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Today Stripe - River

South Korean mothers are parenting at island resorts - while their children pick up English

South China Morning Post logo South China Morning Post 16/2/2019 David Lee
a group of people on a beach with a palm tree: South Korea’s economic advancement has allowed mothers to invest in their children’s education and leisure and their own relaxation. Photo: KUKI © KUKI South Korea’s economic advancement has allowed mothers to invest in their children’s education and leisure and their own relaxation. Photo: KUKI

Three years ago, Lee Eun-kyung wanted to run away from her job as a schoolteacher. South Korea has high expectations for children in classrooms; in 2018, for the fifth year in a row, the country topped the NJ MED’s World Top 20 Education Poll in terms of standardised testing and college graduation rates.

This means the pressure is not just on students but on teachers and mothers as well, as mothers are traditionally placed in charge of children’s education.

Lee’s trip to the island of Saipan, an American territory in the Pacific Ocean, with her sister and both their children was meant to be a one-time break from the pressures of teaching. For about a month, the children – who were around seven to eight years old – enrolled in the local private school as exchange students while their mothers relaxed, spending long days on the beach and evenings filled with leisure.

"The small island, which is one-ninth the size of [popular Korean getaway] Jeju island, also has a friendly atmosphere for mothers and students alike who are not advanced speakers in English,” she said. "There’s also the big plus that Saipan has beaches Koreans only have seen in holiday magazines.”

Not only did the children gain experience using English with foreign students, they took part in extracurricular activities such as sports and arts instead of going to after-school study centres as they normally would at home.

"After we told our friends and neighbours about our multi-purpose trip involving both travelling and schooling for the kids, these mothers started to ask us if they could also send their own children with us on our next trip,” Lee said.

That’s what gave Lee and her sister the idea to start KUKI (Korea Universal Kids I) Uhak. Since the education-travel firm opened its doors a year ago, Lee and her three staff members have been travelling to Saipan and California during every semester break with an entourage of 50 to 60 people, made up of students and their mothers.

Her business has hit on a growing trend in the nation – a desire for mothers to spend some time on a getaway, while also providing children with a step up in terms of their schooling and English-language proficiency.

Besides the pressures of the education system, job prospects in South Korea’s notoriously competitive hiring environment are also tied to how well a candidate can speak English. A recent study found that more than half of job interviews in the country require some use of the language, while some of them are conducted solely in English.

"When a mother who had sent her child with us three consecutive times asked if we could also travel to other places, we expanded our programme to California,” Lee said. "We are continuing to expand our network with private schools around the world to offer a more diverse travel experience.”

Now, there are new courses that will bring students and mothers to Hawaii, Canada, Australia and England starting from this year.

"I think if these programmes were only for the purpose of the children’s education, the parents would feel an economic burden,” stated Lee. "But it’s not. These trips allow the mothers to also gain freedom and experience.”

For example, Lee says not having to cook at home makes all the difference in the world to busy mothers – so some of the programmes provide all meals for parents and students for the duration of the trip.

Seo Sung-mi, 44, has two children who are in sixth and seventh grade, making them around 12 or 13. Before joining the KUKI trip to Saipan, Seo’s family enjoyed taking regular trips abroad to places such as the United States and Canada – as many as six to seven times a year.

"After I noticed that children in these countries went through their schooling in a completely different atmosphere, I wanted our children to experience this more free way of learning,” Seo said.

In addition to exploring Saipan and taking time to shop while she travelled to the island with Lee’s group, Seo also participated in some of her children’s classes.

"I took classes taught by the local teachers along with my children for my own learning purposes and to observe the education system there,” she said, explaining that doing so was easy despite her basic English. "I’m sorry … but, I had such a good time that there weren’t any difficulties for me.”

Cha Suk-hee, 48, is a teacher in Yong-in, a city just south of Seoul. She said students who had gone on study-abroad trips, no matter how long they might be, showed clear signs of improvement.

"Our school invites some foreign teachers for special English classes, and the students who had experienced class time overseas tended to be much more confident in this environment,” she said.

A mother herself, Cha went on a month-long study abroad trip to California with her child, who is in the sixth grade.

"If the focus was solely on the advancement of the child’s English in the past, the focus has shifted to assimilating the cultures of these English-speaking countries – children and mothers together,” she said. "I know cases where the mothers would be the ones more passionate about studying English when they got back home from trips with their children, and enrolled in English-language institutions for themselves.”

Such trips are not always the cheapest alternatives for studying English. A month-long visit to Saipan, which is considered one of the cheapest programmes at KUKI, will cost more than 2 million Korean won (US$1,778) per person.

"Going on these month-long study abroad trips with your children is shooting three birds with one stone – travelling, experience and English,” Cha said, adding that the money could be well worth it in the end. "Parents know very well about the hardships of trying to learn a language at an older age, because their generation has faced this difficulty.”

Some large language institutions such as YBM offer month-long programmes that cost up to 9 million Korean won (US$7,999) for a month.

"I think there has been a huge economic advancement in the country that has allowed mothers the luxury to invest largely in their children’s and their own leisure,” Cha said. "And the other big factor in this shift of trends has been the utilisation of the internet to liberalise the desires of housewives all over the country.”

This article originally appeared on the South China Morning Post (SCMP), the leading news media reporting on China and Asia. For more SCMP stories, please download our mobile app, follow us on Twitter, and like us on Facebook.

Copyright (c) 2019. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

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