On a cold, blustery Sunday evening, a coffee shop in a residential neighborhood in Seoul is teeming with families. In South Korea, Sundays are typically a day for busy families to spend time together before the start of another week. Not so for Noh Jae-moon, a middle-aged father who sits by himself nursing a lemonade.
He is one of South Korea’s so-called “goose fathers,” men who stay behind to work while their elementary or high school age children, accompanied by their mothers, go abroad to study in an English-speaking country. Noh's wife and children are in California, where they have lived for the past three years.
Many South Korean families send their children overseas where they can develop fluency in English and avoid the harsh competition of the school system. The kids come back with marketable skills, but the years of separation take a heavy toll on the dads who stay behind. The term “goose father” comes from the fact that like a goose, the father flies in just once a year to see his wife and children abroad.
“It’s a bit sad to sit and eat by myself, but I manage,” Noh says, stirring his icy drink as a pair of toddlers giggle at the next table.
According to statistics from the South Korean government, each year an estimated 20,000 families are separated when kids go abroad to study, usually at private schools. The fathers don’t always stay behind, and are no precise statistics on the total number of goose fathers. An academic study published in 2012 by Suwon University professor Cha Eun-jeong estimated the combined number at 500,000 out of a total population of 48 million.
The phenomenon started in the 1990s, fueled by demand for children to learn English and escape the stress of South Korea's education system, where children spend all day in school, then spend their evenings at private academies, preparing for standardized tests. By contrast, English-speaking countries like the US, New Zealand, and Canada are attractive because they take a more relaxed approach and encourage students' creativity compared to schools in Korea that tend to focus on rote learning and memorization.
Prof. Cha found that around 70 percent of 151 goose fathers interviewed had experienced depression and 77 percent had health problems due to a lack of nutrition. In Korean families, mothers generally handle the cooking and if left alone, some men are incapable of making a nutritious dinner. Alcohol abuse is also believed to be common among goose fathers.
To deal with the stress of being alone for the first time in his life, Noh has turned to hobbies such as cooking and exercise. Most evenings after clocking off at his job at an international shipping company he exercises at a health club then returns home where he prepares his meals and calls his family in California.
“The only good part is being alone like this has given me the opportunity to spend time learning and doing things I otherwise wouldn't have had time to do,” says Noh.
In addition to loneliness, goose fathers have to deal with the financial pressure of supporting two households. Education fees for Noh’s two kids and their living expenses in the US add up to 60 million Korean won per year (about $56,500), which he says he can just barely manage.
Limited coffers also mean less frequent reunions. Noh says he visits his family in California twice a year, a cheaper option than a return trip for three people.
Financial constraints can further isolate fathers who can’t afford to go out and enjoy themselves. “Fathers who in the past had enough money to enjoy their own hobbies have to cut down on expenses, which means they socialize less and spend more time alone,” says Um Myung-yong, a professor of social welfare at Sungkyunkwan University in Seoul.
Korean fathers are generally proud and not prone to outward shows of emotion. It is rare for a father to openly acknowledge weakness or ask for help coping with the emotional burden of separation, which means that most goose fathers lack support or companionship.
Experts have argued for public programs to support goose fathers with counseling and a community center they can visit if they feel lonely. “I’d like to see local governments take the lead in making new programs for goose fathers....Usually, fathers shun such programs because of their pride but I think it’s worth a try,” says Cha.
Families hope that the sacrifices made to send the children abroad will be worth it when the kids return from abroad fluent in English, an ability that is in demand with employers in South Korea.
Noh says he's not sure when, or if, his wife and kids will return to Korea, as they may opt to continue studying there and seek jobs after graduation. He says he wants to give them the freedom to choose. In the meantime, he will keep slogging away so that he can support them. “But still I miss the happiness that only spending time with family can provide,” Noh says.