My So-called K-Life…

An American Teacher in Korea. Contact at:

Uniformly Individual April 18, 2012

Filed under: Korean Life — Michelle @ 4:01 PM

This is what I pictured when I thought about my students being in uniform.


Maybe it’s because I grew up in the public schools of America, but it would seem that I have something against school uniforms.  I just don’t like them, I guess, having it in my head that they stifle a student’s individuality – and inAmericathat is the last thing we want to do. 


But as far as how this is put into practice inKorea, it would appear that I am wrong.


Yes, the students in my school wear uniforms, but not uniformly. 


Pick any two students and I can tell you now, there is no way that their clothing is exactly the same.  From the shoes on their feet (anything from simple slip on sandals to massive fluffy pink slippers) to the blouses, dress shirts, or sweaters they were on top.  From head to toe these students utilize their clothing to express their individuality, and all while still being in uniform.


The girls all wear these cutesy little ankle socks over their tights.  One of them wears two different pairs every day – usually with faces of popular Kpop singers.  She’ll then make them “dance” when she’s bored.


And then, both boys and girls, will wear their uniform shirts to school, but throw a sweater over top of it to keep themselves warm in the drafty buildings and the unheated hallways.  You can start to figure out different students’ personalities just by looking at the goofy things on their sweaters.  These can be really nice preppy nice knit sweaters, or cartoons and Mickey Mouse…it all depends on the student.    


This is more like what they look like - everyone with their own little tweak. I would have taken pictures of my students but they run anytime they see a camera...


My school has a uniform, and the students adhere to it, but it would appear that in this rigid system inKorea, there is still a lot of room for students to wiggle about, for them to try and find themselves within that system that pressures them for grades and constant improvement, at least in a small way.


I had this stereotypical image of a Korean student when I came here as compared to an American student…but I will tell you now, there is no difference.  Change the language to English and this could easily be any classroom in America with students who like to learn and one’s who want to be just about anywhere else.


Maybe it is because they are Korean and have been raised in this culture, but they have always been in a society that expects them to conform and behave just like everyone else, but no one really functions that way.  There are always outliers in any society andKorea is no exception.  No culture will ever succeed in making its people perfectly identical, and this behavior in my school with their uniform is the perfect example of how even when children are meant to act the same, they will find a way to show who they truly are.    


2 Responses to “Uniformly Individual”

  1. Chanel Says:

    Do you think you can elaborate on what your students wear? I.e: How about jewelry? Shoes, i.e. heels or high boots? Makeup? Socks? Accessories? Hair accessories? Are they allowed to wear their own sweaters? Are uniforms as cute and preppy as those on Google images that idols promote? How about summer and winter, are they wearing blazers during summer as well and skirts at winter?

    Also, those girls on the photo, are they all going to the same school?

    • Michelle Says:

      As far as jewelry goes: Earings (as long as they are small and not really attention-gathering) all students, boys and girls, pretty much wear them. Same story for rings. Basically the rule is that they cannot be distracting to the student wearing them or other students. Also, the school is not responsible for what happens to the jewelry at school.
      Shoes: All people in the building, teachers and students alike, switch shoes when they get to school. Here there is a concept of “outside shoes” and “inside shoes.” What that boils down to is that students wear their regular shoes to school, typically gaudy bright gym shoes, and change out to simple slip on sandals at school – these are mostly black but some students have brightly colored ones as well. No one really pays attention to them though.
      Make-up: None. If you are caught wearing make-up, or dying your hair to colors not found in nature/blonde, you are in trouble.
      Socks: This is wear individuality shines. Students wear whatever socks they want, today for example I was witness to everythign from plain white to superman to one student with this weird zombie frog on one foot and a k-pop star sock on the other. Even the teachers wear rather odd and silly socks to school, and because we have to change shoes, these are typically visable to everyone.
      Accessories (including hair): As long as they are not distracting students have them. I’ve had students with big bows in their hair, carrying around brightly colored blankets, or fantasitc patterned tights.
      Sweaters: Yes, there are no sweaters as a part of the uniforms at my school so students toss their own on top of their uniforms, as well as jackets.
      Uniform reality: Yes, they really are that preppy, but typically high school uniforms tend to be more mellow than middle school uniforms. For example, the uniforms for all of the high schools in my area are grey, black, or navy blue. Middle School uniforms are plaids including brighter colors like red, white and yellow. There are also different uniform colors for summer and winter, with the winter uniforms being thicker than the summer ones.
      Uniforms in season: The warm weather uniform does include a blazer at my schools, but it is optional and most students elect not to wear it, but it is really thin material. The cold weather uniform still does include skirts and the vast majority of girls choose to wear them. I do have one female student who is rather a tomboy and she wears the pants from the boys uniform most of the time, so at least in my school, it is feasible for a girl to be wearing pants, but they do pretty much remain wearing skirts, but with thick leggings underneath.
      The photo: is just a stock photo that I grabbed off of google images, but I would assume those students to all be attending the same school as a person on the street.

      I hope I answered all of your questions.

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