Chinese “Goose Mothers”: Their separation and sacrifice

By Wei Wei, Medill, Immigrant Connect

Zhou* is busy packing her suitcase for the flight back to China tomorrow. She flew to the United States three months ago to Wei-final-1accompany her son, Tom, who attends the 10th grade of a private high school in a suburb of Chicago. Although Zhou is annoyed by the impending 13-hour flight, she is gradually getting used to it since this is already the third year for her, to stay here for three months, leave, and come back again in the fall for three months.

Zhou is one of the Chinese “Wild Geese” mothers who stay in the United States with their children as they study abroad here. Without their husbands who remain in China to provide financial support for the family, they have to take care of the family by themselves while adjusting to the new environment.

The term “Goose family” originally comes from South Korea, inspired by the image of a father traveling a long distance to see his family. In Korean, 기러기 가족 (Kirogi Kagok) is used to describe a family in which the father works in Korea while his wife and children stay in an English-speaking country for their children’s education. The children are usually teenagers who come to the United States to attend high school or middle school. Studies have shown that “goose fathers” face mental health issues because of separation from their wives and children, while the “goose mothers” have problems adjusting to new language and culture.

Irene Jisun Sohn, Executive Director at Hanul Family Alliance, an organization that provides community-based services for Korean-American seniors and families, said the number of goose families is increasing in the Chicago area, especially in the north suburbs of Cook County where the best schools are.

The phenomenon, translated as “astronaut family” in Chinese to convey that the families are always in flight for family reunions, is also prevalent in China now.

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A screenshot from a Chinese website indicates that the phenomenon of “goose family” or “astronaut family” is increasing, and along with it, so has the risk of divorce.

Jili Sun, Chinese language program administrative coordinator at Northwestern University said he thinks more and more families are in this situation because they want their children to have a broader education. At the same time, due to the rapid economic development in China, a lot of the families can afford the study and life expenses in the U.S. Thus, they sacrifice the family happiness of being together.


Goose parenting is complicated

Due to the popularity of American education, sending children to study aboard in the United States has become a trend in Asian countries. Among the 1.18 million students currently studying in the United States with F-1 and M-1 visas, 77 percent originate from Asia, according to the latest report released in March by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP). The report also indicates that China is the top country of origin for international students studying in the United States, with more than 350,000 students at all levels including college, followed by India and South Korea.

The age of international students is also becoming younger as financially-capable families send their children abroad earlier for high school or middle school.

Zhou, whose son is in 10th grade, said at first she didn’t think of coming to the United States to accompany him. She arranged for her son to live within a host family. However, when she came here to visit after a year, she changed her mind. She said the conditions of the host family did not meet her expectations.

Ni, whose son Yuri came to the U.S. in 2012 and just graduated from a public high school this year, said children can’t get the same care from a host family as they can from their parents. She said they won’t get the spiritual support, the right food, or even the rest that they need.

Zhou said especially for adolescents like her son, it is important for them to be with a parent on whom they can depend. “So we made the decision and came here to accompany him,” she said.**

The decision presents problems. The United States opens F-2 visa applications only to spouses or children of those who study full-time in U.S., so these “goose mothers” like Zhou have to use a B-2 visitor’s visa, which allows them to stay only for 180 days in total per year. Therefore, they need to travel twice a year, with each time no more than a semester, if they plan to be with their child as fully as possible, Before they fly back to China, they have to arrange for their children to stay either in a host family or under a friend’s guardianship.

To fly back and forth, these mothers face challenges in every aspect of their lives. A study conducted by professor Ji-Yeon Lee at the University of Kansas concluded that these women struggle between often competing desires or expectations to be a good mother and to be a capable individual.

Lee also said it is interesting that we rarely see a father come here with children while the mother works in the home country. Traditionally, we assume that the fathers should earn money while the mother should take care of the children, suggesting the gender dynamics within the family.

Language barriers are a constant frustration

For Yang, who has two kids studying in the United States, the life of a “goose mother” is even more challenging. She visited the United States with her son, Harry, in 2010 for the first time. Two years later, Harry came to the U.S. to study abroad from the ninth grade and is now graduating from a private high school. Yang’s daughter, Lucy, however, is only in the third grade.

As with many traditional American mothers, Yang gets up at 6:30 in the morning every day to prepare breakfast for her kids. Wei-final-2After driving her children to school, she either goes to English classes or goes grocery shopping. During the afternoon, she prepares dinner and waits for the kids to come back from school at about three to four o’clock. Then she helps with her daughter’s homework and chats with her son until they go to sleep at ten o’clock.

However, Yang said the simple daily routine can be difficult because of the language barrier. “Language must be the top one barrier for us,” she said. “I have to use my Google Translator everywhere and anytime when I walk on the streets. When I go shopping, I need to translate the names on the labels first.”

Yang often goes to a church and a public school nearby that provide free English classes for non-native speakers. The classes are usually in small sizes and taught by volunteers.

Alana Slezak, Assistant Manager of Adult Education at Chinese Mutual Aid Association in Chicago, which provides free ESL (English as a second language) lessons, said they have both clients who are immigrants and clients who come for a short period of time without intending to immigrate to the United States. Slezak said that for a lot of the clients who come from China, just looking at the alphabet is very challenging because it is a different way to read and write. She also said there are a lot of grammatical differences in Chinese and English, making it more difficult for them to understand the concepts in English.

Ni said when she first came to the United States, she was afraid to make phone calls. “I trembled when I picked up phone calls, especially when I needed to call customer service, book a plane ticket, or connect the internet cable. It is even more challenging than speaking in person, when you can at least observe expressions and the lips of the speaker.”

Different from other mothers, Ni has an H1-B visa and works in a local law firm. However, she felt that due to cultural differences, she could not integrate with her colleagues when they talk with each other.

“But it gets better as time passes. Time helps,” Ni said. “Although you still can’t blend in, at least you can avoid being offensive when you talk to them.”

The sacrifice is worth it

Huang, whose son Kevin decided to study abroad in the United States in 2013 and is now in 11th grade of a private high school, said her friends here are mostly Chinese “goose mothers” like herself and got to know each other by chance, usually through their children.

Besides the limited social circle, “goose mothers” are also separated from their husbands who work in China. Huang said the separation has a tremendous influence on her life.

“The family was always together in the past, but now everything is on our own,” Huang said. She needs to fulfill the roles of both a mother and a father. “There are a lot of the things that the children cannot understand and only adults can deal with. We used to face them with our husbands, but here, we have become the ‘all-round moms.’”

“The kid thinks ‘I still have my mom,’ but the mom thinks ‘I’m on my own’,” Ni said.

However, even facing a lot of challenges and difficulties, for these Chinese “goose mothers,”,the sacrifice is still worthwhile.

Zhou said she made the correct choice because before the child goes to college in the U.S., these are the only years when she can spend time with him. “If I don’t spend time with him now, he will walk further and further away from me,” she said.

Ni also said she felt she has had more “quality time” with her son after she came to the United States. Different from China where she used to work until seven or eight in the evening, she is able to have dinner with her son every day and spend every weekend with him now. “It’s like we are bound to each other,” she said. “When he grows up and thinks about these years, he may realize that it was when he was the most connected to his mother in his whole life.”

Yang thought as her children grow in the U.S., so does she. She too came to a different environment in which she started to learn to acclimate and be independent in the same way.

Chinese children have difficulties expressing their appreciation

Although the “goose mothers” have given up a lot for their children, the children may not realize that their mothers are making a sacrifice for them.

Zhou’s son Tom said he feels happy that his mom is here with him, which Zhou is content with but she thinks he doesn’t realize it’s a sacrifice. She understands because she thinks that the child is still young and cannot understand what their mothers are sacrificing. But she believes that in the future, there will be a moment when he will come to realize it.

Ni said her son Yuri does not think his mom is making a sacrifice, but he appreciates what she does for him. She recalled a recent moment when she was with her son, who was accepting an award given to excellent Asian students in the region. The principal gave a speech to the award winners, saying that before receiving the prizes, the students need to appreciate their family first because many of their parents are first-generation immigrants who had been through a lot of difficulties to bring them here to receive the education from the best high schools and give them the opportunity to go to the best colleges.

Ni said that after hearing the speech, an Indian student who sat in front of them said, ‘thank you mom’ directly to his mother. However, children who grow up in China, as well as the “goose mothers,” usually display their love through actions instead of saying the word “love” directly.

Her son put his hand on her shoulder and held her in his arms. “At that moment, I thought, ‘maybe that’s his way of expressing.’ He won’t say ‘thank you,’ but he will use an action to express his gratitude,” Ni said.

“It’s not in our tradition,” Huang said. “It’s just too unnatural to say it, so I think we will still use this way to express.”


* The “Goose mothers” and their children asked not to have their names fully identified

** All direct quotes from the mothers were originally in Chinese and were translated by the author

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