My grandmother was to end her few months of vacation to back to South Africa.
“Wish Ma farewell” said my dad. My grandma was waiting outside my Uncle's house to take some final pictures before getting into the car to drive to LAX.
"First pose for the picture" said my dad as he picks up the dog. We pose for the picture and my grandma starts to cry. I know what she is thinking.
"Grandma don't worry, we will see you again."
"Ok...be a good boy. Don't tag. Don't follow bad boys. God will guide you." She doesn't believe me that I'll see her again. She thinks that she doesn't have a lot of time left and we don't have set plans to fly down and visit.
After I graduated high school, I flew down to South Africa with my brother, mom, and dad. After arriving"I told you I'd see you again" I say smiling cheekily. Yeah I teared up too. She smiles back at me and then we get ready to have dinner at my cousin’s house.
Ma is a term that my family uses to describe my grandmother on my dad’s side. Although it means mother, I call my own mom Ba, which means mother in Gujarati. My cousin’s learned to call her Rani Ma, which means Queen Mother. My grandmother was a great woman. To me the world Ma held a lot of power within itself so I preferred to call her Ma. We cared for our Ma. She was lucky. She had multiple children and was able to travel to and from their houses and feel the love. As a result, she had many grandchildren who loved her the same. She truly was a Queen in that sense.
Here in Korea, some senior citizens are strong and fit. I have seen elderly people who are very healthy and look like they can take care of themselves, while some are being cared for by their families. Many elderly Koreans hike on a regular basis as a form of exercise and man can they hike!
In a lot of ethnicities, one of the family’s duties is to care and respect the elderly, but as I have lived in Korea and traveled around to different countries around Asia, I have seen an increasing amount of elderly people who are living in problematic conditions. Here, I have seen elderly people selling vegetables or trinkets at subway stations in hope of making ends meet. Some are hunched over, walking unaccompanied, and carrying their own supplies in a single cart. I don’t know who is homeless and there is a common joke among children here that all of the vagabonds live in the Seoul Subway Station. Echoing Elise Hu, who is the NPR’s International Correspondent for Seoul; it seems that if the government has lost “...the Confucian tradition of younger generations of taking care of their parents has faded,” then the same could be said for the entire country. Shocking statistics show that pension is given to only 35% of senior citizens, which only amounts to 25% of the income that they need (around $200 a month). Many senior citizens who are not fortunate with families who are taking care of them are forced to work.
In the U.S. it is less of an elderly problem, but more of an issue for immigrants because these are some of the only jobs immigrants can have without being documented. Some immigrants in the United States are essentially living in the same conditions that the poor and elderly are experiencing in Korea. Imagine who cleans up all of the aluminum cans at UCSB in Isla Vista's Del Playa street after all of the partying. Someone in a truck hauling recyclables, or someone else walking house to house with a garbage back to pick up recyclables in order to trade them in for a small dividend. I remember this happening as well at UCLA. In the early hours of the morning the same thing would happen throughout all of the streets near the apartments or fraternity rows. We spend a night of drinking and destroying a street due to some holiday or event and these people are the ones who clean it up. Some argue that we are providing them with a job, but in actuality they are trying to find a way to make an honest living while we are just dumping trash on the floor as if recycling is a job for second class citizens. These are not second class citizens; they are mothers or fathers who have spent a great deal of effort to overcome many hurdles in life that we do not even know about. According to Asia Pacific, Catherine Lee and Lam Shushan interviewed an 81-year old grandmother who picks up recyclables for a living. After a full day’s work of searching and picking up 100 kilograms of trash to the recycling plant, the most she makes is about ₩10,000 or $12. Living off of twelve dollars a day doesn't make ends meet in the U.S or Korea.
More from Lam Shushan’s article shows that there are a variety of concerns with the elderly. Some problems are caused by the government, economy, or society. Since the early 1970s, South Korea has been industrializing and work culture has been widespread. South Korea has recovered from many setbacks. Shushan mentions the Japanese Occupation, the Korean War, and the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis. It’s been amazing that they have experienced all of this and become such a rich economy, but who has suffered as a result of this? After the 1997 Crisis, around 2,000,000 Koreans were unemployed. It’s 2017, twenty years later and now the unemployment rate is 10.4% for people ages 18-65 and age discrimination is felt in the workplace. The older generation is being forced to retire early and younger and cheaper workers are filling their places. This is ideal for companies because it’s cost effective and in Korean society it’s seen as mandatory to follow whatever your boss dictates without question. If you think Yes-Men in the United States are scary, wait till you see what people are capable of doing in other countries due to the mishaps of following orders from superiors.
According to Kwak Jung-soo’s article on Hani.com the writer states that “...at South Korean conglomerates, the head of a conglomerate wields absolute authority and is not replaced no matter how grievous his…” or her mistakes are. It's ironic that these CEOs are elderly, but their business practices could care less for the well-being of older workers. Back in 2014, Heather Cho (the daughter of Cho Yang-Ho CEO of Korean Airlines) ordered a flight to taxi back to Incheon airport because she was dissatisfied with how she was served nuts. Can you imagine the audacity? *GASP* The "do you know who I am? My father is the CEO" spiel. Long story short she had to resign from one of her many executive positions from Korean Airlines. Never mind she could have endangered the lives of the passengers or breached airport procedures etc. The amount of power that's in the hands of these CEOs, family members, and friends is shocking. Who is suffering the most as a result of these management or governing styles?
Now after all these years, the Korean Baby Boomer Generation is swallowing their pride after having built much of South Korea’s infrastructure and economy only be abandoned. The South Korean government has chosen to only give pension to the elderly who do not have surviving children. It is assumed that the children will take care of them, even when they don’t. Another reason is that the elderly have too much pride. The breadwinners are supposed to be the parents. What happens when your children make more money than you do and leave you because of a falling out, feeling ashamed, or hatred based on how you used to treat them? Will you still be able to ask them for help? Many of these seniors would rather work until they succumb from a disease or illness.
According to an article written by Desmond Le from Channel News Asia, some elderly women have even resorted to prostitution as a means to pay for medicine or living expenses. Professor Lee Ho Sun goes on to explain that the government knows about the problem, but is only providing regulation instead of a solution. Why is this the case for so many issues in the governments around the world? They acknowledge a problem, but choose not to do anything about it. Money is usually the issue. South Korea makes a lot of money, but the money is controlled by a business conglomerate known as the Chaebols. I highly doubt that the parents of these beneficiaries are left to pick up trash and recyclables on the street for a living.
Elderly neglect is not only happening in Korea. After reading an article about Myanmar, it made me really sad to find out that many family members of senior citizens abandoned their elderly in brutal ways. One was abandoned by the side of the road by her own family because she had a stroke and had trouble breathing. She was 75 at the time. Why are people doing this? There are over 120 senior citizens living at this care facility called the Twilight Villa. As for Myanmar, years of war and conflict have plunged the country into extreme poverty. For countries such as this one, is the solution easy? No, unfortunately the harsh truth is that it is easier to fix problems in wealthy countries first. The issues that are happening in wealthy countries are absurd as they are, but can be solved in order to solve other global problems after recovering themselves.
What can be done to help this? Taxes already go into social security and public facilities, but laws can be changed. This would result in an increase of taxpayer’s contributions to government assisted programs. If I were a Korean citizen I would happily pay into additional tax programs if it meant the money assisting my grandparents, programs for the homeless, mentally challenged, or less fortunate would go toward a goal to end these problems. Another question would be; how does one change a law to fix a problem that the government doesn't care about? The price on taking care of elderly shouldn't be a concern especially because most people are family oriented. In the U.S. nuclear family tends to be more important than extended family, while abroad extended family holds the same importance. How much do we value our elderly relatives well-being? What moral excuse can be made for elderly people living below the poverty level in developed countries?