Could South Korean students be under more academic stress than their Indian counterparts? If Crash Course in Romance is to be believed, then yes!
Jung Kyung-ho plays a popular mathematics teacher in Crash Course in Romance
When the suggestion to watch the new South Korean series, Crash Course in Romance — starring Jung Kyung-ho and Jeon Do-yeon — came up on Netflix, it seemed like another easy, breezy, light rom-com. It didn’t take long to click on the ‘watch now’ button, since it seemed right up my alley. Only four episodes are out yet, and even though the editing of this show isn’t tight and it is a little slow, like pretty much every other K-drama that I have watched, I am hooked. But this show is stressing me out!
Crash Course in Romance is not a regular, cutesy Korean rom-com. Yes, it does have a drop-dead gorgeous leading man, whose good looks are harped on every few minutes. Of course, he is rich, super charming, and has a good heart, even though that may not be evident. And yes, destiny and an earlier life connection form the basis of the attraction between the lead characters. Despite all of this, this show is stressing me out, and I probably will have to buy some K-beauty products to get rid of my frown lines. Why? Because it is centred on the lives of high school children and their ambitious and extremely pushy parents. Why are Korean school students under so much academic pressure? It reminds me of the many documentaries I have watched about Chinese kids in sports. It’s intense!
Crash Course in Romance is about a mathematics teacher in a private coaching centre, who is a star with students and their overbearing mothers, who are all vying to enrol in his classes. The academy has an elite Medical All Care Program that is meant only for the 7 best students, and getting into it means that a seat at a top medical college is confirmed. All this is fine, and these are things that we in India are used to — after all, coaching classes are a big business here as well. But I must admit that our teachers may not be as good looking and charming as Choi Chi-yeol (Jung Kyung-ho) or star in dance video ads (that bit did elicit more than just a chuckle from me). But here’s the bit that got to me — all that most of the schoolkids in the show want to do is study hard, day and night, get into a popular coaching class, get into the elite program, and come out top in the country. They are expected to be so busy studying that it is up to their parents to reserve a seat for them at the academy, which, for some reason, is required to be done everyday.
And the parents! Nam Haeng-seon (Jeon Do-yeon) is constantly berated for not paying enough attention to her daughter Nam Hae-yi's (Roh Yoon-seo) academics. Hae-yi herself feels this, so to prove that she is indeed a good mother, Haeng-seon ensures that she keeps a tab on all of Hae-yi’s classes and books her seat at the academy (where she goes running to — literally running to — in the middle of a work day), apart from taking care of household chores and running a business! The mothers of the other kids at the academy are always on top of their children’s educational progress, even meeting each other over coffee and beer to exchange notes and set up schedules, with some pushing their kids so hard that I was almost gritting my teeth and started to feel suffocated.
This got me thinking about the education system in South Korea, because this is not the first series that has shown kids going through high levels of academic pressure. Sky Castle, The Penthouse: War In Life, The Green Mothers Club, High Class, Extracurricular, The Sound of Magic and Black Dog: Being a Teacher have also famously shown this earlier. So, there must be a reason that it is the subject of so many K-dramas.
Here’s what a simple Google search turned up in 0.55 seconds:
Internations.org says this about the education system in South Korea: Well-known for its high-achieving students, South Korea's education system is quite demanding. Students spend much of their time, often between 12 to 16 hours per day, at school or at a special after-school academy called a hagwon.
According to MDPI, "In intense academic environments such as in South Korea, students experience extreme levels of academic stress. This stress peaks as students prepare for the college entrance exam in the final year of high school. Stress is associated with a host of negative outcomes, and academic stress is the leading cause of suicidal ideation among youth in South Korea."
Yikes! No wonder there is so much material on academic stress. And it seems like not long ago, much like back home in India, teachers were quite abusive, as is shown in Twenty-Five Twenty-One, which is set in the 1990s. Back in the day, it seemed like teachers were almost expected to hit and abuse students, and think nothing of even drawing blood.
When watching K-dramas, it is not uncommon to find parallels between South Korean and Indian cultures. But this particular topic makes me feel uneasy. But as is my history with Korean rom-coms — once I start watching one, it’s almost impossible to stop until I’ve reached the last episode. Regardless of how stressed out I actually feel when watching the distressed schoolkids (cue board exam nightmares) in Crash Course in Romance, I am waiting for January 28 for episode number 5!