Dear young Koreans, you deride old people these days by calling us “teultakchung” or “denture-chattering bugs.” We are appalled at such a derogatory nickname because we think we are still young -- at least on the inside -- even though our bodily functions may be deteriorating. We are also mortally offended because that kind of disrespect for older people cannot be tolerated in a supposedly Confucian society. Sadly, we realize that we are no longer young, and Korea is no longer a Confucian society.
You may think you will be young forever and avoid wrinkles and dentures. But soon, you will surely find yourself aging, and one day, you will discover you are losing teeth and wearing dentures. When that day comes, you, too, will be mocked by the younger generation. We, too, were once young just like you.
In her famous debut song, “Those Were the Days,” Mary Hopkin sings nostalgically: “Once upon a time, there was a tavern/Where we used to raise a glass or two/Remember how we laughed away the hours/And dreamed of all the great things we would do.” She adds in the chorus, “Those were the days, my friend/We thought they’d never end.”
You may think your youthful days will never end. But Hopkin sadly reminds us how evanescent youth is: “Then the busy years rushing by us/We lost our starry notions on the way/If by chance I’d see you in the tavern/We’d smile one another and we’d say/Those were the days, my friend/We thought they’d never end.” Indeed, youth disappears in a flash, and one day, you will be surprised to see a wrinkled, older version of yourself -- or a denture-chattering bug -- in the mirror. Then, you will realize your prejudice against older people was wrong.
Hopkin’s song touches on that sad moment. “Just tonight I stood before the tavern/Nothing seemed the way it used to be/In the glass I saw a strange reflection/Was the lonely woman really me.” Then she concludes, “Oh my friend, we are older but no wiser/For in our hearts the dreams are still the same.” The last line illuminates the truth that aged people are still young at heart.
Perhaps you should watch the recent popular Korean TV drama “The Light in Your Eye,” which tells a story of a young woman in her mid-20s who abruptly turns into an old woman. Living as an old woman looking back on her youthful days, she is able to see her life as a whole and realizes that even an old woman can have a young girl’s heart. If she could be young again, by some magical powers, she would never deride or despise older women simply because of their age.
Of course, in your eyes, the older generation may be a bitter disappointment or a species going extinct. Older people may seem to enjoy their privileges only, seldom caring about the stifling situation of the younger generation. They appear incompetent and overbearing, and yet they are overpaid. They are hopelessly conservative and outrageously stubborn. Naturally, older people are an abomination to you.
Dear young people in Korea, we know you are frustrated and disillusioned with Korean society, and the lack of decent, well-paid jobs despite the country’s ostensible economic prosperity. We are well-aware that many of you are approaching 30 or 40 without a regular job. Therefore, you have to give up precious things in life one by one, such as building a home and having a baby, until finally you blame society and the older generation for your miseries.
Nevertheless, you should listen to what the older generation has to say, even though you are not interested. When we were your age, Korea was a destitute postwar country. At the time, we did not know where the next meal would come from. There were no big enterprises, such as Samsung, LG, or Hyundai, and jobs were scarce accordingly. It was never easy for us to get a well-paid, decent job either. We went through the Korean War that lasted for three years and 32 years of military dictatorship, the atrocities of which you cannot possibly comprehend because you have been raised in an affluent, democratic society.
Of course, we know you are not interested in past poverty. We know your immediate concern is how to land a well-paid job and nothing else. Nevertheless, you should not regard older people as unfairly privileged, useless competitors who should be eliminated.
Someday, when you are old, you will realize that ageism is wrong. Older people, too, had tough lives in their own way, and not all of them are denture-chattering bugs.
Kim Seong-kon is a professor emeritus of English at Seoul National University and a visiting professor at the University of California, Irvine. -- Ed.