HAVE YOU ever heard of the term “goose father”? At first, the phrase may sound silly, but it describes a phenomenon that is sad, or even romantic. Goose fathers, literally translated from *kirogi appa* in Korean, are so called because, while staying in Korea for work, they travel a long distance once or twice annually for a short visit to see the rest of their families. The person who coined this term, however, must have missed the irony that geese are famous for having a tightly knit family. Especially in traditional Korean marriage ceremonies, wooden geese would be exchanged as a symbol of fidelity. While the goose fathers fly alone, the geese form a “V” formation and fly by the side of their family and friends.
The purpose of living as “goose families”
An article in “The Washington Post” by Phuong Ly portrays this type of goose family as “A Wrenching Choice” in its title. The children crying as the goose father leaves them, and the goose father feeling a sense of estrangement and regret were the main focus of the article. The formation of “goose families” is not a concept that can be comprehended easily by the foreign media. It is usually education, in fact, that leads many Korean parents to make such “a wrenching choice.”
Today, English ability has become one of the basic preconditions that Korean people ought to satisfy. To be accepted into a university, and eventually a position at the workplace of their choice, Korean students study English to excel in the Korean Scholastic Aptitude Test and English proficiency tests such as TOEFL, TOEIC or TEPS. Such an emphasis on English education in Korea has brought about an increase in the number of students studying abroad, along with their mothers to help them adjust. After all, the best way to learn a language is to go to a nation that speaks it. While domestic Korean students learn English in their allotted time in school and extracurricular classes usually from non-native teachers, students studying abroad get a chance to learn every subject in English at school, not to mention the fact that they must speak English in order to communicate with their peers. Their superior educational background may offer them the opportunity to apply for special admission tracks for students who have studied overseas in college admission competition or a higher chance of employment at a high-paying job.
Some goose fathers send their children overseas for a different reason: to protect them from the cut-throat competition in Korea. Plagued with overpopulation, Korea is a fierce dog-eat-dog society where individuals compete with each other for limited resources, be it jobs or a spot in university. The unbelievable cycle of students spending their entire student life devoted to studying is considered necessary in order to survive in Korean society. With so much demand for university and little room for students, getting into a university is a feat in itself. In order to protect their children from this competition, goose fathers choose to send their children to study abroad. Lee Ki-ho, who has been a goose father for nine years, says, “In Korean schools, you have to be number one at anything you do. If you are not number one, the society will shun you as a loser. This is the fundamental problem with the Korean education system. Education should be about learning, not winning. This is one of the reasons why I chose to be a goose father.”
The innate problem with the curriculum and the method of testing is yet another reason for goose fathers to avoid educating their kids in Korea. According to Lee, the problem with Korean education is that it is too memorization-based. Lee says, “In Korean schools, students are tested on things that do not require thought. Everything is rote memorization. As a result, Korean students are not taught how to think critically, and only learn how to answer factual questions. On the other hand, American schools teach critical thinking and self-motivation. With the exception of a few courses like mathematics, students are mostly tested through essays or non-factual questions, and are urged to answer by forming their own opinions.”
The trials and tribulations of goose fathers
Goose fathers dream of coming home to their significant other and children who greet them with a smile. In reality, when the cold, heavy front door is pushed open, goose fathers are greeted with the same dark hallway and a sense of emptiness. For goose fathers, “the empty house” is an object of fear, and loneliness is their greatest adversary. With the entire family gone, goose fathers are left all alone, having no one to depend on, and no one to encourage them during hard times. Lee says, “The most difficult part about being a goose father is loneliness. It is a type of loneliness that I cannot express in words. I felt as if I was left alone in this world, and I sometimes even wondered why I chose this lifestyle. When I see my friends playing with their kids and family, I feel especially lonely.” Such loneliness that some goose fathers felt has led them to fall into temptation and to cheat on their wives. As cases of infidelity by goose fathers became known, people committed the fallacy of generalization that goose families are more prone to infidelity, which led many people to choose not to become a goose family. Lee Sook-hyun (Prof., Dept. of Child & Family Studies), takes a rather neutral stance about such a stereotype, however. She says, “The biggest problem is not the goose fathers themselves, but it is the society. There is no evidence to believe that families that live far apart are more vulnerable to infidelity. The way the society has this misconception makes it difficult for goose fathers.” It is essential for people to realize that loneliness does not necessarily lead to cheating. This kind of stereotype that goose fathers cheat must be erased once and for all.
Besides the emotional consequences, poor diet is another problem that could cripple a goose father physically. According to Cha Eun-jung’s dissertation, “Formation of a Model to Estimate Goose Fathers’ Health-Related Quality of Life,” of 151 goose fathers, 76.8% were measured to have poor health. In the tested group, not a single goose father was measured to have very good health. Lee Ki-ho is one of the goose fathers who scored poor in the health examination. At the beginning of his lifestyle as a goose father, he ate outside. As he grew tired of the food he ate outside, however, he cooked his own meals, only to worn down by the amount of time and effort it took to fix himself a meal. Eventually, he would resort to eating instant noodles, or not eat at all. Over the nine years of lonely hell, he began to lose hair and even teeth from too much stress. Lee Ki-ho says that after becoming a goose father, his health “definitely took a turn for the worse.”
Furthermore, the economic burden they bear as the breadwinners is the other source of worry for goose fathers; they need to send a monthly remittance to their family members. As the promised date approaches, the goose fathers sigh in worry; they must not only pay for two houses, but also pay for their children’s tuition fees and living expenses. Lee Ki-ho sent \6 million every month, far more than what any normal parents in Korea would have to pay. Having to support two households is extremely difficult for most people. When his business was doing well, the money was not a problem. When his business failed, however, he had to send nearly all of his income. Lee says, “My family depends on me. Even if I have to starve, I must send money over, or else my family will be left helpless. Money problems, next to loneliness, were the most difficult part of being a goose father.” The duty of being the head of the household is a backbreaking weight that each goose father must carry.
Meaning of Family
Koreans are well-known for their strong family values because they think that parents and children are one unit. Ironically, this may be the essential cause for the emergence of goose families. To Americans, a man in his thirties still living with his parents may strike them as odd. Some would even consider him a failure. “However, the reality is that most Korean males are unable to, or choose not to live independently as a result of the familist ideal imbedded in the Korean culture,” Lee Sook-hyun continues, “Children of a household are not considered to be independent units. To the parents, a child’s success is their own success. This is why Korea is considered to be a familistic society.” Goose families may be a byproduct of Korea’s familistic ideal. The parents are willing to risk their lives as husbands and wives in order to make their child successful. It is rather contradictory that, although Koreans are familists and put their family above anything else, families actually decide to become goose families, putting their entity as a family at stake and breaking up their family for the sake of the child's success.
This familistic ideal is deeply rooted amongst Koreans, and it can bring about negative consequences. The issue does not lie in the familistic values in Korea, but it lies in how this shapes Koreans’ definition of family. Lee Ki-ho believes that, “A family is about living together, eating together, and dealing with problems together.” Many Koreans would answer similarly to that question. Goose families completely shatter this concept of family, however. Yoon Nam-chul was actually very positive about the prospect of becoming a goose family, and even enjoys his time alone as a goose father. This brings up the question of what a family really should be about. Lee Sook-hyun says, “Though many Koreans still hold on to the belief that a family is about living together, that definition is an obsolete one. The concept of family should always change, especially in our society that is becoming globalized. With new and advanced methods of communication, living together is no longer a standard for a family.” It may be that there is no problem with the structure of goose families. Rather, the problem may lie in the fact that we and the goose families themselves limit the definition of family by the distance that they are apart. The goose families may feel that they are unhappy because they are bound by an obsolete concept of family – that they must live together. Because they think that their family is not like a normal family, they view their family as a sad and abnormal family. The solution may be that if these goose families relinquish their previous notion of family and accept that a family is not limited by distance, as Yoon Nam-chul does, they may be happy just as he is content.
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Surely, a child’s future is important, especially for the familistic Koreans. A family’s happiness and well-being is also very important, however. When faced with a choice to become a goose family, the family should consider their options carefully and make a choice that is best for both the family as a whole and the child. After all, a goose family is tested by many temptations and difficulties. The real geese in nature are different from the human “goose families” in that sense. While the goose family must overcome their trials and tribulations separately, the real geese family forms a beautiful “V” and faces challenges together with their family members and friends. There is no doubt that geese are merely simple and ignorant animals. But one thing is for sure – they may be happier than goose families.