Diabetes stole his vision, but not his heart

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Diabetes stole his vision, but not his heart

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Ki Hong-ju. By Jeong Chi-ho

Ki Hong-ju,38, fumbled along the walls of his house trying to figure out where he was going.
“I can only see objects that are right in front of me,” Ki said. “Still, everything looks very blurry and I can hardly make out anything.”
In 2001 Ki was diagnosed with diabetes. With it came the deterioration of his vision. “It came without warning,” Ki said. “I only realized I had diabetes when I visited an eye doctor after I had problems with my vision when I woke up one morning.”
The disease threw Ki into a world of darkness and blurry vision, turning his life upside down.
“I learned about my health problem a year after I got married,” Ki said. “I had to let my wife go since I really didn’t have any clue as to how I would live from then on.”
Along with a divorce, Ki had to quit his job as a stage director.
At the time Ki was moving from his job at Arts Council Korea ArKo Arts Theater, where he had worked from 1999 to 2001, back to the DongSoong Art Center, where he had previously worked from 1996 and 1999.
“They wanted me, but with my eye condition I told them I couldn’t accept the job,” he said.
From then Ki spent his days in his room.
“All I did was sleep, eat, watch television and then fall asleep again,” he said. He spent many nights getting drunk. For three years he wasted his life. “I felt like some sort of animal,” Ki said. “I wasn’t that much different from a pig in a barn.”
He twice attempted suicide.
“Once I told my doctor that I was having trouble sleeping,” Ki said. “The doctor gave me sleeping pills, which I started to collect on every visit. When I had roughly 20 sleeping pills I swallowed them all in one go.”
Ki said that when his head became heavy and he lay down to die, he thought of nothing else, only how everything seemed peaceful. “After 48 hours I woke up,” Ki said. “It just felt like I had a really nice sleep.”
He tried suicide again soon after. This time he swallowed about 20 pills that were designed to control blood pressure. “As my blood pressure dropped I felt dizzy and had trouble breathing,” Ki said. “This time I was pretty sure I was going to die.” But a friend stepped in.
Finding that Ki had almost stopped breathing, the friend rushed him to the emergency room at a nearby hospital.
“I had another good 40 hour sleep,” Ki said. “It seemed as though I wasn’t wanted in heaven yet. And it dawned on me that maybe the reason I was still alive was because I still had something to do in this world.”
From then on Ki sought work.
“I sold insurance and even made embroideries to sell,” he said.
Ki’s first embroidery exhibition was a complete failure. He tried several other ventures before his path became clear to him.
“When I met Kang Won-rae at a high school alumni meeting, he asked me if I could live without theater. He encouraged me to pursue what I had most dreamed of and what I really loved.”
Kang himself is handicapped. A dancer and singer, Kang was paralyzed from the waist down after a motorcycle accident in 2000.
Kang came back onstage even after he was paralyzed by creating a new dance routine to perform in his wheelchair. The two have been friends since they were in high school.
Ki started to fall in love with theater when he was in high school.
“In school we had to choose an elective class,” Ki said. “The theater class was the only one without any test.”
He enjoyed theater despite protests from his family.
“My mother yelled at me that she didn’t raise me for 18 years so I could be a theatrical clown,” Ki said. “My father was more understanding and later encouraged me to do what I really wanted. Before acting I was a major troublemaker, but after I began spending most of my time in the theater class I hardly ever got into any serious trouble again.”
In his first role at his high school theater he played a high school principal.
“I learned that I could live out different jobs if I continued acting. It was an amazing feeling.” Both his parents by then accepted their son’s choice.
He learned the art of stage directing when he was in college, after a professor told him he should try directing.
“The world of stage directing was incredible,” Ki said. “Although I loved to act, learning the sets, lighting and the world behind the curtain was enchanting.”
Remembering the joy he used to experience when he worked in the theater, and with encouragement from his friends, the blind Ki decided to get off his knees and started to find work in the theater business.
“I went back to school and started to relearn the theater,” Ki said.
First he tried writing. “That didn’t work out,” Ki said. “I had to quit after six months. I realized writing is a talent that I don’t have.”
The next course he took was art marketing, which gave him the idea for creating his own company of thespians. From there he met his old colleagues and people in the industry who helped him to move forward. Ki is now the president of a small theater company called Michin ― which means ‘crazy in Korean but ‘beautiful and new’ in Chinese characters ― founded in 2005 . Ki says there are only 13 people working for him, and, for the most part, they work without pay. In April his company staged its first performance. The play they chose was about the role of women in modern society.
“We had a woman and a man switch roles, so the man could understand the difficulties that women go through, even in this modern world,” Ki said.
The play was an original work by Ki and his staff.
Ki still doesn’t act but instead helps in many ways ― from planning and producing to helping the director improve performances.
“Although I can’t really see, I can hear with great clarity,” he said. “My vision may have failed but my hearing has improved, and with this newly developed ability I can tell if an actor reads his lines with the appropriate emotion.”
He can also sense what the eye can’t see, such as the atmosphere of the performance.
“Still, it is not easy since I can’t see what’s happening in front of me.”
Ki is happy with his newfound life. He is already is working on his next project, a play aimed at children that he hopes to stage in October.
“Nowadays schools encourage students to experience various cultural performances and exhibitions,” Ki said. “In most cases, children have to visit theaters, concert halls and museums. What we’re doing is trying to bring the play to the children. Instead of them making the trip, it will be us going to the schools to perform.”
The biggest problem at the moment, Ki says, is raising funds.
“People are never reluctant when spending money to improve their lives, but they are very stingy when it comes to nourishing young minds with rich cultural arts.”
Ki is a strong believer that children and even adults today are emotionally vacant, selfish and even violent because they are not exposed to enough cultural art, including stage performances.
“It is common in countries that have a GDP per capita of more than $5,000 to see art flourishing,” Ki said.
“Korea now has GDP per capita of more than $15,000, yet Koreans avoid spending money on the arts while they spend tons to send their children for English and math tutoring at private institutions.”
Ki hopes that his new project will help bring a little bit more light to the world of art ― particularly theater, which is now the center of his life and the reason for his existence.
“My life itself is a theatrical act,” Ki said.
“Without theater I am dead. Some people can live without theater, but for me, the absence of theater means I would have no goals to live for at all.”


By Lee Ho-jeong Staff Writer [ojlee82@joongang.co.kr]
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