Difficulties and Happiness Depends on Attitude
After driving about 2 hours from Seoul down the Chuncheon IC, around the Hakgok Intersection you will find a buckwheat noodles and spicy stir-fried chicken restaurant with a large parking space. This place is famous in Chuncheon for its charcoal spicy stir-fried chicken, iron plate stir-fried chicken and buckwheat noodles. Inside there’s a restaurant where you can try the charcoal spicy stir-fried chicken, and on the left is a restaurant for iron plate stir-fried chicken.
Once you go in the restaurant, a staff member wearing an apron will warmly greet you. She skillfully sets the table with side dishes and shares the ordered menu with the kitchen staff. While she waits to serve the food, she prepares other tables’ cutleries and straightens the chairs and tables. Her expertise and skills testify to the popularity of the restaurant. The frenzy of serving guests during the busy lunch time has passed and the restaurant feels a bit calmer.
Ms. Yang Yu-kyeong looks like she’s been working here for over 10 years, when in fact she’s only been here for 2. I was curious to know what brought her to work at this place.
She came to South Korea in 2010 and first settled in Ulsan. She didn’t have to worry about where to sleep and eat thanks to the rental apartment that the government provided for her, but she had to face the mountainous obstacle that was employment. After considering different options, she started attending the nursing aide academy. She studied hard, planning to work at a hospital after getting her certificate, when she suffered an unfortunate event.
Early during her settlement, she would sometimes feel abdominal pain which she merely took pills for and didn’t think much of. But one day, the pain was so severe that she had to call an ambulance and be transported to the hospital. There were three holes in her stomach with inflammation, for which she had to get surgery. She had to give up on her studies and get stomach surgery, and 5 months later, she had to get uterine fibroid surgery as well.
A Pet, A Pet Store, and More Difficulties
“Others were busy getting certificates and finding jobs during their settlement times, but I had to stay home because of my health, which brought on depression and a loss in motivation for life. I thought things needed to change so I adopted a dog. Thanks to the cute dog, my loneliness disappeared and my health improved, and I moved to Yangju in Gyeonggi Province.”
She moved because she wanted to live in a place with good air and nature with her dog. While caring for her dog, she developed an interest in pet supplies and pet grooming, which led to her working at a nearby pet store for almost two years. She learned about selling pet supplies, the skills of pet grooming, how to operate a pet business, and ended up starting her own small pet store in Yangju.
She got her pet supplies and food from a wholesaler. “At first I was scared, but it wasn’t as hard as I thought it’d be. But as time went by, I found myself getting more and more tired.” Pet stores can’t survive just by selling pet supplies but can be maintained by also providing pet grooming services. Concerned about labor costs, she operated the whole thing herself. For pet grooming you have to be able to deal with different kinds of dogs, and also be prepared for unexpected things to happen.
“One day I was grooming a dog when it suddenly moved and the end of a sharp scissor blade cut into its side. Blood came out and it really took me by surprise. There were no vets nearby so I had to take it all the way to Chuncheon for treatment. Thankfully we weren’t too late and its life wasn’t in danger, but I was too traumatized and scared to pick up grooming scissors again.”
Kindness Makes the Client’s Day
The psychological and physical strain of having to deal with everything by herself started to burden her, and it negatively affected her health. In the end she closed her pet store and focused on her health. Afterward, taking an acquaintance’s advice, she moved to Chuncheon in Gangweon Province and started working part-time at a restaurant. She chose to work part-time rather than as a full-time employee so she could care for her health.
Once she started working, she started to enjoy it and also started thinking about how fun it’d be to make and serve her own food. After working at the restaurant for about half a year, she established her own franchise restaurant on the outskirts on Chuncheon called “Yuknim Chicken Feet”. There weren’t many customers at first but a lot of North Korean refugees who lived nearby came, and customers who had come once would come again.
Four years went by well, until COVID-19 hit and in an instant all the customers stopped coming. She tried to wait it out, hoping things would get better, but as COVID-19 dragged on, the situation got worse. In the end, she had to give up the restaurant.
“Through this experience I learned that a business doesn’t do well just because I do well. There are so many unexpected variables that can affect you. If you hold onto something that isn’t going to work out, it’s only going to end up worse.”
She had to give up on her businesses twice, and has been working as an employee at ‘Chuncheon Buckwheat Noodles and Spicy Stir-fried Chicken’ for 3 years. The restaurant is located at the intersection of a highway so during lunch time it gets incredibly busy with all the bus drivers and traveling visitors.
I wondered if she had to face any difficulties from being an employer to becoming an employee. But for Ms. Yukyeong, working here just brings her a lot of joy and happiness. She bends down close to listen to the customers’ orders, brings them all without forgetting a single dish, and kindly offers to bring more side dishes when they’re emptied.
No matter how busy things get, she keeps an eye out to see if the customers need anything more. Her kindness makes a big impact on the customers, who come looking for her again, which increases the trust the owners have toward her and encourages fellow workers to learn from her.
Life is about Riding the Waves
She got married to a fellow colleague from the restaurant. They rely on each other a lot, going to and from work together, and helping each other out when things get busy during peak hours. Their honeymoon stage continues to give them energy to work with more joy and happiness.
Ms. Yang’s hometown is Hoeryong, North Hamgyeong Province. She had a difficult life until her escape in 2004 when she just turned 20, and after living in China for 6 years, she came to South Korea in 2010.
“When I lived in North Korea, I didn’t know what it meant to have a choice. In South Korea, you have choices on what jobs you can do but I think the most important thing is your attitude and will. As my settlement period went on, I started looking around. I saw people who would collect trash to scrape together money they could later donate, which made me think that no matter where you are, being successful means living a happy life doing the things that fulfill you.”
Working at the restaurant, she gets to enjoy the benefits of 4 major insurances, holidays, and more. “In the past, there was a strong stigma about working at a restaurant or being a part-time worker, but that’s changed now. Chuncheon has more restaurants than factories and benefits for workers are great. Being my own employer was hard because I had to worry about things from rent to operations. But now I can work at ease with the duties I’m given. It’s difficult for hard work to trump a heart that is at joy when working.”
She is still young in her early 30s, filled with dreams and aspirations to live just like now, happy, and maybe pursue new opportunities when they come her way. She believes that everything she’s going through right now is preparing her for those days, and seeing her bright smile made her radiate with beauty.