[Eye on English] Families separate for overseas education

By Claire Lee

‘Goose fathers’ endure hardships to provide opportunities for their children to study abroad

  • Published : Jan 22, 2014 - 20:07
  • Updated : Jan 22, 2014 - 20:07
In November, a man in his 50s committed suicide in his house in Incheon. He was a “goose father,” one of about 200,000 Korean dads who send their families abroad for their kids’ education, while remaining in Korea to work.

The electrical engineer had sent his kids and wife to the U.S. in 2009. But shortly after they left, the man lost his job. He lived off unemployment benefits and savings, sending most of it to his family in the U.S. His wife worked at a restaurant there to support the children. Throughout the four years, he never got to see his family, as he could not afford to travel there.

“Goose fathers” emerged here back in the 1990s, when sending one’s children to study abroad at a young age became popular. Today, Korean parents spend some 20 trillion won ($18 billion) on private education each year, much of it on English education. Young Korean children continue to say good-bye to their dads to study abroad and speak English more fluently, while this often leaves their fathers vulnerable to loneliness, financial difficulties, and even health problems.

‘Money supplying machine’

For former goose father Park, who didn’t want to reveal his first name, the experience of living alone in Korea was a “nightmare.” He lived in a tiny studio in Seoul for nearly six years, while his wife was with their two daughters studying in Canada. He would very often volunteer for night shifts at work, and drink heavily, because he wanted to avoid going home where “no one was there to greet” him. He wired 90 percent of his salary to Canada, for his daughters’ education, until his wife returned to Seoul to live with him last year.

“It wasn’t the life of a human being,” he said. “I don’t even want to think about it. I was practically a money supplying machine.”

In literature and pop culture

Goose fathers and their ― mostly miserable ― lives have been often featured in literature and pop culture throughout the past decade. Author Jung Mi-kyung’s 2006 short story “I Was Given Balkan Roses,” is about a lonely goose father whose wife wants a divorce. His children, living with his wife in San Francisco, also send him emails saying that they don’t want to go back to Korea, although they miss him. He spends much of his free time searching the Internet, while occasionally having sex with his neighbor named Jae-yi, who works at a hospital as a nurse. Jae-yi is not willing to get serious with him, while he develops a terminal illness. 

A scene from “The Show Must Go On,” a 2007 Korean film about a gangster and “goose father” who works in Korea while his wife and children stay in a foreign country for the children’s education. (Lotte Entertainment)

Director Han Jae-rim’s 2007 film “The Show Must Go On” is about a gangster who becomes a goose father. One of its iconic scenes is when its protagonist (played by Song Kang-ho) is eating ramen alone in a spacious living room, while watching a video of his family ― who now live overseas ― on TV. Goose fathers also include well-known figures in real life, including critic Chin Jung-kwon, cartoonist Rhie Won-bok, actor Lee Sung-jae, and veteran singer Kim Heung-gook.

So why send the kids in spite of the ordeal?

‘More than just English’

Kim Jun-hyung, a businessman whose job requires a high level of English, sent his two children to the U.S. with his wife about three years ago. Although he never studied overseas, Kim speaks and writes fluently, having won a number of awards for his language abilities in college. But Kim said one of the reasons why he sent his kids is because he wanted them to learn English in an “easier way.”

“I can speak and write English fluently, but (learning the language in Korea) required a lot of time and energy from me,” he told The Korea Herald.

“The process can be very tiring at times. And I often feel limits as a non-native speaker. Reading and writing can be relatively easier, but listening comprehension is still challenging for me sometimes. I just wanted my kids to learn the language in a more efficient, less time-consuming and less stressful way.”

But English wasn’t the only reason why Kim sent his children abroad. He wanted them to grow up in a less competitive environment.

“It may sound random, but I find food cheaper in the U.S. than in Korea,” he said.

“So the kids can enjoy more meat and vegetables at a cheaper price. And they can also enjoy sports and other outdoor activities even during high school, which are practically banned in Korean high schools ― since you have to dedicate all your time studying for university entrance exams. I just wanted the kids to enjoy health and leisure during their teenage years, rather than being overly stressed in a competition-driven environment.”

Konkuk University professor Yeom Ji-sook said the main reason why so many dads send their children overseas is Korean society itself, which puts a lot of emphasis on one’s educational background.

She has a point. Suicide remained the single largest cause of death among young people here for three straight years from 2008 to 2010. Of the young people polled, 8.8 percent said they had thought about committing suicide, with 53.4 percent citing excessive education-related competition as the main cause for it.

“I don’t think the ‘goose fathers’ and their problems will ever be solved unless the systemic problem of the society ― the competition, constant discrimination against one’s academic background ― are fixed first,” Yeom told The Korea Herald.

Tips for the fathers

Dr. An Hui-jean, a scholar and professional therapist, has been dealing with a number of geese fathers in the past. One of the fathers she used to know died abruptly of cancer ― very similar to what happened to the protagonist of author Jung’s “I Was Given Balkan Roses.”

“It’s easy for geese fathers to fall into alcohol or extra marital affairs, as they often struggle with isolation and loneliness,” An told The Korea Herald. “But this man I knew became a workaholic instead. He overworked himself to fight loneliness. And that eventually destroyed his health. When he found out he had cancer, it was too late; it was at terminal stage.”

An said it’s important for geese fathers to accustom themselves to a regular life, eat healthy and properly, and get involved in a social circle or a community that will accommodate their emotional needs. She also suggested making use of Internet services as much as possible, such as Skype, to get in touch with the family regularly.

However, An said she personally would not recommend being a goose father to begin with.

“It is not good for the children, either, because they don’t get to witness the positive example of a married couple while growing up,” she told The Korea Herald. “Many of them may end up thinking of their fathers as a person who brings them money, while their mothers are their drivers and ‘academic managers.’ Drivers and money suppliers aren’t exactly mothers and fathers.

“By being a goose father, you are sacrificing your present for the future,” An continued. “But that future may never come to you the way you want it to be.”

A child’s point of view

A young professional works at a big local corporation where her job requires dealing with English-speakers on a daily basis. The woman, who is in her 20s, spent almost 10 years in Canada with her mother and her sibling, while her father stayed in Korea to support her education and living cost.

Fluent in both Korean and English, she thinks her bilingual ability ― which she acquired while living in Canada ― gave her an edge in the competitive local job market.

When asked whether she thinks she would have been able to speak English the way she does now if she never got to study overseas, her answer was short and simple:

“No, of course not,” she said. “I just know that that wouldn’t have been the case. There are things you can learn by being ― not ‘studying’ ― when you are living in an English-speaking country.”

And what does she think she feels regrettable the most?

“It’s the time we lost,” she said. “The fact that my father wasn’t able to be physically with me while I was growing up. The fact he and I missed out on all of it ― being a dad to a teenage girl, and being a teenage daughter to dad.”

By Claire Lee (