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A Wrenching Choice

She misses the companionship of the man she calls her lifetime friend. "When I get moody, I think about my husband and think, why am I doing this alone?" she said. "I'm sure God has a special purpose for my family. I don't know what it is."

The decision to split the family did not come easily, Kim recalled. She and her husband considered coming here together, as her parents did years ago. But her father had retired from his job as a police officer when he moved. Keeyeop Kim is at the height of his career, director of slot machine operations at South Korea's largest casino.

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.

They talked about opening a business, as many Korean families do. But Jungwon Kim said the pressures of running a seven-day-a-week grocery or dry cleaners would mean the children might be, in a sense, losing both parents.

Ultimately, Keeyeop Kim decided the family should go on without him. Jungwon Kim said she hesitated but finally resolved that she could not ask him to give up his career and the status of his executive position. She experienced something like that herself when they moved back to Korea years ago and she was expected to stay home with the children, despite having a college degree.

She said she now believes her role as a full-time mother is a blessing. But she recognizes that the burden of cultural expectation falls squarely on Korean men. "Being Korean, in that way, I know I can't push my husband too much."

Her pastor in Columbia said he understands the dilemma.

"Biblically, the husband and wife should stay together, rain or shine. But this is not a black-and-white matter," said the Rev. Jonathan Song of the Korean American Church of the Philippi. "In Korea, only one in 10 children can bear the education system. What about the remaining nine?"

He said he knows several kirogi families in his congregation. One man missed his wife and children so much that he joined them, coming on a tourist visa and staying illegally. Now he works at a restaurant, busing tables. In Korea, he had an office. He asked his pastor whether he made the right choice.

Song closed his eyes. "It's almost unthinkable for a man of his stature to do this," he said.

In many ways, Kim said, her husband is making a bigger sacrifice than she is. Here, at least she has the children and her extended family. And increasingly, she has a circle of friends, including other kirogi mothers.

The separation is bearable, Kim said, when she thinks about the advantages they are giving their children. Still she worries about the children, especially Terry, who was just 3, and her father's pet, when the family moved here.

Sometimes, she gives the little girl a test.

"Where's Daddy?" she asks her. Terry always answers that he's in Korea -- working to buy her things, such as Barbies and Hello Kitty toys.

Kim said she worries that one day, her youngest child will ask why.

Missing Korea

It was time for dinner, but all Eugene could think about was math homework. He loves math, except for word problems. Numbers are a snap; they look the same in Korean. Words don't. Does "minus" mean the same as "subtract"?

Eugene handed his worksheet to his mother. Hannah jumped in: "When are we going to stop helping Eugene with his homework? We've helped him for nine months already."

Eugene glared at her. Try your best in school, Kim told her son in Korean. No more video games.

Eugene stomped downstairs to the playroom and slammed the door. Unlike Hannah, Eugene was not having the best year of his life.

Twice, Kim had been called up to Hollifield Station Elementary School by Eugene's fourth-grade teacher. Eugene had been involved in shoving arguments after he had trouble expressing himself in English. He would stand up in class and walk to the window, staring outside.

Eugene wasn't the perfect student back home, Kim acknowledged, but this year has been unusually tough. Of the three children, Eugene is most like his father, often shy about speaking to people he doesn't know well. And of the three, Eugene seems to feel his father's absence most acutely.

Eugene has told his mother that he would like to go back to Korea. Because that has not happened, he has made his life here as Korean as possible. All his friends are Korean. When it is "Drop Everything and Read" time in school, he pulls out a Korean book. He uses less English than Terry, who is in preschool but already knows the "SpongeBob SquarePants" theme song.

His teachers said Eugene is bright and are puzzled by his struggle with English. A Korean-speaking outreach liaison works at the school. In the afternoons, Eugene spends an hour with an ESOL teacher. On Tuesdays, he attends an after-school "homework club" for immigrant children.

One in eight students at Hollifield Station has limited English skills. Still, the school's standardized test scores top the state average. Even the scores for ESOL students are at the state average. Many teachers have noticed the influx of Koreans and are flattered that these families have traveled so far to reach their classrooms.

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