Photo: Cheon Hyeon-u at the signing event of his book, Steel Rice Diaries. Credit: Facebook page of Cheon Hyeon-u.
How much respect is due to the understandable, yet dated, desires of people who find themselves in a difficult economic situation? An op-ed on Chosun Ilbo 조선일보 by Cheon Hyeon-u 천현우, editor of data journalism site Alook.so 얼룩소, became the talk of the town by touching a nerve with this question.
Cheon, 32, has worked as a welder in the southern port city of Masan, Gyeongsangnam-do Province 경상남도 마산 since graduating from college. Factory life is low-paying and fraught with danger. Cheon nearly lost his foot after accidentally dropping a vat full of chemical liquid with a temperature of 400 C (750 F) on himself. Finding time to write at night, Cheon recently published The Steel Rice Diaries 쇳밥일지, a collection of essays chronicling his experience, which gained prominence when former president Moon Jae-in 문재인 전 대통령recommended the book as “the voice of the youth that we truly need to hear out.”
In his September 15 op-ed, Cheon focused on the desires of young blue collar male laborers to marry and form a family. The biggest issue is the lack of female peers in the industrial cities, where manufacturing plants do not offer enough jobs for women. To the young male workers, having a wife and children is synonymous with achieving the middle class dream: “Coming home from work in my own car, opening the door of my own home, to be welcomed with smiles by my wife and children.”
Although Cheon has been received favorably thus far, that sentence of the op-ed invited a barrage of criticism, especially from young women. Young women leave industrial cities not just because of the lack of jobs, say the critics - they also leave because they cannot stand the rampant sexism of smaller cities, which is sanitized in the editorial into the patriarchal image of a breadwinner coming home to a housewife who raises children.
In a follow-up interview, Cheon admitted that the image might be outdated, but added: “I just wanted to show, that’s what the young men in small cities want - whether it’s fashionable or lame, whether it’s right or wrong, whether it’s contemporary or outdated, it’s simply the reality.” Cheon also noted that unlike women, men have a harder time leaving the small cities in which they were born because they have more ties with the community, such as the obligation to take care of their parents or maintain the family home.