Why my family and I must leave Korea
This monthly column is going to chronicle the many preparations involved in moving my family back to Canada. The endeavour involves a massive number of things, including getting an immigrant visa for my wife (she’s Korean), getting my kid’s English skills up to par, and ensuring we have translations of all relevant documents (birth certificates, immunizations etc.). After two years of planning to move to Ottawa, we eventually decided to move to Toronto, instead.
I’ll also be writing about what I like about living overseas and what I don’t like, what I’ll miss and what I won’t. What I expect to like once I move back to Canada and what I expect to dislike. I’ll also be talking about the issues that my wife and children have with the move, finding schools and reverse culture shock.
What will follow over the course of the next year is essentially a “best of” from the blog I started at the beginning of my plan to move back to Canada after living in Korea since 1997. You can follow the entire journey at http://repatriate.me and find the highlights below and in the columns to come. — Ed.
I’ve been living in South Korea since May 1997 and am for the most part quite happy with my life here. I’ve got a stable job with more vacation and free time than you can shake a stick at. I work four day weeks and have 20 weeks of vacation a year. It’s this large amount of free time that has allowed me to start my own business http://caffeinecreations.ca.
Why would anyone willingly leave such a cushy position? It’s not perfect. Like any job, there are downsides, which I’m not going to go into here. But more importantly, I’m moving back home because of my children. This is a common reason among the long-term expats that I have known in my time in Korea.
Living in Korea, with Korean daycare/schooling and all their friends, children really have little need for English. Especially if one or both parents speak Korean as is usually the case with mixed families. Yes children need to speak to their parents and will learn English at home, but once they are out in the wild where everyone speaks Korean, their Korean overtakes English – at least it does in my experience.
What happens then is that they will start speaking to their English native parent in Korean. Since this parent is typically a long term expat they will understand and respond. Thus the child realizes that English is less important and not very necessary and consequently focuses on Korean which everyone around them uses including, friends, teachers, and other children.
When this started, I made the decision to stop using Korean at home. This barely affected my daughter’s English ability and even that improvement was only for a short time. At this point, my 7-year-old, daughter speaks to me in Korean and I respond in English. But her Korean is way beyond mine as my ability has atrophied with lack of use and we now have communication problems which are affecting our relationship. The same process has now started with my 3-year-old son.
I’ve also looked into international schools, but they are prohibitively expensive. The closest international school to where I live is also the best one in Seoul. To send my daughter one year ago when I checked would cost 15 million won plus $6,000. That fee does not include the lunch fees or bus fees, which I believe came close to another 1.8 million won, plus any other fees. This is just for one child. To send both of my kids I would have to pay double. The cost is completely out of reach. Obviously these schools think that money grows on trees. On top of that these international schools in Korea are hardly international. They are filled with rich Korean kids — not sure exactly how much English will be used by my kids in that environment.
Other concerns include the Korean education system, which is so deeply flawed that Korean parents, if they can afford to do so, send their kids abroad to study and if they can’t they spend tons of money on after-school study programs. This results in kids going to school from 8 a.m. until 8 p.m., 9 p.m. or even 10 p.m., six days a week. It only gets worse for high school students. This is hardly an environment that I want my children to go to school in.
Other reasons include that there are essentially no houses in Korea, unless you live in the countryside (not even a small town, but real country). This means no yard for the kids to play in, no barbecues, snow forts or anything like what I got to do growing up. Plus apartment living, even if you own it, means having to be always aware of your neighbors and how much noise you and your kids are making.
Furthermore, there are very few parks here in Korea and at most of them you are only permitted to look at the grass. It is not possible to walk on the grass – there will be little fences around the grassy areas with signs telling you not walk on the grass. It’s almost impossible to find a place for a group to get together for a casual game of Frisbee, baseball, or soccer – no parks have enough space for this for one group let alone multiple groups.
One final reason for leaving is the biased reporting in the newspaper against ESL/EFL teachers. The newspapers here for the past several years have taken every opportunity (and I swear have created some) to vilify all foreign English teachers for the actions of a minority. It’s been going on for a long time and there appears to be no end in sight and I’m just not interested in being part of a target group for which I do not fit the profile other than for my job.
I’ve also been abroad for a long time and feel it’s time to return and establish myself back in Canada. In any case I’m looking forward to the move and the adventure of repatriating, re-adjusting, and experiencing reverse culture shock.