Overnight grown-upMay, not April, is the cruelest month for Song Jeong-hee, an 18-year-old high school student living in Gupabal, northwestern Seoul. With Children’s Day last Monday, and Parents’ Day today, May in Korea is full of happy memories for many families. For Jeong-hee and her 10-year-old sister, Song Jeong-mi, those days offer nothing special.
Time has taught Jeong-hee to grow accustomed to a life on her own. She is a bright teen with a silvery voice, but she talks more like a grown-up who has tasted the bitter of the world. Since the age of 13, Jeong-hee has not had any parents to give her a Barbie doll or take her to Lotte World. Parents’ Day means red carnations for sale on the streets and Jeong-hee cannot bear to look at the symbolic flowers.
For the last five years, Jeong-hee has taken care of her little sister and aged grandfather, who is ailing.
The girls’ mother, Park Eun-suk, died when, during a heated argument with her husband, Song Chang-geum, she was stabbed in the back of her head with a kitchen knife. Jeong-hee’s father was sentenced to life in prison, which has been reduced to 12 years. Jeong-hee has never written a letter to her father. He is to be released in 2009, and she says she has no plans to see him again. Ever.
To reach Jeong-hee’s house, you must squeeze through a small alley, barely wide enough for a child to pass through. Then you must go down three steps to a small two-room apartment with a tiny kitchen.
On a recent weekday evening, Jeong-hee is preparing dinner for her sister and grandfather. On the table is a simple meal ― kimchi with dried and spiced cuttlefish. “These are from a nearby welfare center for elderly people,” Jeong-hee says, slicing the kimchi the way her grandfather likes it. Her grandfather, Song Il-yun, 88, her father’s father, is suffering from cataracts and other infirmities, and is bedridden. Rising up shakily from his bed, he says, “Jeong-hee brought up her sister. She became a grown-up the moment her mother died.”
Indeed, Jeong-hee has hardly had a moment to be a kid. Her father, who had off and on jobs in the home decorating business, battered his wife ever since Jeong-hee can remember. According to Jeong-hee, drunk or sober, Mr. Song blamed his wife for seeing other men.
In 1997, Jeong-hee’s mother decided to run away with her two daughters. Wandering about Seoul with her mother and sister, Jeong-hee didn’t go to school for a year. But she looks back on those days as the happiest moments of her life, for it was the first time she knew peace within the small family.
Then one night in early June, 1998, peace turned to tragedy. Song Chang-geum, who had tracked down the girls and their mother, showed up at a shelter in the northern suburbs of Seoul. In the shelter, Mr. Song ordered his daughters to leave. Then he pulled out a knife.
Jeong-hee is washing dishes after dinner. She does all the house chores, and has become an expert in how to make the ends meet on a tight budget. Her grandfather and little sister keep Jeong-hee busy after school, which makes it impossible for her to hold a part-time job. Jeong-hee is a senior at Sunil Girls’ Commercial High School, while Jeong-mi is a fourth grader at an elementary school. Without any source of income, Jeong-hee depends on a government subsidy, which is about 200,000 won ($170) per month.
Getting up at 6 each morning, Jeong-hee walks to her school, which takes about half an hour each way. She never buys clothes for herself. Her only outfit, other than a school uniform, is a green T-shirt and light beige shorts, which she acquired through the donation of a neighbor. She’s never owned a cell phone, which makes her stand out from her classmates. School field trips, which can cost more than 100,000 won for a three-day, two-night excursion, are out of the question. So is pocket money for her sister. Jeong-mi’s one wish is to join her friends on their way back home from school in having a rice cake snack for 300 won. For Jeong-mi, who has had a hamburger only a few times in her life, a plate of sausage will do just fine. But those sausages appear on the dinner table only on special occasions.
When Jeong-mi asks her sister for permission to go on a field trip, Jeong-hee says, “Don’t you dare think about going on that trip! That’ll cost about half of our monthly budget.”
Nodding, Jeong-mi says nothing.
Until 1999, things were not so bad in the little apartment. “We received about 400,000 won monthly from the government, with a number of charitable institutions willing to help us out,” Jeong-hee says while cleaning. But the children’s welfare law was amended in 1999, with a new category for “Children without parents, but having someone to take care of them.”
Hong Chun-ja, a staff member of the Ministry of Health and Welfare says, “If a child without parents has any other senior family members alive, he’s not registered as a teenager head of a family.” Though Jeong-hee’s grandfather cannot leave the house or help out in any way, the government registered Jeong-hee as a child to be looked after. And that led to a reduction of the subsidy and the disappearance of charitable assistance. “I tried to explain that my grandfather is not in a situation to make money to take care of the family,” Jeong-hee says. “But the government officials would not listen.”
Namgung Mun-sun, a manager for the Korean Citizens Coalition for Teenage Heads of Households, says, “The revised law is far from making any sense, in that it ignores many children in need.” According to the ministry, the number of teenagers taking care of households was 6,947 last year. Mr. Namgung says, however, that there are more than 100,000 such children. Mr. Namgung’s association was established in 1996, when a teenage girl, managing the household in the absence of her parents, was sexually harassed by a group of adults.
“Such teenagers are actually open to a number of dangers ― financially as well as mentally,” Mr. Namgung says.
Jeong-mi’s goal is to be a fashion designer. “I want to make clothes for my big sister,” she says, breaking into a smile. Fearing her classmates will taunt her if they find out she doesn’t have parents, Jeong-mi refuses to have her picture taken or reveal the name of her school. “We don’t like to talk about our family background much,” Jeong-hee says. “We just don’t want to be bullied.”
Jeong-hee, who will graduate from high school in February 2004, wants to find work as a secretary or an accountant. She dreams about making it to a college where she might major in music to be a teacher. But she is aware that that’s only a dream. “It makes me happy to think that I’ll be able to earn money for the family.”
Song Il-yun grows misty-eyed when he talks of his granddaughters. “The bond between parents and children is not something that you can cut just like that,” the old man says. “And it makes me all the more sad, when I look at my poor little granddaughters.”
Jeong-hee says, “There are some things that you take for granted, not knowing their true value. A family with parents is one such thing.”
by Chun Su-jin