Saturday, June 14, 2008

Wild Geese in the Clean Air

Last Sunday’s New York Times carried an informative front-page story on South Korea’s “wild geese”---mothers who leave behind their husbands in Korea to temporarily (and legally) immigrate to an English-speaking country, usually Australia, New Zealand or the U.S., so that the couple’s children can master the mother tongue of George Bush while attending school. Lots of these wild geese land in Houston’s Memorial area, where a noticeable contingent of Korean kids is enrolled in the Spring Branch school district. It’s a phenomenon with which we are vaguely acquainted, having worked with some of these children over the years to help them divine the mysteries of verb-subject agreement.

This widespread splitting of families has an obvious social cost. According to the Times, it's
considered enough of a social problem that an aide to South Korea’s president recently singled out the plight of the penguin [stay-at-home] fathers.

President Lee Myung-bak said he would start to address the problem by hiring 10,000 English teachers. “This is unprecedented,” he said. “Korea is actually the only country in the world undergoing such a phenomenon, which is very unfortunate."
The learning of English is thought to be a necessity for success in Korea’s corporate world (unlike here in the English-speaking [as of right now] U.S., where we consign so many Spanish-speaking youngsters to the grievously misnamed “bilingual” class), but there’s another reason the geese take flight: so their kids can escape, at least temporarily, the pressure-cooker of the Korean school system. As the Times notes
… unhappiness over education’s financial and psychological costs is so widespread that it is often cited as a reason for the country’s low birthrate, which, at 1.26 in 2007, was one of the world’s lowest. South Korean parents say that the schools are failing to teach not only English but also other skills crucial in an era of globalization, like creative thinking. That resonates among South Koreans, whose economy has slowed after decades of high growth and who believe they are increasingly being squeezed between the larger economies of Japan and China.
It is unfortunate that South Korean parents are under the impression---at least if the Times can be believed---that their kids can be “taught” creative thinking, which of course is one of the grand fallacies put forth by America’s educational elites (the ones with Ph.Ds in education who demand to be addressed as doctor). The secret of many of these Asian kids’ academic success in the U.S. is not just their superior pattern-recognition skills but their rote memorization talents. They have the eerie ability just to stare quietly at written material long past the expiration date for most young American minds and somehow absorb it. That’s how they do it. They may be short on “creative thinking” but almost any child who comes to the U.S. from Chinese, Japanese or Korean schools is going to be 2 or 3 years ahead of their American counterparts in math---over there second graders are already accomplished at long division while over here some of the home-grown knuckleheads we pass on to middle school still don’t "get it."

Yet almost all of the Korean kids we’ve worked with tell us they’d really like to stay in the U.S. if only because school here is more manageable. In Korea, most of them---and the ones we know are almost all middle- or upper-middle class---go to school until 3:30 or 4:30 in the afternoon, then go to after-school “cram” classes until 10 or 11 at night. They say it’s a brutal pace, and more than one has mentioned that corporal punishment is still routinely meted out by South Korean teachers---not necessarily for bad behavior, but for missing an answer or not paying attention. Usually this consists of a ruler whack to the wrist, the same attention-getter once employed by Irish-American nuns of lore and legend, although we've also been told of smacks being administered upside a tender young Korean noggin.

Then there's the 12-year-old we know who’s taken the English name of “Ted.” He’s not technically a wild goose, as both of his parents are doctors who are studying at the Texas Medical Center. The family planned to return to Korea in a few months but is now considering trying to stay on in the U.S. When we asked why, Ted quickly consulted his electronic translator and pointed to a very wordy entry, explaining that he suffered from the condition defined on the little screen: atopic dermatitis. Apparently he was nearly eaten up with it in Korea, but since he’s been in Houston it has almost totally cleared up. Why is that? we asked. Our superior medical system?

“No,” he replied, shaking his head. "In Korea the air is very dirty. Much pollution. But in Houston the air is very clean. Very good.”

That's what he said ...

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