United States relocations, known as early study abroad, have surged in popularity in South Korea, where a 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 live with relatives or family friends. Others move with their mothers and siblings while the fathers remain alone in Asia to work. Among Koreans, the 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. And 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., where researchers are studying the effects 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 that 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.
That’s probably why the suicide rate among Asians is so high, although the Asiance foreign exchange student interns have all been ambitious and well adjusted!