Monday, December 14, 2009

외기러기. Lonely goose fathers.

(part one can be located here)

So we've already covered the topic of the students who go overseas but what about the families left behind?
First and foremost, like the first discussion, this topic is quite broad and includes any number of scenarios. Also, the situation differs when the student studies abroad by themselves versus coming over with a family member or two. Having said that, here's a oft linked piece from the New York Times that introduces the topic nicely. It's warm and fuzzy.

High temperature fuzziness aside, we typically think of the father left in Korea while the mother and children study abroad (if thinking about school-aged 유학생). These fathers continue to work in Korea while sending money to the rest of the family as they study abroad. It's also very possible to send the kid away to live with other family members, leaving the mother and father in Korea. Regardless of the age of the student, it's not exactly what every Korean family member looks forward to. But don't worry, it's not like it's a long-term solution, right?

Unfortunately, it's not uncommon to see families separated for years at a time. It's not that there's a lack of love. Far from it. Think of it as a logical business investment. If the kid has an opportunity to speak English and Korean fluently, then they'll have a leg up on the competition. Makes sense, right?

Actually, it does. But that's the perplexing thing of it. I mean, it would be perfectly logical to do plenty of things but that doesn't mean we actually do them, right? Buying 50 of the same style of shirt makes fiscal sense because you're likely to get a discount - but would you actually want to wear the same style shirt over and over again? So, in the same vein, even though the kid will be marketable, wouldn't you rather spend quality time with them? Will they even recognize each other years later? Is it really worth it? Are you providing for their emotional needs as well as their academic needs?

As one can imagine, this lifestyle of working and coming home to an empty house can be quite trying. A detailed look at this movement is right here for your reading pleasure. Oh, I guess I'll be nice and also throw in a one-two punch: foreigner-perspective and Korean-perspective. I'm nice, aren't I? Also, here's a great Korea Herald post about an idiot's guide to sending your family overseas success story from an everyday man who's lived the life. Oh, and keep in mind it's not just the working class that is affected by this phenomenon. 김흥국 was featured in a 2008 English language human interest story (video version).

It's also vital to view this ideology from a Korean cultural lens. It's stating the obvious to say that education is a powerful internal motivator for the vast majority of Koreans. It's easy to dismiss any side of the argument from a foreign perspective (i.e. lazy momma's boy student can't hack it overseas and a cold, authoritarian father is just trying to one-up his drinking buddies). Where education and family start and end is a little blurred, though. I understand it but can't honestly say that I would be able to do it myself. I'd like to tell you that I'd acculturate myself enough to have the strength to send my kid away. Like a temporary sacrifice for the greater good, right?. But, like all things, it's a choice and it's not an easy one. But it's not hard to see one counter argument: what's the point in making a home for a family that's never there? Is it serving the family's needs? Does the kid need this experience in order to be an adult? Even in a situation where the mom and daughter live in Korea while the father and son live in America still has a whole lotta "not good" going on. When it's all said and done, was it all worth it?
Sucks to be you
So in summation, it's complicated and plenty messy. It also has the potential to crank out some culturally and linguistically diverse individuals. It also is a recipe for divorce and enough stress to fill an empty home. It's a trying period for anyone involved. However, I'd wager that out of the tens of thousands of families affected, many will be richer for the experience. What doesn't kill you only makes you stronger, right?