COLUMBIA, Mo. (AP) — As American teenagers go, Sally Kim is pretty typical. She’s crazy about singer Bruno Mars and the Plain White T’s rock band, spends way too much time on Facebook and can’t wait to start college in the fall.
Yet when it comes to that familiar bane of her fellow high school seniors — uncool parents — Miss Kim has few worries. Hers are nearly 7,000 miles away in Seoul. They sent their only child to live with relatives in Missouri a decade ago, when she was just 8.
The three keep in touch over Skype, but Miss Kim craves personal contact even more than when she first arrived.
“As I get older, it definitely gets harder,” said Miss Kim, who lives with an aunt and uncle, a college professor, and returns to her native country in the summer. “I look back, and I think I’ve missed out on so many years of being with my mom and dad.”
Such relocations, known as early study abroad, have surged in popularity in South Korea, where a rigid, test-driven education system, combined with intense social pressure to succeed in an English-first global economy, often means breaking up families for the sake of school.
Some children, scuh as Miss Kim, live with relatives or family friends. Others move with their mothers and siblings while the fathers remain alone in Asia to work. Among Koreans, the families are known as “kirogi,” or “wild geese,” because they visit home briefly once or twice a year before returning to their overseas outposts.
The Korean Educational Development Institute reports that the number of pre-college students who left the country solely to study abroad increased from just more than 2,000 in 1995 to a peak of nearly 30,000 in 2006. And that number did not include students whose parents work or study overseas.
The number has since declined to more than 18,000 in 2009, the most recent year for which statistics are available.
Unlike American students who usually wait until high school or college to study abroad — and generally limit the experience to a semester or two — 77 percent of Korean students in the U.S. in 2009 were in elementary or middle school, a time when they are seen as best able to learn English.
Wild-geese families are particularly common in college towns such as Columbia and Champaign-Urbana, Ill., where researchers are studying the effects on family life, culture and the economy in both countries.
Sumie Okazaki, an associate professor of applied psychology at New York University who previously taught at the University of Illinois, said that many young Korean students feel intense pressure to succeed and are reluctant to share any doubts or misgivings, whether the topic is family finances or their own well-being.
“The parents are so motivated by what they think may be helpful to the kids,” Ms. Okazaki said. “Because they know the family has sacrificed so much, that the parents are stretching themselves, they feel like they can’t complain.”
The students often isolate themselves.
“We hear a lot of problems with depression, distress and worries,” Ms. Okazaki added.
Sending their children to school abroad can also strain marriages, particularly when the father stays behind.