South Korea went from being one of the poorest countries on Earth to the world’s tenth largest economy in less than 70 years. Korea has almost all the luxuries of American life, plus benefits my home country lacks: universal healthcare, cute school supplies, and extensive food delivery that UberEats only dreams of being.
But seventy years is not a long time and even through through the Miracle on the Han River, age cannot be hidden.
American culture seems almost ashamed of the elderly– put them in nursing homes until they are forgotten. I never really saw age until I got to Korea.
In spite of the massive economic growth, sparkling chrome skyscrapers, and never-ending construction, Korea still has a touch of the old country left.
There are women who probably lived through the war, their backs bent unforgivably towards the ground like a comma, their canes the only thing keeping them from falling forward entirely. I see women with bow legs and out-turned feet that just don’t look quite right. I see women so small and wrinkled but still selling vegetables or carting a rickshaw towered high with collected cardboard. Occasionally there are old men, skin so weathered and thick that I can’t see their eyes; missing arms or legs; arguments in sign language with their friends on the subway.
They live until they die.
They also don’t have a choice: Korea’s social security system wasn’t developed until later and many elder Koreans live in poverty while also having an extremely high suicide rate.
I look at some women and wonder if they lived through Japanese enslavement, separation from their family at the 38th parallel, the Gwangju massacre. I wonder if they are filled with a hundred years of knowledge, or if they would just tell me I need to get married.
They say aging is a privilege. To see it is another entirely.