It’s never too late. You can start now.
Life sides with those who are active and take initiative. A life led with initiative means that age is not an obstacle. This is the settlement and business story of President Lee Myeongae of Smile twisted bread stick who started her own business in her mid-50s to live an active life with initiative.
Lee Myeongae left her family and hometown behind and stepped foot in South Korea for the first time with her two children in August 2005. In the early days of settlement, she worked in a factory that made blinds. There were more things she didn’t know than those she did. Even while working at a factory, she was determined to learn more and started studying at Korea National Open University. But she had a really hard time dealing with online classes because it was her first time. Eventually she gave up taking classes online even though she’d paid for the first semester.
The joys and sorrows of working life
Going through such an experience led her to study computing and get her Excel certification, helping her get a job in accounting for a small business. In her work, there were many times she’d have time to call trading partners. In phone consultations, she’d often hear complaints about her accent, but she tried hard not to take it personally. She worked hard to be confident and not hide her identity as a North Korean. So she worked in accounting for 5 years. As someone who was always interested in poetry, she tried looking for majors related to her literature interest but at the time, she couldn’t find anything suitable. She tried her hand at something new. Over the age of 50, she studied child welfare at a cyber university and got her certification as a nursing teacher.
Upon getting her certification, she gave her resignation notice to the company to start work as a nursing teacher, but her boss discouraged her. Her boss tried to convince her to stay at her job, saying that caring for children was hard work but he’d give her a raise if she stayed. But it didn’t sit right with her to give up even before trying her hand at something new. She told her boss that she’d come back if working as a nursing teacher was just too hard and went on to start her new job. Having experience working as a kindergarten teacher in North Korea, caring for children was familiar work. But the problem came with the guardians. Their faces would often harden when they heard her accent. Over time she started to gain their trust, but in the beginning, there were complaints as to why a North Korean refugee had to be the one to care for their children. Three years went by as she worked a nursing teacher. But soon the number of kids dwindled, and she had to resign.
Seeking a stable and initiative
filled life in her mid-50s, there were many things she had to consider when job hunting. As each year passed by, becoming employed wasn’t easy and because of age issues and more, the number of options she had dwindled. Was there something she could do for a long time regardless of her age? There was a donut store in front of the kindergarten she worked at. She’d buy snacks and spend time there with her colleagues and would notice that the store seemed to do better than she expected. It was always buzzing with people, maybe because word spread of how good the donuts were. After quitting her job, she decided that starting her own business was a way to do work without being limited by her age. She thought over a lot of details to prepare herself for the new challenge. She found sectors that suited her but there were so many things that she had to solve, like different permit procedures and store interior design, etc. Finally, after all her considerations, she thought that if she could just take over a store that had already been started, she’d be able to do her best in running it. She then remembered that she could turn to a place nearby: the small but active donut store. She found her way over to the donut store and asked all of her questions. Thankfully the owner recognized her and kindly answered every one of her questions, resolving her of her concerns. Thanks to the owner’s help, she took over a store that happened to be looking for a new owner. In March of 2019, she operated her store for the first time, still holding onto a lot of worries. She even moved closer to the store to run it properly. The house owners were a couple in their 60s. They heard her story and gave her lots of encouragement and support, wishing her store to become successful and bring her a lot of wealth, and said that they’d do what they could to help her. At first, she thought they were just being polite. But after a few days, they really came over and rolled up their sleeves to help, seeing how busy she was. Seeing the house owner take on customers and sales and try her hand making donut dough even though she wasn’t familiar with it, made Ms. Lee think of her as a close friend from her hometown. From then on, whenever she was ill or there were too many orders for her to handle, they helped as if they were family. Whenever she tried to serve something as a token of her appreciation, they refused to accept it, saying it was okay. President Lee Myeongae smiles as she thinks of them, and says, “I’m really lucky with the people I have in my life.” They aren’t the only people who helped her. She was able to get a new fridge thanks to the Korea Hana Foundation (henceforth Foundation). A Foundation employee who came to check up on her bought all the donuts and wished her all the best. Her sincerity in wishing her success really moved Ms. Lee. The store was finally starting to settle, and she was growing in her confidence when COVID-19 happened. With COVID-19, customers stopped coming and her sales dropped. She had to find a new way. She introduced a new online system and focused on deliveries. It was a strategy that sought out customers rather than wait around for them. Promotional and delivery costs were added on, but her profit slowly started to increase. Now she continues to maintain a stable profit.
Hometown, memory, and hope sung in a poem
It happened in the early stages of her settling into Korea. One day she was asked, “It’s hard to live here, too. Why did you leave your hometown?” She thought of how she could explain the realities of her hometown, and how she could answer to help them understand, when she decided to write a poem about it. She majored in Literary Creation at Soongsil University and has now put the painful memories of her past, along with hope for her future, into a poem to share with us. When asked if she wrote poems while in North Korea, she said she didn’t have the luxury. Whether in the happy moments of life or the tough moments, she never stops writing poems. Such efforts have borne fruit. In 2020, she released a book of her poetry with the support of the Korea Unity Cultural Center. This year, she’s once again applied to a book publishing support project. Soon we will be able to see Poet Lee Myeongae’s second book of poetry. We look forward to the beautiful poems that sing about the joys and sorrows of life and her hometown, along with memories and hope.