Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Aging in the Rural Regions

When traveling in the southern areas of Korea, a more rustic and cheerful ambiance greets my eyes. The big city bustle with the domain of personal autonomy and individuality is left behind. There, business people, busy housewives, career women and the noisy youth surge on sidewalks and race to appointments. In contrast, the streets of towns are filled with the elderly as the vast majority of youth have migrated to Seoul for better educational opportunities (a typical view in Korea is that the big cities, especially Seoul, can actually provide better education than the outlying areas. And then once people are actually in Seoul, they vie to live in the "best" neighborhoods - "best" is defined as having schools with high reputations.) So in the towns and rural precincts the elderly predominate. I love to watch their vigor and bustle in the marketplaces, or, like the pictures below, at the staggered bus stops where they gather after doing their "town shopping" so they can take their goods back to their countryside residences.

After getting off the bus at their village marker - usually a stone with the village name - the women totter home. Don't kid yourself in thinking they are weak for quite the contrary is true. From their years and years of work washing clothes by hand, doing intensive gardening by hand, and other demanding physical labor, their hands are thick with hardened muscle and their grips are like vices! Just a decade or two ago when the Korean society was more of a collective society, huge cookware and giant tea kettles were mainstream items. At many a Korean home during those decades I witnessed the mothers and yes, many of the grandmothers, grabbing the handle of a near-full giant tea kettle with one hand and pour me a glass of hot water without quivering the kettle. My eyes bugged and they bugged even more when I tried to do it and had to steady the kettle with the other hand and a quiver could still be detected. But the aging women do totter. Years of bending over planting and working in the rice fields has made many of their backs malformed, but thankfully the dowager's back is seen less and less often nowadays because intensive rice farming is done by machinery in the present, which is better for the women's health but has the downside of not requiring the man- or woman-power at the home site. And so the youth are free to pursue education for education is the step out of the farmhouse and into "success" in society, or so the viewpoint goes.

Living in a somewhat remote village where aging people dominate is physically taxing. With no young hands to take over the work, the elderly are condemned to forever work. In the traditional days, the elderly were revered and it was the younger people who respected and obeyed the older members of families, villages and society in general. The white hairs were hairs representative of experiences and wisdom. Those days are sadly gone. Before they were expected to "enjoy" their aging years; now they just continue working. The irony here is while sons and daughters are in the cities making money and where grandsons and granddaughters are being educated, the rural home is just a vacation place, a getaway from the big polluted city, a place where the aging folks diligently and painstakingly raise "healthy" uncontaminated food which they give to their children and grandchildren as parting gifts when they return to the big cities.

Here, the little woman on the right has lost her vigor but she still helps as she can. Her task at hand, or rather "at foot", is to turn the rice so that it can dry speedily for putting into winter storage. The woman below is properly covered to block the sun's harmful rays, that is, from making her skin "black", the term for "sun tanned". Black skin was in traditional times the sign of a lower-class worker, a peasant (not pejorative like in western societies as they were free and often were land-owners; they just were not of the scholarly class who could maintain "white" skin). This woman, as do all women when working outside, cover their faces and hands to prevent the "blackening" of their skin. This includes always wearing long-sleeved clothing when going outdoors at any time, even on the hottest days. Actually, if you were to go to the ajumma (married lady) floor in a department store, even in summer the majority of clothing has long sleeves - just a culture reflection on a people-group still tied to a more conservative time period in Korea.

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