I paid a visit recently to Eupdo, 읍도, the small island where my wife was born and lived until her family moved to mainland South Korea when she was a small child. Her grandmother is the last remaining member of her family on the island. I was initially apprehensive about taking my eight month old on boat and my fear reached a crescendo when I laid eyes on the small ancient looking fishing boat that would take us to the island. When I found out there were no life jackets I almost refused to board; my wife can’t swim and I wasn’t certain how long I could stay afloat with a baby strapped to my chest. I found one of those foam circular life preservers and stationed myself and the baby next to it. My confidences weren’t restored when gallons of water came splashing onto the deck through drainage holes in the side of the boat.
Despite my fears, we arrived safely and I was immediately glad we came. I’d had a certain image of what mainland Korea would be before I experienced the country and was disappointed to see that I would be living in and surrounded by, not the traditional Korean houses I’d envisioned, but drab concrete apartment blocks that seemed to come straight out of Soviet era Russia. Eupdo, on the other hand, was what I’d pictured Korea to be. The houses were built in a more traditional style than the drab apartment blocks dominating much of the South Korean skyline. My father-in-law gave us a walking tour of the island, pointing out where his family’s house had stood. He showed us where he built the house my wife was born in on the other side of the hill.
As we walked, I listened to my father-in-law have several entertaining conversations with the old men and women squatting in front of their houses.
“Oh, Auntie, how are you?” In Korean culture you don’t call one by her name unless you are friends. Auntie is an affectionate, polite term.
The woman answered in a low raspy voice. “What, what? Who are you.”
“It’s me, Lee Tae Young. I was friends with your son.”
“Oh my! When did you get so old? When did you turn into a grandfather?”
The woman hadn’t seen him in almost thirty years.
Another comical exchange took place with a man who looked no less than one hundred years old who was occupied scrapping moss out from between bricks with a bit of a stick.
“Hello, grandfather,” my farther-in-law said, again using a polite term of affection for this old man who was not his actual grandfather.
“Hello, who are you?” The old man responded.
“It’s Lee Tae Young. I was born next door to you. Right here!” My father-in-law pointed to an empty lot where a house had once stood. “Remember? We then moved across the street to a bigger house?”
The old man looked confused. “There was a house there? In that garden? Are you sure?”
“Yes, grandfather. I’ve heard you’ve become forgetful.”
We learned the grandfather had grown up a few hundred yards from where his current house stood. He didn’t get along with his father and brother so built a house further up the hill. In a way it reminded me of Royersford, the town I’d grown up in. Although it is only 35 miles outside of Philadelphia it too was at one time isolated from the outside world by the river, woods, and cornfields that surrounded it. Geographically, and somewhat culturally, it was a place unto itself, before strip malls brought the McDonalds and Kmarts, before the woods were cut down to make way for tract housing and the cornfields turned into parking lots, before urban sprawl made much of the North Eastern U.S. into a megalopolis. Before that, people knew each other or knew of each other. Families had a history, roots in a place that gave them a certain connection and pride to where they lived.
There are only a few inhabitants left living on the island full time, and I’d guess most of them were over seventy. There was a mass exodus from the island in the late 1980’s during the economic boom. The inhabitants of the island wanted to be a part of the rapidly modernizing mainland. Instead of sustenance farming, oyster farming, or fishing, they took jobs as rice farmers, postal workers, and taxi drivers. Many of the houses and public buildings have fallen into disrepair. The school we passed was completely engulfed in ivy and tall grass that two black goats fed on. Two things struck me as strange after my tour of the island: there were no cars and no stores. No billboards or flashing neon signs. Just people, their houses, and their gardens.
All around the island there are small and large gardens where the few remaining inhabitants grow vegetables. In the sea there are traps for catching crabs as well the long metal cages of clam farms. Even though family members bring supplies from time to time the island is self-sufficient. It has a well, a reverse osmosis purification station, enough food from the gardens and the sea, and electricity piped in from the mainland. Many of the houses have large blue plastic tanks that collect and store rainwater for non-potable uses. The houses have refrigerators and stoves but many preferred to use the outdoor wood fired stove to prepare dinner. Compared to the mainland there has been very little change on Eupdo in the past one hundred years. In talking with the island inhabitants, it’s clear they wouldn’t want to live anywhere else. Life on the island is life as it should be. Life off of the island is foreign, it belongs to a time in which they do not exist. My grandmother-in-law has seven children and scores of grandchildren that would gladly take her in but she wants to live on the island. When we showed up at her house she was preparing leaks she had picked from her garden. Later she loaded her walker with a small sickle, trowel, and other dangerous looking tool I wasn’t familiar with and shuffled, stoop shouldered and hunched backed, a kilometer up a very steep mountain to one of her gardens, stopping only to chat along the way with her neighbors.
I’m not trying to idealize life on the island. Life isn’t easy and can probably get very boring and a bit dangerous as the nearest hospital is on the mainland. But it made an indelible impression on me. It made me wonder how many of us living in cities would be able to survive and thrive in such a situation. I watched my barley mobile 90 year old grandmother-in-law summit a small mountain and pick what I think were radishes with a smile on her face and a song in her throat. It occurred to me that the way of life on the island is the antithesis of life on the mainland, as well as life in America (especially suburban America).
It’s not a new idea but it’s something American’s have to start embracing: self-sufficiency and a connection to our communities. What if the grocery stores ran out of food tomorrow? How long would it be before millions of people starved to death? What if clean water no longer flowed through our taps and there wasn’t fuel to run our cars? I don’t think there’s some catastrophic event on the horizon but shouldn’t we be more self-sufficient when it comes to our basic needs?
One way we can do this is to start building Smart Communities that are economically and environmentally more independent and sustainable. Like Eupdo, if a community had all of its needs on premises there wouldn’t be any need for cars or asphalt roads inside the community. If everything was in walking distance cars could be parked outside the community. With alternative power sources becoming more affordable and reliable a community could generate much of its own power. Instead of having mega-strip malls, whose parking lots cover beautiful and useful spaces, smaller stores would be community and needs based.
If a handful of septuagenarians and octogenarians can live fruitfully, sustainably, and happily on an island off of mainland South Korea, then, with our vigor and technology, imagine how we could transform our urban and suburban America. The future is ours to write. We can make the changes. We can start from this very moment or, we can wait until we’re forced to change, after we’ve burnt up all the fossil fuels, covered our beautiful American spaces with soulless tract-housing, super strip malls with parking lots the size of small countries, and crass chain restaurants. Let’s not wait until we are forced. Let’s start now.
Author Joshua Lorenzo Newett is a novelist and English lecturer at the Korean Naval Academy in Jinhae, South Korea where he lives with his wife and son. He is interested in evolutionary biology, the Cold War, international relations, existentialism, British roadsters, sailing, jujitsu, East Asian history and cultures, and literature. His first novel, Saving Bill Murray is available here, His second novel, Wine Tasting is Bullshit, is forthcoming.