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Looking for a New Year to sing for: Minorities in Korea

Looking for a New Year to sing for: Minorities in Korea

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Published : 2013-12-27 20:34
Updated : 2013-12-27 20:34

Filipino workers celebrate Christmas and the coming New Year at the Shinmok Community Welfare Center on Dec. 15 in southern Seoul. (Shinmok Community Welfare Center)

The New Year is about wishing for a better year, or perhaps, about repeating a good one. But it is also about saying goodbye and letting go of the year past.

For those on what some call the outskirts of Korean society, however, sending away the year means, for the most part, wanting a better year than the one gone by.

And so, for these minorities ― North Koreans living in the South, foreign laborers who work in Korea’s burgeoning factories, or 20-somethings striving to beat over-competitive national exams, for example ― New Year celebrations connote much more than they do to others.

Kwon Ryu-youn, 41 years old, came to South Korea in 2001 after surviving four years of living as a North Korea escapee in China. Members of her family escaped the North after her elder brother was sent to one of the infamous political gulags in the authoritarian country.

North Korea escapees living in the South do not have family to see, and so, they make do with what they have.

Kwon’s plan is to spend the holiday season with new friends who have also come from the North and do not have family to see.

Her son attends a special school called the Kuensaem School, designed to help North Korean students adjust to school life in the South. It is there that pre-teen students from the North gather to study, and also where older, former North Koreans gather to celebrate the going of the year and the coming of the new.

“It’s nothing much, but we’re planning to have a present-exchange ceremony and the like, and eat dinner together,” said Kwon.

The holiday season however does remind Kwon of her brother that much more.

“Why would I not think of him (her brother)?” she says. “But you know, there’s just no way of really communicating with him. I just have that inkling in my mind that he’s all right and alive.”

On the other corner of society are those whom Korea calls “foreign laborers” ― a term that doesn’t necessarily reflect the realities of those who sometimes work for less-than minimum wage and receive worse-than flattering treatment.

But even for them the year-end is a time to sit down and relax, at least for a bit.

At the Shinmok Community Welfare Center in Seoul, municipal community workers organize an annual end-of-the-year party at which foreign workers get together to lessen the hardship of being away from home during the holidays.

They sing and perform traditional songs and dances at the center while Koreans provide magic shows and food in return. Around 60 foreign factory workers attended the event at the Shinmok welfare center this year on Dec. 15.

“It’s difficult to gather all these people even with the New Year coming along, because most of them work six days a week,” said Cho Eun-ae, one of the city officials in charge of this year’s event.

This year’s end-of-the-year party denotes much more to some of the foreign workers gathered at Shinmok because they are from the Philippines, where a monster typhoon ravaged parts of the country, killing more than 6,000.

“These events provide some much-needed psychological support to people who are lonely and tired from work,” said Cho.

But a year-end celebration doesn’t have to be a gathering of people with food and music. For some, it is a time to simply keep on going.

In a country where government jobs are still much-coveted, hundreds of thousands of Korean youths apply for an annual Senior Civil Service Exam.

In fact, it is not uncommon to see 20-something test takers invest several years of their lives to prepare for these government exams. There’s even a social moniker reserved for them ― “gosi-saengs” ― which literally means “government exam takers.”

The New Year for gosi-saengs, is simply another opportunity to qualify through the national test.

“I’m really hoping I’ll pass this year, but I’ll give it one more shot after this one if I have to,” said Kim Junghwan, a 24-year-old college graduate. This is Kim’s second try at the civil service exam.

“I just keep doing what I do. I write on top of my weekly scheduler ‘Qualify or bust’ every week, to keep myself motivated and focused,” he says.

Because according to Kim, “Maybe, this year will be the year.”

By Jeong Hunny (hj257@heraldcorp.com)

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