Sujee Yang and Daegil Han have sacrificed more than most for their two daughters’ education.
They have spent about half a million dollars on New Zealand tuition fees and the cost of living since Sujee arrived from Korea with Leina, now aged 16, and Alice, 12, in 2016.
Sujee has not seen her husband and the children have not seen their father, who is a Korean businessman, for more than two years. The family relies on Facetime and is caught between two worlds, torn apart by Covid.
Sujee was also unable to attend her father’s funeral in Korea and although that was heartbreaking and bouts of homesickness are a constant companion, she says the needs of her children will always come first.
“They love it here and have begged to stay. Our original plan was for one year and this is our seventh.”
The Yangs are part of a cohort of Korean families who chose to uplift their roots to provide greater opportunities for their children in Tauranga.
Numbers are dwindling because of border restrictions and the pandemic but according to the student recruitment agency Korean Times this year, there are 50 families with 100 secondary to primary school students in the city.
Korean Times director Hyun Taek Yang said collectively they would pay about $750,000 in tuition fees and contribute $2.5 million to $3m to the local economy this year.
Prior to Covid the agency had 250 international students [150 families] and there was a waiting list dependent on the Government easing restrictions.
“The families are not only anxious but psychologically very unstable due to the border restriction and the fear of contacting Covid while living in NZ. Families are making great sacrifices for their children’s education.”
Sitting at her dining room table, with a warm summer breeze filtering through the sliding doors, Sujee smiles at Leina and Alice and says it has been a long journey.
“My husband and I talked about our daughter’s education when they were really young.We wanted them to experience a different culture, broaden their eyes and to learn English. It’s a universal language and we thought that would open opportunities for them.”
“Initially, we thought about a gap year for Leina and Alice in either Canada or New Zealand because they were safe countries but we connected with the Korean Times and felt Tauranga would be a good fit.”
Sujee says the family also spent two years in Auckland for Leina and Alice’s schooling but returned to Tauranga as they felt a closer affinity to the region and environment.
In the beginning, it was like a holiday but as the children made strong friendships and excelled at school some tough decisions had to be made.
“I was in the honeymoon stage because I thought it was not going to be this long,” Sujee says.
“Sometimes I feel like I have a lot of responsibilities on my shoulders.”
Life was very different to Korea and Goyang-si their hometown.
“It’s all hustle and bustle and quite crazy. Goyang is crowded because of the population and the school environment is highly competitive.
“From the first year of school, they are graded, which can be really stressful.”
The threat of self-isolating in New Zealand and getting Covid had caused sleepless nights but now Sujee is comforted by the fact that could be done at home.
“I was scared and afraid because I thought who will look after my children?”
Leina has nothing but admiration for her mother.
“She is amazing and has given up so much for us.”
The Year 12 Bethlehem College student was enjoying school and credited classmates for being so welcoming.
“I have some really good friends who have helped me adjust. I like the Mount and I like the beach. I like the education system in New Zealand which allowed me to learn while experiencing new things. This way I was able to get a pleasing result last year.”
In the future, Leina has her sights set on Auckland University and is looking at being an accountant or optometrist.
She is also a volunteer and helps teach Korean to “little kids” at the Korean School.
Meanwhile, Alice is following in her sister’s footsteps and although she is yet to make any career moves, one thing is certain.
“I love it here.”
Sujee, despite her own hidden reservations, can only agree.
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