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A Wrenching Choice

Phuong Ly
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 10, 2005; 2:00 PM

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. In Sunday's Washington Post, staff writer Phuong Ly told the story of one kirogi family.

Ly was online Monday, Jan. 10, at 2 p.m. ET to field questions her article, A Wrenching Choice.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.


Herndon, Va.: That was a great article. Are there no private schools in South Korea which offer a choice other than "competition to the death?" With all the problems we have in the U.S. systems, it's good to see that we're sometimes the preferred choice of foreign parents who want something different for their children.

Phuong Ly: Thank you. There are schools for children of non-Koreans (such as foreign diplomats and businessmen) but they are not open to most Korean citizens. Most Korean kids have to attend the public schools, which the central government oversees.
Please note, though, that it is not simply the Korean schools that foster this type of environment, but also Korean society, history and culture. Thus, change is very difficult.

Phuong Ly: Also, in the United States, we see some of that competitive pressure in the schools. There are waiting lists at the top preschools in major cities and some parents and kids treat college admissions as life-or-death. The good thing about the U.S. is that it's such a big, diverse country -- lots of schools, colleges, career choices, opportunities. During my trip to Korea, I kept hearing people say that because their country is so small and the population so large, nearly everybody feels a competitive urgency.


Bowie, Md.: You discussed how the Korean families are sacrificing by having one parent remain in Korea for most of the year, while the wife and kids are in the U.S. Well, why can't these kids/wife visit the father during summer vacation for three months so that they can spend more time together?

Phuong Ly: Some kirogi families definitely do this. But it can be a financial and logistical strain. Mr. Kim tries to visit as often as possible, but given his busy schedule as an executive, he cannot take off whenever he wants to. As the story noted, the typical Korean workweek is six days and people like Mr. Kim are expected to be on call 24 hours.


Washington, D.C.: Thanks for presenting a fascinating, well-told story in Suday's paper -- in it, I recognized whole chapters of my (first generation Korean) family's experience.

I was suprised at the choice of families to profile, though -- as you noted, it's extremely unusual for Korean immigrant children to have a parent who speaks fluent English and years of life in America behind her already. Given that, I found it troubling that Eugene hasn't further assimilated, namely his willful difficulty with English. Do you believe the (rather substantial) safety net in place for Korean immigrants in the D.C. metro area -- powerful churches, Korean newspapers, etc. -- can be a negative rather than a positive?

Phuong Ly: Thank you. I chose to focus on the Kim family for many reasons. First, they agreed to have their names published in the newspaper and for me to basically follow them around for three months. I met them through contacts at their church and already knew several other people in their lives. I cannot begin to tell you how appreciative I am that the Kims let me into their lives. Mrs. Kim and Hannah, especially, are such warm, giving and honest people who make strangers feel comfortable immediately.

Their English skills may not make them typical, but they have the same concerns and struggles of other kirogi. I'm not sure that the "safety net" that you refer to can be considered simply a negative or a positive. Different people are influenced differently. Look at the experiences of Hannah and Eugene.


Herndon, Va.: Ms. Ly: Hope you won't think I'm too inquisitive, but were you a "wild goose?"

Phuong Ly: No, I came here as a Vietnamese refugee with my family after the Vietnam War.


Washington, D.C.: Is Eugene doing any better this year?

Phuong Ly: He's doing great. He's a smart kid!


Clifton, Va.: Do Hannah's parents worry that after spending her most formative years in the U.S. -- going to school, making friends, developing interests -- that she may not want to go back to Korea?

Phuong Ly: Many kirogi families accept that their children will become Americanized. In the Kims' situation, Mr. Kim had long planned to retire in the United States.


Falls Church, Va.: Is Korea doing anything to make its education system more realistic, so that families don't feel their children have to leave to survive K - 12?

Phuong Ly: The "kirogi" issue is a big debate in Korean society now. Change happens slowly, though. Korea has operated on this type of competitive school system for centuries.


Arlington, Va.: What effect is this influx of Korean children having on our school system? You mention that many of the mothers apply for student visas and attend community college to allow them to stay -- but are they paying taxes to contribute to the education system they are using?

Phuong Ly: In Howard County, the school system has had to add resources to help such children learn English. But as the story noted, most of these kids tend to transition out of ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) classes quickly.
Since these families are middle-class, they've blended into the school system more easily than children from poorer families. For example, they're not using Head Start or free and reduced lunches.

RE: Taxes. If they buy a house, they pay property taxes like everyone else. The Kims have a house in Ellicott City.


washingtonpost.com: Photo Gallery: The Cost of an American Education


Derwood, Md.: I work in a school with a fairly significant Korean student population. Based on your investigative work while writing this story, what kinds of supports do these children need from their schools to best help them succeed?

Phuong Ly: It would be the same type of help needed for any child to succeed -- caring teachers, translators and outreach liaisons for parents who don't speak English, an involved faculty.
At Hollifield Station, Eugene's school, the parent outreach liasions made a particular effort to involve the Korean parents in the PTA. Mrs. Kim often attended PTA meetings--with other Korean moms--and was involved in her children's activities.
Most of the kirogi mothers I met seemed eager to help in the schools, particularly if translation services could be provided since unlike Mrs. Kim, the majority do not speak English. After all, the kirogi mothers came to this country for one purpose only -- to help their children get a better education.


Washington, D.C.: Your article seems to suggest that families send their children here not for a better education, but a more rounded life -- i.e. time with friends, hobbies, etc. Are children in South Korean schools unable to pursue outside interests?

Phuong Ly: Hannah told me that after school could be very lonely for her. All of her friends were at the "cram schools," the private tutoring sessions.


Arlington, Va.: Is it typical that one parent in a kirogi family is a U.S. citizen? How do couples with no U.S. citizen in the family manage? Are there many kirogi who are not only dealing with family separation but also dodging immigration authorities?

Phuong Ly: Yes, some kirogi are in the country illegal. They come here on a tourist visa (allowing them to stay for three months) and then just overstay their visas.
There was a brief mention in the story about a father in Mrs. Kim's church who missed his family so much that he immigrated on a tourist visa and overstayed it. Now, he is here illegally, and of course, can't work legally.


Arlington, Va.: This article sets up an interesting juxtaposition. Hannah's parents don't want her cramming in tutoring courses oand sleeping four hours a night to stay "competitive" in school. But does that mean they are convinced that the U.S.'s more "lax" or "less competitive" education system will take her just as far once she enters the workforce in Korea?

Phuong Ly: American universities are widely admired. Studying abroad in an English-speaking country is very important to most Koreans, for the English skills and global experience that it brings.
Some Korean education experts have told me that if you do well in the Korean school system, it means that you've tested well. The system is set up so that your test scores and where you went to university determines whether a company will hire you. It would be as if in the United States, an employer would look at your SAT score and say, sorry you didn't do well enough -- and not be willing to consider much else.

American society is vastly different. Think of all the college drop outs or people who didn't go to prestigious universities who have gone on to have productive, fulfilling lives.


Silver Spring, Md.: Thank you for this thoughtful and informative article. As a first-generation Korean American, I am fascinated by the decision to split up the family when in the Korean culture, family is the central unit. I can sympathize with Mr. and Mrs. Kim for the sacrifice they make for their children. I just wonder since Mrs. Kim speaks English, does she only speak English at home with the children? Is she encouraging a full "Americanization" of her children, which could possibly lead to loss of language and customs? Thanks.

Phuong Ly: Mrs. Kim mostly speaks Korean with the kids. Sometimes, she and Hannah will speak Korean.
They are still very Korean in many ways. For example, they are very active in their Korean American church in Howard County. Hannah writes in Korean and English in her private journal, and her father often brings books from Korea for them.


Orlando, Fla.: Did you go to Korea? How was that experience? Or did your photographer go alone?

Phuong Ly: Photographer Tracy Woodward and I visited Korea for nearly two weeks. It was very eye-opening and really brought home some of the things that kirogi families here were telling me. We visited Korean schools as well as the private tutoring schools (the after school "cram schools"). One cram school had classrooms that were named after prestigious universities (Harvard, MIT, Oxford).


Fairfax, Va.: Is this experience unique to Koreans only or does this story typify other Asian-American families, too?

Phuong Ly: People in other developed Asian countries such as Taiwan also want their children to attend U.S. schools. Often, the kids come here for high school or college, often without their parents. This is what happened in Korea for a long time, but the "kirogi" phenomenon is unique b/c kids are coming here at such an early age.
In Korea, I met a woman at a bookstore who was pregnant -- and already planning to become a kirogi mom.


Washington, D.C.: What importance does Korean culture place on the arts and diversity -- and by diversity, I mean of skills, interests, talent? From your article, it would seem they are trying to shoe-horn all kids into a one-size-fits-all system that is clearly failing.

Phuong Ly: The arts are very important, but as Hannah's mom told me, if her daughter wanted to play music, she would have to think about doing it as a profession (and going to a special arts school) rather than simply as a hobby.


Eugene, Ore.: Are you planning the follow up on this story? Are you going to see what the long-term effects of the family's decision will be?

Phuong Ly: I'm not sure yet. But I am definitely keeping in touch with the family. I enjoyed particularly getting to know the kids!


Washington, D.C.: What happens to children of Korean families who can't afford to send their children out of the country for education? If the schools are so competitive, what happens to those who aren't able to keep up and aren't able to leave?

Phuong Ly: They have to stay in the Korean system. Many parents spend thousands of dollars on private tutors to help their kids pass the national exams. There's even a television channel devoted to test prep!!
The principals at the schools that I visited in Taebaek told me that the pressures of Korean society makes it difficult to value learning for the sake of learning (rather than for a test score).


Phuong Ly: Thank you for reading the article and sending in very insightful questions.


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