Imagine you are walking along the streets of downtown Seoul, enjoying the usual scenery of the city: skyscrapers piercing the sky, metro stations connecting everywhere, and people busily walking with Starbucks Americano in their hands. You would probably pass by towering, fancy buildings that share the same look, people strolling in the park listening to K-POP with their Samsung phones, and kids playing with their I-pads at a café. After getting the general feel, it wouldn’t take long to realize that Seoul is a modernized city. It has been developed through technological innovations that have enabled Korea to rapidly transform from the destruction of the Korean War to a wealthy and developed country.
While such development has indeed made progress, it has also turned Korea into a place where people try to modernize everything with their endless obsession with what they call something ‘newer’ and ‘better.’ People pay attention to new I-phones, strong wi-fi connections, and tall buildings, yet hardly show reverence for their own traditions like architecture, music, and art. All the amazing traditions and spiritual values are considered merely ‘old-fashioned’ and ‘undeveloped’; thus our unique culture with its centuries of history have been ignored. As an ardent lover of Korean traditional art and music, I have been deeply concerned about our culture, being discarded by our society. I do believe that now is the time to bring ‘nostalgia’ to the country in order to make people pay attention to the ‘past’ with affection, not just simply devoting to the ‘future.’
Here’s my personal story of how I became concerned about the diminishing values of traditions in Korean society. Nine years ago when I first arrived in Korea after spending my entire childhood in Tokyo, I was eager to learn about my motherland and figure out what my true identity was. After deciding to reach out to learn various aspects of Korean culture, I attempted to learn the Haegum from a friend of my mom who worked as a teacher of traditional music.
When I first looked at the weird-looking instrument, I doubted that it would create a beautiful sound. However, as soon as I listened to the tune that the two strings made, I fell in love. It was amazing. It was unique. It was definitely not what a violin or cello could make. It was a sound that only belongs to the Haegum. I continued learning the instrument for eight years, and played it in various places like schools, churches, and local community centers. What I liked about the Haegum was not its mere sound; I loved the story behind each song and the beauty behind its dynamic melodies. Through a number of performances I had in different places, I was hoping to spread the beauty of Korean traditional music called Gugak. I hoped people would get to know that this music could be just as beautiful and entertaining as the classical music and K-POP that most people prefer. I hoped they could be mesmerized by the beauty of our music just like me who absolutely fell in love with Gugak. I hoped they could realize that things from the past could be just as beautiful as things of the present and future.
However, it was heartbreaking to see how most people reacted. People said Gugak is so outdated and old to appeal to a wide spectrum of people. They said Koreans no longer identify themselves with antiquated music like Gugak, but rather choose to listen to K-POP like Big Bang or Psy. They said people would never choose traditional folk songs over the viral songs of idols. They said we should create something more modern and new, rather than regenerating things from the past.
It was not just music that they treated this way. They also thought the same way for pretty much all aspects of the society: architecture, social infrastructure, art, pop culture, and so on. They believed that there is no point of focusing on traditional culture as it does not equate with progress.
I would say that the way in which old things have been undermined may have been understandable in the context of a country trying to forget its history and develop as quickly as possible. A lot of people do believe that since modernization has been the driving force of rapid economic development of Korea in the twentieth century, that we should continue pursuing fast, rapid, and massive development. However, I am frustrated that such an attitude would lead us to losing our cultural identity. Discarding our traditional values would eventually let us lose the cultural richness of a country with five thousand years of history. The country built upon Confucian ideals with abundant cultural traditions would end up being a country that only has high broadband speed and tall, shining buildings. What deeply concerns me is the loss of spiritual and cultural values we would face after the endless longing for technological development.
I believe that now is the time to take a step back from the aimless pursuit for modernization and bring nostalgia to Korea. Let’s take a look at the intricate beauty of Hanok, the Korean traditional house; the sophisticated tunes of Gugak; and the virtues of ancient Korean society. There are definitely various values that we could learn from the past and apply to the modern society so that we can preserve our cultural uniqueness. I also think that there is a role for people like me who have an understanding of Korean traditions to reach out and spread the idea of appreciating our unique cultures. I envision that Seoul in a decade will be a vibrant city with a perfect harmony of its fascinating cultural heritages and technology.