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Cold homecomingFor Jeju-born woman, life has few bright spots
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승인 2010.01.20  14:40:49
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▲ Ha ok Cha, right, waiting for lunch at Red Cross. Photo by Nicole Erwin

It is 9 a.m. and a wintry mix of snow, ice, rain and heavy winds have taken Jeju Island hostage. Despite the brutal weather, more than 20 elderly people have made their way through the chill air to find seats at the Red Cross for the hot, free meals that are provided twice a week. All of them sit wearing hats and coats and displaying varied aged faces. While many of them may have similar cultural backgrounds, each individual has a unique story.

Ha Ok Cha is a petite 79-year-old Korean woman who has been coming to the Red Cross center for the last year or so. Unlike her friends in the room, she speaks English. Ha has a plastic bag in front of her with some of her personal belongings, one of which is a document verifying her United States citizenship. Although she was born in Jeju, Ha was raised primarily in Japan until she was almost 18. After the Korean War, her family moved back to their homeland to settle. “My family was very poor,” she said.

There were eight siblings and each had to do their part to help support the others. As the second-eldest child, Ha moved to Seoul where she opened a clothing store to earn more money. U.S. military families were her main customer base and she would take their requests and place orders abroad, then later deliver the clothing. She said it was too difficult to do most of her business in Korean won so she would take American dollars. But when she went to exchange the money. “... them bad Korean people be hiding, hiding from me to take my money.” On more than three occasions she was robbed while taking her earnings to the bank. She operated her shop in Seoul for two years.

Being separated from her parents, Ha said she was lonely when she wasn’t working and sought something to occupy her evenings. “So I kinda be so lonely, so I go to dance. And I meet many interesting people... I dance the tango, waltz, rumba, salsa, polka.” It was during this time that she met her first husband, who was in Korea with the American military. Ha said she met him regularly to dance for more than a year before they married and moved to Boston, Massachusetts. She said because business was not so good, due to the robberies, her choice to marry was easy. Unfortunately, the marriage did not last. “He drank too much so I divorced him,” she said. The union resulted in two daughters, however, both U.S. citizens.

Later, Ha remarried to a computer engineer whom she met while working for a computer production plant, the company for which she worked for the next 26 years. This marriage also did not last. “He was [a] very bad man,” she said. As her daughters grew up and started living independent lives, Ha began to feel lonely. Her high blood pressure led to partial paralysis on the right side of her body and left her unable to care for herself without help.

So, after 40 years of living in the United States, which she now sees as home, she moved back to Jeju to be with her siblings and their children. Ha said it is nice to be with her family again but she misses being able to work. She feels depressed most of the time, except for the bright spots of her weeks, the time she spends at the Red Cross with her new friends in what is her homeland, but now seems a foreign land.

ⓒ Jeju Weekly 2009 (
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