Small trader with big heart works to help kids


SEOUL — 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 if he found her with a book. Now the 75-year-old works 18 hours a day as a shopkeeper in a Seoul fish market to try to give today’s 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 1.6 million dollars. 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 long. But this dream was never achieved because of poverty and discrimination against women,” she told AFP in a interview 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 in 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,” she 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,” she said. At age 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 said, after she was found to be unable to have children. Her husband started keeping concubines 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 aging parents-in-law alone.