One of the many grave problems of the Korean education system is that no one is allowed to fail, and virtually everyone, from elementary school onwards, is an “A” student. Learning is based almost entirely on rote memorization and the ability to regurgitate stored data at exam time.

University entrance is solely determined by performance on nationwide standardized tests, and getting in is far harder than getting out, as everyone graduates in 4 years, regardless of performance. As a result, Korean students going to America to study quite often don’t realize that failure is an actual possibility. “I was not used to being not a top student,” wrote BC Lee, “and I was frustrated and nervous because of it, but instead of working harder, I didn’t work at all.”

One of the many grave problems of the Korean education system is that no one is allowed to fail.

But in addition to this letter, I began to receive assignments with no answers at all. “KChang – major undecided – write Syracuse essay, write Indiana Questions 1-3, student has to prepare for SAT and has no time for writing essays.”

I was promised a “double rate” for these services, but here I paused, on both ethical and practical grounds. “Describe the unique qualities that attract you to the specific undergraduate College or School to which you are applying at the University of Michigan. How would that curriculum support your interests?” How could I answer this question for a person I’d never met, whose major was undecided?

I have worked in education for twelve years. Teachers the world over fight against plagiarism, a practice made so easy in the internet age that we require computer programs to combat it. When I taught at a junior college in New York, I took a special pride in catching offenders, often printing out the website from which they’d stolen and stapling it to their paper with a large red zero scrawled on the front page. Not in My House. But here I was, being complicit in a crime far worse than mere plagiarism – fraud.

However, in a country where bootleg DVDs are sold in street stalls and subway stations with complete impunity, and pirated computer programs and video games can be purchased more easily than originals, the ideas of “plagiarism” and “misappropriation” don’t register as wrongs.

I thought about trying to explain this to Mrs. Kim, but I knew any attempt I made would be misconstrued as nothing more than a desire not to work. I tried a different tack: “I am happy to edit what the student writes,” I wrote to her, “but I really don’t know how to answer these questions for him.”

A few hours later, I received an email response: “Student is very busy – he has no time.”

I took a special pride in catching offenders, often printing out the website from which they’d stolen and stapling it to their paper with a large red zero scrawled on the front page.

Now, I’ve been a high school student. Granted, it was a little while ago, before Twitter, before Facebook. But we had our distractions, too, and in my senior year, I had plenty of time to write college entrance essays for ten different schools, and take the SATs, twice, and be an honor student and a complete slacker at the same time. Saying an 18-year old doesn’t have time to write a 250-word essay is like saying a cat doesn’t have time to lie on a sunny windowsill.

“Even if the student can send me some notes,” I entreated, ”then perhaps I could write the essay for him.” I thought about attempting to explain my hesitation to her. I looked up the Korean word for “fraud,” just in case I would need it to state my case. But then I realized that it was naïve of me to think she would be concerned about the ethical implications of her “service.”

Days passed without word from Mrs. Kim, and by the time her answer arrived, I had resigned myself to taking, at least belatedly, the moral high road: “I pay you for October work at November end,” she wrote. “And you know any other native speaker who can writing essays for me?”

I took the money, but declined to pay the offer forward.

Community Connection

Have you ever run into a similar situation while teaching or living abroad? How did you deal with it?