D-Day: The Suneung

I haven't really talked about my oldest host brother very much, but this post is really about him and me and expectations young people place on themselves.

Maybe I've explained this before, but in case I haven't, here's some background information:

I have three host brothers (14 years old, 16 years old, and 18 years old). They're all very different personalities and so I have very different relationships with each of them. I also affectionately call each of them by Western girl names. And today I'm going to talk about Jenny Kim, my oldest host brother, because he just took the Suneung yesterday and I have a lot to unpack on that experience and how our relationship seems to be moving forward.

First, you should know that I'm not an expert. I didn't do a ton of research on any of this and I don't plan to do any in depth analysis. I know what I know from my host family and my coworkers at school.

Second, you should probably know that no matter what anyone says, the suneung is NOT like the SAT/ACT. It is so much more. In short, I'm told it's a 10 hour test that determines your college/university which determines your jobs and future success. This also stems from the fact that many Koreans believe that the first step of success and security is to attend a SKY University or a university in Seoul.

I'd like to introduce you to my host brother Jeahwan "Jenny" Kim. And to give you a quick look at who he is just know that our first conversation when I got to Korea was about #BlackLivesMatter and race/government/law in America. He's not your typical 18 year old. But in many ways he is your typical 18 year old: he's played the violin and the drums and he has a girlfriend. He goes to church with his family, eats too much food, and "play fights" with his brothers.

Jenny Kim took the suneung yesterday. And this is in a sense what our interactions were like over the past three days:

The Night Before

I got home around 6pm, Jenny was already home. This is different because for the last 4 months I've never seen Jenny at home before 9pm.

To be honest, I didn't know how to act. He seemed happy and relaxed, but it also felt like the calm before the storm.

We ate dinner and joked and while the conversation kept circling back to the test part of me didn't want to talk about it. This kid, this 18 year old kid, has one day that could change his whole life and his whole path.

I will remember forever, that he told me he felt good and I could tell he felt confident. So I told him that that's a good feeling. That before you have to do something really important you can make yourself feel confident and you're going to do better. Remember this part of my story. It's important.

So the host family went to church to pray for him. I stayed at home and made a grilled cheese. When they got home, Jenny had a cake in one arm and boxes of sweets in the other. They were all gifts from members of their church.

The feeling at home just wasn't good. I felt tense, but not because everyone was tense. I think everyone knew how important the next day was, but no one expressed out loud any of these thoughts or feelings. They told us in orientation about nunchi and I think the day before the test was the most I've really been aware of it. I could just feel this feeling in the house and it affected me in a way I didn't expect.

The Day Of

School was cancelled for my school on the day of the test, but I forgot to turn my alarm off. So I was awake when Jenny left in the morning, but I didn't see him. For one second I thought, I'll just pop my head out and wish him good luck. I decided not to though because I've never seen him in the morning when he went to school and I didn't want to make today any different for him. I wanted him to have some normalcy for the day. So I just laid in my bed and listened to him and my host mom prepare for the day.

I told Jenny and many other people that I would be praying for him and thinking of him all day on test day, but I really did. All day I had this knot in my stomach. When I would check my watch I would think "okay. He's got ___ hours left. 380. 380. 380." 380 was the magic number. With a 380 he could go to a university in Seoul.

So I tried to go about my day. I went to the gym, I met up with friends, I went shopping, I bought a coat. I didn't stay in the house because all I did there was think about him and this test.

I arrived home, a new coat in tow, and was met by my two younger brothers. We shared a quick laugh because my middle brother (affectionately called Susan) was wearing only his underwear when I got home so he ran into the laundry room and Tiffany (my youngest host brother) had to him clothes.

So, Jenny came home and went straight to the computer.

Susan and Tiffany went into their parent's room and closed the door. My host dad and I talked a little bit, but the conversation kept stalling because Jenny was checking the answers online and everyone was on edge. 

After maybe 15 minutes, all though it felt like hours, Jenny took his sweater off. Sighed heavily. Took his tie off. Sighed heavily again. Said something like "I failed" with a slight smile and chuckle. Started to unbutton his school shirt (he wears a t-shirt underneath). Said something like "I failed the test." He stood up. Threw his shirt at the computer chair and ran into his room saying "I failed. I failed." with a few wails that were a mix of pain and laughter. He came back out. Sat down at the computer again. Balled his school shirt up and sighed heavily before saying "I just want to be alone." 

It was so heartbreaking. I didn't know what he meant by "I just want to be alone," but I went to my room, sat at the end of my bed, and fought off tears.

We went to dinner as a family in Damyang. I sat in the backseat between my youngest and my oldest host brother. Jenny went from trying to sleep to wanting to talk to messaging his friends. His window was open, claiming it was hot, and then closed. It was so clear how restless he was.

After a little while Jenny said to me "Do you remember last night telling me it was good to feel good? Thank you for that..." His sentence trailed off, like he wanted to say more, but he ended with thank you. I told him how it was true. That before I have to talk in public I will stand in a bathroom in a superwoman pose and think positive thoughts. He sighed and said something like "it doesn't matter now. I failed."

And this is when I broke.

I told him:
"I took my college entrance exam 4 times. And still got a bad score. So I know what it feels like to feel like to failed your parents."

At this point, my voice is cracking and thankfully it's dark in the car because tears just rolled down my face as I reminded him that college is such a small part of his life.

And he said, "yes. But a good college will get me a good job."

The Day After

Today I really struggled to pin point why I feel so affected by the past few days.

This is a strange connection, but I was listening to Gilmore Guys (a podcast that I like) and they had Sheila Lawrence, a writer from the show, on as a guest. They were talking about her writing for Gilmore Girls and she brought up a quote from Bruce Springsteen and writing songs/shows that are "emotionally autobiographical" and have the ability to connect with an audience through shared emotion even if there isn't a shared experience. 

On some level, I really feel for Jenny. He worked so hard and wanted this thing so badly, but "missed" (I'm not convinced he did miss, but to him the test was a failure) and is dealing not with a sense of freedom and failure.

Today Jenny Kakao'd me. He's been messaging me all day and I just hoped and tried to not talk about the test, but it kept coming up. 

Finally, I asked if he talked to his cousin brother (basically his boy cousin who is currently studying at Korea University). He said he talked to him and his cousin is disappointed in his scores.

This is where I broke again.

I told him:
"I'm sorry. I obviously don't know what you're going through, what you're feeling, or how to help you, but I want you to know that I am very proud of you. You are a remarkable young man and if I have a son one day, I want him to be like you."

I think he understood about 75% of what I told him.

And I hope he'll continue to confide in me because I want him to feel proud of himself and his score and know that you can live in one place, never leave your hometown, and still be happy.

So as I ride this train to Seoul, I go with a heavy heart because part of me wants to be at home with my "family" and help my brother through this time in whatever way I can. And part of me wants to give him and my host family space to digest the last few days together and move forward. Because as much as I feel like I am a part of their family, I'm not. I am temporary. I will leave and their lives will continue.

I don't know the answer to any of this. I don't know how to help him or what to do, but I feel him reaching out and I want to respond. I want to be there for him. I just don't know how to.

At first when I found out I had a middle school I was pissed. But now I realize it was worth the cosmic switch because I got to see and experience all these feelings and things surrounding the suneung. I got to be apart of Jenny checking the answers and dealing with the feeling of failure. It's not easy to watch, but I cannot stress enough how thankful I am to be with my homestay family, to be in their home, to see and be a part of their experiences. These past few days have given me a look into their private lives that happen only once.


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