I truly admire traditional Korean culture, and while staying in Korea I have found plenty of opportunities to enjoy it. Yet at the same time, it is sometimes difficult for me to find a meaningful relation between traditional Korean culture and those practices that gave birth to it. Culture in this case seems to exist as something on its own and may appear more like an ideology or a silent expression of a distant past, than something alive. As such, it tells me little about here and now, about what I personally experience in my Korean everyday.
This is not to say that one should focus on the present and forget the past. On the contrary! For Koreans, more than for any other culture I know, present and past continue to coexist, often in schizophrenic and difficult ways to resolve. My point here, however, is not to talk about the present or past but to show that if culture is an expression and experience of a certain way of life, then "poetics of Korean everyday" must be part of what we may perceive and understand as Korean culture.
Sympathy for Mr. Oh
Mr. Oh used to have a small workshop in Wangsimni, a peculiar old neighborhood that many Seoulites pass through, but few have actually visited. He moved there in the early 1980s and started a small manufacturing business. Many workshops of his kind can still be found in the area and one easily gets a feeling that the time somehow runs slower in Wangsimni. Yet this first impression quickly disappears when one realizes that, due to harsh competition, local people have to work very hard in order to meet the tough demands of their clients.
Mr. Oh's company used to produce small metal parts for a major contractor in the area. The income was not high, but good enough to keep his business running and to maintain a rental apartment for his family. Mr. Oh recalls the very close and friendly relations with other local entrepreneurs and neighbors in Wangsimni. He was about to buy a small apartment in the neighborhood, which he really seemed to enjoy.
At the time of Korea's financial crisis, however, Mr. Oh lost everything. Literally overnight, his small business went bankrupt, leaving him with no income. He was left on the street together with his family.
Mr. Oh moved to Pungdong, where rents were lower and he could afford renting a small room. Pungdong was probably built in the late 1970s, like other neighborhoods in the area. But all that one could see there was a huge fenced void of land waiting to be redeveloped. No signs of the old neighborhood were left. Several years ago, Pungdong became part of an ambitious plan to construct 60,000 new dwellings in Goyang city. Local government and a construction firm were fast enough to make an agreement with existing homeowners to clear the way for rapid redevelopment. When his landlord sold his property, Mr. Oh was again left with no place to go. Many tenants found themselves in a similar hopeless situation, but decided to stay in Pungdong despite the ongoing threat of eviction. They believed they had a right to a place to live.
Regrettably, the construction firm had a different agenda. What the remaining tenants got was not a dialogue about their rights, but jopok, the notorious local construction "goon squad," hich went about with forceful evictions, setting fires, and demolishing people's homes. The pressure resulted in greater solidarity among the tenants, who moved and lived together in one of the last remaining buildings, nicknamed "Villa Hope." Although his new home was often under pressure from the jopok, Mr. Oh retains memories of a few moments of joy among people defending their rights. After more then a year of uncertainty, Villa Hope was eventually demolished. Yet in their struggle, the tenants forced the construction firm to provide them with public housing, when the redevelopment of Pungdong was completed.
Mr. Oh has never looked for sympathy from anyone. At one point he asked only for an understanding of why his experience, of which many others may see as a Korean everyday, was so difficult. For him, Villa Hope continues to be a symbol of a struggle for an equal place in the Korean everyday.
Understanding Everyday Life
Everyday is built on contradictions. At the same time, it is about ordinary and exciting, routine and uncertainty, inertia and invention, struggle and delight. It is a moment of dominance, but it is also a moment when conformity can be broken and hegemony contested. Everyday life is not only about oppression; it also opens ways to pursue alternatives and diversity of cultural expressions.
To grasp the everyday is to reveal the universal in the particularity of the mundane and lived experience. But the relation of the latter to the specific local traditions and places doesn't necessary mean that everyday should be approached only from a national point of view. National culture and tradition do play important roles in framing everyday practice-in Korea probably more than elsewhere-but to grasp the everyday it is necessary to deconstruct and pluralize the national. Only in this way it is possible to understand the different ways that modernity articulates itself within and beyond the national scale. Cultural theorist Ben Highmore is right to point out that it is precisely by bringing together global generality of modernization with the specificity of local traditions that the everyday becomes a particularly appropriate perspective for cross-cultural study of modernity.
Mr. Oh has faced social inequality, exclusion, and political indifference, which are not something particularly Korean. Villa Hope could have been seen in any urbanized country of the world. Yet it is its very articulation and expression that are so meaningful for understanding the Korean here and now.
Happiness for Everyone
In pursuit of the poetics of the Korean everyday, I have recently accepted an offer from the Korea Foundation and joined the home-stay program organized by a network of devoted volunteers. I met a very nice Korean family and spent a wonderful weekend at the eastern fringes of Seoul. While driving back home, I noticed a giant banner next to the road showing an attractive housing development immersed in calm green landscape. "Leading the way in building happiness for all" was the message blaring below the image. So it seems another part of Seoul is going to be redeveloped. To my surprise, the banner was from the same construction firm that had attempted to bring happiness to the tenants of Pungdong with the help of construction goons! The banner somehow represented all those contradictions of Korean everyday that Mr. Oh had talked about.
In the end, understanding the poetics of the Korean everyday becomes not just a way to grasp Korean culture, as I argued before. For me, it also becomes a way to understand my own culture and to reflect on everyday experiences in Slovenia.