City slickers find peace in the boondocks

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City slickers find peace in the boondocks

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Seo Yeon sat watching the alder woods across the Pyeongchang River, enjoying the afternoon sun. The peace was disturbed when his young daughter Seon-jae, visiting him from the city, asked him, “How come you live like a hillbilly here and not in the city like other dads?”
“Because I want more than a hectic life in the city working as a salaryman,” he wanted to say. Instead, he pointed across the river and said, “Because even the breeze is beautiful here, like the lotus flowers.”
This was Mr. Seo's sixth year living alone in the hills near the Pyeongchang River in the mountainous Gangwon region. He was away from the city, where he used to work as a television producer. He now farms safflower fields for his living. But his wife and young daughter refused to follow him to live here because of the convenience and comfort the city provided.
As another answer to his daughter's questions, though, the 46-year-old started writing an essay about his new life. He wrote about becoming patient and understanding the depth of life, nature and the importance of meditation. He jotted down notes about the suffering he went through as an amateur farmer as well, such as leaving the safflowers vulnerable under a midsummer hailstorm. He also admitted that his mother's favorite phrases about farming were wise. “Picking out the weeds during a famine is as good for the soil as spreading manure,” he would quote his mother in the text he was composing. After two years, the essay, “The Wind from the Alder Woods was White,” was completed; it appeared in bookstores last month.
Mr. Seo's book is one of about 100 that can be found in bookstores at the moment about going back to the farm. The Korea Rural Economic Institute found that more than 56 percent of 3,000 adults it surveyed said that they have a longing to return to the countryside. Although that longing was wishful thinking ― only 10 percent said they would actually be willing to quit the city ― the institute said that indeed, the number of rural residents has been slowly rising since the 1997 financial crisis.
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As if to reflect that trend, Park Ji-ung, an editor at Homi publishing, says there has been a rise in the number of new books about going back to the farm.
“The books usually are newcomer’s guides written by early settlers for those hoping to come from the city to settle down as well,” he said. Another new book this month, “Wild Flower Story,” is a combination of essays and photos by Park Yeon, an environmentalist, who moved to Pocheon in Gyeonggi province with her family in 1982. Enough time has passed since then, she said, for her to adjust to rural life. So her book focused on teaching city residents about the natural life in the countryside. In the book, she describes how she catches fresh-water fish from the nearby river and distinguishes edible herbs from wild flowers to prepare a peppery fish stew for dinner. For dessert, the book explains, she serves a basket full of cherries and blueberries that her family has cultivated on her farm. She added lots of pictures so people could learn the names of the wild plants and insects they would come across in the rural area.
But she says Pocheon is developing, becoming another urban place. “Did you see the new furniture factory at the entrance to the town? I might as well move further into the valley, maybe toward Cheolwon,” she said.
Ms. Park is a woman willing to give advice to newcomers and she was also determined to protect her rural life from suburban encroachments. But Jang Jin-young, a cartoonist, says he had no other choice than to move to Gang-hwa Island located off the coast of Incheon. He had lost his job, his family had no more savings and his wife had no better plan when he suggested that they move somewhere else, where housing and necessities were less expensive.
His new comic book, “The Story of a Slacker Farmer Building a House of His Own,” was subtitled, “A tale from a helpless man struggling to run from the city,” emphasizing humorously how rough his start was. But he was an optimist. Once a cartoonist for a Seoul newspaper, he said he disliked drawing political cartoons and was not all that upset when he lost his job. When his friends pointed out that his children would be deprived of educational benefits if they left the city, he laughed and said, “Then they will be less competitive in this society but they will have more fun learning from nature.”
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In the book, he says he was happy that everything cost less on Ganghwa than it did in the city. He was delighted that he could choose a house among so many deserted homes and live there for 50,000 won ($52) a month. He said he also appreciated his neighbors’ rural hospitality; they allowed him to borrow every tool he needed to fix up the house. In addition, the country men liked to gather often and have a few drinks at the end of tough day. But he realized without a regular income, it was impossible to pay even the low rent on his still rundown house. Furthermore, without land to farm, he had to shop for groceries and that required money too. So he ended up buying a piece of barren land with all the cash he had left, and announced that he would start farming and build a house of his own as well. “My wife jumped up in fury, saying the idea was absurd,” he said. The land he was able to purchase was a remote, secluded plot, so isolated that the asphalt road did not reach that far.
He succeeded in building his house, and his book ends at the point where he convinced his family to build it and how he slowly adjusted to rural life. A new comic book, he added, will explain how he built the house over the course of four years.
Even with the help of an in-car navigation system, this reporter could not find his new house. “Oh, that slacker cartoonist from the city,” said a neighbor when he was asked for directions. “He lives in the middle of an empty rice paddy.”
Further out of town, a small house with a yellow earthen wall and a slanted roof stood alone in a field. With his neighbors’ help, he made earthen bricks from soil, cut down trees to use for beams in the house and scavenged cast-off building materials from construction sites. The front door of his rather attractive, traditional Korean-style home is part of the remnants of an abandoned house he came across in a slum area that was about to be razed and redeveloped.
“Four years have passed, but I am still working on this house,” Mr. Jang said. “The wall on the north side should be at least 300 millimeters (about a foot) thick to block out the cold, but it’s only 250 millimeters thick now.” He also wanted a warmer floor, tighter windows and better plumbing. He was fixing things one by one as he went.
He said he was happy, and that even his friends envied him now. Not only had he made his dream of having a house of his own come true, a house that included a spacious workroom for himself and his wife, also a cartoonist, but he had learned how to relax and was enjoying his life as a farmer.
“I also have a small paddy where I grow my own organic rice for my family,” he said.
But not everything was a sweet dream for Mr. Jang. It wasn’t the bad harvest or the cold winter when the family wanted to give up their rural adventure and pack their bags to go back to urban life. It was the trouble they had fitting in in a neighborhood they said they considered overfriendly at first. They considered their new neighbors boorish and nosy, until they began to understand that the news of the next door neighbor’s cat giving birth could be big news in a small town of nice people.
“There is a reason why I call myself a ‘slacker’ rather than a ‘real’ farmer, though I might look just as boorish,” he said with a smile. “Even though my neighbors are kind people, it would be an insult to them for me to pretend to be a real farmer yet.”


by Lee Min-a

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