[FORUM]Putting Horseshoes on a Dog's Paws

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[FORUM]Putting Horseshoes on a Dog's Paws

One of my Japanese friends recently visited our family. My friend, who was making her first trip to Seoul, had never stayed with a Korean family. After her two-night three-day stay, I asked what had impressed her the most. I had taken her to the Secret Garden, the Korean folk village, several large department stores in Gangnam and a musical performance at the Opera House of the Seoul Arts Center, so I wondered which of these trips stood out especially in her mind.

My friend's answer was something unexpected. "Ondol," she said, referring to the heated floors in Korean homes.

Maybe it was because the weather had suddenly turned cold. I gave my friend a Korean-style bed and thought that she would be comfortable sleeping on the floor because the Korean and Japanese bed styles are very similar. My friend seemed to like the warmth of the under-floor heating.

Her comment made me think of the the housing customs of the Korean people again. Do we take full advantage of our ondol?

According to a report by the National Statistical Office, 47 percent of nation's households had Western-style beds as of 1997. In Korea, 92 percent of households have wardrobes at home, 76 percent have chests of drawers and 61 percent have bookshelves. Nearly 56 percent of our households have desks and half have dressers.

In rural areas, about 22 percent of homes have beds, suggesting that a large majority of families in urban areas use them.

In apartments, it has been a long time since sofas took their places in living rooms, where under-floor heating is provided. Some families even use rugs and sofas in the main living rooms of hanok, Korean style houses.

In the living rooms, where families relax and greet guests, sofas are a great convenience, making it much easier to sit down and get up when greeting or serving guests.

But bedding is something different. You do not have to get up and lie down frequently when you are sleeping, so a bed has no advantage over sleeping on the floor. Furthermore, in Korean households, people take off their shoes inside homes. In cultures where people wear shoes indoors, beds are necessary to make a clear distinction between the bed and the floor.

Even though that rule does not apply to us, in Korea, beds are now more commonly used than sofas.

Could that mean that people's preference for ondol heating is changing? The answer is no. Whether they live in apartments, townhouses or individual houses, heating systems are almost all ondol. Despite the rapid developments in housing, and the increase in modern facilities to accommodate changing consumer tastes (or perhaps leading those changes in taste), I have never heard of a new housing development in which ondol is not used.

In fact, during the early stages of building apartments in Korea, some builders used steam radiators for the living rooms in some units, but customers complained. Because builders all still remember such failures, they have not repeated the mistake.

I asked people around me why they prefer a bed to sleeping on the floor. Aha - now I understand. "No need to fold up and put away bedding," they said. Yet some people use electric blankets on beds or look for beds that have heating units embedded in them, hinting that they are still nostalgic for ondol heating.

That contradiction of living in ondol-heated homes but still looking for ondol beds hints at some distortions in our living style. It could suggest a deep-rooted respect for foreign cultures, especially Western living styles.

We have destroyed the beauty of the Korean language by mimicking the pronunciation of Western languages, and our streets are filled with signboards with names of obscure foreign origin.

The rule of living in a global community is accepting good parts of all cultures without discrimination or preference. At the same time, we have to be cautious of falling into the trap of thinking that everything foreign is great but everything Korean is shabby.

Trying to adopt foreign customs without discriminating among them is, like the saying goes, like putting horseshoes on a dog's paws.


The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Hong Eun-hee

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