Korea’s “Lonely Geese” Families: More of them than you may think

Back in July, I wrote a lengthy post* on the reasons behind and implications for Korean society of the high numbers of “weekend couples” (주말부부) and “lonely geese fathers” (외기러기) here, the latter generally referring to fathers who remain in Korea to work while their families live overseas for the sake of the children’s eduction. Back then, no statistics on the numbers of either seemed to be Shy Korean Boyavailable, so I speculated that the combination of both meant that a total of perhaps one in fifteen to one in ten Korean teenagers lived in a different city to their father most of the time (source, left: James Kim; CC BY-SA 2.0).

But it turns out that perhaps I underestimated that number: according to this recent survey of single women, effectively teenagers in this particular sense, for Koreans tend to live at home until marriage (although this is more for economic rather than the cultural reasons usually cited: see here and here), as many as one in eight Korean families have “at least one immediate family member living apart from the rest”. True, on the one hand that figure will include also university students living away from home, but then they are not common as I explain in those two posts linked to above, and on the other it wouldn’t contain the “international” lonely goose fathers I mention above either, so ultimately I’d wager that 90% or more of those one in eight immediate family members referred to would indeed be fathers working in different cities during the week.

There are some other interesting points made in that survey, but as it doesn’t mention the numbers and methodology (par for the course for most Korean newspapers unfortunately), then I’d take them with a grain of salt. But I think that the figures for geese families would be pretty consistent whatever the sample size.

*Since deleted sorry.

18 thoughts on “Korea’s “Lonely Geese” Families: More of them than you may think

  1. Indeed, lonely geese father arrangement seems to be accountable for the majority of Koreans and with their children that have recently come to Australia. In an impressionable childhood though, family is more important than education. In every single separated family like that, that I have observed, it has always failed.

  2. Also did you note that recently someone was sent to jail for adultery? There is something amiss in a society which makes adultery a criminal offence punishable by jail time, but encourages its families to live apart. Can you explain it?

  3. lightbulb, I’d have to disagree that the majority of recent Korean migrants to Australia have (or even plan) lonely geese father and what are known as “astronaut” arrangements for the mother and children. Like I explain in that original post I linked to (and a little here too), that did indeed occur a great deal in the mid-1990s (although sometimes it was indirectly forced upon them by Australian and NZ immigration policies more than anything else), but for the past decade or so the vast majority of Korean immigrants to both countries simply want a better life for themselves and their children and actually do plan to live and work there permanently.

    I’d completely agree that family is always more important than education, but families are often effectively forced into it (as I’ll explain to Matt in a moment), and given Korea’s education system then the choices aren’t quite as black and white as they may appear.

    SorryMatt, I did notice, and regret not writing about it, but as it was already covered a great deal in other blogs then there seemed little point (here is the best summary).

    I’d agree that things are indeed amiss in Korean society, but I’d hesitate to put that adultery issue in the same sentence as geese families, as they’re really quite separate issues.

    Like I mention in that earlier post, geese families are largely the result of the seniority system of Korean workplaces, and although Koreans do seem get used to it they still generally hate having to live apart just as much as anyone else: hardly society “encouraging its families to live apart”. It’s certainly true though, that not enough Korean families seem to reject the corporate rat-race for the sake of their families, but on the other hand families do need the incomes of (mostly) fathers well-advanced in their careers and companies. Sure, I know which way I and probably most Westerners would flip, but I can still understand the dilemma if I was in a similar job environment.

  4. Well the entire society is a shame. This notion that Koreans do everything for the family is a bunch of nonsense. Dads out getting drunk with his girlfriend and moms on chat line setting up her groove on. The only time they do ‘family’ stuff is Sunday afternoon where they pretend to me a family. I drink once a week with these so called ‘goose’ men and they are more like lame ducks. Get them drunk and they will tell you how happy they are to not have mom and the kid in country.

    Let’s cut the crap shall we?

    I mean you have no official prostitution numbers but in reality it’s 20-30% of all woman under the age of 25 working in tea rooms,noraebangs and dalamjujums. Oppa would screw you in a second. I have also never met a korean man who doesn’t have a #2.

    How can you take anything seriously these people say when they shove this stuff under the carpet? Jailed for adultery? Perhaps in certain cases but there aren’t big enough jails to hold 15,000,000 people.

  5. Alan,

    if you’re ranting then I understand your comment, but if not then how do you expect me to take it seriously when you say things like “the entire society is a shame” and “I have also never met a Korean man who doesn’t have a #2″? While I’d be the first to acknowledge the large size of Korea’s prostitution industry, the notion that all Korean men cheat is simply absurd, just like sexual partners in general only a small minority of men doing most of the visiting of prostitutes really.True, regardless of that the adultery case is unbelievably hypocritical, and Korean society really does have sexual issues it needs to deal with, but I’m not going to write off Korean society simply on the basis of that. Like everywhere else, Korean society has its good and bad points, and I could point out equally absurd and unjust attitudes to sex in any number of Western countries (particularly the US), but I don’t write off those societies on the basis of those either (nor think for a moment that those somehow render Korea’s problems forgivable and/or acceptable somehow).

    If you look more closely at my comment, I never actually said that all Korean fathers do “everything for the family”. Of course many enjoy being away from them for most of the week and having more (paid) sexual freedom, but by definition the ones drinking with you would be more likely than others to say so (although drunk or not, like Korean workers at norae-bangs with the boss everywhere I think they’d be very reluctant to admit otherwise). If you read my earlier posts on the phenomenon too, you’ll see that for most geese fathers their lifestyle is actually quite unenviable, involving bad food, bad empty one-rooms to return to, too much drinking, intense loneliness and often ultimately divorce. Like I said, Koreans do get used to it, but very very few enter into such arrangements willingly. But when ordered to transfer by head office ,and quitting a company as a 40 year-old would entail only being able to enter another at the same wages and seniority as a 30 year-old, then what’s a guy to do?

  6. James I’m happy to be here and I like living in Korea. I just can’t stand the double-standard.

    I watched a clip just recently on pweb about Hongdae and the ‘foreigner’ problem. You could have switched those people with every other dong in Korea filled with Koreans and how they act when loaded but no! see the monkey and how he drinks. Then the reporter who hasn’t a clue about anything says; foreigners drink more than Koreans’…was he serious? Like I don’t jump over puked up ramyeon on my way home every single night? Oh and the cheat numbers are up and beyond 66% from what I’ve heard and read. Koreans get their groove on, just not with their spouses.

    I meant ‘sham’ but shame.

    This whole ‘goose’ situation is just another nationalistic backdoor look and see how hard the Korean man works for his family nonsesense. They need to sell their shit to the tourists, I’m not buying it.

  7. Alan, well, complaining about the unprofessional and populist media here is a little off-topic, although I share your dislike of all the double-standards. But I’d strongly question that figure of 66% of Koreans cheating on their spouses, and seriously doubt that it came from a reliable source.

    Also, I’m afraid that I don’t really get the point you’re trying to make when you say “this whole ‘goose’ situation is just another nationalistic backdoor look” sorry. Regardless, while Koreans may well overemphasize how hard Korean fathers work for their families to foreigners and/or tourists, emphasizing one’s country’s virtues to non-natives is only natural the world over, and doesn’t obviate the reality that most really geese fathers do indeed make great sacrifices for them (as I’ve pointed out). If that seems difficult to believe based on your own observations, then I really do think that you need to expand your circle of Korean friends and acquaintances, as personally I’m quite frankly tired of 8 years of listening to various adults students of mine (mostly) complaining about being separated from their families.

  8. Korea doesn’t or shouldn’t hold the the patent on sacrificing fathers. You are suppose to take care of your family. That’s what being a father is. I’m not going to give people props for a job they are suppose to do. Marriage in Korea,geese fathers, It just seems like a farse to me. How is it that I’ve only met one divorced person in Korea in 12years when the average divorce rate is that of the west and all these people are of marrying age? They must just fib and say they they haven’t gotten married yet. The whole marriage facade even from the get go (McDees wedding) it’s just so plastic, there’s no love it’s just a business transaction between families.

    I did kind of wander.When I saw that hongdae clip I just went furious. Sorry for that.

    I honestly don’t have any concrete link or numbers to prove my 66%. I will have to investigate further and try to find the article I read.

    As for my circle it includes friends in low places(a fruit truck guy) right up to my dentist(golfing buddy) and mid-range company men. One thing remains the same for all of them though a common denominator if you will; they all cheat and not at golf.

  9. It’s bin emotional. It’s not quite feed the troll, but everybody needs a steamvalve now and then.

    If it isn’t Korean society encouraging fathers to live apart (and in my experience not just fathers- there seem to be plenty of two income households. Do you have any figures on that incidently? Or a breakdown of sex ratios in occupations? And possibly sex ratios in senior positions? They are probably in your posts already I guess) , what is it?

    You say that it comes from pressure applied by companies. Is it an oversupply in the labour market that allows people to feel they have to move to satisfy their boss? Or is there very little flexibility in employment, as you perhaps allude to?

    Why is it so commonly done if it is as you say unpopular (source-anecdotal?)? And what is the benefit to companies of having their employees unhappy and seperated from their families?

    and here again probably all in your posts already- is there a historical precedent for this earlier in Korean history?

    I reckon it’s much more likely to be 69%. I’ll get my coat.

  10. For college students, I think it depends in part on the quality of the university is (i.e. is it good enough to draw a lot of students from beyond a 1-hour radius?). I have many friends/acquaintances who go to top-6 schools that live in dorms, one-rooms, 하숙집 boardinghouses, even 고시원. KAIST in 대전 and some of the other 국립대학교 (nationally-sponsored universities) are probably like this as well. This pattern can also be seen in New York: fewer students live with family at Colombia than at CCNY or Fordham, and fewer students of these schools live with family than at, say, Manhattan Community College. Still, compared to the U.S., on every “level” the proportion of Korean students living with family is probably greater (but this discrepancy is probably lower when comparing Seoul with another expensive urban area like New York than with my cheap, sprawling hometown of Austin, Texas where I go to school but live apart from my family).

  11. SorryMatt,

    hey, so as long as it’s not directed at me specifically, then feel free to vent away anytime!

    If I say that “it isn’t Korean society encouraging fathers to live apart” then perhaps I’m putting it too strongly: in reality it depends hugely on what age group you talking about (and to), and indeed it’s often pointed out that in Korea one’s generation is as defining as say, race is in the US, whereas I’d wager that the people most similar to you and I are probably our parents. So if one talks to young parents for instance, with increasingly liberal/Western views on a father’s proper involvement in family life, then I’d expect to find a great deal of resistance to imitating their own experiences of having their father away 12+ hours a day and 6 days a week even if he did technically live at home, but once financial realities and office politics settle in for them then they too will probably have to ultimately accept late-nights and or/transfers and geese-family living situations, especially if the family is already in good school districts in Seoul.

    But one reason that young Koreans aren’t doomed to simply repeat the lifestyles of their parents though, is that in the past ten years Korea has gone from having the most job-for-life, male-breadwinner style jobs in the OECD (Korea always had many more salarymen than Japan) to having the lowest, and so the vast majority of jobs these days are irregular, short-term, easily lost and gained and often simply not worth living in a different city for, and hence also an increasing number of families need two incomes like you say. I discuss all that in more detail in this post (for starters) if you’re interested, but I’m afraid that I don’t have any readily available links on the stats for the numbers and breakdown of women working sorry (they’re all in my books), although I can tell you that their level of political and economic empowerment unbelievably (and uniquely) dramatically lags Korea’s level of development (see here), and that they have the lowest percentage of women working in the OECD.

    Having said all that though, the previous salaryman mindset certainly remains heavily influential as an ideal for all jobs I think, and while on the one hand not being particularly attached to a job will mean that Korean won’t put up with the exploitation and abuse that an inflexible job market gives rise to, on the other they’ll probably still want to hold on to it in the current economic climate. Hence you’ll still have things like unnecessary, useless 12+ hour days (giving rise to the relative myth that Koreans are hardworking) and, as I explain here, it is no exaggeration to say that Koreans really don’t have any idea that work can be something other than daily misery, boredom, frustration and humiliation.

    But when one does have almost no choice but to get used to something, then it’s human nature to justify it and even expound its virtues. Just try asking 29 year-olds who live with their parents for instance, whereas back when they were 21 they probably couldn’t stand being in the same room with them (for why they had to get used to it, see here and here). Hence all the talk of sacrifice and so forth from slightly older Koreans who did/are living as a geese family lifestyle or have a father who only comes home to sleep.

    Alan,

    sorry, if you’re venting then that’s cool, but if not then I don’t know how to respond really.

    Sure, making sacrifices is indeed a father’s job anywhere in the world, but by saying that are you now acknowledging that living apart from one’s family does indeed have some negatives in addition to the drinking and whoring? As for your meeting only one Korean person admitting to being divorced in 12 years, well that sounds like an exaggeration to me, but if not then I’d attribute the subterfuge to there still being quite a stigma in Korea against divorcees, and so for the sake of remarriage it makes perfect sense on their part for people to think they’re single (and I wouldn’t take it personally). But I think that your opinion of marriages in Korea is one hell of a generalization. Certainly the notion of an exchange between families plays a much bigger role in them than in Western societies, but I don’t think any more so than in Western marriages forty or even thirty years ago, and we won’t have to wait that long for Korean notions of marriage to resemble Western ones today in their balance of considerations of love and family exchanges (but which is not to say that even Western ones are all purely the former, or ever will be).

    As for the percentages of Koreans that commit adultery then we’ll probably have to agree to disagree, but please bear in mind that you’re a guy talking to guys, and I’ve on occasion *cough* exaggerated to my friends, say, one 5 min session of drunken fumbling and groping with a woman in a dark room at a party into dozens of magnificent sexual liaisons with three of them, and I know that you and the guy you’re talking to are guilty of the same kind of BS when it comes to things like that too. On top of that, recall that Korean guys are highly encouraged, even forced to discuss and perceive of women as little more than sexual playthings during their military service (as I’ll eventually get to with these posts), and so, hell, with that kind of background then for the sake of being one of the lads then I’d probably claim to have a few girlfriends on the side too.

    SB,

    you have some good points, and they made me recall all the stories I heard from this book about Korea in the 1970s when families would go to great lengths to either get their children living in the right middle and high-school zones in Seoul, let alone going to university, or to have daughters working in manufacturing industries to provide for their families back on the farm. The preference for both groups was always for having them staying with relatives though, and I’d argue still very much is, and so when I came up with my off-the-cuff figures in my post in hindsight I probably at least subconsciously downplayed the student component of them because of my desire to show the huge difference in attitudes with Koreans and Westerners towards living away from home and/or cohabitation before marriage, quite a pet issue for me. So those students living away may well be a higher percentage of the figures then I make out, although I still want to emphasize that those arrangements aren’t considered the norm and are anything but a last resort for most Koreans.

    Let alone getting some accurate figures for Korea as a whole, it would be interesting to break down the figures by university though, yes? Don’t hold me to it, but I’m pretty certain that most Busan universities have morning and evening buses for students living in Masan, Ulsan and much of South Gyeongsang Province, some of which would take at least one and half hours from bus stop to university front gates. On the one hand it demonstrates the length to which perennially underfunded Korean universities will go for (fee-paying) students, but on the other how Korean students will still prefer (or have no financial alternatives) to live at home despite some considerable commuting and early mornings on their part.

  12. Hi James

    In regards to touchy touchey or infidelity, I have no reason to lie. This isn’t a freak occurance or a one time thing for the average korean man either. There is a reason why there are so many tea room,noraebangs and dalamjujums and in that particular order; Poorer to richer forms of prostitution. You don’t think that 25% of all women here under the age of 30 are not involved in the trade? You can’t go 100m in this place without stumbbling into one of the afore mentioned.

    As for the stigma of divorce. Well if people and a large amount of them(in the millions) can’t even answer truthfully a basic question asked in the first minute of any initial conversation what does that say about the entire society? It’s based on lies from the get go. If you can’t be honest with people in regards to prior married I mean that’s just sad.

    The ‘geese’ dads say they miss their families. I honestly think it’s just for show and that it’s part of the ‘poor me’ defense. The drinking and whoring is a bonus not a negative. Korean men even my friends regardless of their status or social standing here are pretty immature and useless. I mean most can’t operate a washing machine, coulnd’t boil water while grandmother still cooks and cleans and wipes up after the son. That is really pathetic.

    Have a good day, talk later.

  13. Alan,

    Yeah, I meant to write “indeed have some negatives in addition to the positives of drinking and whoring”, my mistake. But other than that, sorry, but I think you’ve completely missed most of my points.

    1: Yes, you or I have no reasons to lie about infidelity, but if either of us grew up in a strongly patriarchal environment that tacitly extolled and encouraged it, and if we thought that our colleagues would respect us more and it would thereby help us in our careers if we pretended that we had, then hell, we’d probably claim that we got a bit on the side too. Norae-bangs and room-salons are hardly places to stand up and defend the virtues of family life and fidelity.

    2. I acknowledge the large size of the prostitution industry here, although with that size and diversity comes a greater need for specific definitions (I wouldn’t call a woman paid to hang around me in a room salon a prostitute for instance). I also acknowledge the fact that technically your average Korean man is more likely to have hired a prostitute than say, a New Zealand man, although Western countries often have higher rates than one might suspect, including countries relatively liberal countries such as Sweden (where a quick internet search will reveal that it’s gotten so pervasive that people will often do it behind trees and bushes on the side of the road in broad daylight). But all that is besides the point, as there is no “average man”. Just like consensual sex amongst single people, some don’t get it at all, some every now and then, and a very few get it very frequently with multiple partners. So regardless of how many Korean men you’ve met, you simply can’t make the claims about them that you do on a subject as open to exaggeration, lies and/or coyness and embarrassment as sex.

    3. If others knowing that I, say, got divorced in my first two years of marriage might make it difficult if not impossible for me to marry again, then I’d sure as hell keep it a secret from all but my closest friends…wouldn’t you? This will change, but you can hardly blame people for not revealing all to strangers.

    Now let me try to get what you’re saying exactly:

    1) Your average Korean man has invariably cheated on his wife or partner.
    2) 1 in 4 Korean women under 30 are prostitutes, or work with them
    3) Korean society is entirely based on lies
    4) Geese dads don’t miss their families, it’s all for show
    5) Korean men, including your friends, are immature and useless

    Dude, there’s venting, and then there’s racist generalizations that I’m sure would anger you if they were made about a group that you belonged to yourself. With all due respect, if you can’t make the distinction then I’d rather you made your comments somewhere else.

  14. 1) Yes. It’s over 50% I simply can’t find any links though. I don’t think I’m off base at all.

    2) I don’t think these numbers are at all bloaded. There aren’t that many ‘tourists’ coming for them to warrent a love hotel on every corner of town. Tea room girls do alot more than pour you drinks, they are for sale just like at the dalamjujum. I’ve been to enough of these places to know personally. Not that I’m proud of it but things happen when you drink and with Korea men. It’s just the tea room girls are usually rejects from the higher level form of pro-ism.

    Oh and I forgot to mention probably the most obvious form of pro-ism here;barber shops. If that isn’t enough to prove my numbers, I don’t what else to tell you. Oh also the Hanbok girls behind the glass in Won-waldong(busan). I’m sure this isn’t unique to the second city, every other city must have this. You don’t even have to get drunk or buy booze just go and do your business. They cut out the middle man(no pun intended). So that’s 5 forms..oh and the little cards left on car windows for call-girls(literally) so I guess that’s 6 forms.

    3) I wouldn’t say that. It is alarming though about how much they do lie and it amazes me that they can stand right there, tell you a lie and it doesn’t even flinch them. It is an art. My ears go red, I can’t fib well.

    4) I’m sure they do miss their families but these men are far from sad at least the two that I know. There is absolutely no reason for families to be apart. If they truly loved their families they would find a way to be together. If he doesn’t like it, he can quit. His job that is and get another or emigrate. The days of working for a firm for 40years are over.

    5) I would say that on average Korean men are infact much more immature than their westerner counterparts. They live at home until marriage. Mommy cooks and cleans and looks after him. He’s the prodical son, he doesn’t need to do housework or learn how to fend for himself. What happens when he finally weds at 35, his new wife takes over all of those tasks while she still works a day job. He doesn’t know how to sew a button on. What I mentioned above isn’t the norm here? Isn’t this exactly how things go down in the Hermit kingdom? The only thing that might save this person is army service but then it’s a crap shoot if he falls back to being mommy’s boy.

    Bonus answer) I’m not going to sit and cheerlead for team korea. I love this place and I’m a patriot but when I see things that are wrong that could be changed to make this place better to live I comment and confront others about these negative aspects. I’m not going to bury my head in the sand and pretend that these things don’t exist or they are mild in form and I should just accept them because that’s the way it goes.

    Perhaps generalization isn’t the way to go but have I said anything that isn’t true on average?

  15. Alan,

    to be honest, I mean no offense but I am getting a little tired of this conversation, and we’ll probably have to agree to disagree on most things. Here are my last, brief, thoughts on what we’ve talked about, although by all means still feel free to reply (and that applies to other readers too). I’m not after the last word or anything:

    1) Without detailed studies to refer to, and I don’t mean attention-grabbing newspaper articles but comprehensive academic ones that fully disclose their sample sizes and methodology, then we can conjure up and throw percentages at each other till the cows come home. Again, let’s just agree to disagree and call it quits on that one.

    2) The same applies to this, although I would point out that the vast majority of love hotels in this part of the world are actually not for prostitution (which tend to have their own premises) but so that couples, often living amongst extended families, can get some much-needed privacy for a couple of hours.

    3) You did say that. To wit:

    “Well if people and a large amount of them(in the millions) can’t even answer truthfully a basic question asked in the first minute of any initial conversation what does that say about the entire society? It’s based on lies from the get go. If you can’t be honest with people in regards to prior married I mean that’s just sad.”

    4) Yes, the days of working 40 years at a firm are indeed well and truly over, but that doesn’t mean that promotion is suddenly based on meritocratic criteria rather than on seniority in Korea. Like I’ve repeatedly explained, work ten years at a company until you’re 40 and then quit when they want you to transfer…then you may well be forced to start in another one at the same pay and position as when you were 30. What’s best for the sake of your family is hardly as black and white as you present it, and your solution to avoiding the dilemma of career and income over living together is…emigrate?? Dude, last time I checked that wasn’t exactly easy.

    5) Okay, sure, technically you’re not saying that “immature and useless” and “pathetic” in all aspects of their lives, and I acknowledge the general lack of household skills for the reasons you cited. But it doesn’t mean that all lack them, nor that they can’t generally be more mature in some respects than your average Westerner, particularly in their sense of discipline. And I’m still trying to figure out what relevance it has to your original argument that most geese dads only pretend to miss their families and really enjoy being away from them, as surely having to learn to cook and clean for themselves would be a negative?

    Sorry Alan, but that’s the end of my contribution to this topic. By all means reply like I said, but when I begin to have to repeat myself then my time should really be better spent. I do have two daughters to look after when I’m not writing and working.

  16. That’s the thing…you ask for info that is simply not available in any study at any time anywhere in regards to Korean infidelity. There are no gays in Korea either James, remember that one? You are falling right into the trap of..’it’s a minor concern’ just never mind it, here eat some dduk.’

    I lived in a ‘love hotel’ my 18months in Korea and I can pretty much assure you they are for extra-marital affiars. There were four other full-time occupants out of 20units and that place literally rocked from 10pm to 4am. I don’t know too many young couples living amongst expended families that would be out at that time of night and smelling of booze. Come on brother, these places are a stone’s throw from nightclubs and other watering holes. It’s not a co-incidence.

    Anyway….thanks for the conversation. Spend some time with your daughters. Keep up the good work, this site is great. I usually just read articles but this one really caught my eye as I know 2geese days personally.

  17. Sorry i hadn’t had my morning coffee yet. I meant to say ‘my first 18months’ i think all the spelling errors you can make out…..and 2geese dads….take care

  18. Pingback: KoreanClass101.com Blog » Blog Archive » If you love someone, let them go (overseas to learn English) p.2 - 외기러기

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