[Viewpoint]Been there, done thatA few days ago, I went to the Cheongpung Lake in Jecheon, North Chungcheong. It was a short yet impressive trip. While the cherry trees were patiently waiting for spring, the picturesque drive around the lake was beautiful, regardless of the season. It was my first visit to the Cheongpung Cultural Park, located at the top of a mountain on the lake. As a village was going to be submerged underwater because of the construction of the Chungju Dam, old houses, towers, schools, dolmens and tombstones had been moved and rearranged at the park over three years from 1983.
Surprisingly, the old houses in the Cultural Park were very familiar. Calling it a cultural asset felt awkward because it represented the structure of the type of house we all used to live in and the things we used when we were young. Anyone in my generation or older would have felt the same. I was happy to see the familiar tools from my childhood, such as plows, rakes, baskets, mesh bags, straw rain capes and porcelain night stools. It has been a long time since I last saw old farming devices such as threshers and a cotton gins. The house that must have reared silkworms had brushwood and silk production on display.
I could almost smell the smoke from the kitchen fireplace. We used to kindle pine twigs and firewood to prepare food and warm the house, but at some point, people switched to briquettes. Now, I live in a house heated with oil. Most of the tools found in the old house were made with materials easily found around us. I couldn’t find anything factory-made. The house represents an age when people had very little in the way of material possessions and money, and they are the ones who have watched the world change around them.
When I look back, I used handmade utensils and cutting instruments as did people older than me who experienced the Japanese occupation and the Korean War. They are the living witnesses to modernization.
On the way home, I stopped by at a local agricultural co-op branch to withdraw some cash. By the small cashiers window was a bowl of candies. Of course, they were free. The co-op also had a complimentary coffee vending machine. In the old days, the candies were the ultimate object of desire and I was reminded of Professor Cho Zhang-hee’s memoir. The 72-year-old director of the Neuroscience Research Institute at Gachon University of Medicine and Science is an international leader in position emission tomography, or PET. In 1962, he was greatly shocked when he went to Sweden to study at Uppsala University. He had never seen elevators or vending machines before, and he was fascinated by lights with motion sensors and hot water coming out of the shower.
He was also taken by the fact that Sweden was covered in thick forests, as the Korean mountains had been stripped bare for firewood.
He was also surprised when he found free writing instruments prepared in each classroom for students’ use. Dr. Cho wrote that when he went to Sweden for the first time, his plane ticket cost $550. Korea was so poor then and the flight was a huge sum of money at the time. So he had to get approval from the prime minister to study abroad.
We often say, “Been there, done that.” Literally, the older generation in Korea has been there and done that. They have experienced colonization, war, modernization and industrialization, extreme hard work, democratization and most recently a financial crisis a decade ago. They were at the scene and didn’t miss a beat. So they are veterans who began with the most basic tools and adapted to the latest products.
The younger generation complains about poverty and unemployment, but its suffering cannot be compared to what the older generation has gone through. What people are going through now is nowhere near as bad as what the older generations experienced.
So I am not afraid about what’s happening now.
No one knows when the financial crisis will end, and we can’t be sure when we will hit the bottom. But Korea has already “been there” and it has already “done that,” an experience that will play a pivotal role in overcoming the crisis.
*The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
By Noh Jae-hyun