Straddling two worlds, belonging fully to neitherPark Seon-mi returned to Korea in September with her family after living in the United States for about two years. One day, when her daughter, Seo-yeong, a third-grader, was working on a test booklet of multiple choice questions, she asked her mother, “What does it mean when it says ‘choose the most irrelevant one?’” Mrs. Park, 37, was astounded. “Our child’s Korean skills deteroriated while she learned the English language,” she says.
The number of elementary, middle and high school children returning to Korea after an extended stay abroad has begun to rise in recent years after falling during the Asian financial crisis. In 2001, the number stood at 8,000. Compared to 10 years earlier, when the total was 1,900, that is a four-fold increase.
For these students, living abroad was a valuable experience in learning a foreign language and getting precious exposure to a foreign culture, but adjusting to life back home can be a tough challenge. In particular, the deterioration in Korean language skills and relationships with classmates cannot be taken lightly. In the process of adjusting, many of these children go through a harsh period and experience many frustrations.
Kim Cheol-yeong, director of Sehan Academy, a specialized hagwon, or private institute, for the returning students, says, “The gap in learning is something that one can’t help, so parents should not be too anxious in trying to find solutions.” He adds, “Don’t rely too much on the success stories of those who came before.”
In citing the benefits of hagwon instruction, he says “the adjustment process differs from child to child, so it is more effective to have one-on-one learning sessions.”
Most returning students have the greatest difficulty with Korean language subjects: they have a weak Korean vocabulary, lack the understanding to read between the lines and cannot understand the historical context in reading certain texts, education experts say. The best way to improve Korean language skills is by reading. It is best to start with easy books, but if a child refuses, it is recommended that parents read with the child.
These students are familiar with the liberal atmosphere of foreign schools, so asking many questions and having a strong English accent makes them stand out. As a result, they are often picked on and teased by their peers. When this happens, parents tend to become concerned and try to take action. But in order for the children to rebuild their peer relationships, parents should not act, but just give their children advice on how to deal with the situation wisely, experts say.
Another parent, who only wished to be identified as Mrs. Park, returned to Korea last year after living in England for four years. She went to see the principal of her son’s middle school when fellow students beat her son, a seventh grader, but afterward her son had a worse time than before. In England, it was natural to have counseling talks with the principal, but in Korea it was perceived as an aberrant act.
Kim In-suk, a teacher at the Naejeong Middle School in Bundang, says, “When mothers of returning students ask us to take ‘special care’ of their brood, it actually has the reverse effect.” But if a child remains a loner for an extended period of time, the teacher should assign a peer who can be a friend to him, according to experts.
Many mothers of returning children say, “My child adjusted well even if he couldn’t speak English, but why is it harder to adjust to Korea?” Park Jin-saeng, a psychiatrist, says, “Kids tend to be in denial when they re-experience the stress that they endured abroad, and hence a second adjustment becomes harder.”
There are even those who wish to leave Korea after returning. Kang Min-ju, a college student, remembers how excruciating it was for her to adjust when she returned in the fourth grade after living abroad for five years. “I remember pretending to be sick innumerable times so that I wouldn’t have to go to school,” Ms. Kang says. “I had difficulty in pronounciation and couldn’t understand the behavior of my friends.”
While Ms. Kang wanted to go abroad again, her parents helped her adjust by sending her to numerous extracurricular activities. “I took art classes with a small group of peers, went to Sunday school and was given a load of books to read. It took me roughly six months to a year to fully settle down,” she says.
A childhood of many hellos and good-byes
As a child, I went back and forth between Korea and the United States many times. Therefore, my childhood consisted of many hellos and good-byes. It also involved many different kinds of adjustment, whether cultural or educational.
The first time I moved to the United States was when I was in kindergarten. Because young children tend to adapt to change relatively easily, everything was all right. But when I came back to Korea in the third grade, I faced some difficulties. The first was having to go to hagwon. Everyone except me seemed to be attending after-school classes, such as piano, math, Korean, computers and calligraphy. I didn’t understand why I had to go to such places; at one point I went to seven different hagwons. Aside from that, I sometimes felt like a stranger. I found out that schools teach their first and second graders a lot of songs, and short little rhythmic movements to accompany them. So when I came back to Korea in the third grade, I was the only one who did not know any of those songs and little dances. I also was the only one who did not know the school song.
Things were no better when I came back from the United States in middle school. They actually got worse. I still did not know the school song, or any of the other songs the school had taught its students before. Also, for about two months, it was hard for me to understand what people were saying if they spoke fast. So, I had to ask people to talk more slowly. Unlike in elementary school, education was a big part of my life now. Every subject was difficult for me. Although I had pretty good overall grades in the United States, that did not help me the slightest bit in Korea. My great interest in math and science did not help me either.
The curricula in the United States and Korea were so different that the things I learned in the States became useless. The fact that girls do not play sports also was a great shock to me. In the United States, I was on various sports teams at my school. In Korea, even during physical education class, teachers would tell the girls to rest on the bench and chat while the boys played sports. Still, however hard it was for me to adjust to Korea, I would never compare the two countries and think that the Korean system was inferior to the U.S. system. After a three-year adjustment period, I am fully aware of Korean culture and think that it was the long adjustment period that actually made me grow up a little.
The writer, Lee Jung-bi, is an intern at the JoongAng Daily.
by Lee Ji-young