Tuesday, January 15, 2013

The "Big Issue" Magazine in Korea

A presentation given by two of my students in Academic Writing. The topic was a social or environmental issue, and it was a research assignment. This presentation is on the growing number of homeless and one of the most proactive methods for dealing with the social issue. And thank you, Jeon Eunji and Bang Jiwon for presenting on this topic AND for allowing me to publish it for others to learn from.
The number of homeless is growing in Korea and has become a social issue. [I might add that I've seen the homeless huddled in cardboard boxes and in many subway and bus stations since I came to Korea in 1991 but only recently has the 'problem' become recognized as a social issue. Korea has become a country that talks a lot about Human Rights, and I'm glad that the homeless are now getting more in the media as a minority of people often forced into their homeless circumstances due to a series of unpreventable circumstances.]
[Unlike this chart suggests that there are more homeless people in very recent times, they are not evident like they were a few years ago. The reason being for that is that at many subway stations where the homeless were known to sleep a few years back, the homeless are no longer allowed to rest there ... because they looked dirty to passing people and the downtown commercial area doesn't want to admit that there is a sharp disparity between the 'haves' and the 'have nots'. The 'have nots' are of course dirty because they have not a home, and therefore, have not regular access to soap and water; and because they are bad for commercial business, they are told to go elsewhere and the city has made rulings as such. However, those "elsewhere" places are becoming fewer and fewer. From what I gathered by watching the homeless in Chonggak station, line 1, until a few short years ago, the homeless were not allowed until I believe after 9pm or 10pm to start taping up cardboard boxes for their nights 'bedroom'. About four years ago, they were told Chonggak is no longer a place for the homeless to either beg or sleep, and I saw policemen enforcing this by nudging and nudging an old woman to get up and move away ... she was so so tired, and her begging before sleeping was only generating a few coins in her plastic sieve basket. This chart shows that the number of homeless drastically increased in 2011, but my question, where are the 20,000 staying, especially as most of the homeless are said to be in Seoul?]
[When I was doing research on the elderly in Korea a few years ago, I spoke with one 'beggar' and he responded! Actually, as I understand it, beggars beg at the same place every day; it's like they own it. Years back many beggars similarly used to be "owned" by keepers of some kind who would give them a simple room and basic foods and needs and of course take all their "earnings" at the end of every day ... or so some students in Kwangji in 1991-2 explained to me. One of my colleagues back in 1991 actually saw a black-suited man with massive rings and a cane (all secure statements reflecting his financial status of the time) beating a beggar with his cane and shouting! My colleague asked her student what he was saying, and the student was ashamed and didn't want to say. Finally, he said that the man was shouting, "You're not acting poor enough! You've gotta act poorer!" For the next several years I kept my eyes sharp for beggars and tried to decipher their demeanor and create their stories. If I ever said, "Hi" or anything to them, I never ever got a response until an old man with diabetes just opened up and started talking! It was an amazing revelation to a "have not" lifestyle.
The problem is, people don't talk at all about beggars anymore, just step around them and go their own way. But when my translator and I were talking to that old man, a LOT of people looked at us .. and at him, and a few paused and listened a bit to what the guy was saying to that foreigner! This particular beggar had looked up, which is odd for a beggar. He didn't have the demeanor or attitude of a typical beggar either, so I asked him, "Grandfather, why are you here?" And surprisingly, he started talking! That's never happened before! Understanding the elderly with their older vocab and their gapped mouths or ceramic teeth is HARD! and since I had my translator with me for doing research, and she was a very compassionate person, we both encountered a very sad story. Sometimes we think we're being taken down the river by a long tale, but this guy seemed very credible!
He said that he had bad diabetes, terrible teeth problems, and so many aches and pains. He was 86 and his wife a few years younger but crippled by arthritis so badly that she had to crawl on the floor to move anywhere. Their son had committed suicide in his early 20s and their daughter had died of some kind of sudden heart problem just before she was to be wed. That was all their children. They had lost their home in the Korean War and had had horrendous financial and health issues since. They had no one to support them in their old age, and the old man praised former president Kim Dae Jung for giving elderly people like himself and his wife, who had no children, a tiny room to live in and a simple allowance (W400,000/mth). The simple allowance was not suitable to meet their health needs or get better food for his wife, so one day a week he would go out to different subway entrances to beg. He had to move around to the different subway entrances because other beggars or people would tell him that place was for someone else or just tell him to move. He told us on begging days he might earn W10,000 or on a particularly lucky day W20,000. Every little bit helped! Sometimes he sold gum, but usually he just begged.]
[Ideally as the proverb goes, "you can give a man a fish or make him a fisherman", empowering the homeless and making him or her capable of generating some of his/her own income can result in fostering a sense of self pride, which is the BIG ISSUE and at the same time stabilizing an escalating social problem. And so the magazine "Big Issue" is for the homeless to sell to generate a little income.]
[The "Big Issue" is fairly new to Korea, and is an important introduction for the rising numbers of homeless people. With 20,000 estimated homeless people in Korea, their condition could be a drain on the finances of the city ... except that I rather doubt the city puts much financing into their problem. However, by giving the homeless the right to sell a magazine (I've never read it and don't know the genre), they are giving them (1) something to do, and empowering them to achieve their own monetary gains rather than being dependent on a faltering social class, whether from tax handouts or coin handouts for the beggaring. Therefore, by selling the magazine, the homeless will achieve a sense of self esteem and personal pride in what they CAN do for themselves. Selling the "Big Issue" is a win-win situation for both marketer and seller.]
[So, for the homeless to sell the magazine, they have to observe 10 rules. Actually the handful of people I've seen selling this magazine, seem to be very proactive. One guy near my university stands often in a cold breezeway of a subway exit, either above ground or on really cold days, just below ground. He smiles, greets many people with "Hello" and always has the most cheerful shining smile. He's pleasant, and he is the reason I asked my two students for permission to post this. Until this presentation I was unaware that only the homeless could sell the "Big Issue" and a sizable percent of the cost is take home pay, or reinvestment pay in order to continue selling the next day. I had heard rumor about what the magazine was for, but now that I understand it's purpose (I still don't know the content). I want to tell others, and hopefully others will then understand the homeless people trying to recover their self esteem and gain some stability. I hope people will also give the homeless smiles, shake their hands and commend them for their work, and this tiny social support will encourage the homeless to gradually metamorphose back to mainstream society; of course buying a magazine helps with their financial metamorphosis too! Every little bit helps, and that human touch and consideration helps a LOT!]
[So only the first 10 copies are free to the homeless. Supposedly that gives the sellers a little money to start their little business of buying and selling so they an ever-increase their sales.]
["Big Issue" wants to give a reputable name to itself and so the times and places in which it is sold are regulated. Only 40 sites in Seoul are currently where the "Big Issue" is sold, and the times are equally fixed about when the magazine is sold. I'm not really sure but selling hours seem to correspond with evening rush hour, and so some sense is made. Also, by establishing a fixed time for selling, which I believe might be one of the rules of selling, the homeless are prevented from extreme ranges of "clocked labor". The message being given by establishing this magazine for only the homeless to sell is to GIVE RESPECT to the workers and to ENGENDER SELF RESPECT in the selling. I really dig this message!]
Thank you Jeon Eunji and Bang Jiwon for letting me post this here for others to learn from also!

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