After the sacrifices, matrons find time for more education

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After the sacrifices, matrons find time for more education

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In contemporary Korean society, one particular demographic conjurs up cultural stereotypes like no other. Ajumma (the Korean term for married women, but usually referring to assertive middle-aged women) are often referred to as the third sex. This specific breed of “she-men” is often characterized in mass media as ill-mannered, graceless beings whose only concern is the well-being of their families and themselves.
Although the coarseness of their behavior is viewed as an understandable side effect of struggling as women in the face of the harsh realities of their social backgrounds and traditional male dominance, their strength of character is mostly related to taking care of their family and sacrificing their own desires for those of husbands and children.
At the Yangwon Ajumma School, in Mapo district, however, thousands of these women have learned to take control of their own destinies, which they often had no control over during childhood, and start their lives over again through formal education.
Former graduates and current students all have their own, often touching, reasons for attending the school.
“I was in and out of chemotherapy for six months with uterine cancer. I felt more and more numb as I looked in the mirror every day to witness my face and body changing,” said Jung Chu-im, 50, who graduated last semester with a high school equivalency certificate.
She initially felt it difficult to adjust to her new surroundings, but was determined not to miss classes, despite her illness, and became more comfortable as she realized how many other women were in a similar position.
In one of her school essays, Ms. Jung wrote that she felt the school was God’s way of giving her a chance to look back on her life and re-evaluate it.
Kim Hyang-cho, 60, gave her reason for applying to the Yangwon Ajumma School: “I was the youngest out of seven in my family. Like most families around that time, my brothers got the chance for education, but when it came to me, we just couldn’t afford it,” she said.
The school principal, Lee Sun-jae, 70, said that such situations as Ms. Kim’s were common during those times not only because of discrimination against women, but because it simply made more economic sense for a family to send a son to school “because the son would have a better chance of surviving in this male-oriented society.”
Mr. Lee’s interest in formal education for those who did not get the chance to learn when young started around 1963, when he started teaching classes at night school. “I had so much help in terms of finishing my education. Many people helped me with tuition, board, etc. I don’t think I could have been educated if it weren’t for them,” he said. He joined the then Ilseung School, which started out as a regular elementary school in November 1953, as a teacher that same year. The school started expanding its boundaries in 1978, with a Sunday school program for women. Then in 1988, the school board members founded the Yangwon Ajumma School. “At first, it was just one class, a volunteer program, where we gathered 12 women and taught them. However, by word of mouth, the class became very popular and we had to open a school to accommodate all the women who wanted to learn,” Mr. Lee said. The school now has classes at elementary, middle and high school levels and holds equivalency tests for each.
The school, as of last semester’s graduation in August, boasted around 40,000 graduates. Many memorable students have attended, including last semester’s oldest graduate, Yang Gyeong-ja, whose dream at the age of 80 is to go on to medical school in order to help people like herself who suffer from arthritis, and Myeung Jung-rae, 70, who this May was the oldest person in Seoul to pass the high school equivalency exam. Ms. Myeung placed seventh in her school middle school entrance exam during her childhood, but couldn’t continue her schooling because of financial difficulties.
Ms. Kim remembers her first day at the school. “Mr. Lee told us that when you water bean sprouts, they don’t soak up the liquid right away. But eventually, if you water them over and over again, they will grow.”
Han Kyung-hui, 60, adds, “That comment was inspirational because I used to attend other academies to learn but I always had a hard time following the classes. As I was starting to think about giving up, I came across the Yangwon School. I didn’t even graduate from elementary school as a child but through this school, I even passed the college equivalency test this April.”
Mr. Lee sees two important roles that the school plays. On a personal level, he says, women can stop lamenting their past and strengthen their competitive edge. “This doesn’t necessarily mean that the women have to go on to a whole other job after graduation. Even if you are a housewife, for example, it will be quite another experience to buy for your family with some knowledge of society and its socio-economic structures,” he said.
Another role he cites is communication, whether it is with one’s family or friends. “I started attending this school because I started feeling inadequate as a mother without having had a proper education,” said Oh Mi-ox, 44. “I couldn’t comprehend what the kids were going through and the parent meetings were the worst. I felt so alienated amongst these educated mothers who voiced their opinions,” she added.
After talking about the professions of her daughter (an English teacher) and son (a Korean augmentee to the United States Army), Ms. Kim confesses that she often felt alone during her children’s conversations.
The present and future of these ajummas sound very different from their past. “I have to ride two different buses to get here every morning but I am still so excited to come, I get giddy in the morning,” said Ms. Kim.
Ms. Han unfolded the details of her ambition for her future life enthusiastically. “I am attending classes to become a teacher. I’d like to get a job, even if it is part-time, as a teacher at a nursing home or orphanage by next year.”
Ms. Oh, who is already tutoring students at the school when her classes end, said, “I want to enter university to study social welfare.”
“I don’t like to think that I am doing this because I need to help women, just because they are women. If women are thought of as victims, they will lose out in competition. I just want the school to act as a stepping-stone so that women can look forward to fair competition,” said Mr. Lee.

by Cho Jae-eun
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