Total Articles 18
The original article, “내 인생의 선택”, was published in Ildaro in June 11 2008 and translated by Cho, Yeon Soo of KUMSN. If you have any question, please contact Seung-hee Han of the Korean Unwed Mothers Support Network.
My Life Decisions
Kwok Sook-Hee lives on as a single mom
Reporer- Ms. Choe Yi, Yeo Wool
“It turns out there really are ghosts.”
Out of the blue, Kwok Sook-Hee begins to talk about her experiences on death’s doorstep. It was during her time as an international aid worker in East Timor, seven years ago. She was infected by a mosquito and fell ill with dengue hemorrhagic fever, a life-threatening febrile disease. To make things worse, she also contracted typhoid fever, and the chance of survival was deemed unlikely.
They were ghosts—specifically, ones that appear in Korean folklore as escorts from the underworld—that guided Sook-Hee away, saying that they had a long journey ahead. Before her were not just one, but two of these escorts, an Eastern one and a Western one as well.
“They told me that we had to go to Siberia, but when we had gotten to China and had stopped briefly, I opened my eyes. I was lying in a hospital, and next to me was a nurse whose job was to take care of patients on the brink of death. The two ghosts were watching me from outside the window. When I screamed, the nurse explained that there was no one there. Later, I saw that there was no space for anyone to be standing there.”
Sook-Hee adds that she would have died if she had gone all the way to Siberia, as she nonchalantly unravels her ghost story. She throws in that Koreans seem to have something like a shared spiritual unconscious.
A single mom at 40
We can steal a glimpse at the type of person Sook-Hee is from the fact that, even after such an encounter with death, she returned to the workplace in East Timor, instead of heading back to Korea.
“When I asked if I could go back to East Timor, the doctor told me to go ahead, telling me that since I’ve already escaped death once, I could probably somehow survive anything else that may come my way.”
From this time on, a new chapter opened up in Sook-hee’s life. She says that the images that passed by her at death’s doorstep, and the thoughts that arose in the brief moment in which she was conscious, caused her life to transform.
Sook-Hee, who majored in Western philosophy while she was studying abroad in Germany, says that “there was a time in my life when I was deeply impressed by rationality and logic, but it turns out that life is full of circumstances that have nothing to do with logic.” This is why she tends to believe in a person’s fortunes or fate, as well as karma, and she has been gradually moving toward a Buddhist value system.
Perhaps due to some fate or karma, there Sook-Hee fell passionately in love. He was Indian, and thirteen years younger than her. Wow, thirteen years? As I attempt to fathom his age, Sook-Hee interrupts. “In Korea there is much talk about age with relationships, but in other places it’s not so important, you know.”
“Because he drew close to me, I didn’t refuse,” and “because I wanted to have a baby, I got pregnant,” she says. But since the father of the child wanted neither marriage nor parenthood, Sook-Hee made the decision to have the baby by herself.
Sook-Hee probably never before thought that she would become a single mother. She says that even the desire to have a child was, “in [her] twenties, unthinkable.” As to why such a person would so ardently want to have a child at the age of 40, the reasons are not clear. What is important is that as a result of that decision, Sook-Hee feels tremendous happiness, even though difficulties do exist.
“When I hold my child, I feel solace. It’s as if he is holding me tight, rather than me holding him.”
Because I cannot decide for my child
Perhaps it’s her forthright manner, but everything that’s happened around Kwok Sook-Hee seems to have worked itself out with ease. It also all seems quite amusing.
But in Korean society, where matrimony is still considered a human duty, and which has yet to free itself from the illusion of being “a racially homogeneous nation,” this child—a product of a foreign male and Sook-Hee, who has become a mother without marrying—is not “normal.” Considering the way in which our society treats people who aren’t “normal,” it isn’t hard to predict that there will be plenty of inconvenient situations to come for this child.
Sook-Hee isn’t one to worry herself over what’s to come. She also doesn’t worry on behalf of her child. Instead, she is more the type to take things one at a time.
Because the government does not provide any support for childcare, for the most part, Sook-Hee has been receiving help from her parents. What was psychologically harder on Sook-Hee was her relationship with the child’s biological father. Although Sook-Hee alone holds the parental rights to the child, she has made the decision to allow time for her child and the father to be able to meet across borders. In order for her to come to this decision, Sook-Hee says that she had to go through some travels. The inner conflicts must have been great.
“Just because my relationship with the father has ended, it doesn't mean that the relationship between him and my child has to end. If I only think about myself, it would be convenient for my child not to have any relationship with the father, but I cannot decide that for my child.”
“I wish that diverse ideas can be accepted.”
On the day that I met with Sook-Hee, she was packing her bags again. She was heading off to Afghanistan this time. As a single mother, this could only be a bold decision. She would not only have to live apart from her child, but she would also be throwing away, at a time like this, a “golden job” that doesn’t dismiss anyone, and making a fresh attempt.
As she explains that she is striving to arrange an opportunity to live together with her child, she adds that “it just seems to be in my nature.” Going abroad, after all, must be in her nature. As she says, perhaps it is because she was born in the year of the Tiger, that out of all the places in the world, she manages to travel to only the most rugged ones.
But a big reason that led her to make this kind of choice is that she really didn't care to go on living within Korean society. Here she felt as if she were “becoming a fool.” “If you work hard, you should be recognized for it, and if you don’t [work hard], you should know to take responsibility for the consequences that follow. In Korean society, however, there doesn’t seem to be anything like that. A person who works hard is a fool. It is “wiser” to do things in a cursory manner, and you have to be calculating.”
What’s more is that, to a person with such an unreserved and unfettered personality, a family institution that refuses to recognize diversity, and a narrow perspective that refuses to recognize different ideas, must have been like shackles, clamping down on her.
Sook-Hee remarks that what she wants in family is not strong blood relations, but a community in which each person has an individual space and is capable of being “apart and together,” in a responsible way. “I wish that diverse ideas can be accepted,” she adds. “[Here] I feel that I am looked at as a strange person. I just wish that I can receive respect with my existence alone.”