Korea: Greenhouse for my grievances?

FRIDAY, 13 FEBRUARY 2004

As I read through the 1996-1998 material, I got the strong impression that Korea had been an incubator for my grievances, and for my insecurities and fears. I was somewhat surprised when I read through the material and saw how much poison I had spat in that time over “suburbia” – things like “the bane of suburbia”, “I hate suburbia now more than ever” and “culture and art die in suburbia” (just to name a few of my favourites).

What exactly was my problem with life in a middle-class suburb? The architecture of the place isn’t exactly comparable to old European cities, but my goodness, what do you expect? The average suburban garden is also not Kirstenbosch, but the average suburban citizen is not Cecil John Rhodes! And what is a barbeque on a Saturday night, Christmas meals, birthday parties, rugby on TV, and late afternoon walks with the dog if not culture? And “art dies in suburbia”? Give me a break!

Nevertheless, I feel compelled to stand up for myself. Suburbia was to me about more than just the architecture of three-bedroom houses – or any other version of a suburban house, or the number of flowers in the front yard or dog droppings in the backyard. It was a symbol of a broader phenomenon in society, where people constantly peer over the proverbial fence to see what how the neighbours are doing, in what clothes they’re walking around, what model car they’re driving, and how often and to where they go on vacation. Status in this community is like a devil that forces people to do things they never thought they could devote an entire life to. How are success and failure measured in the middle class? Money and professional status. A man beats his wife? That’s terrible, but it would be much worse if he were a financial failure as well. The Johnson children are doing well in school? That’s nice, but did you hear that the father is changing jobs again? A man or woman who doesn’t know how to spell morality, but “did you see they’re driving a new BMW?”

Of course, it made a difference that my own family had tasted dust on the wrong side of the line. Of course you’d have some difficulty with grievances when you get up off the ground. I could nevertheless not fail to confront myself with the question of whether “they” were right, or whether “something” was wrong with the “whole thing”.

How do I feel today about the socio-cultural phenomenon that is middle-class suburbia?

I have mentioned at some point that I no longer have a problem with the idea of a pleasant three-bedroom house, a nice garden, a lawn mower, two dogs and a car (and I know the middle class is about more than just that). I can take this position because in recent years I have taken the concept of middle-class suburbia that had so haunted me in Korea, pulled it apart, and closely examined exactly what it was that had bothered me so much about the place, and what aspects are actually quite innocent – like the poor dog, and the lawn mower. I finally realised that it is not about the house or the garden or the neighbours, but about what you do to afford life in the middle class.

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