[VIEWPOINT]Sacrifice is only 'women's work'?A few days ago, a reader phoned me to let me know that Choi Byeong-sun, who passed the college entrance examination three years ago at the age of 72, has graduated from Soong Eui Women's College. It was Ms. Choi's first graduation ceremony in the 56 years since she finished elementary school.
For that long she retained a longing for learning, but it was the life that she lived with that longing buried in a corner of her mind that attracted my attention.
Ms. Choi is a daughter of a middle-class farming family in a village of a hundred households near Sangju city in North Gyeongsang province. She has one elder sister, one elder brother and one younger brother. It was exceptional in that village, dominated by Confucian ideas of a woman's place, that she and her sister would attend elementary school.
The school was more than four kilometers from her home. Every winter her feet ached from wearing straw shoes that did little to keep out the snow. But she endured the hardships with pleasure. When she was 14 years old, in her sixth year at the elementary school, Korea was liberated from Japan. But the idea that it was useless for women to study was still dominant.
"Though I got A grades in all my subjects, I dared not dream of going to middle school. My teacher regretted that but it was no use even to try," Ms. Choi said. Unlike her elder brother, who went to Seoul to study after graduating from elementary school, she could not attend even a girls' middle school newly established near her village. On the contrary, Ms. Choi had to weave silk to help her mother, who began selling silk to earn the school expenses of Ms. Choi's two brothers. She weaved a roll of silk cloth every two days.
The second stage of Ms. Choi's life began in 1950, the year that the Korean War broke out. At the age of 19, she was married to a man who was one year younger than herself.
She nursed not only her own children but also her husband's young brothers and sisters. Her mother-in-law, who was 20 years older than Ms Choi, continued to bear children after Ms. Choi joined the family. Due to her age, her mother-in-law had little milk for her infants. Ms. Choi had to breast-feed them and do all the farm and household chores.
Ms. Choi helped both her husband and her husband's four sisters with schooling expenses. Two of her sisters-in-law graduated from teachers' colleges. All of her own five children also attended college; needless to say, she had a healthy respect for the value of education. To earn money for the school expenses of her family members, she took in piecework at home.
But her first son, who had been a student political activist against the military regime in the 1970s, died during his military service. "If it had been now, we could have inquired into what he died from. But we could not at that time," Ms. Choi said.
The third stage of her life, which she says were "the most gorgeous and happiest days," came after her children and the brothers and sisters of her husband all were married. She saw by chance an advertisement by an educational institution for the qualification examination for high school entrance. This was three years after the death of her husband. She passed the qualification examination for high school entrance after a year of study and then passed the qualification examination for college entrance after another year. Finally, she took the College Scholastic Ability Test after another six months of preparation, and finally became a college student, her lifelong dream. She received a scholarship and graduated with a grade point average of 4.16 out of 4.30.
"Our generation has lived through upheavals of history, such as the liberation from Japan, the Korean War, the military coups and democratization," Ms. Choi said. And the women in this country, including Ms. Choi, have endured all those upheavals, sacrificing themselves with pleasure as daughters, as wives and as mothers. But our society still undervalues them. Our society takes their sacrifices for granted or regards them as the result of old-fashioned ideas or of ignorance. How can our mothers, who have lived the "lives of women" during the chaos of our modern history, be compensated for their sacrifices?
The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
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