On our way to the immigration office this week, on an especially chilly day, we walked out the subway elevator and were greeted by this book sculpture made of stone. It was inconspicuous enough, just sitting there in front of a building, but the daughter saw it and was really excited by it and even asked for a picture with it. And how apt, being in a country that values education very highly.
I am still learning about South Korea and what made it the country that it is now, but it is quite obvious how important education is for its people. It seems like almost every other stop in its subway system is a university station. On our immigration office trip, at one of these stops, an older couple -- probably around their early 50s -- boarded the train and sat across us, and I found myself imagining them to be both professors: the man with the disheveled hair teaching economics or literature, and the stylish but makeup-less woman (an anomaly in South Korea) teaching music or some sort of social science. I wondered if they had children. Actually, I imagined they didn't have children and instead went home to a couple of cats and had quiet dinners and read themselves to bed, each with a side table filled with piled up books.
It is utterly amazing to learn how a ruler of this country -- Sejong the Great -- invented a whole new alphabet, the Hangul, a writing system that is accessible to the common people, so that not just the elite are able to read and write. Centuries later, education was also made available and free to all. There are definitely other factors to credit for South Korea's advancement over the years, but the 45-year leap from 5% to 90% of its people having secondary or higher level education is undeniably impressive. Education has been key to South Korea's success. While the relentless focus on academic achievement can dangerously translate to excessive pressure on kids and adults alike, the essence of it -- self-improvement as a core component of Confucianism, one of the major cultural/religious influences here -- is remarkable for a country and its people to continually aspire to and live out everyday.
And so my fascination with South Korea and its people begins.
I have no idea what the writing on the book sculpture actually says, but I am determined to learn Korean, starting with Hangul. I hear it's not as complex as Mandarin (which I actually studied for two years, although, sadly, "Wo bu zhi dao," and "Wo bu dong" are the only phrases that are still clearly etched in my brain), so I'm psyched. 곧 만나요!