How much do you care about your neighbor? To your grief, you may very well struggle to say "yes" with confidence, largely because that is just how most urban Koreans are living. Faced with this uncomfortable reality of cold city life, here we have Sung Mi San village, ready to unfold small yet snug village anecdotes.
▲ 1 A board at Small Tree cafe, informing street music show
2 Pyon Hae In (right) and Yo In Seo (left), students fromSung Mi San School
Village, Where Health Sprouts
"The Rosetans were healthy because of the world they had created for themselves in their tiny little town in the hills," reads the prologue of Outliers, a best-selling book praised for its research on supernormal people. The Roseta, a tiny village of Italian immigrants, has long boasted startlingly high life expectancy compared with adjoining communities—with its heart attack rate hovering at half the average American rate.
Everything ranging from diet to genes seemed to play a role, but nothing actually accounted for this phenomenon. The secret later unveiled by Stewart Wolf, to the chagrin of modern medical technology, held very little relation to physiology. The eluding secret was rather simple—so simple for a controversy that ignited great fuss among experts. It was the "village" itself. The loving care among villagers turned out to have lengthened their life span by insulating them from the chill of desolate city life.
▲ 3 A flag accusing Hong-ik institute of breaking promise
Their Journey Still Goes On
As its name signifies, this village is nestled on the gentle slope of Sung Mi Mountain, a relatively undeveloped region in Seoul. If you imagine a stereotyped picture of a village with dozen houses densely clustered within a fixed boundary, then forget it—your imagination will soon crumble from the very beginning of your visit to this village.
It has no geographic boundary, first of all. Both members and non-members of this village are jumbled together, forming something like a mosaic, an art piece made up of tiny fragments of different colors. This extraordinary village first came to the scene when several parents co-founded "Sinchon Woori" kindergarten in 1994, the first alternative kindergarten that pursued eco-friendly nurturing. Following the footsteps of this kindergarten, Sung Mi San school appeared a decade later, along with many other cooperative associations.
As the village grew bigger, more people came seeking an eco-friendly life. Founded on such hopes of life-with-nature, these cooperative associations, by origin, are village-sponsored organizations. The sponsors, all of whom are villagers themselves, monitor the entire process from manufacturing to selling. Among them are the 15 cooperatives that accept both money and duru, the virtual cash used by villagers. And how do they earn this cash? It is simple—when they bring their secondhand products to recycling store, they are rewarded with roughly a half of the original price. This store then procures small profits by in turn selling them. This way, one person’s rubbish becomes another’s bargain, reaffirming the eco-friendly enthusiasm of villagers.
Crisis, however, slowly loomed large in this village. In 2001, Sung Mi San, the very symbol of the village, was considered to be the most suitable location for a water-reservoir by Seoul city council. This plan faced an instant backlash by villagers, followed by fierce local demonstrations and a public hearing at the council. Two years of protest, finally, yielded fruit—the construction project were canned. But still ongoing is the tension with neighbors who do not belong to this village.
"We have been on a bumpy ride since the very foundation of the village, but perhaps most urgent now is the uneasy relations with neighboring people. Our attempts to ward off destructors from the village often clash with those of pro-development neighbors" said Nuri, the representing chair of the village. Another buzz that sparked their nature-friendly zeal involves a protest against Hongik foundation, which sought to bulldoze Sung Mi Mountain itself to construct school buildings. The power that rescued their mother mountain was due in large part to the faith that tied villagers together.
That may partly explain villagers’ love for this small community. "This village is the very embodiment of our communal dream" said she, recalling the rugged history that the village has walked on. "The future urban community should be the one that pulls diverse groups of people, closer, including sexual minorities, elderlies, youngsters, and unmarried people," she concluded, leaving the question to be dealt with later.
▲ 4 Names of donors carved on the wall of Small Tree cafe,
5 A view of Small Tree cafe
6 Free book cafe where anyone can stop by
Living Out the Meaning of Education
No more silence in class. No more sleeping in class either. At Sung Mi San School, such a pathetic picture of Korean education has long been replaced by heated discussion, group projects, and most notably, farming activities. "As an eighth grader, tomorrow I will go to Pyeong Chang city to help seventh graders pick up what they have grown by joining their harvesting session" said Pyon Hae In, an eighth grader in the school. A farming activity, as its name implies, is designed to give city students a chance to spend one year in the remote countryside—for seventh graders at Sung Mi San School.
Still ongoing is their pursuit of nature-friendly education. "We plant seeds and grow vegetables even after we come back from the farming year, although the size of the farm in the city is tiny," continued Pyon, with her characteristic vivacity. As every 15-year-old girl is, she and her friend blushed a lot when speaking, but were confident in voicing their own opinions. These two girls criticized pro-development activities, with such logic that is hardly detected in fatigue-stricken city students whose education demands only passive listening.
Based on such real-life education that places emphasis on participation, the students from Sung Mi San School had their own viewpoint on social issues—they joined a 256km walking ceremony from Uljin to Milyang, as a means of demonstrating against transmission tower construction in Milyang city, undeniably the hottest potato in Korean society. Kang-Jung village in Jeju Island, another hotspot of ongoing tension over the issue of constructing a naval base, is the next stage for these "teen activists."
This is not the only startling difference in education. Everything this school harbors is far from familiar rigidity that looms over the rest of ordinary Korean schools. A smaller version of the candle-night movement takes place once a month by turning off every light in the school to remind students of eco-friendly life. Still, most salient is perhaps the way it deals with "grading." As its liberal running style hints at, it does what it is expected to do—it goes without exams. "As a matter of fact, we join in a group project, mainly consisting of essay writing and discussion. The traditional grading system, be it an absolute or relative one, is the last one that my school would
consider," concluded Pyon with a wide grin.
Sung Mi San School, from its very establishment in 1994, has rarely adhered to a predictable narrative of other ordinary schools. Being the oldest institute, which harbingered the advent of the village itself, its thingness in this small community is just sizable. Recalling its history, the growth of the school is unlimited; and, so will be the Sung Mi San village itself.