On May 6th, a poetry book called A Single Dog (솔로 강아지) written by 10-year-old Lee Soonyoung was recalled by Publisher Gamoonbi for the brutal content of some of its poems. In the center of the controversy lies a poem called “On a Day You Don’t Want to Go to Hakwon,” (hakwon is the Korean term for cram school/private institute) which is about cooking and eating her mom. Just the thought of it sends shivers down my spine. The publisher initially defended the poem as “art,” but decided to recall the books after receiving many complaints.
The English translation of the poem reads:
When you don’t want to go to hakwon,
Chew and eat your mom
Boil and eat her, bake and eat her
Spoon her eyeballs and eat them,
Pick out all of her teeth
Tear her hair out
Turn her into lean meat and eat as soup
If she sheds tears, lick them up
Eat her heart last
So it's the most painful.
I don’t know about you, but my first response upon reading this poem was: no offense, but this girl needs to be checked out. Something is very, very wrong here. I was surprised that the publisher even decided to publish this poem in the first place, along with a morbid illustration of a girl eating her mother’s heart. A representative from the publication company stated that they decided not to make modifications to the content of the book before publishing it because they wanted to respect the writer’s original thoughts and intentions. But this is precisely why I think that this poem is problematic: most 10-year-olds do not filter their thoughts. Freedom of expression is, of course, important, but it is NOT normal for 10-year-olds (or anyone else for that matter) to have ideas like this. I can’t help but think that the girl who wrote it must be releasing her inner feelings through the poem- and if this is true, something must be done. Like me, many expressed concern for the child’s mental health, but many others praised the child’s ingenuity and creativity.
All of this controversy aside, though, the point I want to make is that we can’t really blame the child. What made her write something as violent as this poem? That a child can have such dark and cruel thoughts reflects the existence of a fundamental problem in South Korean society. I’ve already discussed in my previous article the devastating effects of the competitive education system in Korea, but here I want to criticize that competition culture which impacts even pre-school and elementary school children.
Here are the facts: In the 2012 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), South Korea ranked last in the chart representing the percentage of students who report being happy at school. Basically, they are not. Education in Korea is an endless cycle of competition and expectation because everyone is always trying to get ahead of everyone else. Furthermore, according to a 2013 survey administered by the Ministry of Health and Welfare, South Korea ranked last (again) among all OECD countries in terms of children’s life satisfaction, and academic stress was the biggest reason for it.
Well, I’m not surprised. South Korean children are exposed to academic pressure from an early age. I’m not saying preparing kids ahead of time or getting extra help at hakwon is bad, but is it really necessary to send your 5-year-old to English tutoring? Or your 10-year-old to speech-and-debate class? Children should be running around on the playground and having fun, not working their butts off until 10PM (or even later). The academic stress level of children is among the highest in South Korea, and the psychological burdens that come with this stress might, just might, lead your child to write something like “On a Day You Don’t Want to Go to Hakwon.”
If she can have her own collection of poetry published at age 10, Lee definitely has talent- but her talents and abilities should be directed toward more positive writing. Instead of criticizing Lee or her parents, we should look at the bigger picture and recognize the existence of a serious social problem that pervades our society today.