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Korean children study abroad — before college — in Columbia, other U.S. towns

Sunday, April 1, 2012 | 5:44 p.m. CDT
In this Feb. 27 photo, Sally Kim takes notes during a physics class at Columbia Independent School. Kim's parents, who live in South Korea, sent her to live with relatives in Columbia for a better education that provides more collegiate opportunities.

COLUMBIA — As American teenagers go, Sally Kim is pretty typical. She's crazy about singer Bruno Mars and the Plain White T's rock band, spends way too much time on Facebook and can't wait to start college in the fall.

Yet when it comes to that familiar bane of her fellow high school seniors — uncool parents — Kim has few worries. Hers are nearly 7,000 miles away in Seoul, South Korea. They sent their only child to live with relatives in Missouri a decade ago, when she was 8 years old.

The three keep in touch over Skype, but Kim said she craves personal contact even more than when she first arrived.

"As I get older, it definitely gets harder," said Kim, who lives with an aunt and uncle, a college professor, and returns to her native country in the summer. "I look back, and I think I've missed out on so many years of being with my mom and dad."

Such relocations, known as early study abroad, have surged in popularity in South Korea. There, the rigid, test-driven education system, combined with intense social pressure to succeed in an English-first global economy, often means breaking up families for the sake of school.

Some children, like Kim, live with relatives or family friends. Others move with their mothers and siblings while the fathers remain alone in Asia to work. Among Koreans, these families are known as kirogi, or "wild geese," because they visit home briefly once or twice a year before returning to their overseas outposts.

The Korean Educational Development Institute reports that the number of pre-college students who left the country solely to study abroad increased from just over 2,000 in 1995 to a peak of nearly 30,000 in 2006. That number did not include students whose parents work or study overseas.

The number has since declined to more than 18,000 in 2009, the most recent year for which statistics are available.

Unlike American students who usually wait until high school or college to study abroad — and generally limit the experience to a semester or two — 77 percent of Korean students in the U.S. in 2009 were in elementary or middle school, a time when they are seen as best able to learn English.

"Wild geese" families are particularly common in college towns such as Columbia and Champaign-Urbana, Ill., home to the University of Illinios, where researchers are studying the effectsof this trend on family life, culture and the economy in both countries.

Sumie Okazaki, an associate professor of applied psychology at New York University who previously taught at the University of Illinois, said many young Korean students feel intense pressure to succeed and are reluctant to share any doubts or misgivings, whether the topic is family finances or their own well-being.

"The parents are so motivated by what they think may be helpful to the kids," Okazaki said. "Because they know the family has sacrificed so much, that the parents are stretching themselves, they feel like they can't complain."

The students often isolate themselves. "We hear a lot of problems with depression, distress and worries," she added.

Sending their children to school abroad can also strain marriages, particularly when the father stays behind.

Hyoshin Lee, a mother of four, is now back in Columbia for the third time since she and her husband came to study at MU 25 years ago. Each time, her husband either eventually returned to Korea or did not accompany the family at all.

Their two oldest children are grown and studying at American graduate schools. Another child is a high school senior soon headed to college. The youngest is a ninth-grader who wants to finish high school here.

Lee, once again, is torn.

"There are pros and cons," she said. "I strongly believe it was my turn to support my children. I had to follow my children ... I feel like it's his turn now. He sacrificed his wife for three years."

Mastery of the English language isn't the only reason Korean parents send their children abroad. In South Korea, a single-minded emphasis on college-entrance exams means students frequently leave home at dawn and do not return until late evening. The school day is followed by long sessions with private tutors at "cram schools."

Status-conscious American parents who proudly display their children's college choices on bumper stickers have nothing on their Asian counterparts, Lee and others said. In South Korea, a prestigious college is seen as even more vital to prosperity, social standing and marital prospects. That message is driven home early.

"If you are not a very good student, they treat you like you're nothing," Lee said. "That kind of pressure gives too much stress to children. They are not happy."

Kim, a senior at Columbia Independent School who's been accepted to the University of Illinois honors program but hopes to attend Brown University, recounted a similar experience as a young student in Seoul, where her father is a marketing executive and her mother owns an Italian restaurant.

In high school, she's been able to study martial arts, join the orchestra, work on the yearbook, play varsity tennis and participate in the model United Nations club.

Back in Korea, she said, she would have far fewer extracurricular choices.

Many American parents would struggle with sending away their children so young or leaving a spouse behind. But Rick Williams, a former dean of students at Judah Christian School in Champaign, cautioned against making judgments based on U.S. attitudes.

At this private Christian school, the number of high school students from Korea increased tenfold from 2000 to 2007.

"That was a hard call for us, as an evangelical school," Williams said. "I had my students and families take me to task for not being able to understand the fabric and structure of Korean families. We were often called to task for having too much of a Western perspective."

Follow Alan Scher Zagier on Twitter @azagier.


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