[Outlook]Lights for the young

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[Outlook]Lights for the young

Chuseok fell in late summer this year, although it usually comes in early autumn. But nowadays it’s cooler in the mornings and at night, so it is pleasant to be outdoors. On Friday night last week when I came home from work, my son wanted to go outside and play baseball.

We grabbed a ball and went to a playground at a nearby school. I was tired but I followed him without complaining, because it’s better for him to be out doing some exercise than to be playing computer games or reading comic books.

It was eight o’clock and it was dark. But many people were still jogging around the playground’s perimeter. In one corner of the basketball court, some middle and high school boys were playing a game of pickup. It was amazing they could still play when it was dark enough for it to be difficult to even recognize each others’ faces. A sign near the court declared that using the court after 10 o’clock at night wasn’t allowed because it would disturb the neighbors.

The kids were only able to catch the dark shape of the ball with the help of a streetlight nearby. I once again thought that the human body’s ability to adapt to its environment is unbelievable. It was like being in a dark movie theater - you can’t see anything at first, but after a while your eyes get used to the darkness and you can make out what is around you.

Our growing youths are full of energy, yet they have to devote most of their time to studying because they were born in a country where education is the top priority and parents are anxious to send them to a good university.

It was good to see them get out and break a sweat on the basketball court. Later, they would go home, take a shower and sleep well that night.

But at the same time, I felt ashamed of the world that we grown-ups had made for them, where they had to exercise in such a bad environment. Other sports facilities for youths across the country would be more or less the same.

I’ve become farsighted lately because of my age, but I tried my best to catch the baseball. Still, in the end my glasses ended up getting broken, and I had to have them fixed the next day.

For a short while I imagined that I was a teenage school boy. The playgrounds have shrunk, and if it rains during physical education class, students stay inside the school and study on their own. I stay after school to study, or go to a library to study on my own or to a private institute to take extra classes.

What do I do in the evening? Can I watch a Korean TV show that is not only popular here but also in other Asian countries? What sport can I play in this nation that ranked seventh in the Beijing Olympic Games and second among Asian countries?

There are hardly any places to exercise. Even if I want to play basketball at night, there are no lights to do it by.

What can I do on the weekend? There are not many parks where I can bike or in-line skate. I want to bike to a park by a river that runs near where I live, but there is no bike path to get there by. I was so moved to see our table tennis players in the Olympics that I wanted to go play myself, but it isn’t easy to find a place to do so. There’s no space to put up a fold-up table.

As our country is an IT leader, the best way to spend leisure time is to play computer games or watch sports on a high definition TV. If I were a girl, I wouldn’t be able to think of a sport I could play. I wonder how the Korean women’s handball team did so well in the Games. Our youths’ physical strength has weakened, despite the fact that they have become taller and heavier. We learned the axiom, “A sound mind in a sound body,” but it was just one more thing to memorize for the university entrance exam.

I suddenly become envious of the United States, where I studied. Brightly lit public basketball courts and baseball diamonds are common in every city there.

Korea’s state budget for 2008 is 256 trillion won ($210 billion). The local governments’ budgets must be enormous as well. The money will be spent on new industries that will serve as future growth engines, new highways to ease traffic jams and new apartment buildings on former greenbelt areas. There is a long list of things to spend the money on, so there will be hardly any left to put up lights in playgrounds for middle and high school students.

I can almost hear the clamor of our children, who don’t yet have the right to vote. The most important investment we can make is in people. As technology has improved, it is possible to have street lights that consume only half the energy of ordinary lamps, while shining twice as brightly. The government should take an interest in small investments to improve the quality of life of our younger generations.

One wonders if the government will fix up the sidewalks again this winter when trying to come up with ways to spend the leftovers of the budget.

*The writer is a professor of the School of Chemical and Biological Engineering at Seoul National University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Yoon Je-yong
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