(From left to right) Keeyoung Ryu, mother, and Lena Lee, daughter, wearing saris at the Taj Mahal. (Photo source: Lena Lee)
In this article, Keeyoung Ryu, “trailing spouse” of a now-retired Korean diplomat, is interviewed by Natasha Winnard, an international youth empowerment consultant and parent of a globally mobile child.
Keeyoung Ryu is the mother of Lena Lee, who recently published her memoir, Girl Uprooted, about her global upbringing as the daughter of a diplomat. Below, Keeyoung offers her perspective as a globally mobile parent.
- Tell us a bit about your international journey.
I was born and raised in Korea, so my international journey started when I married my husband, a Korean diplomat, in 1985. Our first posting was to Portugal, where my son was born. Then, we moved to Rwanda where I became pregnant with Lena, but we had to leave the country in 1990 due to the civil war. After Lena was born in Korea, we continued to move countries every three years, covering the United States of America (USA), Malaysia, France, Norway, and of course Korea. In total, I’ve moved 13 times internationally and am now enjoying post-retirement life back home.
- Lena has mentioned that moving from the USA to Korea at the age of 14 was the hardest move for her. What was the hardest move for you in terms of raising your children?
We were returning after six years abroad, so it sure wasn’t easy for Lena but I had a lot of worries, too, as a parent. I agonized over what type of school to put her in, knowing first-hand how intense the Korean education system can be. I never once expected Lena to be able to adapt to the level of studies in Korea; I didn’t think that was even possible. I merely hoped she’d be able to enjoy her school life, but ultimately it seems to have had the complete opposite result. It was difficult for me knowing Lena was having such a hard time at school, though I didn’t know quite how bad it was until I read her memoir.
But much more painful than those high school years was when Lena told me she wanted to die. In the book she writes about feeling her first suicidal urge at the age of ten, but it was only after university that Lena first talked to me about these feelings. Back when she was in that Korean high school, I assumed - or at least hoped - that these turbulent adolescent years of her “acting out” would pass one day, but when she told me she wanted to die, I simply had no idea how to help her.
- What one piece of advice would you give other globally mobile parents, who are currently moving their children around the world?
I used to say that children are so adaptable you needn’t worry about them, but today I can’t stress enough that that simply isn’t true. Until that move back to Korea mentioned above, my daughter Lena seemed to adapt very well wherever we went. She made friends easily; she got good grades; she learned fast, even in a new language. But here’s the thing, what you see isn’t always everything…
I realize now how naive I was. As someone who’s never once changed schools, I imagined moving countries would be challenging, but I don’t think I had a clue the true extent of it. In fact, I was recently telling my friend about Lena’s book and she mentioned that she had once changed elementary school, too. This was to a different city within the same province in Korea, but my friend insists she still doesn’t feel a sense of belonging anywhere as a result of this one move. It really hit me then how difficult it must have been for Lena moving countries, adapting to a different culture, language and education system, every three years no less.
So my advice would be, please don’t underestimate the impact of global mobility on children.
- Is there anything you would do differently if you could turn back?
Oh, so many things. I have so many regrets, especially after reading Lena’s memoir. For instance, I always avoided mentioning her old friends for fear that it would make her miss them more. I wish I’d just asked her how she was feeling, and we could have talked about it. I deeply regret that I didn’t once ask her if she was doing okay, if she was finding it hard moving around so much. Even when she was having a tough time at her Korean high school, I naively assumed my child was maybe a little more sensitive or going through a particularly rough patch of adolescence. You see, I had such little understanding of how global mobility can impact children.
It’s only in the last few years that I learned through Lena about third culture kids (TCKs). I wish so much that I could have had more awareness about the experience of TCKs before embarking on my international journey, and not after my children were already adults. It pains me that I didn’t actively seek out information and resources both for myself and for my children. I hope you won’t make the same mistake.
- I think you’re being too harsh on yourself. Parenting is the toughest job in the world - add to that an international move every few years - and there is no doubt in my mind that you have raised a wonderful young woman. Tell us about some things you did well.
All I wanted, then or now, was for my children to be happy; I was less interested in them getting good grades or a “good” job. So whenever we moved countries, I tried to prioritize their making friends or enjoying sports and extracurricular activities. I still remember shopping for toys even before buying more practical things like a trash can so that Lena could start making friends.
When Lena was younger, I would proactively approach other parents to see if their children wanted to come over and play. I tried to invite only one friend at a time so that they could spend their time entirely with Lena. When she was a little older, I would drop her off at a friends’ house or bring her friends around and make sure they had something nice to eat. I remember being a little shocked to learn that in Western culture, you’re supposed to ask the parents before feeding their children, whereas in Korea you never send a guest home without feeding them first!
I always prioritized things like this no matter how busy or tired I was. And of course, Lena’s dance classes. I believed these kinds of things would set her up for life, whether her social life or through enjoying hobbies. I’d like to think these are some things I’ve done well.
From what I read in Lena's memoir, I think you did a wonderful job. Being a globally mobile parent is one of the toughest jobs in the world. It's very clear to me you did your absolute best and raised your children with endless love. I can tell how much Lena loves and respects you from the conversations we have had.
A very sincere thank you to Lena Lee and her mom, Keeyoung Ryu, for sharing their experiences with us. We often underestimate the full extent of the challenges globally mobile children and their families face. We all have so much more to learn together, home and school, to ensure that our children, and the children in our care, are healthy, happy and can thrive.
Read Natasha Winnard's interviews with Lena Lee, Reflections on a Globally Mobile Student Life and Raising Globally Mobile Children, where she reflects on her globally mobile upbringing and education.
After marrying a Korean diplomat, Keeyoung Ryu has moved 13 times across seven countries: the US, Portugal, Rwanda, Malaysia, France, Norway, and Korea. She speaks to her friends around the world in four languages (Korean, English, French and Spanish) to varying degrees of fluency. She has two grown-up children (including Lena Lee) and is now settling into life back home in Korea. Her latest hobby is aerial yoga.