Matilda Hwang and her daughter Kim. Photo / George Novak
Sylvia Kim has not seen her father for more than two years. The 15-year-old international student lives in Tauranga with her mother Matilda Hwang and their ragdoll cat Lexie.
They are part of a tight-knit
Korean community of mums and kids who have left their husbands and families behind to take advantage of New Zealand’s education system.
More often than not it is to escape the highly competitive classrooms at home where studying and success tops everything.
But this comes at a price. Matilda says it has cost her husband ChangKoo Kim more than $100,000 a year for the past four years.
The engineer sends money to cover school tuition, rent, food, power, and all other expenses. These have included about $50,000 on courses to help Matilda improve her English ”to follow my dream” of opening a business.
”I have spent a lot of money and studied 10 hours a day. It has been really hard and I passed my business course, it wasn’t easy but I did it.”
However, Matilda is still not happy with the level she is at and says some of the other mothers find the language too difficult to learn.
But the bigger toll has been Covid. The emotional effects are draining and Matilda is worried about ChangKoo Kim whose mother is fighting cancer.
”He really misses us. There is a big difference between ‘you won’t go and you can’t go’ to Korea because of the border closures.”
”It has trapped us.”
Sitting at her dining room table with a log fire burning in the background, Matilda holds up a strong front despite the obstacles.
She spent time in hospital and weeks laying on her bed with an injured spine after a gardening accident.
ChangKoo Kim wanted to fly in ”as I had nobody to look after me” but luckily some Korean friends visited me and Kim Sylvia did all the cooking and cleaning when she wasn’t at school.
But the Hwangs are not complainers and have high hopes for a bright future.
Kim has thrived at Otumoetai College and has her sights set on being a doctor.
This year so far in her exams she achieved excellence in all subjects and says she loves Tauranga.
”I really like the environment and nature and the beautiful weather. I also find studying easier than in Korea but I do find English and history subjects quite hard.”
”In Korea, everyone is striving for excellence, and getting into a top university plays a large role in your life. Here I don’t feel so pressured and I have some time to do hobbies.
However, her thoughts were not far from her family,
”Having the borders closed is depressing and sad. I miss my dad and my grandparents and all my family.”
”When I see my dad again I will give him the biggest hug.”
Korean Times director Hyun Taek Yang said it had Korean families waiting to come to Tauranga.
”Once they are allowed to come to NZ, we can get at least 50 new families [about 80 -100 students] straight away.”
The agency was the go-between for schools and students.
Its figures show in 2019 there were about 220 families with 300 students compared to 100 Korean families with 180 international fee-paying students at the moment.
Yang said it was very hard to stay in business and he worried about the mothers.
”We are very concerned about our Korean mums’ mental health. All of our mums and children miss their father in Korea a lot and they wish the border open to them ASAP.”
The Korean families could spend up to $20m a year and the latest data shows the sector was worth $174m to the Bay of Plenty economy in 2019.