Do-or-Die Exams in South Korea

14 Nov

Two weeks ago, we discussed depression and suicide around the world. While researching the topic, I learned about the jarring tie between academics and suicide in South Korea, a country where academic achievement measures self-worth and social status. I always knew that many Asian cultures value a more rigorous academic program than here in the U.S., but what goes on in South Korea is a whole other story.

Last week, about 700,000 students took South Korea’s college entrance exam, the CSAT. The country seems to shut down for this day- the stock market opens an hour later, buses and subway services are increased, police cars offer rides to students – all to make sure students make it to the most important test of their lives, according to CNN. Flights were also postponed, rush hour was rescheduled and other students lined the schools’ entrances to cheer on the seniors on the day of the exam.

The reward for a top score is entrance into a competitive university, one that will bring the family honor, land a student a better job, better connections with prominent alumni and better marriage prospects.

Of course, this means students are under extreme pressure and preparation for the exam begins as early as preschool. Every hour is micro-managed for the most amount of studying. The average Korean senior will study for 7 hours at school, attend after-school and weekend “cram” classes and then study on their own late into the night, usually getting about 5 hours of sleep. Winter and summer vacations are dedicated to intensive study programs.

With all this stress, one could see why the depression rate of teenagers in South Korea is substantially higher than other countries. More than 200 students committed suicide in 2009, according to Ahn’s Presidential Advisory Council on Education, Science and Technology. “Students are acutely aware that their parents are spending huge amounts of money for them to succeed and the pressure is enormous. Without hobbies or accessible sports teams, the stress of constant studying takes on twisted forms,” according to an Asia Times article.

This year, an 18-year-old boy committed suicide just hours before the 8-hour exam started, leaving a letter to his parents apologizing for his shortcomings. Students are not the only ones, though. According to the same article, a father in Gongju drove to his son’s high school and torched his wife, daughter and himself with gasoline because his honor roll son disgraced the family with bad grades. All three died.

The whole system baffles me. As an American college-student, I can tell the difference in effectiveness between learning something to learn and apply it, and memorizing under performance pressure. The latter defeats the purpose of the entire learning process. Similar events are happening in India, where student suicides have increased by 26 percent because of an inadequate education system that forces students to learn what they may never need to know in life, the accumulation of which leads to a do-or-die exam. On top of that, because these students dedicate the first 18 years of their life to one exam, without sports or extracurricular activities, it becomes their one identifying factor. Once it’s all over, they must feel spent, lost and  a little like they missed out on their young adult life.


Why Should We Pay Attention to Girls?

7 Nov

Poverty is a big problem. Huge, insurmountable, complex, overwhelming. There seems to be no clear-cut solution. More water? Less war? Better education? Lately, there’s been a lot of talk about a more unexpected solution. On the surface, it seems too simple to work, but its implications can significantly affect the future of humanity. And it all starts with a girl. Take a look at this video from The Girl Effect to understand:

I saw this campaign last year and still really believe in its cause. It’s a pretty powerful idea : “When a girl benefits, so does everyone in society, including business. Girls as economic actors can bring about change for themselves, their families, and their countries. Conversely, ignoring the girl effect can cost societies billions in lost potential.” The New York Times states that the reason foreign aid is increasingly directed to women is because “the world is awakening to a powerful truth: Women and girls aren’t the problem; they’re the solution.”

And the The Girl Effect has the facts to back up their cause. I went to its website and found some pretty interesting statistics.The following really stuck with me:

  • When a girl in the developing world receives seven or more years of education, she marries four years later and has 2.2 fewer children.
  • When women and girls earn income, they reinvest 90 percent
    of it into their families, as compared to only 30 to 40
    percent for a man.
  • Out of the world’s 130 million out-of-school youth,
    70 percent are girls.
  • Pregnancy is the leading cause of death in girls 15-19
  • 96 million girls in developing countries are illiterate
  • 1% of the world’s landowners are women

The same NYT article describes the experience of one woman in Pakistan, Saima Muhammad, who faced beatings and resentment from her unemployed husband, who was $3,000 in debt. She was forced to send her daughter to live with an aunt because she could not afford to feed her. That all changed after Muhammad took a small loan from a microfinance organization,which had her meet every two weeks to discuss repayment and learn about social issues, like family planning or schooling for girls. With the loan, she worked her way up and now has her own embroidery business, with 30 of her neighbors working for her.  She was able to pay off her husband’s debt, keep her daughters in school, renovate the house, connect running water and buy a television.

Basically, it’s a ripple effect. More educated women lead healthier, better lives and reinvest those lifestyles into their children and communities. Of course, there are critiques to campaigns like The Girl Effect. The solution is too vague and, like I’ve said, poverty is complex. Teaching a girl how to read is not going to necessarily end global poverty. There are deep-rooted social customs that just can’t be squashed, especially in patriarchal societies, ones that will never put a woman’s advancements first. Additionally, some countries, in parts of Somalia for example, need to tackle much more pressing issues, such as a seemingly never-ending drought and the terror of warfare. You cannot put issues like that aside to start a school for young girls.

Regardless, I think this organization is doing a good job of getting a conversation going. It relies heavily on social media for some two-way communication and makes multilingual efforts to expand its reach. It has people talking about how we can take care of women who  one day want to be able to take care of themselves.


One in a Million

2 Nov

As we discussed in class, televised game shows are popular all over the world. People love to see someone completely change their lives overnight, winning against all odds. “Who Wants to be a Millionaire” is arguably one of the most popular game shows in the world, playing in more than 70 countries.  In the U.S., there have been 11 winners of the show . India’s version,” “Kaun Banega Crorepati” has never had a winner.

Up until last week.

Last Thursday, Sushil Kumar, a poor Indian government clerk , became the first contestant to win the equivalent of $1 million dollars on the show.

Kumar is a 27-year-old computer operator who made about $120 dollars a month and relied on his neighbor’s television to watch the show he would eventually win the grand prize for. He is the son of farmer in a country with a per capita income of $1,265, according to a Reuters article. He and his wife of four months lived in a broken-down house with unpaid loans hovering over them. To help make ends meet, Kumar was working as a private tutor.”If it hadn’t been for this money, I would have gotten old before I sorted out my life,” the article quotes him saying.

According to The Guardian:

“Bihar is one of the poorest states of India and its remoter areas, such as Motihari [where Kumar is from], have been largely untouched by India’s phenomenal recent economic growth. Social indicators in much of Bihar are on a par with sub-Saharan Africa or worse.”

It was his neighbors who finally convinced him to try out for the show after Kumar kept getting the right answers. He said the trip to the Mumbai studio was his first ride in a plane and his first visit to a big city, according to a Newsday article.

He wants to use some of his winnings to pay for a preparatory course so he can take India’s difficult civil service exam, which could lead to a stable an esteemed job.

Kumar wants to buy a new home for himself and his wife, pay his parents debts and give his four brothers some money so they can set up their own small businesses. He also plans to to build a library in his village so that children can have access to “the books and knowledge he so desperately craved”.

Kumar’s experience is a genuine agains-all-odds story. His win transformed him into a role model for millions of young Indians looking to escape lives of poverty. His story has close resemblances to the movie “Slumdog Millionaire,” in which a poor boy from Mumbai, India overcomes his poverty and wins the grand prize on the game show. My favorite part is that even though he has enough money to never have to work again, Kumar wants to use his winnings to work hard and earn a respectable job. I’d be really interested in finding out how Kumar was able to answer all the questions. He graduated from a local college with a degree in psychology, but other than that I found nothing that explained how Kumar had such extensive knowledge of all the trivia.

The question that won him the million dollars?

“Which colonial power ended its involvement in India by selling the rights to the Nicobar Islands to the British on Oct. 16, 1868?”

The answer: Denmark.

No Longer “Unwanted”

24 Oct

We can all agree that names are important. They are part of our identity and feeling of belonging. We get upset when people misspell or mispronounce it.  So when the name given to represent us is shameful and burdensome, it’s clear to see why someone would go through great lengths to change it.

That’s what more than 200 girls in the district of Satara in India did last week.

Girls originally named “Nakusa,” which means “unwanted,” received new names under an initiative to eliminate gender bias in India.

The girls were given the name Nakusa by their parents, who saw them as burdens in a society that prefers boys. In Indian culture, female children are seen as burdens, while males are heirs and moneymakers. Tradition dictates that parents of a girl pay for their wedding and dowry. To Indian families with multiple girls, this could be very expensive. According to, many families even  go into dept marrying off their daughters. Meanwhile, a boy would bring in money to the family once married, since male children are future heirs, future-wage earners, and heads of family. Additionally, under Hindu tradition, only sons can light their parents’ funeral pyres, a form of cremation.

The initiative to change the girls’ names sheds light on a serious problem in India. Al Jazeera reported that for every 1,000 males in India, there are only 914 females, with some ratios even more skewed in poorer parts of the country. This imbalance has been increasing ever since ultrasound scans began identifying the sex of a fetus at an earlier stage. Some families desperately wanting a male son will choose abortion if the fetus is female.  In more serious cases, baby girls are neglected and even murdered.

This discrimination has negative psychological and social implications. Because of their name, “many girls suffer from poor self-esteem, were embarrassed and discriminated against, with the risk that they will pass on their insecurities to their own daughters,” according to a News24 article. In essence, the name-change initiative was created to benefit two people: the Nakusas and the future Nakusas. On top of that, the social imbalance leaves millions of male bachelors without a wife, which can lead to violence, prostitution and wife-sharing.

The campaign is not all India is doing to fight gender discrimination. The government has banned technology that detects the sex of a fetus and made gender selective abortions illegal  (even though citizens easily get around it). It also created counseling and self-help groups for women, and gives cash incentives to encourage families to keep baby girls.

Despite India’s efforts though, gender discrimination continues to be a problem, especially in the poorer, rural areas of India, (although not as bad as China, which is estimated to have more than 40 million bachelors by 2020). The problem lies in the deep social values that are difficult to reverse. Countries like India have strong tradition-based lifestyles so forcing a less patriarchal society would be belittling Indian customs that have been around for hundreds of years. It could also be a cause for tension if citizens feel another one of their customs is being “westernized.” If I took away one thing from my readings, it’s that this is definitely a sensitive issue that needs to be addressed delicately.

Edelman- a Leader in Global Understanding

18 Oct

For the past six days I have been quite literally stumbling (need to invest in shorter heels) around an Orlando hotel trying to keep my head above the ever-changing public relations industry I’ve thrown myself into.

My school hosted this year’s Public Relations Student Society of America (PRSSA) National Conference. It was a hubbub of meet-and-greets, workshops and influential speakers. I learned a lot about which paths I want to pursue in this big umbrella industry. But mostly I got to familiarize myself with the leading companies in the field. Of all the great companies out there, none snatched my attention quite like Edelman PR.

Edelman is the United Nations of PR companies. It is global, both in it’s reach and perspectives. According to its website,  It employs more than 3,600 people in 53 offices around the globe. It is the world’s largest privately-owned PR firm and strives to have a “diverse understanding of the complexities of the world, its cultures, markets, and issues” (

After discussing in class the complex nature of communicating  to a variety of different cultures, beliefs and attitudes, it’s amazing to me to see a company that does this so skillfully. So I wanted to explore how a company like Edelman tackles this feat. How can one privately-owned company cater to countries as diverse as Sydny and India? Let me just say, they didn’t do it by cutting corners or “eyeballing” it.

So how do they do it? Edelman spends a lot of time, skill and money exploring consumer attitudes from all over the world. They are famous for their “Trust Barometer” and “goodpurpose” study, which measures global attitudes, including people’s commitment to certain social issues and their expectations of brands and corporations. The firm is then able to find out cool things like how Brazilians and the Chinese are the most trustful of  government and media, while the UK and US are the least trustful. From this, they are able to cater messages to their unique audiences. Edelman also has a series of blogs from employees all over the globe who “immerse themselves in the local business environment” of various markets to help advance the firm’s global culture with colleagues and clients”. (

Lastly, Edelman makes sure to hire employees with diverse heritages to educate and mentor each other and promote a culture where “diversity and tolerance are valued and expected.” (

I think we could all learn from Edelman’s think-before-you-jump approach to communicating in our culturally-sensitive world. To me, this idea is key to achieving progressive, positive and achievable globalization without countries’ losing their cultural autonomy. If each us does a little homework about what our foreign counterparts read, what they like to do on their days off and how they take their coffee, communication would be less like the game “telephone” and more fluid in achieving a healthy globalization. In short- Edelman walks over eggshells in ways that would make the lithest of cats jealous.

Unrest at Southwest

13 Oct



Although I’ve been blogging mostly about global progress and its positive effects, this week I’d like to comment on a case where stereotyping and cultural paranoia led to the unfair exclusion of a U.S. citizen. This week, a Muslim woman is suing Southwest Airlines for being kicked off her flight this March. The woman was escorted out after a flight attendant reported  hearing her say “It’s a go” into her phone and assumed a terrorist plot.  According to L.A. Now, the woman was actually saying “I’ve got to go” as the plane was starting to take off. Irum Abbassi, a graduate student, said the employees unlawfully kicked her out of a flight going from San Diego to San Jose, where she was headed to finish research for her Master’s thesis.  Even before she boarded the plan, TPM stated she had already been detained for a second screening before the flight- she was wearing  typical Arab clothing: ” a long shirt, pants, sweater and hijab, or Islamic headscarf.”

The article then goes on to describe how the flight attendant overheard Abassi, who was talking to a Verizon representative about activating her smartphone, and alerted administration. She was then asked to get off. After they determined that Abbassi didn’t actually pose a threat, they told her she could re-board. However, when she got back to the gate, she was told the captain would not let her board because the crew “was uncomfortable with her on the plane.”

Abassi is a U.S. citizen and has lived in the United States for ten years after emigrating from Pakistan. She is a graduate student at San Jose State. According to the article, she is suing for discrimination and intentional infliction of emotional distress.
The airline defends its reason stating that: An airline can refuse to carry  a passenger for any reason, so long as it is not discriminatory.” While carriers may not discriminate on the basis of race, color, national origin, religion, sex or ancestry they can still reject passengers for various other reasons, such as same sex kissing. I surfed around to see if there were any similar cases, and I found that many airlines have been under scrutiny in recent years for kicking passengers off flights without “good reason.” However, it seems that Southwest is the most repeated offender.  Southwest has gotten a lot of heat after Actor Kevin Smith says he was removed from a Southwest flight for being too fat. Green Day lead singer Billy Joe Armstrong was also asked to leave for having baggy pants, and actress Leisha Hailey was escorted out for kissing her girlfriend.

While it may be defensible for an airline to double-check anyone they suspect a terrorist, it has no right to reject someone for no other reason than making the crew feel “uncomfortable.” This only perpetuates more social unrest and resentment.

Turbans, Kebabs and Rock N’ Roll

3 Oct

I thought it would be cool to discuss arts and music in the Middle East this week, mostly because I never hear anything in the news about it- the media usually sticks to violence, war and religion when it comes to these countries.

And now I know why. I saw in an Al-Jazeera news video (below), that Afghanistan had a small rock festival this past week. This rock concert was the first live concert in Afghanistan in about 30 years. THIRTY YEARS.  This may highlight my American ignorance of the Middle East, the idea is so foreign to me. In Gainesville alone you can’t go a day without hearing about some venue showcasing live performances or various concerts happening during the weekend.

According to, bands from Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and even Australia played in the six-hour music festival called Sound Central. There was a lot of variety- blues, indie electronica  and death metal played to a crowd of about 450. For many attendees, it was their very first live concert. Travis Bear, an Australian photojournalist who joined a band when he moved to Kabul came up with the idea for a concert after he was inspired by the talent and dedication of a handful of underground local musicians.

Although Afghans were given temporary relief from an otherwise violent atmosphere, this concert was not like ones in the Western world. Alcohol was banned and the only food allowed was kebabs. The festival was also stopped twice so that those praying at nearby mosques wouldn’t be disturbed. So while it was a big step for Afghanistan, the concert was still able to hold on to its own cultural identity.

The festival also remained sensitive to the tension and unrest in the country. According to the Hollywood Reporter, the concert was under tight security and the venue was kept secret for as long as possible to prevent possible protests or acts of violence. Even though this was a big step forward, music still has a long way to go. Many music shops have been attacked in cities throughout the country and most musicians stay under the radar – both effects of a Taliban regime that outlawed music.

The overall mood and effect was positive as it mirrors a movement of young Afghans embracing modern music. This is a direct effect of globalization, and in this case, a good effect. The whole theme of the festival was to encourage the conservative Muslim country to “pick up a guitar, not a gun.”  I thought the concert did a great job of bridging the gap between traditional culture and new outlets for creative growth in a war-stricken community. I also like how this incident doesn’t seem like the effects of a core country completely taking over a peripheral county’s culture. For example, although I couldn’t figure out what language the concert was in- it definitely wasn’t in English.

Hope you enjoyed the video!