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Life tough for students returning home

Experts suggest parents prepare children for Korean school life before coming back

For Chung, a Korean student who came home after spending her elementary school years in England, the main problem in adapting to Korea was the language.

Working now in Korea after graduating from a college in the U.K., Chung recalled her experiences here from the sixth grade in elementary school to her first year in high school.

She didn’t understand what the teacher said or what her peers said. Her classmates often teased her and the teacher scolded her due to cultural differences. She ranked near the bottom of the class in exams. During her first year in high school, she had to return to England. 
Parents discuss sending children abroad at an early age for study with consultants during a recent event in Seoul. (The Korea Herald)
Parents discuss sending children abroad at an early age for study with consultants during a recent event in Seoul. (The Korea Herald)

The number of students who, like her, have spent some of their youth overseas is on the rise. Many parents have sent their children to foreign countries, especially English-speaking countries, with the belief that studying abroad is the best way to have a solid command of English.

The students who have gone to foreign countries typically return to their home country at some point, but often face difficulties in adapting to life in Korea. Some students overcome, while others struggle to adjust to life in their country of birth.

The number of students returning to Korea after going abroad for study, dubbed returnees here in Korea, increased from 8,019 in 2001 to 22,262 in 2008, according to a report by the National Youth Policy Institute in Seoul.

“Children find it hard to digest lots of the curricula they have to study in Korea,” said a teacher of classes for returnees at the elementary school affiliated with the Seoul National University of Education.

“They were able to sleep around 9 p.m. in the countries they had lived before Korea, but here they have so many things to do, such as homework and learning Korean,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

According to the think tank, 62.2 percent of returnees in 2008 were elementary school students. In most cases, first and second year students leave Korea to study abroad and come back to fifth or sixth elementary school grades, the study showed.

In the past, most of them went to English-speaking countries, but nowadays the number of students going to China or Southeast Asian countries is increasing.

Their overseas stay usually lasts for two or three years, the time period just sufficient to acquire fundamental language skills but short of avoiding adjustment problems later in Korea.

Some students who stay longer than three years would experience cultural shock when they return to Korea, and their adaptation difficulties tempts them to seriously consider going back to the foreign countries where they had lived.

“I was very shocked when the teacher hit us for our wrong answers in a test. When I was scolded by a teacher, I experienced a cultural difference. In England when a teacher chides you, you must look at the teacher. But if you do so in Korea, it is considered rude,” said Chung.

Factors listed on the report that contribute to maladjustment of returnees include academic stress, poor speech in Korean, cultural differences and the lack of relationships with classmates.

If children have a hard time adapting to Korea after some time, they start to miss the country they left.

About 92.5 percent of the returnees wanted to go back whenever facing problems adjusting to life in Korea even after some time had passed, according to another study by the think tank. And it often led them to return to the country they lived.

A story about a middle school student with adjustment problems who misses the Philippines was aired by KBS. The anonymous boy moved to the Philippines with his family when he was in the first grade of middle school. He was able to enjoy school and after-school life of a kind unimaginable for middle school students in Korea. He was free from after-school private lessons, and played golf and the clarinet instead. But he had to return to Korea after his parents’ business fell into financial trouble. He lived a tough life back in Korea, coming under heavy pressure in terms of academic performance. He had to follow a tight study schedule which usually continued until midnight.

Academic stress seems to be one of the biggest adaptation problems. “In Korea, students are driven to a busy study schedule since preschool years, whereas students do not live that hard life abroad,” said an official of a private institute that many returnees attend.

As to why it is so difficult to adapt to life in Korea, he noted the importance of parents.

“If parents prepare their children well before going back to Korea while living overseas, they are likely to find it easy to adapt to the Korean school system,” he said. “But unless parents do so, they will see their children struggling to keep up with the tough study schedule, with some giving up the Korean life,” he added.

Another report by the National Youth Policy Institute shows some parents who took their children overseas prepared them for the Korean school system, using Korean textbooks before coming to Korea.

However, not all of the parents are aware of the necessity for preparation. Parents don’t find it easy while they are away from Korea.

Only 39 schools nationwide provide special assistance to returnees. With thousands of students returning every year, the number seems inadequate.

Seoul has five schools that offer special programs for returnees. The public elementary school under Seoul National University of Education is one of the five.

“Almost all returnees pass the special supplementary course in a year and move to regular classes. We help them adapt to Korean society and prepare for advanced study under the Korean system,” said a teacher in charge of the class.

“How well they adapt to life in Korea varies depending on each student, but they need basic assistance in overcoming cultural and language barriers,” he added.

By Lee Woo-young  (