Studying and Struggling, 7,000 Miles From Home

Korean study abroad student Alex Yoo, 14, sits in his bedroom, located in the home of his paid guardian. Paramus, NJ. (Photo by Peter Moskowitz)

Voices of NY’s Peter Moskowitz, Chloe B. Park and Hyemi Lee dug into the practice of chogi yuhak, or “early study abroad,” in which Korean children and teens study overseas without their parents. For our special project on “parachute children,” three Korean study-abroad students told their stories of educational migration. 

Hyuk “Jim” Jee spoke only a few words of English when he came alone to New York at the age of 16. Still, he excelled academically at North Babylon High School on Long Island, spending long hours poring over his schoolbooks, as he had in Korea.

“I’m not saying I’m smarter, but I already have good study habits ingrained in me,” he explained.

For Jee, it was everything else that was hard – making friends, understanding American teenage slang, adjusting to the habits of his Latino host family.

“In Korea I would go to school, take classes after school, go to a private tutor, and then go study,” he said. “I didn’t really know how to socialize outside of academics…at first I didn’t have my own friends.”

Jee orders Chinese food – which he complains is “Americanized” – to help with the isolation he feels, thousands of miles away from his family’s Korean cooking. A year after he arrived here, he has made friends, but he’s still sometimes lonely, Jee said.

As a young Korean educational migrant, however, he’s hardly alone. Jee is one of about 18,000 Korean children doing chogi yuhak, or “early study abroad,” including at least 8,000 in the United States and Canada, according to a 2009 Korean government survey. Many of these students — sometimes called “parachute children” — came to North America without their parents. They study in public and private schools, in unassuming locations across the country, staying in paid homestays, with family or with friends. Some come as early as elementary school, and many stay through college.

It’s hard to know how many Korean children and teens are actually living in the United States.  The Korean government’s numbers only reveal those who have gone through official channels and obtained a student visa.  There are likely other students living in the United States without appropriate documentation, according to researchers.

The phenomena started in the late 1980’s as Korean businesses and the government placed greater emphasis on peoples’ ability to speak English, explained Sumie Okazaki, a psychology professor at New York University who has studied Korean students in the United States. Early study abroad exploded in popularity in South Korea in the early 2000’s, as rising private tutor costs, and a feeling of instability in the Korean economy made the idea of learning English in a foreign country more alluring to Korean parents, according to a 2011 report. It reached its peak in 2006, with more than 29,000 students leaving the country to study.

Though the trend has taken a post-global-recession dip, for many young Koreans it remains an attractive alternative to Korea’s strict academic culture.

For South Korean parents who can afford it, chogi yuhak provides an opportunity to bolster their children’s resumes with English language experience. It’s also a way around the rigid, test-based curriculum of their home country.

“In Korean schools, students stay in school until 9 p.m., and then you go to private academies for three or four hours, and then you go bed at 2 a.m.,” said Jiha Ham, a 30-year-old reporter at the Korea Times who studied in a small Canadian town for part of high school, attended University of Utah, and then wrote guide book on chogi yuhak based on his experience. “That’s life in South Korea, and even though you spend that much time in school, you’re not guaranteed to enter a good university.”

Seeking a way out of the Korean system, Korean children move anywhere from India to Australia.  But the United States remains the most popular option for early study abroad.

Many Korean students stay with a paid professional guardian, who can earn thousands of dollars a month for looking after students.

That’s the situation of 14-year-old Alex Yoo. His parents pay Green Homestay, which is run by a Korean-American woman out of a house in Paramus, N.J., $2,500 for Yoo’s room and board, as well as his guardianship.

Jiha Ham, with two friends during his homestay in Huntsville, Canada. (Photo courtesy Jiha Ham)

But studying in the United States alone, whether for a semester or years, can bring its own set problems for some children.

“When I graduated eighth grade, my guardian was there instead of my parents, and I was a little bit hurt,” said Yoo. “Sometimes I miss my family. I’m afraid my younger sister will forget my face.”

Many students aren’t adequately prepared for the challenges of living 7,000 miles away from home, said Sumie Okazaki. With no one to talk to about their struggles, some Korean students bottle up their complaints, Okazaki said.

“They know their parents are spending enormous amounts of money and resources to do this, so they don’t feel like they can really confide in their parents,” she said “But on the other hand, sometimes they feel like they’re not getting along with the homestay family.  There’s so much at stake in their success, that they don’t feel free to admit that they are having problems.”

Some students end up feeling stressed and depressed in their new homes, Okazaki said.  And Korean publications have reported on drug abuse problems among Korean teens, including those studying abroad without their parents.

These Korean children and teenagers face a classic immigrant’s dilemma exceptionally early in life: leaving behind family and friends to pursue opportunities and adventures in a culturally unfamiliar place.

Jim Jee said he plans to return to Korea after he graduates high school.

But, he added, “Being here gave me the opportunity to think about the world differently.”

(Editor’s note: This story was amended after publication to correct the English spelling of Jee’s name.)

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