The Role of Korean Mothers in Early Study Abroad

On October 1, 2009, Dr. Nancy Abelmann spoke at Penn about the topic “Impossible Labor: The ‘Domestication’ of Early Study Abroad.” Abelmann is a professor of anthropology and women’s studies at University of Illinois. She has studied the role of South Korean mothers in “early study abroad” (ESA), or study abroad that takes place before the college level. ESA has become pervasive among primary and secondary students in South Korea.

Having done years of field research in Korea, Abelmann bookended her talk with an anecdote about a grandmother who asked her to speak to her granddaughter as a personal favor. While the parents did not support the twelve-year-old girl's ambition to study abroad, the girl wanted to do so, even though she neither knew English nor had the financial means. Abelmann presented this as an example of the idealization of studying abroad in America.

South Korean mothers face pressure to take their children abroad to study English, while the fathers stay in Korea to fund them. South Korea has a higher rate of ESA than other countries. Abelmann attributed this to economic policies that embraced globalization more than other countries' did. Consciousness of its small size motivated the country to integrate with the global economy. As high taxes placed pressures on the middle class, the 1997 Asian Financial Crash exacerbated their anxieties about social reproduction. The greater demand for consumer education increased ESA’s appeal.

Abelmann researched memoirs that give mothers instructions on managing their children’s educations in America. “Impossible labor” refers to the unattainable standards these instructions set for mothers. As the means for socially reproducing the role of the mother, these memoirs make prescriptions for “normative demands of femininity.” While the mother inherits a familiar, straightforward role in Korea, she navigates an unfamiliar education system in America.

The memoirs complicate idealizations of America. The mothers express dissatisfaction with American education and anxiety about loss of culture. They discover that they underestimated the challenges of learning English and fitting in. These transnational subjects feel strained because they are in America temporarily. However, Abelmann acknowledged the limitations of using memoirs as sources and stressed that this was not intended to be ethnographic research.

While Abelmann focused on changes to social expectations of mothers, she acknowledged that some fathers communicate with their children more often when their children are abroad. Because the fathers work late hours, they did not see their children much in Korea. However, when the children study abroad, the fathers must take extra initiative to contact their children through Skype and other means.

-- Anne Huang