When Choi Seo-yoon learned by e-mail in August that her only daughter had been accepted to an elite but faraway international school, she had a couple of weeks to buy a new house — and divide her family.
The family followed a course that once represented the extreme end of South Korea’s education-obsessed culture but increasingly stands for the norm: Choi’s husband, tied to work, stayed in Seoul. And Choi, along with her 6-year-old, moved to a town promising the best education — in this case, a planned community on a volcanic island one hour south by plane, where they expect to live for the next 11 or 12 years.
“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.
Though not all hagwons are geared toward English education, the ones that are tend to be the priciest and most popular.
“A lot of employers make English fluency a criterion for whether to hire or not hire,” said Jasper Kim, a professor at the Graduate School of International Studies at Ewha Womans University in Seoul. “And more on a social or cultural level, English is viewed as a superficial language. Not necessarily needed, but kind of viewed as an academic luxury handbag. If you can speak English, it means you’ve had the resources, which means — in the Korean mind-set — that you come from the so-called right family. And this is what companies are looking for.”
Choi and her husband, Kim Ho, know firsthand about the fierce market for English education, because Kim happens to run several hagwons in Seoul. He wanted to set his daughter on a path where she could avoid the cram school environment.
“I am running the system in terms of preparing kids for global education,” Kim said, “so I know the lifestyle of the Korean school system, where stress levels are to the max, where they have to stay in [cram] school till 8 or 9 p.m. So we decided to take the other path.”
Education experts say Koreans have mixed emotions about their education system. On one hand, Koreans are among the world’s elite students: They have the top reading and math scores, as well as the highest rates for high school and college graduation, among 37 countries ranked by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Moreover, all of this has developed quickly: Just 30 years ago, South Korea ranked in the bottom fourth among those same countries for high school and college graduation rates. But Korean students also rank among the world’s unhappiest, and for the last three years, suicide has become the top cause of death for young people here.
Several families whose children attend school on this island say they’ve actually become happier living apart. The mothers go hiking, play golf and take free English classes together. The fathers can drink with their friends on weeknights and visit on the weekend.
“I’m more generous to my husband because I don’t see him every day,” Choi said. “[Our relationship] is actually working better.”
“In the everyday situation in Korea, if you look at the father’s life, you don’t get to see your daughter much anyway” because of late workdays, Kim said. “That’s the Korean lifestyle. So thinking about the quality of time between parents, especially between father and daughter, I don’t have much of a sacrifice.”
Yoonjung Seo contributed to this report.