“Up until my daughter finishes high school,” Choi said, “I’ll continue this life.”
“We took a risk,” her husband, Kim Ho, said by phone from Seoul. “The emotions are half and half. Excited but kind of worried.”
Even a generation ago, education experts say, only the wealthiest families considered dividing themselves for the sake of education — generally with the son or daughter traveling overseas, the mother joining as a caretaker and the father staying behind as a money-earning quasi-bachelor. The goal: English fluency, which helps admission to South Korea’s top Ivy-level colleges and leads to jobs at the country’s giant conglomerates.
But South Korea is the scene of perhaps the world’s fiercest competition for a top-of-the-line education, and in a 15- to 20-year span even the average Korean family has turned into an achievement-seeking machine, with parents providing the pressuring, planning and funding. Many children begin English tutoring in kindergarten, and by the time they reach their teens, they’ve become sleep-deprived study-holics, staying at cram schools until well after dark.
As a result of the tightening competition, South Korea has become a booming market for boutique international schools, whose expansive campuses are being built outside crammed Seoul — like here, on the southern island of Jeju. Older students can conceivably go to such schools alone, staying in dorms, but younger students need a parent to relocate with them.
Government data released last month showed that 10 percent of married couples now live apart, twice the rate from 2000. Families who separate for the sake of education have become so commonplace, they even have a name: kirogi kajok, or goose families, because their reunions require a migration. A recent book, Daniel Tudor’s “Korea: The Impossible Country,” put the number of goose families “in the low six figures.”
Choi’s new townhouse complex, called Canon Village II, is full of goose mothers. Their neighborhood has quiet streets lined with baby palm trees held up by temporary braces, a single convenience store and a just-opened pizza shop. It also borders the grassy campuses of British- and Canadian-run private schools, where courses are taught almost exclusively in English. A teacher at one of the schools said about half the students are living with just one parent.
Several of the moms emphasized that they chose to relocate to Jeju Island as a way to opt out of — not outdo — the competitive Korean education culture. Because their children now attend English-based international schools, the parents said, they wouldn’t face the same need for after-school tutoring institutes (known as hagwons) and they’d have more freedom to learn instruments, to play outdoors and to spend time with friends.