Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Cardboard Citizens

I've recently returned to Korea again following a 2-week visit to Missouri to surprise family and friends.  Of course it went by way too fast and I wish I could've stayed a little longer, but I also was excited to come back to Korea, my home for the past two years now.  (Yep, I hit my 2-year anniversary!)  But, there's nothing like traveling to make you realize just how different your culture can be from another.  I've adjusted to many cultural differences during my stint here in Korea, but there are a few differences that I can't seem to adjust to well.

Everyday, whether I'm on my way to work or just going to the grocery store, it seems like I'm always passing a "refuse picker".  I see them everyday and it absolutely crushes me.  Refuse pickers are elderly people (I'm talking 70~80+ years old) who pull carts around town to collect as much cardboard, metals and other recyclable goods as possible from street corners and outside of businesses.  All day, all hours, rain or shine, hot or cold, I see elderly people out searching through garbage piles hoping to find a few recyclables to earn a little money.  Finding cardboard, and other items we might consider trash, is fairly easy because all businesses and apartment buildings have a designated area outside the building (usually just the side of the street) where trash bags and boxes are compiled until the sanitation trucks pick them up in the morning.  I usually see the same refuse pickers around my neighborhood, which leads me to believe that each person stakes a claim in a designated area and collects from the same places every day.  From what I've researched, refuse pickers get paid per kilogram and usually collect enough materials to earn about 10,000~15,000 won a day, or about $10~$15.  And that's from working 10+ hours a day!

One "refuse picker" woman I seem to see almost everyday on my walk to work

So why are elderly people doing such strenuous work for such little compensation?  Well, it's definitely not because they care oh-so-much about the environment and are doing this as a favor to the community.  Actually, in the past 50 years, South Korea's economy has advanced immensely; rising from one of the poorest countries in the world to one of the top economies, even thriving through the 2008 recession.  Because Korea has advanced so quickly, a portion of the older generation has not been able to keep up with modern-day Korea's technological advances and competitive work environment quite like the younger generations; therefore, they have not had the same job opportunities, or have even been released from jobs because of their age and lack of qualifications.

In the past, Korean culture has also put a lot of emphasis on family, with grandparents often being cared for by their children's' families.  Many Korean parents also receive money from their children to supplement their housing or other expenses, or even live together with their children's family.  This has stemmed from the fact that the South Korean government doesn't see social spending as a big priority; so without a government safety net and no pensions to fall back on, the elderly have always relied on their children to take on the role as caregiver and provider.   But nowadays, more and more young people are migrating to the cities and are too focused on building a career and raising their own families, that the elderly are getting forgotten and left behind.  Thus, resorting to collecting recyclable goods to earn a little cash just to get by.

A man outside of a fast food restaurant collecting materials to recycle

Sorry for the depressing post, but I wanted to show a side of Korea that I haven't mentioned before. Usually my posts are exciting and humorously poke fun at my life navigating a foreign country, but in reality, Korea has its issues too, just like any other country.  Unfortunately I just happen to witness one of the saddest problems on a daily basis hunched over pulling a cart full of cardboard.            

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