It’s 3:30 p.m. and the fidgety Korean nine-year-old girl across the desk is telling me that when she grows older she wants to wash dishes because she likes the task. The next second, she tells me she doesn’t like school because her teacher is mean. She tells me this every week. Her English is just like any other young Canadian kid’s, marked by the occasional extra third-person s on first person verbs and things like ‘boughten’ and ‘goed’.
At 4:30, she jumps out of her seat so she can empty a handful of paper shreds on her older sister’s head. Like a nervous man in a bar, my student had been tearing up paper the entire class.
Every time I leave their house it’s pandemonium. In the girls’ rather large 4½ in Westmount, they run rings with heavy feet around their mother, Hyunah.
Looking at her daughters, the expression is a mix of love and annoyance. “They’re happy now class is finished,” she says.
Hoping to lighten the mood, I jokingly tell her I would hate class with me too. It doesn’t.
She screams, “Kids! Come here! Say bye!”
The bye which has interrupted their playtime is more like a groan. I close the door to shrieks of glee.
My Malaysian-Chinese parents moved to Australia in the 80s. Unlike the trajectories of most Asian immigrants who move to a Western country, my father decided to leave after obtaining his Masters in Architecture. He picked up the family and moved back. Short stints in Singapore and Hong Kong was followed by a long, semi-permanent one in Beijing. Where the buildings went up, he would follow.
Citing a boring life and rising schooling expenses, my mother moved back to Malaysia with my younger brother and myself. I spent the next eight years in Ipoh, a small city on the west coast. My father would visit us two to three times a year, each stay lasting one to two weeks. I remember greeting him at Arrivals, my nose in his coat inhaling the ashy air of Beijing. It was important to me to know how long he would be around so I always asked him when he was leaving. My father would get annoyed, “I just got here!”
Growing up in Ipoh, a lot of kids didn’t believe my father was working in China. If a parent wasn’t around the household, the likelier reason was a premature death rather than a divorce1 and almost never for work. Whenever we visited other friends’ houses, there would normally be an aunty and an uncle to acknowledge.
To me and my brother however, this was always framed as a money thing. Dad was away so our lives would be better and this surely did happen. We went from working to middle class. We never lacked food and we travelled every now and then. Yet, I always felt that our family life seemed impoverished. Up to teenagehood, I cried every single time my father had to go back to China and we were left all alone again.
My mother ferried us to and from school, band practice, and lepak2 sessions. Like a dentist, she yanked our school results out of our hesitant mouths, then made sure we found good after-school tutoring. She taught us sarcasm and formed our sense of humour. When an adult neighbour refused to return a stray football, she made a ruckus and an enemy.
For all that, the chair next to her at parent-teacher meetings was always empty, and yet her expression remained happy-go-lucky.
Jiwan is at the age. The apartment is being rearranged as she no longer wants to share a bed with her younger sister. Her media consumption is completely dedicated to EXO, a K-POP band. It’s important now that her hoodies are black and that she gets to have brown highlights in her hair.
Her mother, Jinhye, is not one for stillness. She runs everywhere, even inside the house. When she waves hello her entire arm arcs in the air, like a Mickey Mouse mascot. She’s friends with all her neighbours in Westmount. Outside the house, she spots an old man walking down the street and then rushes back into her apartment. When she returns to the street, she empties her cupped hands, overflowing with candy, into the old man’s receiving hands.
He warns her jokingly, “I don’t want Canadian candy you know, only Korean candy!”
Jinhye laughs. “Of course Korean, of course!”
I help mother and both daughters with their French, separately. From time to time, Jinhye complains of fatigue with a pout and Bambi eyes. This is sort of exaggerated and intended to make me laugh but she has reason to be exhausted. This I gather from all the hours I’ve spent with her going over ways to answer potential interview questions from an immigration officer. Her immigration lawyer has supplied her with a four-page list of French questions of anything from, “Describe your first day in Montreal” to “What’s the difference between Seoul and Montreal?” The apartment walls are decorated with a mosaic of post-it notes, French words like ‘mirror’ and ‘closet’ written next to Hangul. There are also posters, photographs, books in three languages, and a TV on top of a fireplace. On a stand, a score is opened to a Bach sonata3. For what could be a temporary abode, it looks very homely.
She has to pass this interview so she can get a Certificat Selection du Québec, which would then allow her to apply for work permits and/or permanent residency. Otherwise, she has to leave in two years, disrupting her daughters’ studies. She looks at the door of the bedroom where her two children are watching Korean TV and sighs. In her words, “My family needs me.”
The student lounge at the language school where I teach swells with chatter, laughter, and yelling in five different languages. Students preferring a quieter lunch dine in the classrooms. A colleague of mine has just stuck his head into one to enforce a school rule—English must be spoken at all times. Caught, all the students bob their heads apologetically, their mouths stuffed with homemade kimbap, kimchi, and japchae. When my colleague ducks back out the room, we both know they’ve already switched back to Korean.
The school has a diverse demographic. From teenagers to retirees, every continent including Australia4 is represented. Ex-favela police officers study the future perfect next to sociology professors on sabbatical. Not surprisingly, racial cliques spawn regardless, and each bring different joys and challenges to the classroom. One often has to coax the Japanese men into making conversation at all. Boisterous South Americans may intimidate those who are too shy to speak. And Chinese speakers’ staccato and tonal speech confuse students used to emphasis and distinct lateral consonants.
Then there are the Korean mums like Jinhye and Hyunah.
A minimum of one sit in every class at any English or French level. As with all groups, there are exceptions, but generally the Korean mothers fit these four criteria:
- In their mid 30s to late 40s;
- Studying English/French for a year;
- Here in Montreal with their kids but without their husbands;
- Here only for their kids.
Theatre directors, restaurateurs, kindergarten teachers, everyone now a ‘housewife’.
Their husbands are 기러기 아빠, gireogi appa, or “wild geese dads”. They’ve stayed behind in South Korea to work while their wives raise their kids in an English-speaking country. In 2009 there were approximately 250,000 of them in the world5 and an estimated 20,000 continue to leave South Korea each year6. This is a phenomenon that has been noted before7, but finding them here in Montreal is the result of strange circumstances, bearing unique problems.
Grogginess and a 300C Malaysian weather-induced headache mean I’m not in the mood to calculate hypotenuses or recite the top three states in tin production. I’m falling asleep in the passenger seat of the car on the way to a tutoring center. On my right, my mother steers us past street vendors setting up for the weekly night market, humming along to Cantonese pop ballads on the radio.
The center is on the second floor so after waving bye to my mother, I just hide behind the door and stand in the darkness on the staircase landing. I watch my mother drive off and, in teenage speak, hate life. I do this for five minutes every time I have to be here so it cuts my lessons down to 55 minutes. My tutor never says anything about this.
She takes me through middle school science, mathematics, history, and geography. I despise it but I’m flunking school and if I don’t do well on the upcoming national exams, I’ll be streamed into the Arts classes, doomed to study “simple” subjects like Agricultural Science and Home Economics instead of Physics and Accounting.
I think about my childhood every time Jiwan takes her seat at the table. She grumbles and rattles of spitfire Korean to her mother. Her mother responds as if language were a game of squash, to be done with as quickly as possible. It’s almost like every second they’re talking to each other is a loss since it’s not in French.
Finally, her mother scuttles away. I surmise that Jiwan hasn’t gotten what she wants. When she exhales I’m reminded that teenage frustration is a universal language.
In 2016, Hyunah’s husband tells—doesn’t ask—her to go to Canada with their two daughters so they can learn English. She doesn’t take this piece of news well but her husband is sure that the English taught in their daughters’ private school in Seoul isn’t enough.
I press for details. “Enough for what?”
“For university,” she replies in a tone that suggests this is something obvious. In a way, it is. Yet it’s hard to even think about her kids in university when the youngest child is studying conjunctions and has a spelling test tomorrow.
Hyunah is the opposite of Jinhye. The latter needs to stay for a long time, but when it comes down to it, doesn’t really want to. Hyunah’s stay here was always going to be temporary but she says she’ll miss Montreal when she leaves. She loves the time she has for herself. When her kids are at school, she goes to the gym or a café where she can think about life.
Koreans interested in flying west visit an agency which handles everything to do with immigration, accommodation, and schooling. While all English-speaking countries are possible destinations, Canada is a popular choice due to the cheaper currency. Quebec also offers free education to children as long as their parent(s) attend college or university too. Some private language schools such as mine are accredited for this purpose and appeals to parents not particularly invested in their own education.8
An agency representative who has arranged temporary accommodation meets Korean mums and their kids at the airport in Montreal. Often, the kids start school immediately, while mom buys the furniture and sets up the Internet. The agent is there to help but in less than a week, the family is pretty much on their own.
Hyunah has it a little bit easier than most Korean mothers. She speaks good English, if a little bit stunted and with some pronunciation errors. There are some who, through a combination of low proficiency, lack of motivation, and shyness, simply do not pick up enough English at their language school. Occasionally, I get a phone shoved into my hands at work, a tiny voice coming through the speaker. The Korean mother who owns the phone pleads, “It’s children’s school9, English, French, no understand.”
Dividends come quick though. After all, kids learn languages fast and soon they become personal interpreters for their mothers. Even Jinhye, who says she wakes up with a new pimple every morning, takes comfort in this. Both her daughters speak English and French confidently. Once, Hyunah showed me her daughter’s drawing, taking care to note the different skin colours. The mothers marvel at the mix of cultures and how happy everyone looks on the playground. The latter is perceived as evidence of a relaxed educational atmosphere. Hyunah recounts going to a parent-teacher meeting in Korea where another mother lambasted a teacher for her kid’s poor results. She remembers her own childhood negatively, where cram school followed regular school, sandwiched between music practice and ballet.
Now, however, the mood is different at the recreational ceramics class Hyunah attends. “My models are terrible but the teacher always says ‘You be you’. Only in Canada teachers are like this.”
Westmount Public Library, a stone’s throw away from Westmount Park Elementary School, along with Westmount Arena, is the hub for Korean families. Every afternoon, the kids section downstairs is abuzz with guardians reading aloud and children taking turns on the computers to play Minecraft.
I bump into Chanyong, an ex-student of mine, a doctorate holder who speaks advanced English. Unlike other students who bumps into their teacher, she’s not surprised that I’m in their private space. She’s at the Arena because her two boys are learning how to play ice hockey. Meanwhile, she just waits.
“Where they go, I go,” she states, rather a matter-of-factly.
And so, on any given day, you will spot Korean mothers sitting around, waiting for their kids to finish their extra-curricular activities and/or tutoring. Sometimes they flock together, their discussion low but heated. They tackle loving and hating their husbands, quarrels with agents and administration, the best Korean grocers. They fret over not being able to see their family10, their trouble understanding baristas, and the Canadian food that is making their children fat.
Mostly, they talk about their kids’ progress.
The Korean wild goose community is a blessing and a curse. Nobody understands them better than they do. They babysit each other’s kids and host slumber parties. Sometimes, they go on holiday together, sharing a van and going as far as Tadoussac. The freedom can be a little addictive, reminders of a time before they got married.
However, there is no specific date for enrolment so Korean mothers arrive as often as others leave.11 Friendships can be cruelly short. As with any adult relationship, personalities may clash. Just because they’re all here for the same reason doesn’t mean they have to like each other. And underneath everything a layer, however thin, of contempt simmers and it’s for one very simple reason that feels oddly racist and yet I completely understand.
Put it this way, I would hate to go to Italy to learn Italian if every single student in that class was going to be Australian.
Perhaps somewhat inexplicably, Hyunah’s agency never mentioned that Montreal was a French city12. The first time she and many other Korean mothers realise this is at the airport, staring quizzically at the signs. The English Montreal School Board13 lists 34 schools for temporary international students such as Hyunah’s children. There are six English Core schools, only two of which are within reasonable distance to downtown Montreal where their mothers have to attend language classes. The language of instruction in these schools is 68% English and 32% French. In Immersion or Bilingual schools, a minimum of 50% of the schooling is in French. If the plan is to learn English, that amounts to half a foiled plan14.
Hyunah remembers her astonishment at seeing twenty to thirty other similarly surprised Korean mothers on her first day at language class. Again, the agency never mentioned this either. It dawns on them that if their kids are all attending the same schools, then their kids’ classmates are the exact same people they wanted to leave. Now, Hyunah estimates that there are about 1,000 like her in Montreal. Shaking her head, she quickly adds that if each mother brings two kids, that’s 2,000 Korean children circling the school system in Montreal.
Plus, the language schools do not turn out to be such a breeze as previously advertised. Most private language schools in Montreal use communicative teaching methods. That’s four to six hours a day with purely English instruction. If your entire English education was based on answering multiple choice questions, and you’ve never had to speak a lick of English to anyone, nor do you want to, language school will not be fun.
I almost want to laugh. Few Korean mothers predict that language school means going beyond ABCs and Hellos.
“Some Korean mothers cry on the first day of school. Then, they don’t come back.” Hyunah adds, “The agencies are liars.”
I’m caught between sympathy and puzzlement. On the one hand, there’s some questionable, dishonest business practices going on. On the other, I can also accuse her of a lack of basic research.
Hyunah just laughs. “I like to study English. It’s OK.”
And of course, it’s all for the kids.
It’s a spring Saturday afternoon and a pair of parents15 have brought their daughter to the library. She takes a chair by a desk then the parents promptly sit elsewhere. Their daughter, meanwhile, gets her schoolwork out while her parents gaze at their phones. Outside the window, I see kids zipping around the library’s empty parking lot on their scooters and bicycles. I feel a little terrible for the child16 but a quick look around shows she’s not really alone. Elsewhere a young undergraduate sits on a chair meant for toddlers and tutors elementary Mathematics. Ten meters away, a mother inquires with a tutor about her child’s progress. Small groups of students work in study rooms.
I ask Hyunah about her children’s schedules. After-school tutoring, art classes, breakdance, orchestra practice. It feels to me like they’ve replicated the Korean lifestyle instead of escaping the competition. None of this sounds relaxing to me. It’s also plain to see that the very nature of moving here is competitive.
She sighs. If there were more English instruction and fewer Koreans17 in town, then they wouldn’t need all this.
“Anyway, this is how we Koreans love our kids,” she says earnestly.
I’m a little bit skeptical but I don’t think anyone has a particularly good retort for this.
I moved to Hong Kong for high school. My father wanted me to live closer to him but by then, I had already gotten over my father’s absence. Even as communication technology improved I had less and less to share with him.
During those two years we connected and we also didn’t. I remember us going to HMV after church on Sundays. I have very vivid images of my father standing in between the racks, headphones on, attached to a listening station while I did the exact same thing at another station. The symbolism is obvious to me. My favourite moments are those where we didn’t have to speak, or indeed, weren’t able to hear each other.
Korean mothers protest whenever I say I don’t talk to my parents much these days. Being the only parent around develops a strong mother-child bond. Father-child. It depends. I think about a Korean student whom I continue to tutor over Skype. In his two years here, he never saw his father once. Reunited now, I’ve never heard him say ‘my dad’ in any context.
In contrast, both Jinhye and Hyunah have ‘eagle husbands’—a modification on wild geese, since they have the money to visit Canada from time to time. They also remind me that they are raising their children in the age of FaceTime, not ICQ.
I had international calling cards and dial-up.
At the time of writing, Hyunah’s apartment gets emptier every time I visit. She’s starting to pass on some furniture to mothers who have just arrived. Her kids will have a lot to catch up on, particularly with regards to Korean language studies and Mathematics, but she knows they’re smart. Her daughters can’t wait for better Korean food, “proper” WiFi, and to see their dad. Hyunah says Montreal has also afforded her time to read and write. So, she’s going to try and be a writer back home.
On the other hand, Jinhye’s stress just keeps piling up. Her husband will visit in the summer but not to take them home. Unfortunately, French continues to trouble her. There is the very real possibility that she fails in her request for residency. Meanwhile, her kids go on being kids, conjugating French with K-POP in their ears with ease. It would be so much easier if her kids could take the French test instead of her.
I think of my mother away from my father, but in her home country. Later on, she would go back to Australia and continue working as a bookkeeper. In fact, after two decades of living apart, husband and wife are now back under one roof in Melbourne. Both their sons are healthy, educated, and independent. If that was the original goal, I guess it was a job well done.
In most of my interactions with Korean mothers about their life here, I wish them ‘good luck’ when I bring conversations to a close. This is the social English I teach them in class. In reality, I hope they don’t need it at all.
1. I haven’t a clue if this statistic is scary or reassuring.
2. Malay for ‘loitering’ or ‘loafing around’. It was more important than it sounds.
3.Every single Korean household I have been to in Montreal has violins and I have been to many.
4. In the French Department, of course.
7. Norimitsu Onishi, “For English Studies, Koreans Say Goodbye to Dad,” (8 June 2008).
8. Most of them are already well-off and/or have university degrees.
9. Or the clinic. Or the hospital. Or, even once, immigration services.
10. One of Jinhye’s siblings unfortunately passed away while she was in Montreal. She never got to go back. It’s one thing for her husband to visit occasionally. Another to travel with her two kids back to Korea.
11. That said, most try to arrive in July and August, to coincide with their kids’ school year.
12. Before any Canadians laugh, let me just say that anecdotal evidence as an Australian immigrant suggests that non-Canadians either believe that all of Canada is bilingual or that none of Canada is francophone.
14. Often, the children aren’t interested in French at all and their mothers do not encourage it.
15. There are also parents who come together. In these cases, the father is on some sort of long-term company leave. He may or may not leave his wife behind, when he returns to work.
16. For the record, the girl doesn’t look unhappy, as I used to look. In fact, her demeanor is more focused than mine right now.
17. Whether these Koreans are actually Canadians and don’t speak Korean sometimes doesn’t really matter.