One family, living in 2 countriesKim Yeong-jin, 39, a corporate employee, has been apart from his family for almost two years. His children are going to school in Canada, living with his wife, who takes care of them. Meanwhile, he has remained in Korea, financially supporting them. Mr. Kim doesn’t know when he and his family will be reunited, but he is nevertheless confident about his decision.
Mr. Kim’s story is not a rare one in Korea. So-called “gireogi appa,” or “goose fathers,” who send their families overseas because they believe the children will get a better education, have become a familiar aspect of Korean society.
There are no data on the number of gireogi fathers, but about 28,000 students under 19 moved overseas, with or without a parent, between March 2003 and February 2004, according to the Ministry of Education and Human Resources.
This is almost three times more than in 1998, when 10,700 students went abroad. And considering that those who go overseas to study usually spend several years there, the total number of students living abroad, either alone or with a parent, is substantially more than the annual figures indicate.
The main reason for this trend is disenchantment with the public school system in Korea, because of the perceived inferiority of the education and severe pressure on students.
“In a 50-mininute class, I am awake for only 20 minutes,” said Heo Hye-won, a high school student. “Staying in school from morning to night, it’s almost impossible to concentrate all the time. There are too many students in class, too.”
“Looking at the educational environment in the country, I think most people would make the same choice I did, if the situation allowed,” Mr. Kim said. “The ‘gireogi’ phenomenon reflects the country’s deep-rooted problems. We are not to blame.”
Four years ago, Mr. Kim was taking English lessons at a hagwon and became close friends with his Canadian teacher. After the teacher returned to Canada, he invited Mr. Kim’s family to the country, suggesting that the children might be happier studying in Canada, a “more humanistic” environment for young children.
Mr. Kim thought it might give his children the chance to see the bigger world outside of this “small, crowded pond.”
“I wanted my children to have a broader choice in terms of their dreams,” he said. “In Korea, after all the struggle and intense competition, the successful ones end up being corporate employees. I want my son to be whatever he wants to be, not living a cookie cutter life here.”
While most believe that sending their families abroad for educational reasons is the right thing to do, for many gireogi fathers the time spent away from their families is a painful one, leading to loneliness and depression.
There is even a song called “Gireogi Appa,” sung by well-known singer Lee Mi-ja, that contains sad lyrics about a family’s separation.
At first, Mr. Kim thought the transition to living alone was not particularly difficult. “For the first three months, I liked the feeling of having free time all to myself. I could do things that I couldn’t do living with my family, such as having my hobbies again and hanging out with friends,” he said.
“But after three months, I started feeling lonely and depressed. As time went by, depression became a regular cycle. Just looking at pictures of my family often made me cry. Sometimes I would ask myself what I was doing this for,” he added.
Such problems can lead some goose fathers to take desperate measures, such as suicide. Last November, a man in his 40s took his own life near his father’s grave after becoming depressed over being apart from his family for many years. Also last year, a bank executive, 48, committed suicide after getting divorced from his wife, who had been overseas with his children for more than 10 years. And in July 2002, a 36-year-old father killed himself after his wife in Canada found out that he was having an affair.
Despite the problems, Mr. Kim still thinks it was a worthwhile choice for his family.
“In Korea, the cost of raising a child is unimaginable,” he said. “Until a child graduates from high school, parents need to provide him with a tutor or after-school lessons that cost 500,000 won ($490) to 1 million a month. Without those lessons, you cannot expect your child to compete with others.”
Given that expense, considering sending children overseas to a better English-learning environment at almost the same cost with less stress and pressure becomes a natural thing to do, he added.
Another gireogi father, 38, who didn’t want to be identified, commented, “I want my children to have the advantage of being fluent in English. I don’t want them to suffer the same stress of learning English that I did.”
On a recent panel debate program on the Korea Broadcasting System, Kim Sun-ae, a mother of a high school student, said she felt sorry for her son in Korea.
“I have to wake my son up at 5:30 in the morning. He comes home at 11:30 p.m. He is always short on sleep, but he has to do it for three years, without any certainty that he will be able to attend the university he wants to go to. I want to send him to North America if I can.”
Choe Yang-suk, 48, who recently received a doctorate in theology from Yonsei University Graduate School, wrote her thesis on gireogi fathers for her degree, after interviewing 20 such men. Ms. Choe, the mother of two daughters, said this phenomenon is only possible because of Koreans’ values regarding education and children.
“Generally for Koreans, their children’s education comes before everything else, even their married life, whereas staying apart from your spouse just for your children’s sake for many years would be unthinkable for people in other cultures,” she said.
Her interview subjects included a doctor, professor, lawyer, corporate executive and businessman, who could afford to send their children abroad, but the number of middle-class corporate employees who choose the same path has been increasing, according to Ms. Choe.
The time of the participants’ separation from their families ranged from one year to 11 years.
The interviews confirmed that the gireogi fathers’ biggest difficulty is loneliness. And, unsurprisingly, the question of infidelity arises.
But Ms. Choe said the interviews could not delve into the issue too deeply. Many participants said they were faithful to their wives and their marriages were healthy. But they also tended to say that they knew of many opposite cases among other gireogi fathers. And a few participants said they had had affairs.
“I’m not a money-making machine. I sometimes get drunk and do crazy things,” one respondent told her.
Mr. Kim added that he saw the possibility of infidelity happening in gireogi families.
Ms. Choe said, “Since the country’s male-centered culture has been generous about men’s infidelity, whether gireogi fathers tend to be faithful or unfaithful to their wives doesn’t appear to be an essential question. The social atmosphere and individual values provide more of a reason to cheat.”
The gireogi phenomenon, she noted, also reflects a broader problem that many Korean families face in general ― the fathers are never home.
“Even in normal families that stay together in the country, many fathers are too busy to spend time with the family, because of an inhumane work schedule and mandatory drinking parties,” Ms. Choe said. “For that reason, many families might find living apart from the father not so challenging.”
One father, who was too busy to spend time with his wife and children before the family left Korea, said, “Being apart from my family seems to justify my poor role as a father.”
For the wives in gireogi families, the reality is not particulary kind, either.
Kim Mi-ran, a 37-year-old woman who moved to the United States with her children a year ago, leaving her husband in Korea, said being separated from her husband for that time was very difficult.
“It was just one year, but my husband and I cried so much on the phone at the beginning,” Ms. Kim said. “Taking care of children all by myself was hard. I also worried about my husband a lot. We were both very depressed. Now, he is giving up on the career he’s built in Korea and coming to the United States,” she said.
Unlike Ms. Kim, gireogi families are usually separated for many years, and the gap between the father and the rest of the family often widens.
Choi Young-il, a lawyer who has a daughter in the United States, said, “After a few years, when I visited my family in the U.S., my daughter was not available anymore. I would want to travel with her sometimes while I was there, but her own schedule often came first. I felt a bit betrayed.”
Ms. Choe said that the growing gap between the father and the rest of the family is actually the most serious problem.
“Sending your children overseas, is actually losing them,” one gireogi father told Ms. Choe.
“After all the things you did for your children, there is nothing left but your children’s success,” another respondent said.
“Never be a gireogi, it is not a good idea,” said a man who was apart from his family for 11 years.
Still, the prospect is a serious one for many Korean parents, who feel torn between their children’s education and a normal family life.
by Choi Sun-young