Reflections on a changing social landscape
Many of us celebrated the start of the lunar new year almost two weeks ago by going home to have dinner with family or, at the very least, wishing them good health in the new year. I was not able to do either, but seeing everyone’s cheerful family photos and heartfelt messages reminded of my first Chuseok (Harvest Festival) in South Korea.
After earning my bachelor’s of arts in landscape architecture last May, I decided to spend 5 months in South Korea to expand my understanding of Korean cultures and landscapes. With that goal in mind, I found a family running a “pottery farm” in Gapyeong, a rural county east of Seoul, who would let me live with them.
The “farm” was first and foremost a guest house and pottery workshop. They also owned a few modest plots of farmland, but it had been planted only a year prior to my arrival. This odd arrangement made more sense knowing that the family of four, the father, the mother, the son, and the paternal grandmother, were recent transplants to the countryside of Korea.
All four had lived and raised their only child in Seoul, South Korea’s most populous city. As the city became less livable for them — high rent and a stagnant economy coupled with selfless Korean work culture — being an invisible cog in the corporate machine became unbearable for the father. He felt that by continuing with the status quo, he would die living an empty life— a feeling shared by many in South Korea.
He started desperately searching for a way out and found others through books and blogs who had given up the bustling city for a self-sufficient life in the countryside. These people, the first brave (or cowardly) souls, removed themselves from the corporate box in which they were living, because they could not handle the pressure of the Korean job environment or were seeking ways to live a more meaningful life. Like them, the father devoted so much of his life paying towards a life he would never be able to enjoy.
In Korea, adults are expected to support their family until their children can support them. This system obligates the breadwinner (usually the father) to work tirelessly for the family at the expense of his own happiness in exchange for the promise of being cared for in his old age. If the Korean people have a motto, it would be “Everything for the family.”
The father loved his family and had no reservations about doing everything in his power to support them but also realized the accepted path of working mindlessly for his company would not lead to long term happiness. He dreamed of living a simpler life away from all the ills of the modern Korean economy. For him, taking the pay cut and living without the same luxuries was worth it if he and his wife could pursue their passions — woodworking and pottery — and were able to spend more time with their son.
The family sold most of their possessions, took out a number of sizable loans, and convinced their paternal grandmother to join them in their adventure. At first, the move was tough despite his clear vision: a new lifestyle without the same conveniences and a foreign place without the old friends to fall back on when times were tough. The family also went from relying on the father’s regular paycheck to spending what savings they had along with the unsteady profits of their newly-minted guest house. It was a huge gamble. If they could not turn a profit, they would have lost absolutely everything.
Even though their old home was only two hours away by public transportation, it seemed a world away.
Thankfully, they were determined — especially the father — to continue on the road less traveled. The son smoothed over their bumpy driveway over a long weekend while the grandmother prepared plums for fruit wine. Meanwhile the mother meticulously decorated each room with traditional Korean paper, and the father built a trail around their home. Together, they made Gapyeong their permanent home a little over a decade ago.
A few years after they truly settled into their new home, their only son was accepted into an university in Seoul.
The pursuit of higher education is seen as a necessary component for personal success in South Korea, and the son moved back to Seoul to pursue a degree. Even though the distance between Gapyeong and Seoul could have been easily bridged, visits home became sparse as school and friends became his main obligation. He would come home every few months to help around the house, but his mind was always focused on assignments he needed to finish. However, Chuseok was one of those special times when he could singularly focus on his family and take time to appreciate how they had helped shape him as an individual.
Chuseok had a different meaning to older members of the family.
The Harvest Festival was one of those few times during the year when members of a family had a reason to set aside their work or academics and to spend a few days with their oldest paternal figure. In this family, the eldest was the grandmother living in Gapyeong with her youngest son and her son’s immediate family.
Every year, her three sons, daughter-in-laws, and grandchildren all made the trek out from wherever they were to celebrate this special time with her. They brought their happiness, their regrets, and most importantly, their love, to her.
This year, her oldest son passed up the event in favour of traveling abroad. It was the only time he would have all year to focus on his own needs instead of his company’s. In his stead, he sent his youngest brother a picture of himself holding up a large fish he had just caught, his smile almost bigger than the fish itself. The two younger brothers that were present joked that it wouldn’t be enough for dinner and handed their mother the phone.
“Why didn’t he come?,” she kept asking while looking at the photo.
She put the phone down on the table but picked it up again and gazed longingly into his bright smile. She could not fathom why her own flesh and blood would not come visit her during Chuseok.
In reply, the youngest son sent his rebellious eldest brother a picture of songpyeon (traditional rice cakes) preparation.
“That’ll make him jealous.”
I hope it did.
Looking back on the three weeks I lived with the family, that was the only time the grandmother expressed an emotion that was not happiness. Even when I clumsily tried to crack open freshly harvested pine nuts and sent the shells flying all over her room, she would just laugh and then motion for me to watch her time-tested technique. I would give it another go, this time more gently. The pine nut would explode all over the room again, and she would just laugh and put a handful of peeled pine nuts in my mouth.
After all that she has been through, the only thing that could possibly faze her is her family.
A once stable and promised construct, the Korean family is in the midst of a structural shake-up. Even this family that has faithfully upheld their duty to their elders to this day is not immune to the forces of the economy.
Children, especially those from the countryside, move away from their parents in order to better their education and job prospects. There is a long-held belief that if one attends a good college and moves to the city, one will be able to land a steady job with a reasonable wage and benefits. With the intense competition that has risen from this singular mindset, the expected path to success remains a far off prospect for many in the son’s generation. Despite the odds, people pursue this empty dream in hopes of fulfilling their familial duty and will likely fail to do pay for their elderly parents’ expenses.
Despite all the festivities, there was tension in the air.
The son was graduating in a few months with a degree in economics. In any other time, he could have found a job in the public or private sector near his parents as arduous as that process might be. But this was not any other time, and finding a job anywhere in Korea was as rare as winning the lottery. He has thought about going abroad — there would be jobs for him there — but that would mean visits once a year at best.
The old system of obligations that kept that families close-knit is falling apart.
The intensely competitive job market in South Korea sometimes forces youth to take jobs wherever they can find them — even if it means moving away from the family and friends they have known all their lives. No longer can members of a family come together multiple times a year to celebrate festivals and birthdays. They have to settle for one or two special days in the year, and they are sure to make those days count. It is these special holidays like Chuseok that remind them that even in this uncertain world, family will always be supporting them.
The old system that obliged children to care for their parents is no longer feasible.
I asked the son what he planned on doing after graduation.
“I have no idea. I need to make money, but I want to be near my family. I also want to do something I care about instead of just working in an office.”
“Maybe you should start a brewery. With the way young people’s tastes in alcohol is changing, it could be a worthwhile venture.”
“It doesn’t sound like a bad idea. There’s already many wineries in Gapyeong. Maybe I’ll talk to my dad about it. Maybe this way I can do something I care about without having to move abroad.”
The old system doesn’t work anymore.
But somehow, some way, whatever it takes, they will make it work.
That is what being a family is all about.
I owe the Park family my thanks for allowing me into their home and to tell their story. Thank you for all the beautiful memories!
Special thanks to Youngjun Na, Manning Huang, and Jennifer Siu for editing.