South Korea – Familiar Things

Seoul is a massive city. Ranked fourth-largest metropolitan economy, with a population slightly larger than Israel’s, this is a city where ancient temples and new skyscrapers intersect  – to create a lot of garbage. That’s because Seoul is also one of the world’s largest producers of waste (and also the largest consumer of plastic per capita). All this garbage has to go somewhere, and in Seoul that somewhere is landfills.

Originally, Seoul’s garbage dump site was Nanjido (Lily Mushroom Island). Between 1978 and 1993, 3,000 trucks travelled there daily to deliver waste and provided much needed work for many of the city’s poor. However, as Seoul expanded, the mountain of garbage continued to grow, and Nanjido became the world’s tallest dumpsite – until it was shut down for obvious reasons. 

Currently, the site is designated an ecology park and is undergoing land stabilization. The city was supposed to have hopefully finished covering it in trees in 2020 (but I didn’t check). Meanwhile, I’m left wondering what happened to those 3,000 truck drivers and their garbage collection crews. It’s a very poignant question and one that I was reflecting on after Hwang Sok-Yong’s Familiar Things moved me to tears.

Adapting to Garbage

“People live here, just like anywhere else”

This book is the coming of age story of Bugeye, a 15 year-old Korean teen who is being raised by his single mother in the slums of Seoul. Their life is a hard life. Bugeye’s mother is barely earning enough to pay for food and rent while working as a street vendor, Therefore, when rents go up it makes total sense from her perspective to trade sexual favors in exchange for an increased income and a job as a garbage collector.

The new position requires Bugeye and his mother relocate to Flower Island, the city’s landfill site and home to some 2,000 people who make their living sorting through the city’s garbage. They and their families, along with the Dokkaebi, Korean spirits who inhabit the island, become Bugeye’s new world.

In this new setting, Bugeye is forced to assume adult responsibilities, but he hasn’t completely left the world of childhood behind. He works alongside the adults in collecting garbage; hangs out with the local teens who have their own issues; babysits Baldspot, his new simple-minded adoptive younger brother; and also helps the Dokkaebi with their needs. All these elements help create a beautiful tapestry of life in what should arguably be one of the ugliest settings in the world.

People Are Not Garbage

“The garbage was dirty and ugly, but it was also black and white and red and blue and yellow and iridescent and shiny, and it was smooth and square and angular and round and long and limp and stiff, and it refused to budge and it sprang out of the pile and it rolled down the slope, and it smelled acrid and it smelled foul, and it made your breath catch and your nose run and it made you gag, but above all none of it looked familiar.”

Based on the reviews, I was expecting a short beautiful book making a lot of social statements about capitalism, waste, and inequality, and that it would romanticize ancient traditions. That’s all there of course, but it is not the story I fell in love with.

I fell in love with the story of Bugeye and the story of his life on Flower Island with his new family and friends (real and spirits). Bugeye desires to assume adult responsibilities by helping his mother, but he also wants to be a teenager and do teenagery things like experiment with alcohol and discover girls, even as he is going on childlike adventures with Baldspot and the Dokkaebi. It’s a very rich existence if you measure wealth in non-material things. However, we as the reader are made very much aware of the vast difference between the life the garbage dump is offering and life in the city, seemingly an unattainable paradise.

This is all part of the beautiful tapestry the book weaves. It takes the ugliest of backgrounds and then uses it to allow the inner beauty of its inhabitants to shine forth. The garbage collectors on Flower Island lead a very hard life that requires them to make cold, hard, choices, but they also are part of a community whose members, after you peel back all the hard outer layers, have a very unexpected inner beauty. Throw in the mysterious and mystical Dokkaebi into the mix, and you’ve got a very powerful and very moving story, that is also making a statement.

Capitalist South Korea produces a lot of garbage. In recent years, the country has been making great strides towards becoming a zero-waste society with 3% of all garbage being sent to landfills and the rest being recycled. There are waste management laws that encourage the reduction of waste; the use of renewable energy sources is being encouraged; and the landfills are being stabilized and slowly converted into parks. However, you still have the question of what to do with the urban poor who inhabit these sites. They are not garbage to be greenified.

The Omer today is grandeur in kindness and this kind of captures the feel of this book perfectly. There is an awful grandeur in the imposing garbage heaps of Flower Island, but you can still find nuggets of kindness hidden away in its piles of castaway riches. You just need to dig, and this hidden kindness is one of the many things I am taking with me after reading this book.


About The Author

Hwang Sok-Yong was born in 1943 and is arguably Korea’s most renowned author. In 1993, he was sentenced to seven years in prison for an unauthorized trip to the North to promote exchange between artists in the two Koreas. Five years later, he was released on a special pardon by the new president. The recipient of Korea’s highest literary prizes, and shortlisted for the Prix Femina Etranger, his novels and short stories are published in North and South Korea, Japan, China, France Germany, and the United States. Previous novels include The Ancient Gardens, The Story of Mister Han, The Guest and The Shadow of Arms.

Sora Kim-Russell is a poet and the literary translator who translated Familiar Things. Originally from California, she is now living in Seoul, South Korea. She teaches at Ewha Womans University.

Familiar Things

Author: Hwang Sok-Yong

Publisher: Scribe Publications

Published: 2018

Pages: 224

Format reviewed: Physical