Eleven-year-old Woosuk Kim sees his mother only three or four times a year. That's because he's part of what Koreans call a "goose family": a family that migrates in search of English-language schooling.
A goose family, Woosuk explains, means "parents — mom and dad — have to be separate for the kids' education."
Woosuk's father brought him and his little brother to America two years ago to attend Hancock Park Elementary, a public school in Los Angeles. The boys' mother stayed in South Korea to keep working.
Woosuk's family is unusual. In most cases, it's the father who stays behind. "Goose fathers" are even a fixture of South Korean TV dramas, usually appearing as lonely drudges, working nonstop to support their families abroad.
Goose families prefer to migrate to English-speaking countries. New Zealand and Australia are popular, but the United States is especially prized. And in the U.S., one of the favorite "port of entry" schools is Hancock Park.
A School Transformed
"I would say that we have a very significant Korean population," says Principal Ashley Parker. "They start first grade, second grade — we have new fifth-graders coming from Korea."
A generation ago, Hancock Park was predominantly Jewish. Now it's 37 percent ethnic Korean. The school doesn't track the students' citizenship, so it's impossible to know how many are Korean nationals; but they've become a significant population in this school.
Shari Cooper, a volunteer for the school's parent organization, gets regular inquiries from prospective new "goose families."
"From Korean families, I probably get three to four emails every month. And just this week, I've had four, because over the summer is when most of the families come," Cooper says.
Some of the Koreans come because a parent has found a job in Los Angeles. But when just a mother arrives with her children, they're usually here for the school. Jihyun Lee brought her children over last year.
"[My husband] wanted [our kids] to come to a more globalized place, so that their minds become more globalized, larger," Lee says through a translator.
Lee says her kids are here not only to learn English, but also to gain a special edge when they go back home. Lee's Korean-American friend, Diana Park, explains that having lived in America carries significant status.
"If you do not have the American experience and you live in Korea, it's not the same as people who've been here," Park says. "They treat you differently in Korea if you say you've been in America."
Reading, Writing And Recess
And there's something else: Many of these goose parents — including Lee — say they're also here to get away from Korean schools.
"Although the academics in Korea are more rigorous, there's no creative mind there," says Park, translating for Lee. "Everything's rote memorization, and it's purely academic — there's no individual thought in their teaching."
Goose family migration combines educational ambition with a desire for leisure. To be blunt, for these Korean kids, American schools represent a chance to relax a little. When Lee asked her kids what they liked about their first year in an American school, the first thing they said was "recess."
"Apparently they don't have recess in Korea," Park adds. "They get time to eat and that's it, and then I think right after school they go to another after-school program. So they don't really get any recess or any time to play."
The American parents at the school are proud of its above-average standardized test scores, so it can be a little disconcerting to hear that the Korean kids see it as a place to kick back.
Shari Cooper says she considers the Koreans to be a salutary academic challenge for her own kids, and she says relations with the Korean families are generally good.
In Tough Times, Some Tension
Still, given the painful budget cuts in Los Angeles public schools, there has also been some grumbling.
"They were feeling like, wait a second, you know, why are these families driving up in these expensive cars and dressing so well — they should be giving to the school,' " Cooper says. "So there was a little bit of animosity. You felt it at the meetings; you didn't feel it on the playground so much."
Cooper says the booster club has done a better job of getting Korean parents to donate to the fund drive, and tensions have eased. Now, when she gets emails from South Korea inquiring about tuition at Hancock Park, she says she answers that it's a free public school — but that fund drive donations are appreciated.
In some other countries, like New Zealand, goose families are charged to attend public schools. Cooper says she wouldn't want to see that in the U.S.
"It doesn't sound like a very American way to go," she says. "It's a free country with a free public education, and if you start charging people, they're going to start feeling more like visitors. They're not going to be invested in the school and the country in the same way."
Migrating From School To School
But while the goose families may feel invested in Hancock Park, they don't seem to feel the same dedication to the larger Los Angeles public school system. Once their kids finish elementary school, they tend to move on.
"Schools in L.A. [are] very terrible now," says Hyungsoo Kim, Woosuk's "goose father." As soon as Woosuk finished fifth grade, he moved the boys to a new gated community in Orange County so they could be close to good middle schools.
Woosuk says he's already run into familiar faces there.
"There's many families from Hancock Park [that have moved] to Irvine. Yeah, to our neighborhood," he says.
In fact, goose families tend to follow a kind of wagon trail of American public education, moving from district to district as their kids age through the system. That journey often culminates on one of the campuses of the University of California.
Sitting by the pool outside their new Orange County apartment, Hyungsoo Kim says he's pleased America has given his boys the chance to relax.
"I think whole life is competition when they grow up," he says. "But when they are young, when they are small kids, they need some happiness."
His sons agree. Back home, they say, Korean kids are now suffering through a pile of summer vacation homework. Here in America, there's little danger of that.
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
And I'm Robert Siegel.
This summer, we're hearing different takes on the American dream. Today, the dream of some Korean families who moved to the United States to send their children to American schools. Some do this even when it means splitting up the family. As NPR's Martin Kaste found out, many of them are chasing the American dream of recess.
UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) Take me out to the ball game...
MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: Welcome to the annual patriotic pageant at Hancock Park Elementary in Los Angeles.
UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) ....some peanuts and Cracker Jacks. I don't care if I never get back...
KASTE: What could be more American than second graders dressed up as pilgrims singing about baseball? But in this school, the pilgrims come with a twist.
ASHLEY PARKER: I would say that we have a very significant Korean population.
KASTE: Principal Ashley Parker. She says her school gets a steady stream of these new arrivals.
PARKER: They start first grade, second grade. We have new fifth graders coming from Korea.
KASTE: Hancock Park is nearly 40 percent Korean. And though the school doesn't keep track of student citizenship, it's clear that a significant number are Korean nationals. This 11-year-old boy just finished fifth grade.
WOOSUK KIM: My name is Woosuk Kim. And my English name is Eric.
KASTE: Woosuk's father brought him to L.A. two years ago, specifically to attend Hancock Park Elementary. His mom stayed in Korea to keep working and support them. This setup is common, so common that Koreans have a term for it.
KIM: Kirogi family.
KASTE: Kirogi family. It means goose family because they migrate in search of English-language schooling.
KIM: Parents - mom and dad - have to be separate for the kids' education.
KASTE: Woosuk and his little brother say they've become used to bachelor life with their dad. Even his cooking is now acceptable. And this goose family is unusual. In most cases, it's the mother who accompanies the kids to the U.S. while the father stays in Korea to work.
There's a whole colony of goose mothers living here at Park La Brea Apartments. It's a gated community, which the Koreans perceive as especially safe, that's why so many of come to Hancock Park Elementary. The school is right next door. Jihyun Lee brought her kids over last year. Her friend Diana Park translates.
JIHYUN LEE: (Foreign language spoken)
DIANA PARK: She - they wanted to come to a more globalized place so that their mind becomes more globalized, larger.
KASTE: Goose Families aren't usually looking to put down roots here. This is a version of the American dream that's more about what happens in Korea. When these kids go back home, says Diana Park, they'll have a special status.
PARK: If you do not have that American experience and you live in Korea, it's not the same as the people who've been here. They treat you differently in Korea if you say you've been in America.
KASTE: And there is something else: many of these goose parents say they're also here to get away from Korean schools.
PARK: Although the academics in Korea is more rigorous, there's no creative mind there. it's - everything's rote, memorization, and it's purely academic. There's no individual thought in their teaching.
KASTE: And to be blunt, for these Korean kids, the American school is kind of a vacation.
LEE: (Foreign language spoken)
PARK: Recess. Apparently, they don't have recess in Korea.
PARK: They get time to eat, and that's it. And then, I think right after school, they go to another after-school program, so they don't really get any recess or any time to play.
KASTE: Over the years, American parents at Hancock Park Elementary have puzzled over the nonstop influx of Koreans. Shari Cooper volunteers for the Booster Club. She's the one who gets the inquiries from prospective new goose families.
SHARI COOPER: From Korean families, I probably get three to four emails every month. And then, just this week, I've had four. Because over the summer is when most of the families come.
KASTE: Cooper says some of the American parents have grumbled in the past, especially given the current budget crunch in L.A. schools. But those tensions eased when the Booster Club got more of the Koreans to donate to the school's fund drive. When asked if she'd like to see the district charge goose families tuition - that does happen in other countries like New Zealand - Cooper says no.
COOPER: It doesn't sound like a very American way to go for people here. I think that it's a free country with a free public education. And if you start charging people, they're going feel more like visitors. They're not going to be invested in the school and in the country the same way.
KASTE: But while the goose families may feel invested in this school, they don't feel the same dedication to the larger Los Angeles public school system.
HYUNGSOO KIM: Schools in L.A. is very terrible now.
KASTE: This is Hyungsoo Kim. He's the goose father, Woosuk's dad.
KIM: Because of budget cuts and then - and so educational environment is getting worse, so that's why we moved to here.
KASTE: As soon as Woosuk finished fifth grade, the family relocated to Orange County to live near a good middle school. And they're not alone. Woosuk says he's already running into familiar faces.
KIM: There's many families from Hancock Park move to Irvine, yeah, to our neighborhood.
KASTE: So you're following each other?
KASTE: In fact, Korean goose families follow a kind of wagon trail of American public education, moving from district to district as their kids age through the system, a journey that culminates ideally on one of the campuses of the University of California. It's a migration that combines educational ambition with a desire for leisure.
Sitting by the pool in their new gated community in Orange County, Hyungsoo Kim says America has given his boys the chance to relax.
KIM: I think whole life is competition when they grow up. But when they are young, they are - when they are small kids, they need some happiness.
KASTE: His boys agree. They say, back home, the kids are now suffering through a pile of summer vacation homework. Here in America, there's little danger of that. Martin Kaste, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.