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Ondol: one thing that's missing

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By John Alderman Linton

As part of the fourth generation of a family of missionaries, I've witnessed many changes during my time in Korea. It's said that human civilization has advanced more over the past 50 years than ever before, and it's undeniable that South Korea has stood at the forefront of those changes.

Rapid economic development has transformed our values and our way of life. It's time we took a hard look at what we've gained and what we've lost. And one of the biggest things Koreans have lost is the family gatherings on the "ondol" floor, where knowledge, wisdom and morality were once imparted.

My father Hugh Linton, who was born in the Korean city of Gunsan during the Japanese colonial period, fought against Japan in World War II and also served in the Korean War. He had an unmatched love and understanding of Korea.

In his younger years, Dad used to say that countless lives would have been saved if the American pioneers had known about Korea's ondol floor heating. America's log cabins have a nostalgic charm, but fireplaces consumed a huge amount of firewood. Plus, sitting by the fire tended to scorch half your body while leaving the other half freezing cold.

But as my father liked to point out, the ondol fire only needed a little fuel in the morning and evening to keep the floor toasty. That made ondol better for the environment and a better choice overall.

I was born in Suncheon six years after the Korean War. Back then, the ondol floor was the center of family life. That's where the whole family ― grandparents, parents and children ― would congregate on frosty winter evenings. There was no television or internet back then, and electricity was unreliable, so we had to keep an oil lamp at the ready.

Sitting together on the ondol floor, we received a wealth of knowledge from our elders. We learned about the Japanese colonial period, the Yeosu―Suncheon rebellion, and the Korean War. What we learned was more accurate, and more essential, than anything you could find online today.

There was also precious wisdom to be gleaned on the ondol floor. After stoking the ondol fire with the old woman who was the gatekeeper at the missionary compound, we would talk about how I was always getting picked on by my brothers, as the youngest of five boys and one sister. She would share nuggets of wisdom about how I could avoid angering my brothers and have a better relationship with them.

Schooling wasn't as thorough back then, and we didn't have access to private tutors or academies. But education today can't compete with the dignity and wisdom of those teachings.

The ondol floor was also where elders taught children about morality. Even now, I can still remember being instructed to always obey the rules, no matter what other people may do. "Just because someone else is breaking the rules doesn't give you an excuse to break them too," I was told. And that remains my personal motto today.

As a Christian, the Bible stories I heard in church have stood me in good stead, but that lesson on the ondol floor was the greatest gift I've ever received from a Korean ― or at least someone from Jeolla Province.

When I make the rounds with medical students and residents at the International Clinic, I tell them, "The first thing you'll learn from us is knowledge about being a doctor and wisdom about putting that knowledge to use. But even more important is learning strong moral principles, since people's lives are in your hands." When I'm teaching those young medical students, I try to evoke the lessons I learned from elders on the ondol floor.

As a doctor, I feel compelled to diagnose South Korea's social ills. There's the suicide rate, the highest in the OECD, and people often complain about how young people's manners keep getting worse and worse.

The root cause, in my judgment, is Koreans' adoption of central heating ― and the resulting disappearance of that sacred gathering place on the ondol floor.

Today, more than 60 percent of Koreans live in apartments. When kids get home from school, they head straight to their rooms, instead of talking to their elders. People watch TV or surf the net alone, with little human contact.

With the ondol floor no longer serving its sacred function, kids don't get to learn the knowledge, wisdom, and morality they need in life from their elders. Indeed, the lessons the elderly have learned over the course of their lives are often dismissed as trite and outdated. Without a meaningful way to contribute to society, many elderly people feel alienated, and some are driven to take their own lives.

Here in South Korea, we're blessed with immeasurably more material wealth than in North Korea, a country where people are constantly worried about their next meal. But one thing South Koreans have lost is the place where young and old can gather together.

That culture of communing together on the ondol floor is still alive in North Korea. The one thing that's missing in the South has been preserved in the North.

When Korea is eventually reunited, South Koreans will obviously need to share the economic foundation they've laid. But my fervent hope is that they'll also restore the extended family values that are still taught in the North. My hope is that they'll regain the one thing that's missing in the South and pass down that precious legacy to future generations.

John Alderman Linton, an American-Korean whose Korean name is Ihn Yo-han, is a director at Yonsei University Severance Hospital International Health Care Center.


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