Change is in the Jeju wind
Change is in the Jeju wind
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Community the key to facing cultural upheaval

Jeju is going through an unprecedented period of development. In the process of modernization, indigenous cultures everywhere have been transformed, with arguably mixed results. With change comes growth and excitement.

However, change can also be stressful and bring about a sense of loss.

The Jeju provincial government is developing six major projects simultaneously, plus the controversial naval base and the airport’s free trade zone. Since 2006, when Jeju became a Special Self-Governing Province, there has been a great push toward innovative methods for developing Jeju's economy, with a goal of becoming an “international city.” A strong economy is surely good for Jeju society — but what does this mean for its culture?

In the government’s “People's Charter,” one goal is “to give rise to a new culture based on our traditions.” Culture, however, goes beyond foods, festivals, and costumes. Culture is a set of ideals and values that creates meaning for a society. One’s thoughts, feelings and behaviors reflect the values and beliefs of one’s culture; in turn, each individual is an active agent of culture, helping to define and develop it.

Development typically brings about several changes: a move from subsistence to wage-labor occupations, replacement of indigenous languages by that of a dominant culture, increased emphasis on formal education and a decrease in traditional social relationships and beliefs. With this comes social stressors, as indicated by increases in chronic illness, divorce, suicide, domestic violence, crime, and alcohol and drug use.

Jeju has experienced many cultural shifts through the ages; it’s people are no strangers to change and adversity. Many express concern, however, that their traditional culture is waning, and there are indicators: a marked decrease in the use of Jeju dialect, adoption of international foods and lifestyles, decreased familiarity with one’s neighbors, and pollution that indicates disharmony with nature, among others. When polled recently, Jeju citizens reported feeling “less safe” than previously. This may be attributed to an increased crime rate; it may also be a result of “stranger anxiety” as the number of foreigners living in Jeju province has markedly increased. Indicators of social stressors as listed above are also prevalent.

Cultural preservation is a universal paradox: how does a society modernize and internationalize, yet retain its traditions? As Jeju’s culture is also a tourist commodity, the folk villages, public shamanic rituals, museums and other efforts to display the culture to visitors may feel inauthentic. History gets re-conceptualized, as evidenced by the current depiction of the haenyeo as societal leader in a matriarchal culture, a view incongruous with reality.

Programs to teach youth the local language and traditions, when their daily lives reflect otherwise, can preserve the memory of the culture — but not the experience of it.

Negative effects of modernization can be reduced, thereby retaining important aspects of the culture itself. In Jeju, an emphasis on agriculture and fishery remains. Increased value of formal education, while positive, can be counterbalanced by elevating respect for trade and craft and for indigenous knowledge. As international consumer goods become increasingly available, traditional lifestyle elements can be retained. Indigenous — shamanic — beliefs can continue to be perceived as legitimate religious and health care practice, not dismissed as superstition.

Paramount is the maintenance of communal and familial relationships, even as “stranger anxiety” toward foreigners reduces.

Change is inevitable, but cultural and individual resilience can provide a balm to the inherent stressors. Protective factors include caring relationships, an ability to make realistic plans and to advance toward goals, communication skills and reduction of the negative effects listed above. The key to thriving in the face of change can be found in community. Jeju has this — and must make an effort to sustain it — in a way that also allows for healthy interaction between both indigenous and foreign cultures.

The spirit of change is upon Jeju. We can prepare for it — together. <Jeju Weekly>

<Anne Hilty ⓒ Jeju Weekly All rights reserved>

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