Closing the culture gap

How can new migrants to Jeju fit in with the culture that exists on the island?

In the last few decades Jeju has undergone a complete makeover—from quaint farming island to tourism powerhouse.

With over 12 million tourists having visited in 2014, hordes of visitors on holiday can often seem to engulf residents. However, researcher Agnes Sohn has detected the significant impacts of a different kind of newcomer: the ones who decide to stay.

The people make up a significant number in their own right. As the popularity of Jeju has increased, the number of people choosing to call Jeju home has grown from 577,187 in 2010 to over 660,000 at the end of 2016.

These people, even those coming from different parts of Korea, bring with them a whole new way of life and culture that can be different to the one that exists on Jeju. This brings with it an interesting diversity, as well as a need to ensure that there isn’t a gap between the new and the old.

Agnes Sohn is a recipient of the Fulbright-Hays Doctoral Research Abroad Fellowship and a PhD Candidate in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.

She has been conducting her research on the island’s current transitional period as mainland migrants establish their footing and Jeju-born locals get used to sharing space with their curious new neighbors.

“I chose this topic for research because I myself have been interested in alternative living and youth movements. I wanted to do a project that…involved young people who were going against the grain of the mainstream,” Sohn stated.

Although Jeju has long dealt with an inflow of outsiders, Sohn has found that these days the outsiders are young people looking to embrace Jeju’s slow living. In mid-mountain towns like Gasi-ri, hip youngsters are having a go at country life, starting up farms and small businesses alongside the elder locals. Nonetheless, it’s hard not to notice the major differences between these two groups.

“It’s not only a generational gap, it’s a cultural one as well,” Sohn noted.

For instance, she observed how the new arrivals aren’t participating in the established communities within each village, which often have centers for the elderly and separate meetings for both the men and the women.

Considering that this closeness very well could have come about out of necessity to cope with the 4.3 massacre, it’s understandable that survivors might need to feel like they can trust their neighbors. Clearly, this can make the “separateness” evermore apparent.

Rest assured, Sohn doesn’t see hostility between the groups, just maybe an awkward disconnect. Locals enjoy seeing young faces in the towns because for years they watched their youth move away. Even better, these new residents have revitalized their neighborhoods, beautifying the properties they move into, she says.

Though, the question remains: where can these two disparate groups of people—idealistic young mainlanders and seasoned elderly locals—find common ground?

Sohn thinks she has found the answer, but it’s necessary to understand who these migrants are first. Her research has focused on four specific groups: IT enthusiasts, artists and curators, farmers, and small business-owners.

The first generation of mainlander migrants came 15 years ago and the influx has steadily grown ever since. This is in part because of gov

ernment incentives: low-interest loans, insurance benefits, and various grants. The governor has stated that it hopes for 20 million tourists and 1 million residents by 2025.

Through countless interviews, Sohn has learned that young people want an alternative to the fast-paced, competitive, corporate life in Seoul and other big cities in Korea. She was surprised to hear many of her interviewees use words like “healing” when describing the need to come to Jeju and feeling “wounded” by the pressures of work and their families.

Sohn believed that these new attitudes represent a recovering process from the “compressed modernization” of the 70s and 80s when Korea went from being one of the world’s poorest countries to having the 13th highest GDP.

That rapid growth brought the rise of the Korean conglomerate chaebol along with the staggering demands of the job that have become the norm in this country’s corporate culture. Korea ranks as having the largest income inequality in Asia, and many Koreans express the desire to leave. This explains why so many youth have taken up the term “Hell Joseon” to express their discontent.

“They see Jeju as a way of opting out of the chaebol system, a place where they can start anew, a place where no-one knows or expects anything from them. They can come here and ask themselves how their values are going to be different from their parents’ generations,” said Sohn.

Interestingly, Sohn has discovered that migration here is largely female-driven. In addition to corporate culture, women want to escape the pressure of marriage. Sohn suspected they succeed in doing so in part because there are higher expectations put on men to follow the conventional path. Additionally, many young women are enthusiastic to come because of the reputation of the strong matriarchs here.

Sohn described a knitting cafe run by two young lady newcomers representative of the many cutesy cafes popping up all over the island these days. The cafe not only served coffee, but also had both a knitting and calligraphy studio. The owners shared their pride in being able to start over away from their parents and city life.

Shortly after that interview, Sohn went downstairs to the haenyeo station and restaurant where the lady divers served the catches of the day. She was immediately struck by the two versions of womanhood that this one building contained.

“Upstairs there were these highly-educated, crafty ladies and downstairs were tough working women,” she said.

One elder diver Sohn interviewed told her that she had been diving since she was 16 and had never finished school. When Sohn asked about their thoughts on the knitting cafe upstairs, the diving women responded that the owners were nice enough and wished them the best of luck in their business. Maybe it will take some time for these two groups to really warm up to each other.

Luckily, the older generation and new arrivals have at least one thing in common: their dissatisfaction with the superficial development going on in Jeju. Sohn, as well, lamented the fact that many tourist attractions and festivals ostensibly have very little to do with local culture and heritage.

But one wonders if these idealistic newcomers will turn their Jeju dreams into reality, and be able contribute to a long lasting and meaningful growth.

Sohn said, “Only time will tell if this is just a trend that will die out, and these people will move back to Seoul, or if this migration is a shift that will endure.”

Sohn thinks it all depends on money, and unfortunately many young people are struggling, although the ones who survive could contribute to substantial development.

In fact, each group of the migrants has something different to offer their new home: the computer programmers with venture companies like Kakao are helping set Jeju apart as a new progressive tech zone while farmers are investing in long term land restoration.

Meanwhile artists have already taken a deep interest in Jeju’s history and culture in their

work, and small business owners of guesthouses and cafes are bolstering the economic foundation of Jeju without the need for big developments.

Sohn is under no illusion that many migrants have their own personal money-making interests in mind. Still, maybe the old and new can join forces and put development back into the hands of those people who live in Jeju.