2012/06/23 | 645 views | Permalink |
It's something that has interested me for some time now – where is Korea's suburban life? While it may not be the right question to ask as Korea's population is set to crack the 50 million mark, but it fascinates me to think that Korea lacks this vital component of my upbringing and social sense of the world. Clusters of tall apartments are the mainstay of the Korean sense of home and neighbourhood community, You can even see them lining the countryside where you would think the space would suggest an alternative housing plan possible. Of course there are economic, social, and, perhaps most importantly, geographical considerations, but my main interest in this lacking element is its effect on the Korean population, particularly families.
I recently asked one of my high school students how often he sees his friends' families. "Not that often, maybe once ever three months or more", he answered. Probing further, I asked whether it was common for families to get together to have dinner or Sunday lunch at someone's home. "We don't really do that, and if we do, it's short because it's kind of rude to come to someone's house and eat their food". I have often seen Korean families meeting up in, what I would consider, strange or unusual places like pulling out tables in front of their small stores and sometimes their places of business as well. Young kids run around the street after the meal, while the parents drink and chat like you'd expect when good family friends get together.
Functional, but not personal.
But it all sounds and looks a little off – like watching someone read a book at a baseball game or a woman putting on makeup on the subway. Surely there are better places to have such events? The short answer is "no". Korean housing does not allow for some of the things a Western mind would consider normal in their upbringing. Having family garden, private bedrooms for everyone in the family, a basement, a garage, a backyard, or even a swimming pool. These things are alien concepts in Korea that exist only on their TVs as they observe Western life.
Now, of course Korea has a number of unique characteristics that have perhaps limited their choices when planning housing. Geographically Korea is not very big at all, and given its population distribution, there is little sense to even consider any other possible solution. Cultural aspects are involved here too, as perhaps the idea of living in such close quarters is not so bothersome, or even noticeable, to local residents. Cultural philosophies are also at work and maybe that is something that plays a bigger role than I could comment on. From Korea's strong sense of collective self to traits of efficiency and productiveness, the housing situation in Korea is nothing less fascinating for the outsider.
The American Deam?
Having a nice house in the suburbs and raising a family while pursuing a rewarding career probably falls under the concept of what many might refer to as the "American Dream". I am not from America, South Africa in fact, but I can't imagine suburban life being drastically different in this regard. I haven't yet asked a Korean what they would consider their "Dream" to be if they had to word a Korean equivalent, but from what I have seen in my time here, I would imagine that characteristics of their home would be less of a make or break factor for them. Don't let those K-dramas fool you folks. That is nowhere near how the average Korean lives.
Families often sleep together in one or two rooms, pulling out and folding away mattresses when they are needed. Small apartments play home to perhaps four or more members, with nothing more than the walls around you to call your own. Why would you invite your friends over to hang out in your room? Two or three families crammed into a small apartment, even a decent-sized one-no thanks! I thought the sibling rivalry I had with my sisters was bad, but putting us in close proximity like this would have been like...well you might as well have put a cage around us and given us sharp tools.
Modern Korean houses can be quite attractive, but what's missing here?
My point it that the Korean home seems more of a docking station than a place of sanctuary and comfort. Korean's are famous for their 'get things done fast' approach to life. The economy has developed so rapidly in the past 60 years, and in the process they have (and continue to) climb the ranks of the international community. Fathers work long hours, perhaps only coming home around 9 or 10. Mothers generally stay at home and usher kids from one private academy to the next. And if it's not school they are sending their kids to, it's some other form of activity (swimming classes, Lego classes, sports classes, piano classes, etc.). Buzzing bees indeed. That leaves little time for home enjoyment and all the things that come with it. 'Building a home' seems like a useless task here, as there is so little flexibility allowed within the walls and they have very little property to call there own in the first place.
Koreans work extremely hard, but are their homes a sanctuary or just a pit stop?
Growing up, I perhaps went through about five or six homes. As we moved into each one, my parents would, over a few years, plan and work on the house. They saw it as an investment whenever it came time to sell. Perhaps a new garden shed needed to be built or an extension was possible off the main bedroom. Changes were planned and budgeted for and we were always rewarded by both a better home and a higher resell value when we decided to move on. The most Koreans have is to redo the wallpaper and cleaning up a bit. There is no room for such lusty planning or changes.
Kids rarely get the chance to go swimming, but these ones found a way around it.
Space. This is probably the area that would prevent me from ever settling in Korea. No garden or grass to call my own, nowhere to kick a ball around or enjoy the sun in privacy. My childhood would be crushed if I had to relive it under these circumstances. The idea of having a garden is one that I think Korean's would particular enjoy. Take a stroll around any neighbourhood really and you will see Koreans trying to grow plants and vegetables almost anywhere they possibly can. Sometimes their choice seems absurd, but the desire is there. Even in apartment complexes, people have found a way. Just head on up to the roof and you will find an array of Kimchi pots and sometimes other veggies hanging out.
The Korean Dream?
But for me, the garden is where the lack is, and I think it underscores one of my personal heartaches about Korean culture, their relationships with animals. Back home, if you have a patch of grass or something outdoors to call your own, that space will usually be patrolled by a dog or three, perhaps even a cat. Owning a dog without having the space is a cruel concept in my opinion, and it is maybe this lack that lines Korean's view on pets in general. Surely a family home is not complete without the love of some critter? Or am I just being too idealistic here? Anyway, pets don't have it easy in Korea, and most are often confined to the same apartments as their owners, or tied up outside with a very limited freedom to move around.
Doesn't he deserve a garden?
Out of all the things that I would say Korea is lacking, a strong suburban community would be close to the top. This is because I think it impacts a lot more areas of daily and social life than people realise. From Korea's youth trudging from one class to the next and dads staying away from their homes and families for the better part of any given day to mothers staying at home cleaning and ushering kids in and out, there is something missing here that really ties down the idea of a family home. Community is bit part of this, and having at least the option of people come over to talk and eat in comfort is the bread and butter of my childhood.
- C.J Wheeler ([email protected])
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