A Meal with the Poor: Children of Gwaengiburimal by Kim Jung-mi

  • onNovember 3, 2014
  • Vol.20 Summer 2013
  • byPark Suk-kyoung
Children of Gwaengiburimal

In 2012, the world was delighted by PSY’s music video for “Gangnam Style.” Gangnam is now recognized as a cool spot filled with beautiful men and women, trendsetters, “it” items, and the hottest entertainment. Many people around the world say they would love to visit Gangnam. Without a doubt, it is the hip place to be. But just like any other country, for every place where the sun shines, there is another that lives in the shadows. Children of Gwaengiburimal leads readers to a village that is the opposite of Gangnam. Even though it is nothing like Gangnam, the village of Gwaengiburimal is a place that remains closer to our hearts.

First, let’s go to Incheon, a fairly large city that can be reached by a two-hour subway ride from Gangnam. We’re heading for Gwaengiburimal, the poorest slum in the area. On closer examination, we can see a few rundown houses. Those who live there reflect the history of this poor village, and can be said to be Korea’s true native population. If you come across the twin sisters, Suk-hee and Suk-ja, do drop by their house. They live with their mother and their aunt Myung-hee. The twins are not related to their aunt by blood; she teaches them at the elementary school. She too was born and raised in the village, but managed to beat poverty and joined the middle class. So why is she living in this house?

In the house next to the twins, there are four boys: the 20-something Yung-ho, the brothers Dong-su and Dong-jun, and Myung-hwan. The boys share everything with the twins, more like a big family than merely neighbors. If you ask how they got to know one another, they will smile quietly and reveal their story. They were not total strangers from the start, but far from being close friends. The orphaned Yung-ho, whose parents passed away when he was young, started taking care of the runaway boys when he was high on drugs and became their only family. Myung-hee hated living in poverty but became acquainted with the twin sisters and returned to Gwaengiburimal, where she says she can truly be herself. They wouldn’t mind if you joined them for dinner.

The word “family” is known in Korean as “sikgu.” It refers to people who eat together, regardless of whether or not they are related by blood. Having a meal with the poor and lonely, overcoming addiction and settling down to an honest life, hoping to be a good parent someday are small and simple, but definitely noble dreams. When you get on the subway back to Gangnam, your eyes and heart will view the world in a different way. You will find a more accurate portrayal of Korea and Koreans.

Named as a must-read for all Koreans in 2001, Children of Gwaengiburimal has become a bestseller and steady seller. The writer Kim Jung-mi, who wrote the novel based on her surroundings and the village community, are still struggling yet living happily in their own way. They are under threat of being chased out of the very place in which the book is set. But as long as they are together, wherever they go will be Gwaengiburimal.