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The psychological and practical impact of losing a job in East Asia is profoundly different from losing one in the United States, where people frequently switch jobs and the unemployed can rely on food stamps and government benefits. Many Asian workers had expected to stay with one company for life, and self-worth is tightly linked to one's job.
Even more importantly, when this financial crisis hit, East Asia was in a transition phase where its traditional social safety net a network of family and friends was weakening, but a modern government system of food and cash support was not yet in place.
This hurt the elderly in particular. South Korea has a relatively new pension system and many neighboring countries barely have one at all; older people routinely survive on their savings, as well pocket change and housing from their working sons and relatives.
Paik Kee Hyun, 73, was working as a security guard at a Seoul factory until February, when the company closed. Then the company gave Paik a promissory note for six months' salary as severance pay, but Paik has no illusions that it will ever be paid.
"It's just paper," said Paik, a soft-spoken man in a grandfatherly plaid shirt.
With his only son out of the country, Paik found himself at a soup kitchen near Pagoda Park in Seoul talking to Kim Kum Bok, the retired policeman who runs it.
Kim heard Paik's story and took him home, an hour's bus ride away. After a long walk down a footpath through the woods, past abandoned, wrecked cars and a sleeping German shepherd chained to a rusted mobile home, Kim's compound for the homeless emerges.
Chickens, ducks and dogs all raised for food roam the area around four domed-roof buildings. The sound of hammers and drills fills the air at the largest building. The place is one of the growing number of new private havens for the homeless.
Paik is a man of few words, and he and his benefactor, a devout Christian who sold his suburban home to pay for feeding and housing the homeless, don't want to talk much about their lives. They just want to get through this, the toughest time South Korea has known since the Korean War began in 1950.
In addition to the official jobless count that grows in East Asia by increments of millions, there are many more who are barely employed. Many work only an hour or two a day, and many, particularly in South Korea, keep working with little hope of getting paid. Across the region, it has become routine for those lucky enough to have jobs to take a 30 percent pay cut.
In Jakarta, Warih Wijayanti used to be an architect working on a new downtown banking center. But these are bad times for banks, and the owner couldn't pay the builder and the builder couldn't pay her. So now the mother of an infant daughter has a temporary job teaching primary school. Instead of making $135 a month, she makes $40.
She has no job and no home of her own she lives with relatives but she wouldn't be classified as unemployed or homeless in any government statistics. She is an invisible casualty of the Asian financial crisis, and there is no government help for her.
Easier to see are the homeless, building villages along railroad tracks and under freeways.
Last summer, it was rare to see a homeless person in Seoul. This year, almost every Seoul city park has become a tent city. Police now spend early mornings shooing homeless people away from subways.
Hong Kwan Pyo cuts an odd figure of a homeless man. His white pants are clean and pressed, and he carries a neat canvas briefcase. Until a few months ago, Hong was part of the proud middle-class muscle that built South Korea into the world's 11th-biggest economy. A college graduate, he managed an elevator company that employed 30 people. The business had all the work it could handle as building after building rose on Seoul's skyline.
Hong and his wife were raising their son, 9, in a spacious three-bedroom in Kang Nam Ku, a nice suburb south of the Han River. They took ski vacations and treated themselves to expensive resorts; they ate out, and well. He bought what he wanted, not just what he needed.
Then the crash came. Banks stopped lending, builders stopped building, and the last thing anybody needed was a new elevator. Hong borrowed thousands of dollars from his in-laws to try to pay the company's bills. He sold the house. Nothing worked, and the company went bankrupt.
"I will stay away until I am able to stand up with nobody's help," Hong said.
There is a homeless shelter near the park, but he refuses to stay there because he fears facing one of his former employees. But he does slip in during the morning to wash and iron his clothes, to keep up a businesslike appearance that helps him maintain his resolve.
"I will come out of this," he said.
As Hong sat on the grass in the park, a few drunk homeless men came by looking for a fight. In the distance, some newcomers, a young family with children, set up a small nylon tent. At the spigot outside the park's public restrooms, one man shaved and another, clad in shorts, took a cold outdoor shower.
Hong admits it is tough to fight off the despair all around him, and a few weeks ago he thought about killing himself. That is a route more and more South Koreans and other Asians are taking out of the crisis.
But images of his son, he said, kept him from doing it: "I decided to live, to try to survive because of him."
Now Hong sleeps in the park at the foot of a statue of a child who holds a ball in his arms. Hong looks up at him each night and tries to sleep by dreaming of his boy and counting stars amid the loud screeches of the commuter trains. He thinks it will take five months to earn enough money to face his family again, but the wait is agony. One day he was overcome by the need to see his son, so he went to the boy's school, hiding in the shadows so he would not be seen.
"I cried all the way back here," he said.
Striving for Dignity
Across East Asia, marital separations and incidents of domestic abuse are way up, social and religious workers say, as families bear the brunt of East Asia's heartbreak.
"More and more women call every day, crying for help after their husbands beat them," said Paik Sung Hwa, of the Women's Hotline in Seoul. "The husbands relieved their stress by beating their wives. As time goes by, the degree of violence gets worse."
In prayer meetings at some Jakarta mosques, recent discussions have focused on instructing men not to vent their frustrations on their wives and children. In Thailand, increasing numbers of women and children are taking refuge in government-run shelters.
But beyond the stories of depression and anger and abuse, there are many more heartening stories of people coping. Far more than the billions of dollars of international aid and loans now being pumped into this region, it is individual resilience and strangers' charity that is doing the most to piece back together shattered lives.
People who have seen their businesses swallowed by the economic crisis are starting over on smaller scales. In South Korea, for instance, more than 3,800 businesses went bust in the seven largest cities from January to April, but 6,200 new ones were created in the same period. Many of these also won't last and are nothing more than a person trying to sell newspapers on a street corner, but it is a hopeful sign.
One of the new entrepreneurs is Choi Jin Gyu, who lost his job at a clothing store in Seoul's Namdaemun market, and then his apartment. Like thousands of others he wound up on the street, drinking and depressed.
But with a dozen other newly homeless men and a $1,000 loan from a divinity student, he helped start a small outdoor food stand called "a covered wagon." He now serves up boiled noodles and seaweed and raw octopus. In a nod to the International Monetary Fund loans to the nation, the men called their little restaurant the IMF Hope Wagon.
You Il Soo, a social worker and divinity school student who lent the start-up cash, organized Choi and the other men all of whom had been sleeping on the concrete floor of the city's main train. He lets them sleep in his small three-room suburban apartment, overlooking the restaurant.
The IMF Hope Wagon makes almost no money. But it has recovered some of the men's dignity lost along with their jobs.
Correspondents Keith B. Richburg in Thailand and Kevin Sullivan in Indonesia and special correspondent Cindy Shiner in Indonesia contributed to this report.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company