So we all know about how stylish Korean women are, how beautifully they prance around Seoul’s busy and equally stylish streets, and how, because of Korea’s strong emphasis on education, how smart these women are, too. These things we know from watching our favorite Korean TV dramas and films.
But let’s backtrack a bit. You know, go against the typical (Korean) wave. That is, against this ultra-fast flow into Korea’s beautiful, modern image and onto Korea’s equally beautiful, not-so-distant past. That past, back when Korea was still on its way to its current status as one of the world’s leading economies.
Let’s backtrack a bit in the beautiful pages of books, starting with this book called “My Sister Bongsoon” by multi-awarded Korean novelist Ji-young Gong. Published in 1998, this book is Gong’s autobiographical take on women’s lives in the postwar Korea of the 1960s. Gong, who is known for tackling women’s issues and her desire for gender equality to be made into reality in Korea, zooms in on the plight of women who got left behind in terms of education and what happens to them, against the backdrop of an economically rising Korea. What is their place in the new Korea?
These women’s stories, represented by the character Bongsoon, are told through the eyes of a five-year old Jang. Bongsoon is an orphaned adolescent who becomes a helper in Jang’s family. When Jang’s father arrives home from a study stint abroad, Jang’s family begins to undergo gradual but life-altering changes—a new office job for Jang’s father, the move from a rented apartment to a bigger house in a posh neighborhood, the transfer to a better school for the kids, and a breakfast routine of breads and Western fare instead of the usual rice, soup, and banchan (side dishes) or porridge. Even snacks became pretty icing-filled cakes instead of the usual rice cakes.
These changes reflected what was happening in Korea in the 1960s as it speedily moved toward becoming one of the world’s biggest and modern economies. And along with these changes was Bongsoon’s stubborn clinging on to the life that she knows. Especially poignant was the scene where Jang’s family was eating a Western breakfast of bread and jams, while Bongsoon insisted on eating her usual bowl of rice.
But Bongsoon tried to find her own place in this newly emerging Korea in the wrong places. With neither education to utilize for her upward mobility nor a shining pedigree to keep herself apace with the newly emerging Korea of that time, she looked for the simplest thing—for love. Even her “adopted” family did not know what to do with Bongsoon, who was being left behind Korea’s fast movement, except to ensure that she gets married properly, and to rid themselves of the responsibility of taking care of Bongsoon. Engaged in various romantic relationships throughout her life, it seemed to be her only way of coping.
Whereas the five-year old Jang eventually moved on to study in one of Korea’s best universities, Bongsoon stayed the same. Without a father to wish her well, Bongsoon did not ever have a chance to hear these encouraging words of wisdom:
“Jang, I want you to be a great woman some day. As a father, I might only wish for you to meet a wonderful man and get happily married. But the world will change! There will be lots of great women who can do things even men dare not. You must be one of them, honey. Like all those western women who can discuss their ideas equally with men, and teach students in college! You know, women who can finish up jobs even men dare not try! Then no one will look down on you, just because you are a woman.”
As a Filipino reader, this story of Korea’s not-so-distant past feels all too familiar even at this day and age. That feeling of transitioning, of things around you changing, makes me feel optimistic about the boundaries that an educated woman can transcend. But at the same time, it makes me worry about those being left behind in this fast-paced world. Where do they belong?
I suppose, then, that Korea may have long ago passed this transition stage from developing to developed country, but in this book, still, are lessons to learn as our own countries make that mad dash to success.