By PARK CHAN KYONG
A market stall owner who had always wanted to read, has donated more than RM5mil so that children from poor families can go to school.
AS a child, Yoo Yang-Seon loved to read, but her father believed educating women was a waste of time and punished her with a whipping whenever he found her with a book.
Now the 75-year-old works 18 hours a day running her stall in a Seoul fish market, so that she can give some of today’s economically-deprived children the education and opportunities she was denied.
For the past 25 years she has sent books and funded scholarships for children in schools and orphanages, with total donations estimated at US$1.6mil (RM 5.1mil).
Clad in a yellow rubber apron that earned her the nickname “Yellow Grandma’’, Yoo sells jut, a fermented and salted fish condiment for the national dish kimchi, at Noryangjin Market in the South Korean capital.
“When I was a child, my dream was to immerse myself in reading books all day. But, this dream was never achieved because of poverty and discrimination against women,” she said, while being interrupted by customers seeking what she proudly terms “the best jut in the world”.
Born to a subsistence-level farming family in Seosan county, 100 km (62 miles) southwest of Seoul, Yoo and four other children toiled from an early age, working in the potato field, weaving hemp and cotton clothes, and tending silkworms.
She attended elementary school, thanks to her mother. But her father believed a woman’s role was to obey her husband, work hard, cook and bear sons.
When he caught her reading, he whipped her, but she persisted. On one occasion he grabbed her book and notebook and threw them into a manure tank.
“At those times when I was being whipped I managed to hold back tears, but that incident made me burst into tears. I wept and wept for hours,” Yoo said.
Her mother salvaged the book and notebook, and helped her clean the pages. But the smell lingered, driving away classmates.
“Whenever I send books to children, the book and notebook soiled by manure comes to my mind.”
At the age of 28, in a traditional arrangement, she was married to a man from a relatively rich farming family in a nearby county.
“I was treated worse than a cow there,” she said of her foul-mouthed mother-in-law and violent husband.
Their abuse worsened, she added, after she was found to be unable to have children.
Her husband started keeping mistresses on the pretext of trying to carry on the family line, and moved to Seoul to start a new business. Yoo had to support her ageing parents-in-law alone.
After one mistress finally had a child, Yoo’s status in the household fell further.
She was forced to leave home and make a living doing needlework.
But her sewing skills suffered, Yoo said, when her husband broke her thumb during an argument.
Finally her in-laws took pity on her and pressed her husband to hand over his prosperous jut store to her, as a reward for taking care of his mother.
She began working 18-hour days. “I drank as little as possible as I was afraid of losing customers while I went to the bathroom,” she said.
Yoo’s thrift is legendary. She used salt instead of toothpaste to clean her teeth, candles to save on electricity bills, and did not burn heating fuel despite freezing nights.
Thanks to her diligence, frugality and high-quality products, Yoo began to make good money. But, but, another tragedy was in store.
During the time spent away from her husband, she had adopted a baby girl left on her doorstep – what she called a “gift from heaven.”
But, when Soonae was 10 years old, she was hit by a bus while crossing the street, suffering crippling mental and physical damage.
It was around this time that Yoo began sending books to schools in poor areas and orphanages.
“I wanted them to appreciate and achieve what my daughter and I were unable to,” she said.
At the age of 60, Yoo finally divorced her husband and redoubled her efforts to support needy students with money and books.
In 1998, she donated a building to Hanseo University near her hometown.
In 2006, she contributed a plot of land in the southern island of Jeju to the same university.
But she will never give up her most precious possessions.
“These are my assets,” she said, proudly producing bundles of letters from children thanking her for her help.
“Whenever I find some time to rest, I read these letters. This is the biggest source of my happiness,” she said. “I have to keep going because of these children.” – AFP
Yoo Yang-Seon is an incredibly generous soul. I can’t imagine, to be able to give so freely what she couldn’t have… it’s amazing. Really inspiring.