On our afternoon walk yesterday, Suhee and I decided to visit one the of older parts of the Dae-dong neighborhood which, in striking juxtaposition, is set up against a new set of 30-story residential towers. Both are common today in Korea, although the old mazes of mixed residential and commercial alleyways are slowly being redeveloped for the towers.
I lament that fact as I walk into the neighborhood. To me, the wide parking lots and empty landscaping of the new towns in Korea — executed with technical perfection — always seem to be missing things like vibrancy, life, and a connected community.
These thoughts are on my mind as Suhee and I wander down into the old neighborhood.
Not too far down the alleyway, I am questioned by a serious, but friendly looking man who asks “photographer?” I nod my head in agreement, an action which is met with a flurry of Korean words from the man. I smile and glance back at Suhee, motioning for her to hurry up.
As Suhee comes, the man is quick to introduce himself and invite us to take photos of his home. “There are lots of interesting things to photograph in this place!” he says.
A few photographs later, we’re sitting down watching this man, Hyunsung Park, delicately and methodically make three coffees for us. He could pass for a barista, if it weren’t for the fact that they were instant lattes from three tiny freeze-dried coffee packets. But then, many Koreans, especially the older generations, tend to approach their actions with care and dedication, even if it is just making an instant coffee.
He proclaims himself “Madame Park” (Madame is generally the title of a server in old-school coffee joint and bars in Korea) in attribution to his excellent coffee making skills. Suhee and I laugh, but I think he was serious.
Mr. Park is a retired policeman. A large swath of family portraits adorn his living room wall; six daughters and one son, he tells us, “we didn’t stop making kids until we had a son.” There’s your Korean dedication again.
What takes up the larger portion of his wall is a collection of rocks. Most of them are from the Han River. Natures perfect art, he calls them, not one is alike. He likes that we are photographers; telling us that a cornerstone of life is the appreciation of art. He motions to three points within his living room and adds that every household should have three things 1) a calligraphy writing, 2) a painting, and 3) some form of ‘nature’ art.
The rocks are his nature art.
We sip the instant coffee — which was actually pretty darned delicious — and Suhee talks a bit more about our film project, photography, and my just having finished postgrad studies. I am amazed at the rocks still.
In his college days, Mr. Park tells us he was preparing to be a lawyer, but his father suddenly passed away. Because of the immediate need to support his family, he went into law enforcement instead. “I did it because I could pass the test without studying… being a lawyer would have taken more study, more time… I didn’t have time, I had to support my family.”
It was necessity for him, but as he tells us, there is no bitterness to that, or to any turn of events in his life, and no regrets. “Life is like a series of waves… this was a big wave, my years in college…”
His wave analogy went something like: you either learn to ride the wave (flow with life), you recklessly paddle your way around (struggle against life), or you give up (drown).
I liked that. Even better than “life is like a box of chocolates.”
And so thirty some odd years later, he is a retired policeman in Daejeon, and very happy with where the wave took him. “I am in the calm part of the ocean now” says Mr. Park, “I go to sleep early at 9pm, wake up early at 3am, and immediately go for a long walk up the hillside… I’m very busy with visiting my family, and writing a book.”
I comment on his seemingly strong body and mind, adding that I hope I’m in such a state at 70-something years old.
Mr. Park replied with a smile, a handshake, and some parting words for us: The exercise is part of my strength, flowing with life is part of it too, but the first thing is not to be greedy. Greed destroys your body and mind… I’ve lived a life with little desire for money or rank, so I am happy with no stress or worries.
A life of few desires, it sounds like an ideal goal, we tell Mr. Park.
Too much desire only creates problems. Even my house, this neighborhood will be torn down for more redevelopment soon. I will miss it. I like this place. But it’s just another wave.