A person could know South Korea for a long time without knowing Wanju, an obscure county 180km south of Seoul. And, at least until recently, a person could know a lot about Wanju without ever hearing of Cha Sa-soon, a 69-year-old woman who lives alone in the mountain-ringed village of Sinchon.
Now, however, Cha is an unlikely national celebrity.
This diminutive woman, now known nationwide as “Grandma Cha Sa-soon,” has achieved a record that causes people here to first shake their heads with astonishment and then smile: She failed her driver’s test hundreds of times but never gave up. Finally, she got her license — on her 960th try.
For three years starting in April 2005, she took the test once a day five days a week. After that, her pace slowed, to about twice a week. But she never quit.
Hers is a fame based not only on sheer doggedness, a quality held in high esteem by Koreans, but also on the universal human sympathy for a monumental — and in her case, cheerful — loser.
“When she finally got her license, we all went out in cheers and hugged her, giving her flowers,” said Park Su-yeon, an instructor at Jeonbuk Driving School, which Cha once attended. “It felt like a huge burden falling off our back. We didn’t have the guts to tell her to quit, because she kept showing up.”
Of course, Park and another driving teacher said, perhaps Cha should content herself with simply getting the license and not endangering others on the road by actually driving. But they were not too worried about the risk, they said, because it was the written test, not the driving skill and road tests, that she failed so many times.
When word began spreading last year of the woman who was still taking the test after failing it more than 700 times, reporters traced her to Sinchon, where the bus, the only means of public transportation, comes by once every two hours on a street so narrow it has to pull over to let other vehicles pass.
They followed her to the test site in the city of Jeonju, an hour away. There, they also videotaped her in the market, where she sells her home-grown vegetables at an open-air stall.
Once she finally got her license in May, Hyundai-Kia Automotive Group, South Korea’s leading carmaker, started an online campaign asking people to post messages of congratulations. Thousands poured in. Early last month, Hyundai presented Cha with a US$16,800 car.
Cha, whose name, coincidentally enough, is Korean for “vehicle,” now also appears on a prime-time television commercial for Hyundai.
It is a big change from her non-celebrity life, spent simply in a one-room hut with a slate roof, where the only sounds on a recent summer day are from a rain-swollen brook, occasional military jets flying overhead and cicadas rioting in the nearby persimmon trees. A lone old man dozed, occasionally swatting at flies, in a small shop next to the bus stop.
Born to a peasant family with seven children but no land, Cha spent her childhood working in the fields and studying at an informal night school. It was not until she turned 15 that she joined a formal school as a fourth-grader. But her schooling ended there a few years later.
“Father had no land, and middle school was just a dream for me,” she said.
Cha said she had always envied people who could drive, but it was not until she was in her 60s that she got around to trying for a license.