Lee Si-kap, a shy farmer living in the central South Korean town of Yeongju, holds a record: He owns more satellite dishes than any other South Korean — 85 of them, receiving 1,500 satellite television channels from more than 100 countries, some as far away as South Africa and Canada.
To passers-through, Lee’s home stands like an exclamation mark in the otherwise nondescript countryside dotted with apple orchards and ginseng fields. Satellite dishes cover his roof like giant steel mushrooms.
They spread into his front yard and blossom in a field behind his house, some as large as 4.8m in diameter.
Once dismissed as a local eccentric, Lee has more recently emerged as something of a hero of modest fame, featured on national television as “antenna man.” Since late last year, he and thousands of fellow satellite enthusiasts — including the husbands of foreign brides and a few dedicated souls searching for signals from extraterrestrial life forms — have started a campaign to install free satellite dishes for poor foreign brides living in rural South Korea, so they can receive broadcasts from their home countries.
“Thanks to Mr Lee, I now miss my country, my mother and father less than I used to,” said Bui Thi Huang, a 22-year-old bride from Haiphong, Vietnam, who lives in Yeongju, about 161km southeast of Seoul.
In recent years, the South Korean countryside has seen an influx of brides from poorer countries like Vietnam, China and the Philippines. Like Bui, they marry South Korean farmers who have difficulty finding a spouse because so many young Korean women have rejected rural life and migrated to cities.
In towns like Yeongju, these young foreign brides have become a bedrock of the local economy. They work alongside their husbands in the fields and have brought back a sound that was fast becoming a distant memory among the aging farm population here: crying babies.
In South Korea, which had once prided itself on being a homogeneous society, four out of 10 women who married in rural communities last year were foreign born. In Yeongju alone, the number of foreign wives increased by 28 percent in the past year and a half to 250, half of them from Vietnam.
“These women have a hard time fitting in. The local governments, and the husbands, often focus only on making them “Korean,” teaching them the Korean language and computer skills,” said Lee, 39, who has never married. “They don’t quite understand how isolated these women feel.”
When Lee, who lives with his 80-year-old mother and 97-year-old grandfather, is not toying with his satellite equipment, he tends his pepper and sesame fields or makes the rounds of nearby villages to see if the foreign brides are having any problems with their TV reception.
Lee and his friends still encounter objections from husbands who are determined to shield their foreign brides from any reminders of their native lands, for fear these might only magnify their homesickness. But they are encouraged that many families have reported that watching satellite broadcasts from home actually helps the women to overcome their loneliness and better adjust to life here.
Lee says his sympathy for foreign brides stems in part from his own experience of feeling cut off from society.
He felt deeply hurt when his father abandoned him and his mother when he was a small boy, and, lacking self-confidence, had trouble making friends in his neighborhood and at school. He rarely ventured outside his village, and said he still fears making phone calls.