Sunday, April 13, 2008

The fishbowl of rural life, exaggerated for a former president

A few aspects of this story about the "fishbowl" in which South Korea's former president is living struck me as interesting in relation to the rural. Journalist Choe Sang-Hun notes that Roh Moo-Hyun, who left office only in February, returned to live in his natal town, the tiny village of Bongha in Southeast Korea, population 121. While his approval rating was once as low as 30%, crowds now throng to the small town and chant outside his gate for him to make an appearance, which he does several times a day. Choe notes that, while many of the nation's presidents have hailed from rural areas, they have chosen to make their homes in Seoul once out of office.

How interesting that in a country associated with such a single massive city, Seoul, that a number of presidents have hailed from rural places. Indeed, in a country so densely populated, I find it amazing that "rural" places still exist. When I visited South Korea about a year ago, I was driven through the area where the former President now lives. I recall our guide talking about these "rural" parts of Korea, although the Koreans I met tended to refer to their entire county outside Seoul and the country's second city, Busan (less than an hour from the former President's home in Bongha), as "rural." Indeed, some areas through which I passed did look "rural." Some small-scale farms still exist, and in many ways, "country life" looks quite different to that in the city. Plus, at least in the Southeast where I visited, vast areas are essentially unpopulated and apparently unusable for agriculture because of the country's mountainous terrain.

Here's a passage from the story that reflects various rural themes or stereotypes:

“I didn’t particularly like him when he was president,” said Lee Soo-in, 22, a college student. “But it really feels good to be able to see a former president up close and see where he lives. He feels like an uncle next door. We don’t have such intimacy with other former presidents. They all maintain an authoritative, boring persona.”

Other visitors included a kindergarten teacher and her 67 students. The teacher said she brought the children so that they could be inspired by Roh's "rags-to-fame" story. The former president's family was too poor to send him to college so he was self-educated, even passing the bar exam without attending a law school.

These comments raise a few questions and observations related to the rural:
  • While the former president's presence has improved the economic lot of some locals, I wonder how they feel about the crowds who come day in, day out, apparently all day. It must be disrupting their routines in ways that are not altogether pleasing.
  • Would the former president seem "like an uncle next door" if he were living in Seoul? To what extent does his decision to return to his obscure, rural home cloak him in this persona?
  • In what ways does Mr. Roh's rural origin enhance his "rags-to-fame" persona? Perhaps his return to his home town gives Koreans a reason to wax sentimental about their own rural past, something I observed many doing when I visited last year. Indeed, from the generation who came of age after the Korean war, an era of rapid industrialization for the nation, I heard nostalgia for their rural past, even as they also acknowledge the wealth associated with their urbanized and high-tech present and future.

No comments: