[Viewpoint]Beautiful bovines

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[Viewpoint]Beautiful bovines

You worked for 30 years at one place for the same master. If you did not get along with that master, it would have been like hell on earth, but that wasn’t the case. The master did not talk to you much, but communicated with gestures and eye contact. At daybreak, when it’s still dark, the master begins his day by preparing your breakfast. You are literally a part of the family. You go work with the master in the morning and return home together at the end of the day. Your life and destiny are tied to the master. When the master gets old and decides to retire, no one will take you. If you get sick and cannot work, the master has to stop working as well.

The master is a crippled man, but he hardly takes a break. He has been working diligently since he was young, and you take after him. You don’t know how to slack off or act mean. When a newcomer wants to take all the food and gets jealous, you don’t fight. You are just thankful that the master grasps the situation and rebukes the newcomer. It is very rare to find such thoughtful masters and faithful workers in today’s workplaces.

And the worker here is not a person but a cow featured in the documentary film, “Old Partner,” released last month. The cow worked with an octogenarian farmer in Bonghwa, North Gyeongsang. So far, over 100,000 have seen the film, a surprising box office record for a low-budget documentary with no star billing and not many advertisements. It is a big hit for a Korean independent film. Old Partner opened in only seven theaters, but now it is playing on nearly 30 screens.

When I watched this film at its premiere at the end of last year, tears came to my eyes. The life of the cow was so poignant. I felt sorry watching the old cow taking slow steps as it pulled a grass-filled wagon. I dwelled on the movie’s meaning, and thought it would be hard to find a life as valuable as the cow’s. In general, a cow’s lifespan is 20 years, but this one was 40 years old. If it was a man, it would be a great blessing for an old man to have a job and still be able to work at such an age. In fact, it is so easy to find young men with college degrees who still struggle to land jobs.

In a slow economy, living like the cow is not an easy dream to achieve. In particular, you cannot hope to work for the same company all your life, like the cow in the documentary. There’s not much room for small self-managed farming families made up of an old couple and a cow in today’s economy. Agriculture is increasingly a corporate and global industry today.

Maybe Old Partner is a eulogy to things that are disappearing. Praise for the hard labor of the cow and his master and their deep partnership and affection reverberate during a time when people are suffering from the economic slump.

When the economy is sluggish, corporate restructuring is a natural step to take. It is more important than anything to improve the structure of a company and enhance its competitiveness. However, at the same time, it is equally important to provide stable jobs and create new ones to make sure people appreciate the meaning of labor. In our export-driven economy, the domestic market makes up a relatively small part, but at this point, the domestic market has added importance. Last year, the country’s exports fell by a far bigger margin than expected. We now need to have a good cycle domestically so people can earn money to spend.

Cows have always been familiar animals, but not necessarily ones we highly praise. Idioms like “horses follow wherever cows go” and “like the dogs and the cows,” put down cows as a symbol of mediocrity. While people as clever as foxes get ahead, those who are as simple and faithful as cows are sneered at. But the people who don’t resort to tricks and work hard are the force that keeps society running stably.

The year 2009 is the year of ox. I hope we are blessed enough to live like cows.


The writer is a reporter for the JoongAng Sunday. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Lee Hoo-nam

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