Instead of investing his money, he invested himself to support his family


Among the many people I met in Korea, both new acquaintances and old, the driver of the jumbo taxi that ferried me and my luggage between Seoul and Pyeongtaek was deeply moving. At first glance he is an ordinary middle-aged South Korean man, one of millions working to support their families. Like so many such “ordinay” people, he has a fascinating life story. Laid off from his job at a prestigious chaebol as a consequence of IMF restructuring, he was in a bind. Still in his forties, he had children to put through high school and he was adamant that, unlike him, they should go to college. He watched his peers, many of whom were also laid off, use their severance pay to start small businesses such as clothing stores, restaurants, bars. And he watched them all close and his friends end up in even greater economic straits.

He needed work that provided a path to self-sufficiency but wouldn’t use up his severance pay. He was unwilling to take that risk when his family’s living depended on that lump sum. So after much agonizing, he became a taxi driver for a taxi company. After a few years, he gained the right and the means to buy and drive his own taxi. Then after a few more years he gained the right and the means to buy and drive his own sedan or “model” taxi. He worked hard to build a customer base, for the sedans are more expensive and depend on regular customers.

A few years ago he heard about jumbo taxis, minivans that serve a fairly exclusive base of customers, often from overseas. He was able to buy one just a few months ago, and became part of a small network of jumbo taxi owner-drivers. Now he drives around people like me with too much luggage to fit in regular taxis (this is what happens when your children are drummers), foreign celebrities, Korean celebrities, and random rich people. With his diligence, he put his children through college, saw them married and settled in careers, and still provides for his wife.

He spoke about the embarrassment of picking up passengers in the early years to discover they were former co-workers, often those who had worked under him, but noted that was nothing compared to the daily grind of trying to pick up enough fares to have something left as income after paying the taxi company. Becoming an owner-driver was a huge relief, and also an achievement because that right comes only with a spotless driving record. It also spurred him to learn English, for many of his customers are foreigners. He knows enough to carry on some small talk, take reservations, and otherwise make sure his customers have a pleasant ride and will want to ride with him again.

When I asked what the biggest hardship was, he immediately said that it was being unable to support his family as he wished. He wanted to support his children, but he also wanted to provide for his wife. He wanted her to be able to run the household without money worries, take her friends out to lunch, and splurge on clothes and makeup once in a while. Love means little, he said, if one cannot express it properly by taking care of your loved ones. “I always told my wife, I’m sorry, things will get better, I promise. And I worked hard to make sure that I kept my promise. And I did.”

Now he and his wife enjoy a quiet life, but he still keeps a busy work schedule. He noted that he needs to build up savings for “real old age, nowadays that’s in your 80s.”
Smiling, he said that after he drops me off in Seoul, he is going to take his wife and her friends on a day trip. “This is how we take care of each other.”

There is much to see in his life story, especially about the South Korean economy, traditional marriages and gender roles, and upward mobility. But what I see most clearly is his spirit, his intelligence, and his love in action for his family. The cynical side of me says you have no idea what this man is really like. And that’s true. But what I saw was a person who weighed his options as he tried to fulfill his family obligations, and that he balanced ambition with caution. Instead of putting his severance pay on the line by investing it as his friends did, he kept it as insurance for his family and put his own social status and daily well-being on the line. Instead of investing his money, he invested himself to support his family. There isn’t a whole lot more you can ask of a person.

(Image Credit: Boston Globe)

Maternal mortality, and it still is news

Causes of maternal death worldwide

Euna Lee and Laura Ling are in prison. Mallika Chopra is haunted by them: “I wanted to share a story about Euna Lee, who along with Laura Ling, has been held in N. Korea for 4 months.  As a mother, the story has been haunting me since I heard it. It haunts me because I can totally relate to Euna’s actions.” Mothers in prison haunt the mothers of the world.

Chopra had dinner with Euna Lee’s husband Michael who recounted the story of how Euna struggled to send him an urgent note: “Euna wanted to make sure that Michael had sent in the registration form for Hana for summer school. Euna had chosen the Korean immersion school for her daughter, but was scared her husband would forget to send in the form! Hearing this story brought tears to my eyes.  Sitting in captivity halfway around the world, a mom is still a mom.” Their daughter Hana is four years old.

Sitting in captivity halfway around the world, a mom is still a mom.

Lisa Belkin read Chopra’s account and was haunted as well: “When a friend of mine was weak with the cancer that would soon kill her, she began leaving Post-It notes around her bedroom for her husband. Thoughts on what to get their two sons for their birthdays. Reminders of playdates that were scheduled for the next few weeks. Suggested grocery lists. A mother is a mother as long as she lives.”

A mother is a mother as long as she lives.

“As long as she lives”. What does that mean in a world in which maternal mortality persists? “Every year some 536 000 women die of complications during pregnancy or childbirth, 99% of them in developing countries. The global maternal mortality ratio of 400 maternal deaths per 100 000 live births in 2005 has barely changed since 1990.”

Improving maternal health is one of the Millenium Development Goals, or MDGs, and it “constitutes the most off-track of all MDGs.” The thing about maternal mortality, about deaths in pregnancy or in childbirth complications is that almost all of them are preventable. Family planning, education, access to maternal and reproductive health care services would do the trick. A bit of money, a bout of commitment, and a dose of recognition that women actually matter would suffice.

Preventable maternal mortality haunts the globe.

Take South Africa, for example, whose Department of Health recently released a report on how the country is failing to save pregnant women and mothers. The report is titled Saving Mothers 2005 – 2007.

According to the report, “38.4% of the deaths were clearly avoidable within the health care system….There were 1519 (38.4%) clearly avoidable deaths within the health system….This is approximately the same as reported in 2002-2004 where the clearly avoidable deaths 36.7%….Four out of five of clearly avoidable maternal deaths were due to complications of hypertension, obstetric haemorrhage, pregnancy related sepsis and non-pregnancy related infections.  The ways to prevent these deaths are known. Specific protocols have been developed and these have been included in the recommendations given in the previous report.  Despite this, the most important avoidable factor is still substandard care. . . .Delay in seeking help was the most common patient related avoidable factor. The exact meaning of this is hard to establish as assessors can only use the data available in the case notes.  If lack of transport or other factors inhibiting the woman seeking help is not recorded in the notes, the assessor will not be able to document them. Independent research has indicated most of the delays are due to the inability to access transport especially at night leading to delay, rather than lack of knowledge or concern by the patient.”

Women’s delays in seeking help is more often than not a factor of inaccessible transport than of the woman’s knowledge or concern. That is, it’s a function of everyday life for poor women, and especially for poor rural women, living and dying in South Africa. Those women, they haunt the trains, the collective taxis, the buses, the side of the road. They haunt the clinics and hospitals to which they never arrived and when they did, they were poorly cared for.

The report’s Conclusion is short, bitter, and to the point. Here it is in its entirety: “The final comment of the 1999-2001 report was “Every woman who becomes pregnant and continues with her pregnancy does so in the expectation of delivering a healthy child and the joy and satisfaction of watching the child grow.  Surely, it is the duty of society and the health care profession to do the utmost to fulfil this expectation?  To this end, the deficiencies identified in this report must be urgently addressed.  The committee are anxious to see clear signs of progress by the next triennial report”.   Unfortunately this, with the notable exception of women dying from complications of hypertension in pregnancy, has not come to pass.  We will have to redouble our efforts.”

This is not just about South Africa nor is it about the `developing world’. This is about the globe. Them that’s got shall get. Them that’s not shall lose. So the Bible said, and it still is news.

Women who die of pregnancy and childbirth complications haunt the world. We mourn their loss, their absence, and honor their lives. Women who die of preventable pregnancy and childbirth complications, on the other hand, haunt our every days and every nights. We must do as they have done. Howl. We must do more than write reports and articles that begin and conclude, “As we said before, and it still is news.”

(Image Credit: Public Health Association of South Africa)