began for me. I felt like I was a thief and that I had to stay in prison. But after some time, my thinking began to change about this situation. I saw that positive things have been given to us by corona. This realization made me feel very awkward because I had thought that corona was giving us only negative things.
Thanks to Corona, I didn’t have to go to school or wake up early in the morning. And that means, I don’t have to spend my morning time busy and stressed. Corona gave me a precious chance to use my morning efficiently. Actually, recently, I started to wake up at six o’clock by myself. And I am learning to use self-study techniques that other people invented. For example, I open my laptop and click the blue-colored app. It also has a name: Zoom. I enter Zoom with my friends and we direct each other and ask whether we are studying hard or not.
At first, my parents thought these video calls were not studying, just playing. Even calling each other can interrupt study time more. But now, my parents are proud of me that I wake up early in the morning and study. Because of Corona, I am learning the values of self-study and being responsible.
I also have more personal time, and it is precious. I now have time to get to know myself more. That may seem very strange but it is true. We have to know ourselves if we want to love ourselves. We can’t understand how to love without caring for ourselves. Maybe Corona gave me the time to be close with me.
Also the time with my family has increased. We can have more conversations and meals. Corona brought us back together. Because of more time together, naturally our family relationships have strengthened, and in the future they will not be broken easily.
Lastly, I think Corona has given us all a chance to better understand the natural world that we are living in nowadays. If I think about my recent past, I can’t recall details about where I live or the environment around my home. For instance, I was very surprised to realize that I don’t know my neighbors. Corona has simultaneously shown me how little I notice or understand my surroundings and neighbors and given me the chance to change this. Now, despite all the problems, I’m feeling thankful to Corona for giving me and others a lot of unusual and important chances to grow and improve.
2. If Corona was a person, I would tell her thank you, but not for everything
(Jung Won Lee, age 13)
The Coronavirus is a serious worldwide problem. It has caused tremendous damage in many aspects of life. For example, in Korea we can’t go to school every day, so we have to take classes online. Also, we are afraid to use public equipment or transportation. Although we have controlled the virus better than most countries, many people have died and lots of people have lost their jobs. These tragic situations are slowly getting worse. However, we don’t have to think about Corona only in bad ways. Rather, this situation can be seen as a valuable chance to change in positive ways. Aren’t you curious about what a 13-year- old thinks?
I’m very thankful and also sorry for the medical staff and other essential workers in Korea. On the other hand, I see this time as a great opportunity.
If Corona was a person, I would tell her thank you, but not for everything. I would ask her what is her purpose, and what we need to know about her and her mission. I think how we face this serious situation will determine our success or failure.
The virus broke out suddenly, so we were all very embarrassed and dumbfounded. But Korea was well-prepared in its own way. Because of previous viruses, we have a good tracking system for tracing the path of confirmed patients, so we can avoid danger and be more careful. I am thankful Corona has also reminded us of the importance of being clean. In my case, I shower everyday and wash my hands whenever I can. Hand sanitizer is available almost anywhere, and public places like the academies check our body temperatures every time we visit.
But that’s not all. Because of Corona we can be closer with our families. Usually, my family doesn’t talk that much. We are too busy. However because of this crisis we can talk and spend time together doing trivial things. Did you eat lunch? What time did you wake up? Now we have time for non-stressful conversation. Because of this, we can become more interested in getting to know each other. In my family, we now make meals together, with different people cooking on alternate weeks. I am now looking forward to helping and enjoying daily life.
In Korea studying is considered very important, so many academies and schools are staying open, despite the danger. I want to ask them, why are you so obsessed about studying? Students are very tired and worn out. Of course with this problem, we have time to study not only homework, but ourselves. I am learning how to allocate and use my time wisely. I recognize the importance of school, but why are they trying to send us to school so early? I think it’s not a good plan. We shouldn’t think only about now. We should prepare for the future and think about life more carefully.
When the coronavirus ends do we have to go back to our “normal” life? I want to go back to life as it was before Corona. I am a little sad that I won’t be able to oversleep and listen to classes comfortably at home, and that my daily life patterns will be broken up again. However, now I don’t have breakfast and lunch at normal times, and I keep eating snacks. So my health is getting worse, and I am getting lazy. I don’t want to move, only to lie down. If we don’t go back to our normal life soon, this serious situation will make my life difficult.
Corona probably won’t fully leave until a vaccine is developed. So I think we must concentrate more on developing one. Until we create a vaccine, however, we must use this time to improve our lives and culture with more self-control and healthier small habits. We must continue to wear masks and refrain from going out. Let’s hold down this hard situation together! Let’s not give up, and let’s choose to see Corona as a positive challenge that can make us better people.
3. If you were a student in Korea, you would see clearly what a blessing it is
(Sooyeon, age 14)
By now, most of us have plenty of negative things to say about the coronavirus and the damage and pain it has brought about. Around the world, thousands of people are continuing to get infected daily and the death count keeps rising. Many businesses have closed or are damaged greatly, leaving our economy in danger as well. There is no denying the seriousness and the tragedy of this time.
But let’s change the view. Can we find something positive in all of this? I believe we can. In fact, if we can see it correctly, Corona can be a trigger for many positive, needed changes that we wouldn’t or perhaps couldn’t make on our own. Today I want to talk about three ‘gifts’ from Corona, from the perspective of a 14-year-old student in Korea.
First, because of Corona, daily life as we know it in Korea has suddenly come to a halt. Maybe you cannot understand why this is a gift, but if you were a student in Korea, you would see clearly what a blessing it is. We are Korean students. Do you know what this means? It means we should do our best to study. Always. And for us, the standard of ‘do your best’ doesn’t mean only ‘your’ best. It means ‘do more/better than your friends’ who also study every night, every morning, every hour and every minute. Of course, break times are not allowed because, as our teachers remind us, those “friends” don’t rest at all. So, you can’t either.
To be honest, before Corona shut everything down, I thought this kind of education system was not that awful. Sure, it has problems, but so does every other system. Despite the problems, I always thought our education system and culture were the reasons that Korea could improve so fast. But now however, I can see that this system is too old-fashioned, and it is holding us back.
Education based on memorization has been the standard since the Japanese colonial era in the early 1900s and that old system has continued until now. But, as we enter the 4th Industrial Revolution, memorization is not nearly so important anymore. There is so much information on the internet. It is now a waste of time and energy to fill our brains with data and information. The essential skill we need most today is creativity.
We need to improve our ability to add our opinions to information, not just memorize it. But in real life, most of us are too busy to think for ourselves. Therefore, I think we should thank Corona for suddenly stopping our busy lives. We have been given a lot of time to think critically and improve our creativity. Without Corona’s intervention, we may never have chosen to step away from this academic routine.
Second, we can see the blue sky and breathe fresh air again. Have you noticed that the fine dust problem is much less serious than before? Because of the fine dust from China, we lost our blue sky and fresh air. I think regarding the environment, Corona is a much better leader and public servant than most of our lying politicians. Those well-educated Boomer Liars, who put on the beautiful smiling mask and dance in front of citizens every election season, always promise us to hold China accountable and solve the fine dust problem.
But which smiling dancer has ever kept this promise? None. However, suddenly millions of people, including myself, who have been deceived by their lying for years because our brains are like udon-noodles, can enjoy a real green environment. But not because of the Boomers, because of Corona.
Not only in Korea, but also overseas we can see similar environmental results. These days in Wuhan, for example, blue sky with white clouds are returned. This is partly because factories can’t go on as usual: Corona shut them down. This kind of change is never achieved by those dancing kings and queens. Even though it was forced, as a result, air quality is getting better. Corona proved to be much more useful than those Boomers who only speak and never work.
Third, we learned —- or at least we are learning —- how to wait. These days we live in a world of very high technology, so waiting and self-control are not really considered important. But unfortunately, in this harsh society, we must know how to wait and how to control our emotions. However, as I said, because we don’t often experience crisis situations, not only us students but also many adults don’t know how to control ourselves well.
So far, we could not learn these skills which are necessary in this beautiful, fantastic and wonderful era of globalization. And the end result for those adults —- or others —- who have not developed self-control is self-isolation and hikikomori. As a student who wants to be a ‘real’ adult, I need to learn how to control myself. And this coronavirus gives me a perfect opportunity to practice. Because of Corona, we could not go to any public settings for leisure like karaoke or PC room. For Koreans who are full of energy, these rules feel so cruel.
Personally, I was addicted to karaoke, so initially it was a very rough time to stick in my room. However, now I have become accustomed to no-karaoke life. Actually, at first, I thought it was nearly impossible to stop going to PC rooms, but it wasn’t. I learned how to control my desire. For us students this is true not only for karaoke. We endured the horrible online classes with terrible buffering which is slower than a snail. In these ways, Corona taught us how to work through many things we are not used to. That’s how we learned to put up with it.
Obviously, the coronavirus has killed so many people that it’s natural to think of it as a curse. However, we should not pass by this situation as a simply a negative event, we should learn something from it. Of course, coronavirus is a historical incident, and 2020 will be remembered as one of the most terrible years in 21 centuries, but can you restore the time we had before this situation? If you can, go to Hogwarts, you’re the next Harry!
If you don’t have a magic scar on your forehead, though, this is your destiny. Stop blaming others and start thinking of it is a gift from God. Actually, it really helped. We had a chance to grow our creativity and patience. Also, we recovered our green environment. If we use this hard situation in the right way, I’m sure that we will get closer to becoming ‘real’ adults that understand how to live well in the ‘real world’.
4. Action is always more important than words
(Yein Han, age 14)
The tiny coronavirus, one of the quietest and scariest assassins, has already killed hundreds of thousands of people, and infected millions. Countries are struggling from the effects of the virus, and we do not have a vaccine yet. Every day, people are losing their family, friends and neighbors. Corona has made many people’s lives miserable since they cannot continue their business and have to stay at home all day. However, from a different view, the coronavirus could be a gift for us.
What has Corona changed about ourselves, our culture, our values, and our relationship with nature? No schedule. No work. No school. This is an incredibly strange situation. Busy lives are gone and people suddenly have a lot of time unintentionally. Some people loved their free time at first, but many people felt frustrated that they were not doing anything.
For me, as a third year middle-school student, I must have a busy, difficult life studying all day. However, after the virus broke out, I started to become a lazy person. I slept several hours more than usual and enjoyed the postponement of starting school as a sort of vacation. A few weeks later, and the starting of school was delayed once more. This made me think that if I use this time efficiently this could be a chance to become more autonomous. I could do whatever I want, especially the things that I could not do before because of my busy life.
Now, Koreans are wearing masks every day. At first, many people expressed discontentment. However, now we can see most of the people on the street are wearing masks. I can feel that I have started to think of masks as a thing that we should have with us all day, like phones. Because Korean people are wearing masks all day, some doctors say that the numbers of people with the flu or colds also decreased this year.
Another factor that coronavirus changed is about entertainment culture. Many singers and idols have canceled their concerts and are doing #stayathome shows. Instead of going to concerts we can enjoy their music in our homes, by watching their lives. Many things that I thought cannot be accomplished at home are becoming reality.
During this pandemic situation, the chaos has taught me what Korea values most: High test scores. Although the virus continues to spread, many people want their children to go to school and study anyway. Students are going to school again, eating their school meals surrounded by glass. And in my opinion, due to the fact that we still do not have a vaccine, going to school is dangerous. The number of confirmed people will increase exponentially if even one infected student comes to class undetected.
Our relationships with nature have changed a lot also. The clear sky and clean air! These are the things that Korea could not bring about for decades due to factories and cars. However, ever since the virus broke out we have clear, blue sky in Korea. Having a clear, blue sky is a fantasy to us younger Koreans. We always felt it is only something in the far future that we dream of. However, in just a few months, our fantasy became true.
We always have tried hard to develop eco-friendly products and renewable energy to protect nature. Nevertheless, it was Corona that made the sky blue. It was not the use of eco-friendly products and not renewable energy. This case taught me that sometimes stopping things are more efficient than doing more.
Action is always more important than words. Sometimes the best eco-action is non-action. But this takes self-discipline and care for others. Thankfully, Corona is making us better at these, too. Many people were frustrated when coronavirus first came out. She made people live in fear, worrying for their future and health. However, our uninvited guest totally changed our lives and achieved in a moment what we had worked for several years to accomplish.
We should stop thinking that Corona is a devil that came to punish us. There are some things Corona is teaching and showing us. There is a saying that ‘Crisis is an opportunity.’ If we start to think that the virus has come not to hurt us, but to change our minds and offer new opportunities, we could develop ourselves more than usual. It is clear that she has changed and will change our world more. We have to accept it and try to be people that use this opportunity wisely.
5. We suddenly realize how precious it is to do something freely
(Sang Hyo, age 15)
Today, in 2020, the coronavirus is crashing our regular routines. We can’t act how we want and we can’t go where we used to go. Everyone is looking for infected people and trying to avoid them or criticize their behavior only because they are infected. This virus makes discrimination and also isolation culture deeper and bigger. So, it is all too easy to call the coronavirus a disaster. But, is the virus affecting the world in only negative ways? Are there reasons to be thankful for Corona?
I believe there are. First, Corona makes us notice how our normal days are important and precious. We were never content with life before this virus appeared. In general, we aren’t satisfied very much with our life. But, since we can no longer move around, acting as we want, we suddenly realize how precious it is to do something freely, like we did before Corona began.
Second, Corona pushes us to learn self-control. Many people are trying to use their time as efficiently as they did before. For me, I also try to make my time useful. I used to wake up before 7 a.m., so today I try to wake up before 7:30 to prepare like I would for normal days, and to use my time efficiently. I feel in my skin how important regular schedules are. As I had not practiced the way to use time efficiently in the past, I just followed my schedule which was full with academies. Thus, I am not really used to finding purpose by myself. But now I have to do it on my own. When there is no teacher, or someone to teach and guide me, I have to study on my own. It is enough to make me yearn for the busy schedules that I used to complain about. Corona has given me not only the opportunity to see the value of my normal life, but the chance to practice how to live with self-control.
Further, Corona has given most of us more time. We were always running out of time before the virus spread out all over the planet. Most workers dream about having plenty of time to rest and enjoy their lives. Especially in Korea, we have an industrial culture that forces people to work quickly and constantly. So not only workers, but also students are forced to complete their tasks under the pressure of time.
Now my friends and folks in my neighborhood can take time for rest. Corona gives us time. We didn’t expect it, but this Corona-break has already run out half of the year and it continues rolling forwards. At first, I was lazy and didn’t do any work or studies. But I slowly found a process and now I am becoming a more advanced person. For instance, It took about three months for me to finish a book before the pandemic, but now I read a book in only one or two weeks.
Corona is a disaster which we are already facing and cannot ignore. Therefore, we have to find positive ways to live and improve during this time and try to utilize them. In Korea there is an old proverb that says “A misfortune turns into a blessing.” I think it is a time to remind ourselves of the lesson this quote gives. We can restore our balance and become more developed and happy. I am going try to use this time more efficiently, and not just complain.