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A Wrenching Choice

The scores for the year-end exams in their school were announced days earlier, and Hannah had finished first in the class. A perfect 100. Her friend received the second-best score. His parents grounded him. Now he was terrified of the next round of testing.

This was fourth grade.

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
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Monday , 2 p.m. ET: Post reporter Phuong Ly discusses her story on Korean children sent to the U.S. for education.

"I didn't want to live in a place where you get so much pressure," Hannah said, recalling that day.

By Korean standards, the Kims' home town of Taebaek is considered slow-paced. A town of 50,000 tucked in the mountains, it is four hours southeast of Seoul.

Still, Hannah soon would be facing the maxim of "four in, five out," a Korean proverb that means those who settle for four hours of sleep a night will get into the most prestigious universities and those who sleep five hours will not.

Her classmates already were filing out of school every afternoon onto buses taking them to "cram schools" for hours of tutoring. Her parents did not want that type of future for their children.

So in August 2002, before the start of sixth grade, Hannah was sent to live with her grandparents in Howard County. The next summer, her mother and siblings followed, and the Kims bought a townhouse, a Toyota minivan and new furniture.

Here, Hannah's afternoons are filled with band practice, private drum lessons and church youth group. Academically, she has thrived, cycling quickly out of ESOL classes and making the honor roll at Patapsco Middle School.

In many ways, she is a typical teenage girl -- she hates wearing her glasses, frets over her baby-fat cheeks and cuts out photos of Korean pop stars and Orlando Bloom. But she exudes a self-confidence uncommon for her age; along with the hearts doodled across her notebooks are her mantras: "I won't be marked as average" and "I will be remembered."

"Patapsco is so much fun. This is the best year of my life. Ever," Hannah declared one evening.

She and her mother -- matching images in their jeans, untucked T-shirt and auburn-tinted hair -- were lingering over their dinner of Korean barbecue beef.

"What about next year?" Jungwon Kim asked.

"Mom, are you going to kill me if my grades are underwater? You know, 'under C.' Get it?"

Her mother shot her a look of mock threat: "I'll have to think about going back to Korea."

"Then I'll get all F's," Hannah retorted. "I've forgotten most of my Korean."

Kim touched her daughter's hand lightly. "No, I don't care if you don't get straight A's. But I know you probably will. You work hard. You're special and you're smart," she said, and then smirked. "Because your mom's smart."

"I'll say my dad's smart, but you, I don't know," Hannah replied.

Her mother doesn't look offended. She began reminiscing about her husband, whom she met in college.

Hannah said nothing. That night, she was scouring the living room for her drumsticks when she stopped suddenly. The sticks were lying on the end table. So were the framed family snapshots, two pictures taken at Tokyo Disneyland, the family's last big vacation before Hannah left.

"I kind of feel sorry, mostly for my mom," Hannah said, looking at the photo of herself, Eugene and their father sitting on a park bench. "She can't have a husband because of us. If we weren't here, why would she leave her husband?"

She picked up her drumsticks and pounded the couch.

'Don't Need a Husband'

The light in the freezer refused to blink on. Jungwon Kim could still see the ice pops that the children wanted that summer evening, but the burned-out bulb bothered her. She screwed in a 60-watt and watched the freezer light up. "See," she said smiling. "I'm good at these things. Don't need a husband."

She has trouble believing it. In the mornings, she cannot attend the sunrise service at her church -- a ritual she observed faithfully in Korea -- because she doesn't want to leave the children alone in the house. The maintenance of the minivan, which she calls a "man's job," is her responsibility. When three of her sisters and their husbands took a vacation to Europe this summer, she didn't join them. "Couples only," she said.

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