What I Learned From Raising Expat Kids in Korea: 7 Points To Consider


What I Learned From Raising Expat Kids in Korea: 7 Points To Consider

I brought my family to Korea in 2008, and I knew it was going to be for much longer than a year. It was a pretty big risk that I took, but it's a decision I'll never regret. I needed a change from America: the lifestyle, the fast-pace, the heavy bills. I was working in New Jersey, and it was becoming exhausting. The whole family needed a break. I was 40 years old at the time, and my kids were pretty young. I'm from a finance background, so I initially moved to Korea for a career in the same field. I worked for Mirae Assets, helping evaluate promissory notes. My limited language skills made it impossible to continue there, so I transitioned to education because I actually have a degree in literature. It’s been 15 years since that day, and I am still living in Korea. There are a million reasons why I stayed, but in this particular article, I want to share my experiences of raising kids in Korea. There are pretty remarkable aspects, challenges we faced, and where things stand today. If you're thinking about bringing your children here for the long term, hopefully, some of this information helps. 

 

1. Schools Are Tough On Kids

When I relocated my family to Korea, my boys were 11 and 9, and my daughter was 7 years old. I live way out in the country East of Seoul. I'm not a city dweller, so this is what felt closest to home. What struck me immediately was the structured and disciplined nature of Korean schools. I loved how the teachers commanded respect in the classroom while maintaining a caring approach. My kids would come home with stories that were unheard of in the States. For instance, if someone in their class didn't do their homework for the night, the entire classroom would have to hold their hands in the air for 10 to 15 minutes. Sometimes they had to sit against the wall and hold their positions like “invisible chairs.” My kids told me of being scolded by their teacher and made to write sentences. This was the tail end of a Korean era where it was still somewhat allowable. I secretly loved it.

The schools my American friends' children attended lacked the same level of authority from teachers. Though I'm aware this may not be the case across all of the USA, it was my experience. 

Personally, I didn't mind when my kids faced punishments, reprimands, or even minor physical discipline at school. For some reason, I never really thought that these were bullish or authoritarian measures taken against the kids. I think a teacher that is tough and assertive is necessary, and it actually felt like they were helping me raise my kids. As a parent, I saw that if a teacher was willing to be firm, it meant they cared and were trying. Korean teachers almost feel like the "police" of the community, if that makes sense.

6 Key Points to Consider When Deciding to Send Your Children to Korean Public Schools

 

2. Korea Is Unbelievably Safe

We all know about the unfortunate situations happening in America, with school shootings and violence. It's pretty sickening that these incidents have become so frequent that they no longer shock us. Regardless of anyone’s stance on guns, when it comes to the safety of our own children, parents will do anything to protect them from harm. I'm thrilled with my decision to bring my kids to a country where they don't have to worry about the threat of guns and drugs. Bullying exists, which is a valid topic for another day, but nothing compares to the fear of firearms. 

Here in Korea, children can walk the streets alone. Young students walk to school with their friends without a care in the world. I live in a rural area, and in the 15 years we've been here, I can count on one hand the number of times I've driven my kids to school. They're independent and can use public transportation confidently. When they were young, I made sure each of them had bikes, in-line skates, and a transit card so that they could get around easily. Driving your kids everywhere they wish is unhealthy for them as they need to explore, figure things out and use their wits. It isn’t supposed to be easy and handed to them. But I get it. In America, you really don't have a choice because a lot of the neighborhoods and streets are not really designed for walking. In Korea, they are—something for parents to really think about if they have little ones.

 

 

3. Kids Will Learn Respect and Discipline

Korean society places huge importance on respecting elders, authority figures, and the community as a whole. This emphasis on respect and discipline has a really necessary impact on American kids raised in Korea. They learn humility, obedience, and self-control, which contribute to their personal and social development. I'm not saying that all American kids are irreverent. I'm just noticing positive elements that carry over from being in a society that appreciates social order. Knowing when to speak and knowing when to keep quiet is a virtue.

I come from a background where children would never address an elder by their first name. It was always "mister," "Mrs.," "man," or "sir." I love how, in Korea, children address and respect their elders on a daily basis. Teachers are never called by their first names, and even family members are addressed with utmost respect. I wouldn’t have been able to teach this type of humility and respect on my own. Korea gave them a great gift in that way—something to honestly think about if you are considering raising your kids here.

 

4. The Cultural Adjustment is Hard

Adapting to a new culture posed some pretty big challenges, although it wasn't a major factor in our decision to move. The beginning was particularly challenging. Not being able to speak Korean and experiencing alienation in school initially affected their test scores, which were alarmingly low. They would come home with test scores in the single digits! I found myself playing the role of keeping both the teachers and my kids calm, assuring them that with time, things would improve. I quietly hoped that I wasn't lying to myself. We went through six months to a year of what felt like a futile climb, but it was worth it in the long run.

Once they started grasping the language, my kids became the actual interpreters for our family. They helped me with tasks like paying car insurance, handling bills, and understanding school notices. It was almost as if I gave them the responsibility to take care of the household tasks and become mini-parents. They grew up fast!

 

 

5. Cultural Identity Struggles Are Real

Growing up in a different culture can sometimes lead to conflicts in terms of cultural identity. Even after my kids graduated high school in Korea and spent quite a bit of time here (we’re talking 13 years), they still grapple with a feeling of being caught between two worlds. All of them completed their education in Korea, with the youngest starting from kindergarten. After all these years, they still wonder what it would have been like to grow up in America. Now that they are in the United States, they miss Korea and question which place they truly consider home. I've met other expat families who feel the same about their children. Constantly unsure of where to find a place to call home.

 

6. They Will Be Separated From Extended Family

Raising American kids in Korea means being physically separated from our extended family members who all live in the United States. When you bring up your children in another country, they are distanced from their loved ones. In fact, it's been so long that my family feels almost insulted by my absence. My brother constantly asks when our cousins can get together, and every conversation with my mother ends with her asking, “When will I get to see my grandkids?” I'm certain that when I become a grandparent, I'll feel the same longing. Despite not regretting my decision and loving that I raised my kids in different worlds, it was challenging to continually answer questions about family reunions. It’s also why I didn’t enjoy long phone calls with Mom because they left more questions than answers. This is something to really think about when you raise your kids away from what used to be your home. There will be part of your family that takes it personally.

 

 

7. The Kids Must Leave When They Become 19

If both parents are non-Koreans and choose to raise their children in Korea until high school graduation, it becomes exceedingly challenging for the kids to stay here. Once they turn 19, there are very limited options available. Parents with ordinary visas (basically everything except an F5) can no longer sponsor their children, and even with a resident visa like mine, I was unable to keep any of my kids in Korea. Immigration will ultimately ask your kids to leave the country. Their visa will end. Only a few companies are willing to sponsor high school graduates for a visa, which is somewhat understandable.

Watching my children grow up here for 15 years, fully immersing themselves in the culture, excelling in the language, and building their lives, only to have immigration ask them to leave, felt like a crime against humanity. I spent countless days at immigration pleading my case to no avail. On one occasion, I brought my daughter to the immigration office and seated her in front of the immigration officer. I stated to the officer: “Please explain to my daughter that she has to leave Korea and move to America. Tell her the reasons why?” Her face flushed, and she explained to her in Korean that there is no more visa with your family once you become 19 years old. She didn't give many other explanations. Of course, my daughter already knew what was coming, but I wanted immigration to see the actual face of a person they were turning away.

The most difficult moments of my life were when I drove each of my kids separately to the airport and sent them off to America. I have built too much of a life here to walk away from, and I knew they needed to be independent, but it felt like dropping them into the ocean. They speak both Korean and English fluently, so they'd be able to get around, but it was hard to live with the bad taste in my mouth that they were not allowed to stay in the country they grew up in. I'm sure there are a million immigrant emigrant stories out there, and this is just mine. I would advise anybody who's thinking about staying for the long haul to be prepared for this moment. I think the actual rules are that the parents need to have F5 visas before the child turns 17 in order to be their sponsor here. In that way, they can stay as long as they want. Otherwise, at 19 years old, it is mandatory that they leave Korea. 

 

 

Why Have I Remained In Korea?

I finally have a green card. I only have to renew it every 3 or 4 years. The work-life balance is very good in Korea. I have a job that fits my schedule, and I don't work insane hours that beat me down as a person. I have plenty of time for being with friends, biking, and spending time out in nature because I live in the country. I'm not saying it's an amazing life, but it's a life that I chose and sculpted after my own wishes.

When my kids were young, we pushed them to become incredibly social and make a bunch of friends and memories. My middle son would walk down our long driveway with 6 or 7 friends behind him. They flooded my house and raided the fridge. I can't complain when the place is filled with a bunch of laughing kids. Seeing that happen again and again made it impossible for me to take them out of Korea. This was their home.

If you find yourself at a crossroads, contemplating a decision like this, it's possible that you've already spent several years living in Korea with your children and are pondering the next chapter. Alternatively, you might be considering the leap to Korea for the first time. In either case, I sincerely hope that the insights shared here have provided some assistance. Each person has their own distinctive life story, and this is merely mine.