Living within a community of friendsA decade ago, when people began talking about the new millennium, a group of coworkers spent some time thinking about the kind of life they would like to lead in the 21st century. In the end, they envisioned a life within a community, and considered their neighbors important. “Coexistence with nature surrounded by good neighbors was our ideal,” said Park Jeong-rae, 47, an executive of Cheil Communications.
That vision became a reality, as the coworkers decided to move to a rural village in Yangpyeong county, Gyeonggi province. It’s difficult to even call it a village because only four families, consisting of 18 people, live there. Over the past seven years, they perhaps have come to know every detail about their neighbors. There might be discomfort in living so close together or clashes among them. But nobody wants to leave. In fact, they are quite happy.
Kim Hyeon-jung, 40; Park Dong-jun, 40; Seo Chang-gyo, 40; and Park Jeong-rae are the heads of the four households in this village. They work for, or have worked for, Cheil Communications. They first considered moving out of Seoul in 1993, when Mr. Kim, Mr. Seo and Park Dong-jun, who joined the company that year, discussed the matter.
“Working at an advertising agency, we often had opportunities to go abroad,” Mr. Kim said. “There, we saw that many people who were close relatives had built houses on the outskirts of a city and lived together.”
On weekends, they all went to look for property on which to build their houses. In 1996, they found a site ― a piece of land covering 3,630 square meters (39,072 square feet) on a riverside hill near Yangpyeong.
By the time they were ready to sign a contract, the total expenditure for the project, including construction costs, was estimated at 800 million won ($800,000). Thus, they decided to seek financial help from their friends, Park Jeong-rae and Kim Chang-ryeol, who wanted to have a temporary weekend home. They agreed on at least one thing ― to share the financial burden equally.
“Thinking about it, we were so ignorant. We had trust in each other, and no problem in financial matters,” Mr. Seo said.
The biggest barrier in leaving Seoul was education for their children, but the problem resolved itself. Mr. Seo’s wife is a middle school math teacher and Mr. Kim’s wife is an English teacher, so the two teachers helped each other out by giving the children after-school lessons. Mr. Seo’s wife also volunteered to teach math to an art teacher’s children in return for art lessons for her children and those of the other community members.
Living closer to nature turned out to be a wonderful aspect of their move. In spring, broad-leafed plantain, lettuce, honey locust and dropwort grows in the area and is handpicked for cooking. In summer, seeing bright starlight and shooting stars makes it feel as if they are in an astronomical observatory. In fall, leaves begin turning red from the outskirts of the village, and in winter, sloped rice fields become a sledding ground.
As time passed, some residents became close enough to address each other as “brother.”
In the last seven years, there have been changes in the lives of the villagers. Park Dong-jun returned to Seoul, while Mr. Kim went to work at another advertising agency. Park Jeong-rae and Mr. Seo were promoted at Cheil. Their children grew as well.
But, the residents’ love of nature remains unchanged. On a mailbox in front of the village, a sign says, “Mailman, a bird has built a nest in the box, so please leave the mail in front of the door.”
A small number of agricultural studies professors at Seoul National University who lived in Yangjae-dong, southern Seoul, came up with the idea of building a housing complex in the countryside so they could live together among friends. They set up a community in Yongin, Gyeonggi province, in 2000.
“Most of the professors studied abroad and became familiar with living in a house rather than an apartment complex,” said Kim Su-eon, 52, an applied biochemistry professor.
The project began in 1997, and is now undergoing an expansion. However, the community differs from the original plan, since only two households out of seven are headed by professors. After the land was purchased, the 1997-98 financial crisis struck, and five of the professors backed out of the project.
The two remaining professors did not want to randomly select their new neighbors, so they let the five professors recommend candidate families to replace them in the planned village. Among the families are those headed by a retired corporate executive, a former general and an executive at a government corporation.
“We are on very frank terms,” Mr. Kim said. “We are open with each other and can visit each other at any time.”
In the beginning, the group encountered a number of unexpected problems. Actions taken with benign intentions or without much consideration caused damage to neighbors. Take for example a decision to apply pesticides to trees in the yards and farms. One family sprayed pesticides before the others, causing insects to move to other households that had not done the spraying, and ruined their harvest.
“Living together is always like this ― trouble,” Mr. Kim said. “But we can always have good things to laugh about.”
At the end of last year, the seven households decided to establish common rules. Mr. Kim drafted the rules, and Jeong Uk, a Korea Investors Service official, polished them.
Among the 23 rules is one stating, “When it snows, everyone needs to clean up the snow.” Another involves shared responsibility for repairing roads.
The rules may sound too specific or bureaucratic, but they are a product of four years of trial and error for the group.
“Unlike an apartment complex, where everybody is on their own, there are a lot of things to take care of [here],” Mr. Kim said. “But the effort we make will make us all better neighbors.”
by Choi Min-woo, Namkoong Wook