Korean Sociological Image #62: Life as a Korean Teenager

From documentary maker Kelley Katzenmeyer:

In sixty short years, South Korea went from being one of the poorest countries in Asia to having the world’s 13th largest economy. Korean students have some of the highest test scores in the world, and a higher rate of acceptance into American Ivy Leagues than any other foreign country. But Korea also leads the world in two not quite so stunning ways- the highest rate of plastic surgery per capita, and a higher suicide rate than any other developed nation.

So. What’s life like for a Korean student? In one of the most competitive societies in the world, how does one find their place? What does it take to achieve your aspirations and goals? Our documentary will take a look at the lives of five Korean teenagers on the verge of either reaching- or losing- their dreams. The film will follow the students during the most stressful time of their lives- their last year of high school. After studying for roughly sixteen hours each day, their futures boil down to one last exam. On November 10th, 2011, thousands of high school seniors will take a nine hour test that for many, will determine their economic and social status for the rest of their lives.

For my own experiences with some of the issues raised in the video, please see here. And thanks very much to Gag Halfrunt for passing the video on.

Update 1: Also of interest is “Tackling Korean Education’s Faults” at Korea Real Time.

Update 2: The documentary also has a website and a Facebook page.

(For all posts in the Korean Sociological Image series, see here)


9 thoughts on “Korean Sociological Image #62: Life as a Korean Teenager

  1. This is a quite well made docu.

    I’m surprised how artistically and professionally Katzenmeyer, did her job.
    Well compressed and to the point. She managed to raise questions and show how everybody raves about plastic-beauty but none has a clue from whence it came!

    And that socially they simply tag along!

    My first impression was Wow, and it’s the first time I came across this young film-maker.
    She’s good. Hope there will be more of her!


  2. Couldn’t agree more. And actually, I first came across her several months ago when she was first starting this project, and have to admit that I was pretty dismissive of it because of her age. I’m glad to be proven wrong about her.


  3. First, I wanted to let you know that your overall site here has been really helpful in my own Korean culture/Kpop research (as I just got a gig writing sociocultural pieces for a Kpop site–a topic about which I previously knew nothing). Currently on my fourth piece with them, whenever I do a Google search for info, I keep finding your blog. You’ve linked me to some really useful stuff, including this video. So thanks ;)

    Anyway, I agree that her youth threw me for a moment (she looks like she’s what, 18 at the most?), but this preview is exceptional, and she has shown how the teenage experience mirrors the Kpop idol world in a way I never expected. Still relatively unfamiliar with Korean culture, I was shocked to see that it seems worse here than in Japan (basing that off the blog you linked discussing your own experiences as well).

    I look forward to seeing her final project; to seeing how she decides to help relieve these students of their culturally-induced need to be perfect.


  4. Thank u for letting me see this wonderful Documentary! I lived in Korea for 16 years,(now im in the us) and this really made me look back my old life. As a gender role major, I am a quite feminist myself. However, ironically and sadly, living 16 years in Korea has really made me feel insecure about my body. I am much better now in the us, feeling extraordinary for myself. I have always thought i would never have a boyfriend because of my monolid and short height, but guess what. I had plenty. I probably had surgery if i stayed in Korea longer, but now having a eye surgery seems crazy. I love my eyes!
    Unfortunately, i still have to hear comments of my features every now and then when i go back to Korea during summer. It is especially sad when i hear them from my own parents. I do not blame them, since almost all Koreans are like that, but they quote and quote, tease about my eyes and legs all the time. “You would look more beautiful if u get ur eye surgery done.” “We should have had hormone shots when you were young.” This is pretty damn said because i look like this because my parents look like this way. I have naturally pale white skin but i got pretty tan after enjoying water skiing at the beach in Florida. Reaction was predictable. My friends had this “you destroyed ur beauty” kind of face.
    I hate this so called standard beauty in Korea. It is a complete bullshit, sexist, and evil. I love Korea all my heart, I want to go back sometimes for lovely food, friends, families, bright streets but thinking about this incredibly biased society, I do not want to go back to Korea for a long term living. Reading about your blog not only amused me and gave me many thoughtful ideas but also made myself sure not to live in Korea. I don’t want my future kids to live in this country especially if they are girls.
    Something has to change. First with more right minded governments and advertisements. It probably won’t change for a while….. but i still have hope! Korea raised its economy faster than any other country, so i’m sure Korea can change its standard beauty and start accepting how we Koreans ACTUALLY looks!


  5. K-pop is getting very influential in Asia for the past 10 years. Their entertainment business is as far reaching than their cars, electronics and home appliances. I know Korean parents are like Chinese. They always hope that their children have a much better education and future than theirs. The business world have the objective to get market share and what is the oldest trick in the book. SEX! Plastic surgery to some of the Korean woman I know is part of their initiation to the world like when both beauty and brain get you the best opportunities for job, love and future. Beauty is a short cut as you learn nothing about your own ability. Once they turn 40, for those we did not cash in on their own abilities to survive in the material world, they will soon know that the world is really unforgiving.

    I too hate the way Korean putting so much stress on beauty before intelligence. It is a tragic that many of K-pop generation got addicted to glamour by their music industries.

    Slowly I am seeing a lot of Asian woman are going in that direction. 200 Pound Beauty movie really kick plastic surgery in high gear for many K-fans in Asian. I think it is still debatable that whether look comes first when choosing a mate. But I think it is the mind and heart that makes it last.


  6. omg, you know as long as i see, they look pretty with their small eyes, they looks cute, even in my country some of girls want to have that kind of eyes….
    i think they have to change their mindset about definition of beautifull


  7. I am a Korean teenager myself, and I wish I could go visit Korea and learn the language with all my heart-

    Okay so I wrote that at first but I have finished watching the video and I have a few things to say.
    I feel bad for those girls. And to think it was bad in America… If I was fortunate enough to travel there, I’d be (or at least hope to be) persistent on telling them that THEY ARE BEAUTIFUL! I am in no way trying to be cocky or conceited, but growing up, being called beautiful by my family, which is a blessing, has caused me to believe it (not necessarily all the time, but most). So I am a person who as well cares about her looks. I do put on makeup, and I do try to wear nice clothes, and try to do my hair nice. But I am not stick thin. I have curvy thighs and I’m proud of them. Enough about me…
    If I had the chance to go to a Korean high school, I would want to be that girl in inspiring novels and movies that everyone just turns their heads to because of the impact she’s made. (Psh yeah right. but still. its a guilty want.) I want to be the girl who tells them to put the glue down and love them for who they are and stop thinking such superficial thoughts. And the most frustrating thing is…they can’t help it! It’s the dang culture that makes everything about being perfect. I want to, so bad, to talk to these girls and help them be “pretty” in their own way. With makeup at the least. I want to explain to them how to be different, how to stand out and enhance natural beauty instead of faking it. I’m ranting now but I feel passionate about this and it’s frustrating. It really is. I’m sorry if I sounded self-righteous or crazy, but this is my initial reaction.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s