By Agnes Goh-Grapes
Phenomena of Wild Geese Fathers in South Korea
If South Korea was a good place to live in, fathers would not be in anguish and children, accompanied by their mothers, wouldn't be leaving the country.
``The unnatural phenomenon of wild geese daddies is a clear sign of something wrong in our society,'' said Kim Seong-kon, a professor of English at Seoul National University and president of the American Studies Association of Korea.
The reference is to South Korean men who choose to live alone by sending their children abroad for better education.
Left behind, wild geese fathers become lonely, isolated and restless. Newspaper reports say that some of them often die of heart attacks from overwork at night in their deserted homes or lonely offices, trying to fulfill their main goal in life of sending as much money as possible to their beloved families abroad.
Others suffer from malnutrition due to poor and irregular meals. Like migratory wild geese, they only ever visit their families during the summer holidays.
Professor Kim proceeds to explain that for some families, even a short annual visit is impossible. Instead of wild geese fathers, the dads are symbolically tagged as penguin fathers. They sit out vacations alone rather than visiting their families abroad because they can't afford the round-trip tickets. ``These poor Korean souls essentially sacrifice themselves for their children's better education.''
What has induced these men into such lonely and miserable fates? What has gone wrong with this society to allow this strange manifestation?
South Korea is a nation prepossessed by social status and reputation, and education is supremacy. A degree from one of South Korea's three top universities isn't just the key to a secure job ― it's a prerequisite for finding the right spouse and creating high-powered connections that can span a lifetime.
Hence, the ultimate goal of every college student is to gain entrance into Seoul National University, Korea University or Yonsei University ― what South Koreans call SKY universities.
Nevertheless, the irony of South Korea's education policy is that the government maintains absolute power and manipulation over a flailing educational system, including the highly competitive national college entrance exam, which determines students' entrance into universities.
Students are ranked and assigned to schools accordingly and there is little incentive to improve the quality of education.
With the deterioration of the school system and the increasing pressure to enter prestigious universities, students are at the mercy of cram schools to help them prepare for the entrance examination.
As competition to enter better universities reaches extreme proportions, the demand for cram schools also soars.
Twenty-eight thousand cram schools currently exist in South Korea, taking in some $15 billion annually. The top schools charge upwards of $1,000 a month per subject ― an overwhelming financial burden in a country where the average income is $16,000.
Students living out of major cities who would previously not have had access to classroom instruction are currently serviced by institutions like Megastudy.
Offering both online and classroom instruction, Megastudy is the largest of Korea's cram schools, which was projected to enjoy a profit of $107 million by December 2008 and up to $300 million by 2010.
Its thriving business and those of other cram schools are at the expense of parents' income across the nation, digging deep into the pockets of both wealthy and middle-income families.
As Yoon Lee, a 17-year-old Korean student studying and living in Melbourne, Australia, affirms candidly, ``Parents earn money just to educate their children."
But how effective are cram schools? They equip students with the technique of choosing the right answers and drill them on factual memorisation in the government's multiple-choice and ``filling-in-the-blanks'' examinations.
However, ``instead of critical thinking and analysing ability, what you learn from cram schools is hollow knowledge that is useless in reality and useful only for passing the college entrance exam," Professor Kim says.
``When our students (at university) are asked to write thesis papers, most of them find it difficult to apply what they've learned in an original way."
Nevertheless, students will endure just about any hardship to achieve their goals, including 18 hours of studying daily, including attending normal school followed by cram schools.
``There is a saying in Korea: If you sleep for three hours a day, you will pass the exam. Sleep four hours, you will fail," says Professor Kim.
Those who do not pass well enough or fail enroll the following year into full-time cram schools. Known as ``jaesusaeng,'' or ``study-again students,'' they cram from sun up to dark, seven days a week, to prepare for the next national college entrance examination.
Some are day students; others live in dormitories within regimented campuses. Luxuries such as cellphones, fashion magazines, television and Internet are prohibited. Concerts, dating, earrings and manicures are also banned.
Their desperation is such that some try and try again for three years after graduating from high school.
``In extreme cases, a jaesusaeng could be in his mid-20s and still be trying to get into a top university," utters Yoon. ``You have no life as a student in South Korea."
The cramming system has been widely criticized for the psychological price it exacts on young people.
Among those 10 to 19 years of age, suicide is the second most common cause of death after traffic accidents. As if this is not a big enough warning for the government, parents desperate for their children's future are resorting to drugs to boost their academic performance. Ritalin, Concerta, Metadate and Penid all contain methylphenidate (MPH), which has potential side effects including loss of appetite, sleeplessness, nausea, anxiety, hallucinations, dizziness and depression.
In 2007, sales rose 77 percent and local media have accused medical centers of prescribing the drugs to those not needing them in order to drum up sales.
However, students are not totally compliant with their despairing fate. In a raging anti-government protest which shook South Korea last summer, many demonstrators were teenagers revolting against the highly stressed and tensed conditions they endured at school.
Among the criticisms aimed at President Lee Myung-bak was that he filed too many top government posts with people tied to Korea University, his alma mater.
``If you are a graduate of a nameless community college and lack wide connections, you cannot possibly dream of getting appointed to an important position," Kim says.
With South Korea's obsession for prestige, the bureaucracy that models this mania and the Ministry of Education's domination of an already-flawed system, the exit of children accompanied by their mothers from this nation for better education will continue.
Students enrolled abroad currently account for over 10 percent of the international student body in the United States and over 17 percent in Japan ― over 100,000 Korean students are currently studying abroad.
In Australia, as of November 2008, the Department of Education reported that student enrolment reached 35,055 in higher education, vocational education and training (VET), English Language Intensive Courses for Overseas Students (ELICOS) and other areas.
``Tragically," says Professor Kim, ``the only consolation for lonely Korean fathers is that their children are living in a better place. The equation is simple: If Korea were a good place to live, wild geese fathers would not exist."
The writer is a freelance journalist now living in Melbourne, Australia and has contributed to Seoul Magazine. She can be reached at email@example.com