Tag Archives: poverty

Beijing Creature

IMG_20140913_211312[1]It was Saturday evening and I was walking along the 工人体育场北路. It was a broad road with traffic leading to 三里屯, which is an expat area. I was heading there to meet a friend. On both sides of the road were tall, modern structures which contrasted with simple street peddlers and the occasional dirty beggar. This was already a common sight for me and did not register as anything extraordinary.

In front of a luxury mall, I saw a sight that did catch my attention. It was the first time I saw anything like it. There was an implike creature sitting in front of a small speaker which was its equivalent in size. It seemed to be female with swarthy skin, wearing ragged, overworn clothing. With the size of a three year old, it looked to be less than human, with an appearance resembling a rat with a few loose strands for hair. Its age was indistinguishable. It held a microphone but was not moving its lips while the speaker played an upbeat Chinese pop song with the background music and the vocals. It could have been mistaken to be a badly made doll, as it emanated no force of life. Only its petite feet were moving, going up and down to the beat of the song.

It seemed that I was not the only one surprised by its figure, as other walkers, who were mostly middleclass Chinese young adults that would not even glance at other forms of destitution, involuntarily took a look at the creature, which was sitting on a short stool a few metres in front of stores that sold luxury brands. Then they continued to walk forwards towards shiny lights.

Afterwards I saw the creature again being moved to another location in a small trolley by nameless Chinese men who were indistinguishable with the masses. I had five mojitos that night.

Three Bowls of Rice and Korean Parents

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“All we wish for,” my aunt who is the daughter of the oldest sister of my paternal grandmother said, “is for you guys (the children) to have your share of the three bowls of rice.”

This was mentioned as she drove us back from a lunch meeting of many old family members who were all related to me by my paternal grandmother. More than 10 people were there and I think the average age of the people present was at least 65 years of age, as my grandmother and her sisters, along with their sons and daughters (who were approaching retirement age) made up the most of the party. The oldest granny was 93 years of age, which meant that she was born during the time when Japan ruled Korea, went through her twenties when Korea was liberated but destitute, raised her children through the devastating Korean War in which her husband was taken by the North, lived most of her adult life under dictatorships and during the time of a miraculous turnaround of financial fortunes, and spent her days as an elder in the prosperous South Korea of today. She is basically a moving memory of modern Korean history.

Her generation experienced numerous adversities as Korea and Koreans faced fated historical hardships that were bombarded onto them one after the other. My parents’ generation suffered as well, as they were born into the postwar South Korea that had no wealth but was full of destruction. It was a poor Korea that grew rich as they grew into adulthood, a poor Korea that I can neither imagine nor comprehend.

Meanwhile, I grew up in Canada, where all necessities and superfluities of life were given to me and accepted as if it was my birthright. It is a rich country and all but few of its inhabitants live well. The poor in Canada have access to resources that even the rich in poor countries might not have. I think that all Canadians are a little spoiled. We are oceans away from the lands and the stories of people live in terrible circumstances, and we overreact with what are minor displeasures in comparison with the people beyond the ocean. We are able to dream and be idealistic as we are protected by unpleasant realities with the thick solid glass of the TV screen. These visions may enter but they quickly exit, as they are quickly replaced by trivial thoughts. The world beyond the TV screen seems fake, and incomprehensible in the context of our surroundings.

These days I feel pressure from all sides as my extended family fusses about my unforeseeable future. They cannot understand why I do not have a definite career plan and feel an insatiable irritation about my lack of worries about the future. For them, the best professions are the –sa professions, like the uisa (doctor), the guhnchooksa (architect) and the byunhosa (lawyer), or any type of professor. I think that this is because these professions give status and money and most importantly, stability. Meanwhile, my contemporaries and I are concerned with another, more elusive pursuit, happiness. “Why should I do something if it doesn’t make me happy?” “What career will make me the happiest?” “What do I like doing?” Such questions are the foundations for what we base our career choices on.

It’s no wonder why there are conflicts between these two generations. One is thinking about earthsolid stability, while the other looks for flighty happiness. We share a fundamental inability to appreciate each other’s views due to an irreconcilable system of values. It’s as if there is a wide and deep chasm between us, the chasm created by the shifting tectonic movements of time. On one side, there are three bowls of rice between many people. It is a constant struggle to keep one fed. Basic needs may be met but are not forever guaranteed. One the other side, everyone is given a bowl of rice each with extras for those who ask for it. Three meals a day with clean water and warm shelters are accepted as an assumed and unbreakable reality.

Which side is correct? Perhaps the former side is incorrect in thinking that there are only three bowls of rice, while the latter is has expectations that are too optimistic, as they have known no real hardship.

Photo: the lunch