[VIewpoint]Unnecessary sacrificeWe sometimes hear stories that only seem possible in a fairy tale or a myth. The story of an aged couple, Kim Sin-a and Jeong Bong-hee, who died one after another on Sorok Island, is such a surreal account.
Sorok Island is an isolated community of patients with Leprosy, also known as Hansen’s disease.
Jeong, the wife, had a stroke a few years ago and she had been hospitalized in a state-run hospital on the island. Kim Beom-seok, a 31-year-old public health doctor, witnessed the couple’s last days.
According to Dr. Kim, Jeong’s physical abilities had nearly stopped, except for swallowing food and blinking, and she was nearly unconscious. Kim, the husband, was blind, but he visited Jeong every day around 2 or 3 p.m., finding his way with a cane. He spoke to her warmly, held her hands and played harmonica for her. Whether it rained or snowed, he never failed to visit.
On Sept. 22, 2007, the husband suddenly passed away at the age of 83. After her husband stopped visiting, Jeong refused to swallow food. No one told her about his death, but she appeared to be determined to follow her husband into the next world.
Doctors at the hospital were worried about her deteriorating condition, and a volunteer worker came up with the idea of playing a recording of her husband’s harmonica performance.
Amazingly, she began eating again, but it did not last long. Maybe she knew that it was only a recording. Three weeks later, she quietly passed away.
May is the month of families, and Koreans are constantly reminded of love as a married couple, like that of Kim and Jeong, or love for their parents and children. The central and local governments host various festivals to celebrate the month.
The Ministry of Health, Welfare and Family Affairs awarded medals and prizes to 184 people on Thursday in commemoration of Parents’ Day. Of them, 126 received awards for their devotion to their parents, and 14 were honored for their love of their children.
The Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism also held an award ceremony for “Great Mothers of Artists 2008.” The 74-year-old mother of movie director Kang Je-kyu was noted as supporting her son by selling fruit at a street market, according to the report from the ministry. The 94-year-old mother of poet Sung Choon-buk was noted for her passion, reading one literary book a week even at her age.
The stories about family and love are touching, but I cannot deny that I got an unpleasant and uncomfortable feeling from listening to those stories. They reminded me that a significant number of people have walked the path of sacrifice, whether they volunteered for it or not.
The 55-year-old housewife Jeong Ae-sun, who was awarded a Camellia Medal for an Order of Civil Merit, is an example. While she supported her mother-in-law, who is suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, and her mother, who is physically ill, Jeong worked extremely hard as a paid laborer, a street vendor and an ice seller. Jeong also raised seven daughters, one of whom was a cancer patient.
She is a superwoman.
Is our society guilty of attempting to avoid responsibility for having let a single person, often a woman, bear the enormous burden of supporting parents and children by themselves? Is an award given after her years of service anything but an attempt to assuage our guilt? Aren’t we guilty of pushing women into the sea as a sacrifice and feeling relieved?
In “Samguk Yusa,” or “Legends and History of the Three Kingdoms of Ancient Korea,” the story of Son Sun appears. Because Son’s child always grabbed bits of food away from his aged grandmother to feed himself, Son tried to kill his child by burying him alive, the story said.
As if the story was not horrible enough, sons, daughters-in-law and wives of the Joseon Era were forced to sacrifice themselves in even more cruel ways.
During that period, a son cut flesh from his thighs to feed his parents during a famine. It was a social norm for a wife to commit suicide after her husband died.
“Samgang Haengsildo,” or the “Conduct of the Three Bonds,” which features the stories of loyalists, devoted sons and chaste women, is better suited to a different title — the book of horror.
Our society has changed drastically since then, but we still find relics of the Joseon Era in our society.
We need a tight welfare network so that needy families will no longer have to rely on individuals’ sacrifices to support parents and children.
The situation is already serious. In the place of Korea’s urban women, many foreign migrant wives are walking the forced path of sacrifice in rural farming and fishing villages around the nation.
*The writer is the senior culture and sports editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Noh Jae-hyun