Finding Sustainable Joy Where I Live 내가 사는 곳에서, 지속 가능한 놀음 찾기
Written by Nayoung Kim | English Translation by Mirae Lee
What does it mean to live in your place? This question offers a chance to reflect on life from two perspectives. First, an introspection on how I am in the place where I’m physically located. Second, a reflection on how I am living as a member of my society. We live in a particular society, a particular physical space, with many people. Even if we’re frustrated with the endless competition and the pressures of self-improvement created by neoliberalism, we tell ourselves, “But let’s still try to live a good life,” and search for happiness and value in life in our place. This is the normal flow of our lives. For me, aging in place refers to growing in the place where I’m physically located and all the struggles and processes of living together in my society and community.
My reflection on life begins with an exploration of my identity. This identity is formed through interactions with the environment connected to me, such as the country, region, and people around me. As the environment changes, my identity becomes split in various ways and sometimes even ceases to exist. I’m a woman in her 20s who was born and raised in Korea. I have various identities as the youngest daughter of an ordinary family of four living on the outskirts of Seoul and as a member of Korean society. Around 15 years ago, I was a student at an elementary school located at the foot of Yongmasan Mountain. Five years ago, I was a freshman who entered a university in Sinchon. Currently, I’m a new employee struggling with her social life at an arts and cultural institution in Daehak-ro for the first time. And in a few months, I’ll become a foreign worker.
Korea remains a place that I have a strong attachment to, because I was born and raised here, but paradoxically, because I’ve lived here for a long time, I feel a sense of boredom with this country and society. I have developed an irritation for its collectivist atmosphere that puts individuals into a collective framework and its Confucian culture that strictly calculates age to determine one’s ranking. I feel tired of adults forcing me to follow old-fashioned ideas disguised as words of blessing, saying, “You should get a job, meet a good man, and get married soon,” when I’m still at an age where I want to play and explore many things. Why are there so many people in this small country and so many sociopolitical ills? Every morning, when I cram myself into the subway on my way to work, I suffer from extreme stress. The flaws revealed by Korean society eventually plunged me into terrible pessimism. It was natural for my interest to look outside of the country. The world outside this country appeared as a “good place,” where everyone was free and happy. I couldn’t even find an attachment to the neighbourhood I moved into five years ago and decided to just live as a stranger. I separated myself from my physical space. I depreciated and neglected the value of the country and neighbourhood I live in, the people living here, and everything close to me. Even if my environment couldn’t be perfect, I remained completely oblivious to any aspects of it that I should value and treasure. I was young and immature. I had a defeatist attitude that getting out of here was the only way to live well.
It was only recently that the winds of change started to sway me. The passage of time naturally brought the seeds of change to my stubbornness. As the pandemic forcibly limited my movement and shifted the social paradigm, my life entered a new phase. The perspective I had directed only to the outside world began to curve inwards to the country, region, and neighbourhood I live in. I started paying attention to my community and the things around me. And I asked myself: “Could I find newness from the familiar things around me?” My heart trembled with excitement at the thought that I could find new joy in my boring life. I was greeted with liveliness, not a flat image compressed by maps and photos, as I looked carefully at the places in my neighbourhood, which I had regarded as just a background of the streets I walked every day, and I began to approach the neighbours that have been enlivening the place. I realized that I had been busy looking outside of my physical space without even trying to know what was inside my physical space. Using this change as the starting point, I decided to diligently nurture and refine the way of life that suits the current ecology and conditions by communicating with things around me. The change I experienced unfolded in three aspects as I began to look back on my role in the community and my identity formed by interacting with the environment.
1. The discovery of the local
Chang-dong, Dobong-gu, Seoul. This is where I live. It’s a residential area in the north adjacent to Gyeonggi-do rather than at the center of Seoul, with minimal political and cultural influences. It’s a neighbourhood with an aging population consisting of mountains, parks, and many apartments. But even in the seemingly-boring Dobong-gu, local culture is blooming, centered around small business owners, rather than franchises and large companies. What I found interesting was that the local cultural foundation was collaborating with small bookshops hidden in alleyways to issue regular publications and widely share the residents’ simple lifestyle through social media channels. They introduce small shops that have been around for a long time and share stories of long-established stores that have filled the stomachs of many residents with warm food. Local small business owners, whose incomes were decreasing due to large supermarkets, could connect with the residents. The local economy started to regain vitality as the values we had forgotten from being tamed by the taste of franchise restaurants were once again illuminated. As young business owners built nests among the old stores, the quiet streets became crowded with residents of all generations, from children to the elderly. The neglected green spaces have also been cultivated, serving as resting places for residents.
I used to drink coffee made with beans brought in through unfair trade at famous cafes in Hongdae, where I had to take the subway for an hour to get there and wait in a long queue. Now I walk along the pathway at the foot of the mountain and breathe in the fresh air from nature. On my way home from the walk, I go to an old restaurant and fill my stomach with a generous meal filled with the owner’s love. I feel comfortable and refreshed because it is less burdensome financially, requires less effort, and has lower chances of bumping into crowds. I could find happiness nearby, but why was I only looking for things far away without paying attention to the things around me? We can easily find new joy anywhere if we explore our neighbourhoods.
Discovering the local doesn’t end with personal joy but is more meaningful when it’s an expansion of a movement to sustain a healthy society. As the global economy destroys the environment and threatens our daily lives, there are growing voices supporting localization to strengthen the economy centred on communities and regions. At a time when an infectious disease can spread globally, the return to localization has been highlighted as the only solution to stop the race of globalization, which proliferates global capital. Activist Helena Norberg-Hodge, who pioneered the idea of “Big Picture Activism,” stated that if individuals can unite in resistance to the raging wave of globalization led by transnational corporations and organizations, we can enjoy a happy future regionally and globally. Change begins with small actions that shift perspectives from the world to the community. I seek and develop a direction for a hopeful life by discovering diverse values in my community. Being a “local adventurer” and exploring the hidden beauty of my community is fun and rewarding. There is joy in recognizing that my small actions can contribute to the revitalization of the local economy and create sustainable value. The discovery of the local is a healthy first step towards living well in my place and contributing to the sustainable future of the local community.
 Helena Norberg-Hodge, Local Is Our Future, 2018.
2. The search for what I can do
We establish our sense of self through labour and grow from it. We engage in various activities to learn new things, such as taking classes, participating in clubs, or volunteering, since it’s human nature to want to discover value in life through work. Of course, you can live life without doing anything, but it’s clear that the act of moving our bodies and using our brains while doing productive tasks adds to the richness of our life. What’s important is that you don’t have to travel far to find something fun to do because there’s something fun happening every day where we live.
As the return to localization grows, the trend of creating a local culture centred on local organizations and companies is also growing. In my neighbourhood, local arts and cultural organizations and various public institutions play this role. They ask themselves, “How can we live well with our neighbours?” and “How can we have fun together?” People who have a connection or affection towards the neighbourhood come together to create something new. If you look carefully at what these people are doing and their roles, you realize they’re a very diverse group: grandfathers sitting in the neighbourhood park’s gazebo at the same time every day and laughing while playing janggi, ahjummas gathering at the community center’s swimming pool at dawn to wake up their bodies, and young artists coming together after a day’s work in the late evening to share their creative work while dreaming of a better tomorrow. It’s an image of people living together in a small and ordinary neighbourhood, looking for happiness in their daily lives while continuing to pursue joy. The various forms of life seeking their role within their place and interacting with each other add vitality to the neighborhood.
I’ve been finding joy these days in visiting an independent bookshop near my home on my way from work. Although small, the place is filled with the shop owner’s affection for books. If you have a light chat with the shop owner, who greets every customer with a warm smile, the stress accumulated from the day will be relieved like melting snow. Purchasing one of his recommended books is the best way to end the day on a cheery note. He even invited me to a Sunday reading club at his bookshop, but I was still too shy to talk about books in front of people, so I carefully refused. An interesting activity that I chose instead after snooping around the local cultural center’s website is a plogging contest. As people’s awareness of the environment increases, various environmental protection programs are happening in the neighbourhood, including this plogging contest. If you run along the river in the neighbourhood for a certain period, pick up garbage left around, and verify your running record with photos, you can receive the “Eco-friendly Resident” badge. I didn’t realize that there were so many opportunities out there that allow you to learn more about your communities, get close to your neighbours, and further contribute to social values while doing something that I like. What role I play and what kind of person I can be in the place that I live depends solely on my attitude and decision.
 Janggi, also known as Korean chess, is a strategy board game.
3. The emergence of a loose solidarity
As social animals, we encounter numerous people throughout our lives. When considering the dictionary definition of “society” as “all forms of human groups living in cohabitation,” exchanges with others and connections with communities seem to be essential elements of life, not a choice. We can confirm our existence as humans and find stability in the vast universe called society because we have a place where we belong, a family who cares for us, and friends to share our happiness and sadness. Otherwise, we’ll become anxious beings buried in constant isolation and loneliness, ceaselessly questioning the value of our existence. Through connections with others, we can ultimately confirm our identity, share warm solidarity and love, and enjoy a rich life. But unfortunately, many problems are found in modern society due to excessive connections with others. Internet networks connecting people worldwide subordinate people to extensive networks. We suffer from unintentionally encountering news of lovers we broke up with a long time ago and deal with privacy issues as our recent whereabouts are reported to strangers across the sea on the internet, without realizing it. As such, we’re plagued by unwanted connections with others in modern society. However, these excessive connections are not a problem that only occurs on the internet. Neighbours who overstep boundaries also cause fatigue. In particular, in a society like Korea, where groups are prioritized over individuals, “being nosy” gets covered up as “care” and stresses individuals. We’re entangled in groups whether we want to be or not. In this society, human relationships, which should be the source of happiness, act as the source of unhappiness.
As someone afraid of the emotional labour involved in the relationships with people who know me well, I have consciously distanced myself from everyone. Due to the loneliness, I would eventually find people again, but repeatedly push them away before I could strengthen my connection with them. While shouting, “I want to be alone, but I don’t want to be alone,” I discovered a relationship with moderate distance from others connected by a small common point: the concept of loose solidarity. I felt thirsty for people at a time when face-to-face activities were decreasing and participated in a local art group at the recommendation of an acquaintance. Various people of all ages and genders, who appear to have nothing in common, gather at the same time every week at a local café with a common focus on the arts. We would chat enthusiastically about art, philosophy, and life, without even knowing each other’s names. They knew what books I was reading, what movies I enjoyed watching, and what I was thinking about life these days, but they didn’t know my job, financial means, or personal concerns. Instead of logical explanations and persuasion, the language of this space consisted of honest feelings that would come to us momentarily and intuition shared freely. Understanding and respect have been established in the absence of prejudice and bias. The people here were protecting themselves in their own small world, but within these moments shared at the cafe, I could feel that everyone’s worlds were connecting. If the existing strong connection-based relationships offered fatigue, this new type of relationship became a healthy stimulus to my daily life and a driving force to start every day with excitement. This moderate distance allows us to exchange a part of each other without unnecessary emotional consumption and materialistic calculation. It allows me to exist as entirely myself when I’m with them. We all have our own space, and as we come together, we can find joy in getting to know others and discovering ourselves in the loosely connected community.
To live with others and lead a “healthy life,” we have to secure our own individual space. The individual space, which provides room to care for ourselves, should be valued greatly in modern society, where connections or networks are increasingly tightening. I’m not saying we should stop offering love and compassion to others, but to establish a moderate distance with each other so that we can each have our own space. In this era, when the concept of a social safety net is disappearing, the loose community created with our neighbours can fill the gap in our relationships with each other. Loose solidarity is also a concept that rebels against the social atmosphere that mass produces people with typical, conventional characteristics by fixing them to a social framework. The relationship of loose solidarity breaks away from a society that imposes standardized values, opening up unexpected possibilities and bringing coincidences into our lives. It works by inserting noise into the statistical typicality defined by society and creating variations to the rhythm of monotonous life. Breaking away from strong connections that bind individuals, we can find new joy in our repetitive daily life as we encounter various opportunities through coincidences and atypicality that loose relationships bring. If you look for diversity and possibilities in familiar spaces that always seem to be the same, you will see a clear change in the rhythm of monotonous daily life.
I can’t predict what kind of identity I’ll be living with in one, ten, or fifty years. I may be an auntie who participates in spinning classes every weekend at a local gym in Seoul, or a grandma on the other side of the world, like Buenos Aires, baking bread every morning. But the one thing I can be sure of is that regardless of social status and material affluence, I’ll still be happily embracing the process of aging while interacting with everything that makes up my space and my community.
Nayoung Kim. A person who longs for a moment of disarray in everyday life. She believes the world should go round according to people with crooked perspectives of the world. She likes music, movies, and traveling. She pursues microscopic joys and writes about culture and lifestyle.
Doaama is an illustrator recording the everyday life of Seoul. She’s been living in downtown Seoul for six years since leaving Ttangkkeut Village in the southern sea. Living in Seoul, which has been dull and boring, she draws her nostalgia for the times before. She hopes the calmness she’s found through drawing will reach those who view her illustrations. | IG: @_aamado_