We Can’t See the Forest through the Trees
A couple of years ago I was in class and I told the students they can ask me any questions they have, thinking and hoping the questions would be related to the schedule, the course, or the syllabus. However, the question I got from one young man in the back of the class caught me a bit off guard. He asked me what I thought about the use of Hanok-style structures and buildings around the university campus. I hadn’t thought much about the subject before this question so I had to think on my feet and quickly come up with a response. I told the inquisitive student that I believed the use of such buildings seemed unnecessary and extravagant, which seemed to be a satisfactory answer for him. I saw heads in the room nodding in agreement with what I had said but felt uneasy about my knee-jerk reaction to a question that, in hindsight, probably required a lot more thought.
The same day I told my co-teacher about the question and he had a different perceptive on the issue of hanok buildings around the university. He said that over the past ten to fifteen years, Jeonju has slowly been reinventing itself as a cultural tourist attraction and, as often is the case with many places around the world, the main university of a city is often part of the tourist experience. When I visited California in the United States, I felt I had to see the university campus at Berkley. So in this context it would seem the university has made a conscious decision to be part of the wider vision of the city of Jeonju and even become a focal point for visitors and residents. In fact, the campus has always been a landmark for people to meet up at. The old gate (구정문) is where I have been meeting up with friends for the past ten years.
My initial response to the question about Hanok-style buildings around the campus was based on the idea that there are more pressing matters to spend money on such as classroom equipment and facilities but that was a very narrow view of the issue. Now as I walk around the beautiful campus and as the trees come into bloom, I am thankful to be working at such a vibrant and culturally important place. I am very proud to say I live in such a dynamic city which isn’t afraid to change, even in the face of negative reactions to such developments. The university is not shying away from the traditions that make this country so great while at the same time embracing and welcoming others from places far away, such as me, to witness the merging of past traditions with the innovation of the future.
I hope the young man in my class who asked that question that day now walks among the wooden pillars and the 기와 roof tiles and realizes that sometimes we can’t see the forest for the trees.