Ms. Cha new car sajeonogi

This isn’t really a health story, but it is a story that will make you feel really, really good. The NY Times Saturday Profile (Sept 4, 2010) tells the story of Cha Sa-soon, a 69-year-old widow who lives in a remote village in South Korea. She wanted to get a driver’s license, but she had trouble passing the test. In fact, she failed the written test 949 times…that is not a typo… she failed the test 949 times. Finally, on her 950th attempt, she passed. No question, Ms. Cha proves that if you want to achieve something, you can, no matter how difficult, no matter how many setbacks.

South Koreans evidently celebrate perseverance as a national trait. In fact, according to the NY Times article, there is a phrase there,”saj eon ogi” or “knocked down four times, rising up five.” It became popular after Hong-Su-hwan, a popular boxing champion knocked out Hector Carrasquilla to win the World Boxing Association’s super bantamweight championship in 1977 after being floored four times. Ms. Cha certainly exemplifies shajeonogi, in spades!


Ms. Cha’s background

You have to know a bit about Ms. Cha’s background to understand just how formidable the driving test was for her. She was born into a poor peasant family and didn’t get to go to school until she was 15 years old and then she only attended for a few years. The Times quotes her as saying, “Father had no land and middle school was just a dream for me.”

Ms. Cha eventually got married and raised four children. Her husband died a few years ago. She now makes a living selling homegrown vegetables in an open-air stall. About 10 years ago, she decided to get a hairdresser’s license. She had to catch a 6 am bus, transfer to a train, and then catch another bus in order to attend a government-financed training program. She did that five days a week for six months. Once finished, she could not find a job as she was considered too old.

In 2005, she set her sights on getting a driver’s license. Her impetus was a desire to take her grandchildren to the zoo without having to rely on the buses that are slow and run infrequently. The problem was that although she could read the words in the test preparation books phonetically, she could not really understand them. She ended up memorizing the questions—and their answers—without fully comprehending the meaning. She took the test, failed, retook it, and failed again—over and over again.  Her scores inched up but still did not meet the passing grade.


How she finally passed

About a year ago, she enrolled at the Jeonbuk Driving School where teachers, impressed with her cheerful indefatigability, patiently explained the terminology and coached her on the tests. One of her teachers said, “It drove you crazy to teach her, but we could not get mad at her. She was always cheerful. She still had the little girl in her.”

After passing the written test, Ms. Cha had to take the driving skill and road tests.  She passed them after only four failed attempts. On the day she passed, the staff of the driving school celebrated with her by cheering and hugging and giving her flowers. One remarked, “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.”

“Grandma” Cha Sa-soon has achieved fame and a bit of fortune in her country because of her tenaciousness. Last fall, Hyundai presented her with a car and she now appears in a prime-time TV commercial for the automaker. It is a heartwarming end to a wonderful story.


The takeaway

Anyone who has finally accomplished a difficult to attain life-long goal knows that “showing up” is the most important thing you can do. The temptation to quit after a failure can be overwhelming especially when well-meaning family and friends tell you, “just move on to something else” or “it just wasn’t meant to be…”  Now, however, when you are discouraged because of a failure, particularly if it is a repeat failure, you can remember Ms. Cha and whisper to yourself, “sajeonogi, sajeonogi.”  Then pick yourself up and try, try again.