In Moscow, on vacation, watching teenage girls and boys interact outside of the Starbucks on Old Arbat Street, I was reminded of how teenagers can be. They hugged. They kissed. They chatted comfortably about life. They enjoyed themselves. As I watched them, I sighed. It was a breath of fresh air.
It seemed more natural and more normal than the lives of teens in Korea.
In Korea I have hardly ever seen groups of teens out and about with idle time, just hanging out. Where are they? and what are they doing? I assume they are wasting away inside an Internet café or in front of a computer or television at home, obsessed with computer games, television shows, and admiring the latest pop groups. Alternatively, they are studying like mad for the next exam or locked inside an academy.
Of course, freedom isn’t always a good thing. Without adult supervision, Russian teens smoke on the street. They gather at public squares, chat, goof-off, and, yes, drink.
What a bunch of hooligans.
Russian boys and girls make-out in the metro. They talk and interact.
Life is good. They appreciate it. They feel it.
They fall in love. They get hurt. They recover.
Korea attempts to avoid all this drama and deliquency, which is why teens are separated, stressed over exams, and under lock and key.
Angela, just graduated from elementary (which ends after 6th grade here), and she is now headed to middle school. This should be an exciting point in her life. A new school. New possibilities. The ability to redefine who she is, who her friends are, and where she wants to go in life. Most other places, she might also be excited about meeting new boys …
But, she lives in Korea.
Talking to Angela the other day and reading other students’ diaries, I discovered that Korean middle schools aim to make “perfect” teenagers. It’s important to conform and not much value is placed on individuality.
Since Angela’s hair is naturally a lighter shade, a brown instead of a black, she will have to dye it. Additionally, she will have to cut her hair to shoulder length, like all the rest of the girls. The uniform she wears will be the same dull gray as everyone else’s. She will wear the same stockings and possibly close to the same shoes as all the other girls.
When it comes to boys … Angela’s public middle school will be an all girls school, which will reinforce her unwillingness to work with boys. Luckily because she plays computer games where she can interact anonymously, in a virtual world, she will not be completely cut off. Even when she is not on the computer, she will continue to interact with some boys, via text messages, but face-to-face interaction will be severely limited and restricted.
Teenagers in Korea do not hang out in mixed groups of boys and girls, that I have seen. Their schools are separate. Their friends are separate. They are separate, except at academy where they usually refuse to work together.
Russian teens stand in stark contrast to this. They flirt. They usually only pretend not to want to work with the opposite sex. Often they need to be separated just so they can concentrate. In the classroom they seem to provide good evidence for why Korea has developed a culture of division. But having girls and boys separate leads to increased shyness and awkwardness when the two groups are forced to work together.
Before Korea and even a couple months into working here, I might have supported the segregation of boys and girls, but after returning to Moscow and seeing the contrast, I realized there’s something special about being a teen and growing up with peers that are both girls AND boys.
There is a precarious balance created by interactions of girls and boys. And being a teenager seems to be, in part, about indulging in emotions of love and heartache. Making value judgments and choices. And just living.