Divided Korean families feel stress


A UMNS Commentary
By Jin Sook Kwon*

Sept. 30, 2011

Korean families are often separated by great distances due to the desire of providing better English education for their children. These Korean wedding ducks represent the  story of the “Goose Family.” A UMNS photo illustration by Kathleen Barry.

South Korea has a name for many of the South Korean immigrants who flock to the United States and other English-speaking countries. They are called Goose Families — families who find themselves separated by oceans and continents as they try to ensure a better life for their children.

In Goose Families, the fathers remain in South Korea to work and support the family while the mothers and children emigrate to another country to further the children’s education and enhance opportunities.

A broken family unit is not part of Korean tradition. At the traditional Korean wedding service, the goose is a symbol of marriage and commitment because the nature of a goose is to remain committed as a couple. These new kind of “Goose” couples undergo stress and confusion, writes Anna Cho, who earned her Ph.D. with a comparative cultural study on Korean mothers in Korea and Korean immigrant mothers in the United States. The families face changes ranging from trivial differences in daily living customs to major hindrances to immigrant parenting.

Kyong Hwa Kim of the Catholic University of Deagu said there is no specific data on the number of Goose Families but the number of young students enrolled in transnational education is growing fast.

In 1999, South Korea removed the ban that prevented young students, including elementary students, from pursuing transnational education. Kim said that at the end of 1998, the number of young students studying abroad was 1,562. In 2003 that number was 10,498 and, in 2007, the number had risen to 27,668.

Parents who decided to send their young children abroad usually chose an English-speaking country because they believed that increased the child’s chances of becoming a global leader.

In 2006, Onnuri Church in Irvine, Calif., offered a support group with the theme “You who change your life today can change your loved one’s tomorrow.” The group’s purpose was to offer support to Goose Mothers. The Korea Times reported that about 800 Goose Mothers live in southern California. Of those, about 150 attended the support group.

In the context of that local faith community, the Korea Times reported, those who attended were able to share their difficulties in adjusting to life in the United States. Most mothers did not want to recommend their lifestyle for other people. But, they indicated, they felt they had to choose their Goose Family lifestyle because of the benefit to their children.

‘Old stranger with hope for young trees’

Ronald Takaki, a Japanese American who was one of the pioneering scholars on ethnic minority studies, explained what is happening, saying metaphorically that the parents become “an old stranger with a hope for their young trees.” These mothers voluntarily sacrifice their lives for their children, but their new life in a foreign land as a “stranger” causes many uncomfortable and challenging experiences.

Kim wrote in 2010 about the adaptation process of the Korean Goose Mothers in United States. Kim said Goose Families fall into three different categories: those who tend to stay permanently and work hard to adjust their life into mainstream U.S. culture; those who tend to stay in the United States for a short period and experience language and culture as much as they can, and those who tend to isolate themselves and protect their family boundaries within the new environment.

All of them, however, face the split of the family. When this split family faces a crisis, it has the greater possibility of becoming tragic. On April 6, 2011, in New Zealand, Goose Mother Cho, who was 44, and her two daughters, 18 and 13, were found dead in their garage. The police reported that the mother and daughters had committed suicide because of financial difficulties. Cho’s husband, Beak, 45, went to New Zealand in shock.

Overwhelmed with sadness, he ultimately committed suicide.

As a pastoral counselor who works with immigrants and with numerous Goose Families, I have served these children of God with joy and sadness. I suggest that The United Methodist Church pay attention to this marginalized group of immigrants with special needs and develop ways to help them.

Focus on the Wesley traditions

Jin Sook Kwon watched the numbers of Goose Families grow in the Korean immigrant church community, in her neighborhood and in her seminary when she was a pastoral counseling minister at Holliston United Methodist Church in Pasadena, Calif. She wrote her doctoral dissertation with emphasis on the Korean immigrant family's connection. She is now a lecturer at Ehwa Womans University in Seoul and teaches classes at Ehwa Pastoral Counseling Academy & Center. She lives with her two daughters in Korea and her husband lives in New York.

First, focus on The United Methodist Church’s practical tradition as John Wesley did. These Goose Families are less marginalized in terms of choices and financial resources, but they need emotional and practical support to help them settle smoothly into their new lives.

For example, a Goose Mother called me to ask help in finding a pharmacy. She told me that she did not want to bother anyone and felt ashamed to be known as a person in need. I called another church member to help this woman find a pharmacy. However, because there is no guaranteed confidentiality with help from church members, some cases could end as an unpleasant relational experience.

United Methodist connectionalism would enable it to create practical programs and resources for Goose Families and to distribute those resources efficiently at both the conference and district levels.

Second, establish immigration settlement education counseling or Goose Mother support groups run by United Methodist congregations. One of the biggest problems Goose Mothers face is a sense of isolation. Meeting with other Goose Mothers should be a great interpersonal help.

Third, a support group for Goose Children should be considered. The children are likely to have similar issues relating to school and families. There are Internet-based support groups for Goose Mothers and Goose Fathers in Korea, but providing real human interaction could be much more loving, effective and spiritual.

Fourth, Korean United Methodist congregations could provide support and resources for Goose Mothers and Goose Children and connect them with the Korean Methodist Church in Korea to recruit and help Goose Fathers in Korea. The churches can spiritually connect within a similar theological and spiritual tradition to develop a joint denominational retreat or program for these globally split families to facilitate a family and spiritual reunion.

The power of globalization and global mobility has given us many opportunities for growth and learning. Sometimes, however, new possibilities create pain we never could have imagined.

Jesus Christ came to this world as a stranger. But, this vulnerable stranger who lived between the human and sacred world saved us. The core spirit of the Goose Family choice is sacrifice, patience, and faith in their family love. As a denomination, The United Methodist Church has an opportunity to develop the sacrifice, patience and faith to support the Goose Families and to generate a love that will nourish the hearts of many globally split families.

*Kwon was for seven years a pastoral counseling minister at Holliston United Methodist Church in Pasadena, Calif., and a counselor at the Clinebell Institute for pastoral psychotherapy.

News media contact: Jacob Lee, (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org .