Tuesday, October 21, 2008
More Korean families make sacrifice to send kids to study in the U.S.
Photo by MICHAEL MULVEY/DMN
By KATHERINE LEAL UNMUTH / The Dallas Morning News
Kevin Yoo began high school four years ago by saying goodbye to his parents in South Korea and moving to the United States alone.
Kevin Yoo, a 19-year-old senior at Arlington's Pantego Christian Academy, came to the U.S. four years ago to study. Increasingly large numbers of South Korean youths are moving to English-speaking countries to study. Academic competition in Korea is one factor.
Kevin moved in with an American family, complete with a boy his age. He dropped his Korean name, Jihoon. He played football, soccer and ran track at Arlington's Pantego Christian Academy, where he is a senior on track to graduate this year.
Increasingly large numbers of Korean youths are moving to English-speaking countries to study. Almost 18,000 people of Korean descent live in Dallas, Tarrant, Collin and Denton counties, according to the 2000 census.
"In Korea, they get out of school really late, like 9 or 10 p.m., and it's so hard to get into good colleges," said Kevin, 19. "Here I can study and I can play sports, and there's so much opportunity to go to good colleges."
Older students such as Kevin often come alone on student visas. But growing numbers of elementary school-age children are moving with their mothers, while their fathers remain in Korea to work. The divided families are known as kirogi, or "wild geese."
Many Korean parents believe their children must become fluent in English to achieve career success in a globalized economy. The intense academic pressure in Korean schools and the dearth of slots at top universities motivate their decisions, especially if their children are not top students.
The Korean government is fighting the exodus of young people by expanding English education in that country. But the strategy hasn't worked yet. According to the Korean Educational Development Institute, 29,511 students in elementary through high school left the country in 2006 for study abroad, a number that has nearly tripled over five years.
But many Koreans worry that the separation from family exacts a high emotional cost. Some students don't get along with their host families or relatives, and opt to live on their own. Others turn to drugs and alcohol. Or they end up preferring life in the United States and resist returning to their country.
Kevin has lived with the same host family for four years.
"He feels like a brother to me by now," said 18-year-old Tyler Walker, one of Kevin's American "family" members.
Tyler traveled to South Korea one summer. And Kevin's family pays Tyler's tuition as part of an exchange program.
Wayne Walker, Tyler's dad, said the relationship with Kevin is working well. But he sometimes questions why a family would send their child halfway around the world.
"They want the English so bad, they're willing to make the sacrifice," he said. "We'd never do that with our child. But I say that because I'm coming from our culture."
Like many other Korean students, Kevin attends the Korean Central United Methodist Church of Dallas. Christina Kim, an energetic youth pastor, said many affluent families send their kids abroad when they struggle in school and have no chance of entering one of Korea's top three universities.
"They don't have hope in Korea, so they say, 'What the heck, I'll go,' " she said.
She's seen some young people prosper and perform well and go on to college in the United States, and others drop out.
University of Texas at Arlington social work professor Sung Seek Moon understands why Korean families send their children abroad, but thinks it comes at a high cost.
"They are paying a big price," he said. "It's a big social issue in Korea. Some children are struggling emotionally even though their grades are good in school."
Yong Min Kwon, 18, graduated from Pantego and now attends the University of North Texas in Denton.
He recalled that his own struggles in Korea prompted his parents to send him to the U.S. three years ago.
"I was starting to make wrong choices and to hang out with the wrong crowd, to drink and smoke," he said. "They didn't know what to do. They asked me if I wanted to go to the States."
Arriving in the U.S. alone and meeting his host family was difficult.
"I couldn't sleep," he said. "I had a language barrier. I had nobody to talk to. I almost got depression."
His thick accent frustrates him. He wants to speak better English like the Korean-Americans he knows.
"I really want to be like them, like speaking perfect English," he said. "The purpose of I'm being here is to speak perfect English for my future so I can have an international business."
Because the older students struggle to pick up fluent English, Korean families are opting to send younger children abroad because they more easily absorb a new language.
Eunmi Lee moved to the area on her own four years ago with her children, now 17 and 14. Her daughter's best friend moved to Canada to study.
She likes that there are more extracurricular activities here. Her son, a Carroll High School freshman, plays football. Her daughter enjoys art.
But like the other students, her family faces difficult decisions about how long they will stay.
"My husband wants us to go back next year," she said. "My son doesn't want to go back."