Korea, old and new traditions

11th December 1998 at 00:00
How do you write a prize-winning essay? Earlier this year, The TES invited students to submit contributions, on the theme of Korea, Old and New, with the incentive of a week's free holiday in South Korea to the winner, writes Jeremy Sutcliffe.

The competition was divided into two age groups, with three runners-up prizes for each category - 13 to 15-year-olds and 16 to 19-year-olds, plus an overall Grand Prize winner.

Our overall winner was 14-year-old Samana Fazel, of Babington Community College, Leicester, whose essay linked careful research into the effects of social change in Korea with an imaginative account of the lives of two children born 70 years apart.

"I found this a refreshing and imaginative way to write about old and new Korea, with a very positive point of view," said Dr Youngsook Pak, chairman of the Centre of Korean Studies at the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies, and a member of the judges' panel.

Her view is echoed by Caroline St John Brooks, TES editor, who also took part in the judging: "At first sight, Samana's essay looks very simple - but this is deceptive. What really stands out is that she has transformed the facts she has gleaned from different sources into a readable and thought-provoking piece. "

Her winning essay is reprinted here.

The early-morning sun filters through the clouds above Seoul. The city is already awake with commuters making their way to work. Fourteen-year-old Lee stirs in his bed, knowing that if the hooting cars below do not wake him up, his mother will. He jumps out of bed, has a shower and puts on a pair of jeans and a T-shirt for school.

He just manages to finish his bowl of cereal before his mum calls him from the car telling him to hurry up. It is Thursday, and the first lesson of the day is maths, which Lee loves. His morning passes quickly and at lunchtime, he decides to go with his friends to McDonald's for a burger. He loves burgers, even though he knows his mum disapproves of fast food. She is always telling Lee that he should eat traditional food as it is healthier.

Lee's mum picks him up from school when she returns from work. On the way home, he tells her about his day. He remembers that only a few years ago, he had to memorise facts and do several tests and exams. Nowadays, he is encouraged to think and investigate for himself, which has made learning much more interesting.

Meanwhile, just 72 years ago, on a small farm in south-west Korea, dawn is breaking. Kim, who is also 14, is already up. He has to help his family milk the cows and feed the animals before getting ready for school.

Kim walks the five miles to school. He does not enjoy school much as it teaches Japanese culture. He also knows that he may have to stop studying after middle school, though he has heard rumours of a demonstration for better education for Koreans, which raises his hopes.

After school, he walks home with his friends. Like him, they all live on a farm. He gets home just as his family is settling down for dinner. Kim's entire family lives together. The grandfather is the head of the family. Everyone obeys and respects him. The adults all start dinner with some wine and exchange glasses. The main meal is rice, soup and kimchi. Kim wishes he was an adult like his elder brother, who just got married. Then he would be able to drink wine and tie his hair in a topknot and wear a cylindrical horsehair hat, instead of having a long pigtail.

The evening rush hour is just starting in Seoul when Lee and his mother return to their apartment. Lee rushes to his room to watch television. It is time for his favourite programme, The A Team. After the programme, he reads a comic. He hears his father come home and runs to greet him. Lee is the only child so he is very close to his parents. He is also close to his cousins, who live just down the road.

At dinner that evening, Lee's father tells them about his day. He mentions that he his very worried about his job as many of his colleagues have been sacked. Everything had seemed to be going so well for Korea and then, suddenly, the country plunged into recession.

Lee wonders how Korea will be when he finishes school. He has learnt at school that the President is trying to rebuild the country by uniting North and South Korea. He likes the idea as his parents have told him that they have many relatives in North Korea who Lee has never met.

After dinner on Kim's farm everyone gathers round to listen to grandfather tell stories and read poems. Kim loves the poems by Han Yong-un, Yi Yuk-sa and Yun Tong-ju, as they make him feel proud to be Korean. His grandfather always reminds them of their Korean identity, and tells them never to give up hope that one day Korea will be free. Kim sometimes worries that their land might be taken away by the Japanese and his father be sent to Manchuria or Japan, He has heard that many farmers were facing starvation because of this, which angers him.

Occasionally, Kim's family play traditional music and dance to it. They also play games of paduk and changgi, the Korean version of chess.

Back in 1998 Lee is very excited. It is games day at school and he will get to play his favourite sport, basketball. There is a match against a neighbouring school and he plays very well, helping his school to win convincingly. He also enjoys table tennis and football, and is eagerly awaiting the 2002 football World Cup, which will be co-hosted by Korea. He does not remember very much from the 1988 Olympic Games in his home city, but his parents say it was a very exciting time.

Lee also takes violin lessons, which he is quite good at. Last term, he was selected for the school orchestra, and his parents beamed with pride for weeks afterwards. When relaxing however, he prefers to listen to Korean pop music on the radio.

That evening, Lee's parents allow him to go bowling at the local leisure centre. He usually goes there on weekends, where he catches up with all his friends in the neighbourhood.

On the farm on Saturday morning, there is little work to be done, so Kim goes walking in the hills. The lush green valleys and distant mountains always make him feel very calm and happy. When he returns, his father teaches him taekwondo, which he takes very seriously, as he knows it will help him to discipline his body and mind.

This next day is a very important one for Kim and his family. It is Buddha's birthday. Everyone dresses up in their best hanbok to go to the village temple to celebrate and pray for good fortune. Kim has decided he is going to wear his blue, red and yellow hanbok which his mother made for him last year. The prayers and celebrations last the whole day and everyone seems to be merry.

On Sunday, Lee's family, who are Catholics, go to church. This time, they have arranged to go to the park with all the relatives after church. At the park, after lunch, Lee plays with his cousins while the adults sit and talk.

In the evening, both Lee and Kim are exhausted. They have had a wonderful day and their eyes shut as soon as they are in bed. They dream that the grey clouds are clearing and that the sun is once more shining on Korea.

The competition was co-sponsored by the School of Oriental and African Studies, the Korean Embassy and Daewoo

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