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A Wrenching Choice

By Phuong Ly
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 9, 2005; Page A01

They are called 'kirogi,' or wild geese -- South Korean families separated by an ocean. The parents want their children to be taught in the United States, but the cost of an American education can be the fracturing of the family, often for years. This is the story of one kirogi family.

The flag of South Korea hung high above Hannah Kim's head as she sat in her Howard County classroom, listening to the day's lesson on immigration.

Terry, left, and Hannah, far right, watch as their father prepares to catch a train to the airport. (Tracy A. Woodward - The Washington Post)

Photo Gallery: The Cost of an American Education
_____Live Discussion_____
Monday , 2 p.m. ET: Post reporter Phuong Ly discusses her story on Korean children sent to the U.S. for education.

Her social studies teacher described how 14 million people have immigrated to this country since 1990, the year before many of these seventh-graders were born.

"Fourteen million," repeated Cliff Bernstein, looking around. "Why do people want to come to the United States so badly?"

Jobs and homes and democracy, one girl offered hesitantly. A couple of students doodled in their notebooks; others stared into space.

Hannah's hand shot up. "They want to learn English and get a better education," she said.

Education has brought Hannah to this classroom and to a white frame townhouse in Ellicott City. But the price of her American education -- and her escape from the relentlessly competitive Korean school system -- is a fractured family. Hannah's mother, Jungwon Kim, and two younger siblings are here with her. Her father, Keeyeop Kim, an executive in South Korea, stayed behind to finance his family's life abroad.

They have lived this way -- children without a father, wife without a husband -- for a year. Their plan is to live this way for nine more years.

The Koreans call them kirogi, or wild geese. The birds, a traditional symbol at weddings, mate for life. And they travel great distances to bring back food for their young.

Korean officials can't say how many families are kirogi, but they know how many children are leaving the country: 10,000 school-age children left to study overseas in 2002, up from 4,400 in 2000.

Hannah's mother knows at least two other families like hers in their tree-lined subdivision. Several more attend her church. Their numbers swell the ranks of Korean children in Howard County schools: Each year, nearly 400 Korean-speaking students are enrolled in English for Speakers of Other Language classes, making them the largest ethnic group in the program.

The families also are turning up in other suburbs with well-regarded public schools. The Korean Embassy Web site links to the home pages of the Fairfax and Montgomery counties' school districts.

In South Korea, a First World country of broadband Internet and skyscraper shopping malls, society still runs on an education system that dates to the age of kings. Jobs, social status, even marriage prospects often are determined by how well someone performs on national school exams. There is little room for creativity or enterprise.

To live successfully in the family's homeland, Hannah, 13, would have to give up her drums and piano unless she expected to make music a career, the Kims said. Eugene, 11, would have to put away his inline skates to attend after-school tutoring sessions. Even Terry, 4, would be doing something practical, such as studying the IQ tests that the bookstores sell packaged in bright cartoon covers.

"I see the big picture in the U.S.," Jungwon Kim, 38, said. "They can go to a nice college and have time to have a good time with their friends."

The Kims are part of a middle-class subset of U.S. immigrants who arrive here not out of financial need but out of a desire to give their children other advantages. For the suburban school districts, the influx of Korean students requires additional resources to teach them English. But many move quickly into regular classes and help raise the school's performance.

Korean society always has placed a premium on an American education, with the English skills and global experience it brings. Keeyeop Kim, Hannah's father, remade his future at age 20 when he went to the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, after failing to score high enough on a foreign service exam and being shut out of South Korea's marquee universities.

With the slots at those universities becoming more precious, many students are leaving well before college. Agencies in Seoul offer to help settle mothers and children in English-speaking countries, and Web sites provide tips on real estate, banking and handling stress. Typically, the mothers enroll in community colleges and apply for student visas, which allow them and their children to immigrate easily.

For the Kims, the details of immigrating were simple: Jungwon Kim, who lived in this country with her parents as a teenager, is a U.S. citizen. So are the three children.

But the details of dividing the family have been far more complex. Eugene struggles with English. Hannah feels guilty about her parents' separation. Jungwon Kim finds herself questioning the choices they made. And Keeyeop Kim senses an odd distance from his children: With just three visits in the past year, his chief connection is a nightly phone call.

When the phone rings in Ellicott City and the caller ID flashes "Out of Area," they become a family again.

"Appa," Eugene will say, grabbing the phone. Daddy.

Best Year Ever

When Hannah thinks about school in Korea, she remembers the afternoon her classmate approached her in tears.

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