Grown in Korea
Seoul is the city of excess; there isn’t a city block free of a cafe or barbeque joint. Koreans live in luxury unimaginable for those who witnessed Korea’s impoverished past and yet, many living out their youth today feel poorer than ever. The exponential growth that made food cheap and easy to access also starved its citizens of their own humanity and of the ‘affection’ that binds all Korean people. And so many are rebelling, returning to the land in search of the flavours of life.
Starting from the 1960s, policies promoting industry moved people from the countryside to the city, where one’s status, money, and power were valued above the common safety and prosperity. The rapid growth of these industries led to incredible abundance for the nation, but left individuals with a void where the Korean sense of ‘affection’ (정) once resided. What could also be translated as love or camaraderie (but doesn’t come close to expressing all of its meanings), ‘affection’ is what makes a stranger share their lunch with the person next to them or a neighbour check in on their elderly neighbour whom they’ve only met once. Rather than being able to share the joys of life with others, people have been isolated by competition. They fill the ensuing void with cheap thrills, the addicting taste of instant gratification that leaves them groggy and empty in the morning.
Sick of the deja vu, people started searching for a taste of their grandmother’s cooking, of homemade sauces and handmade kimchis. No matter the region, there was a common ingredient: the communal ‘affection’ that bound Korean people together. ‘Affection’ was borne out of a necessity for villagers to farm together difficult crops like rice. What would have been too difficult to do alone was made possible because of communal efforts. Realizing what they had lost to the affluence of the city, people rejected the individualism that thrived on competition for one that supported each member regardless of their last name or address.
Couples and families, in order to build more joyous lives, moved out of the city to farm, to live more simply by their own hands. Some were able to establish communities, not all bound to the same plot of land. Technology and a shared social consciousness allowed them to reject the overflowing table of manufactured excess for a more meagre table of seasonal colours and flavours. This reimagination of the village unit allowed them to savour every weed and wild grain, to enjoy each day in joyful company.
Life is not any easier as a farmer. It is in fact much easier to avoid the sourness and bitterness of life at the city’s endless restaurant choices. But those that work the land realize that suffering can be found in every kind of life. The only thing we can do is to savour and appreciate every flavour. Even the sour and bitter notes, the tastes we always hope to avoid, can be welcome in the right company, for they make the sweet moments that much sweeter and the spicy moments that much spicier.