Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Out My Window - Two Houses, One Problem

           As the documentary director Katerina Cizek rightly points out, concrete residential buildings are the most commonly built form of the last century. You can literally see them all over the world. But although these buildings all look grey, boring and identical on the outside, they are full of diverse rich cultures on the inside. These high rise buildings are the “containers” of our human’s everyday lives. Thus the building is filled with culture unique to the country and the city it is situated in. In exploring two high rise building apartments of two very different countries, South Korea and Bangalore, it was interesting to realize how, in essence, the two houses are very similar. Not only are they the homes of relatively privileged people but they also symbolize a social problem common to most urban cities around the world. 

           Even at a slight glance, the residence of Akshadha and her parents seems to be extremely modern and luxurious. All the furniture in the living room and in the kitchen is of the highest quality. The TV screen on one side of the room fills the whole wall, a size not easily found in most houses even in Korea. Also, Abhishek, Akshadha’s father, is using a laptop, an electronic device that 92% of the Bangalore people not working in the IT industry probably cannot even dream of owning. The entire collection of cutlery in the kitchen is made out of stainless steel, and looks almost new. In addition, Akshadha and both her parents are wearing modern westernized clothes, and only in one of the short clips does Akshadha’s mother wear the traditional Sahari. 

            Akshadha’s opulent house, filled with modern technology and rich and lavish colors, creates a sharp contrast with the dismal environment in which the Dhobi’s work in. Dhobi is the Hindi word for Laundry Washer. They work in the basements of the apartment building washing and ironing the clothes of the people living there. They work in inadequate conditions as they have to stay in the underground parking lot all day and drink in the bad air created by the cars parked right next to them. In biting contrast with the modern kitchenware in Akshadha’s house, Vishwarama, the laundry washer, uses an iron which seems to be fit more for the 19th century rather than for the 21st. What’s more depressing about this picture is that Vishwarama’s young daughter lies on the cold hard floor with only a few blankets to cover her, waiting for her mother and father to finish work. For sure the bad air in the basement will not be good for the young child.

           The disparity between the rich and the poor can be more clearly noticed in the view seen through the window. Looking out of the window, the viewers can see that Akshadha’s house is one of a few high rise buildings within Bangalore. The rest of the buildings are relatively low, only about 5 stories tall. Akshadha lives in a gated high rise community where people from mostly the IT firms live. Although Bangalore is known as the Silicon Valley of India, in reality IT workers constitute only 8% of all workers in Bangalore. The rest, like Vishwarama, hold other jobs, mostly in the service industry, catering to this 8%. The buildings explicitly manifest this difference between the 8% who are wealthy enough to live in well-furnished well-protected buildings, and the 92% who barely manage to live in dirty and old buildings by working for the 8%. 

                      The problem seems to be getting worse in Bangalore. The construction sites which can be seen from the window are all in a halt. Akshadha’s father tells us that around 3,500 to 4,000 apartments were planned to be built, until all construction stopped because of the recession. He goes on telling us how all the builders are out of money, because while the prices of steel and cement are soaring up, there is nobody booking new flats. In Bangalore they call these construction sites “Ghost Buildings.”
           Exploring the pictures taken of Akshadha’s home and the view from the window and looking at the short video clips, it was very surprising that there were quite a lot of corresponding features between my house and hers. First, within the house, the furniture, electric appliances and the overall atmosphere are very similar. Both houses have a long sofa, table, dining table, TV and a simple shelf. The furniture in both houses is of dark color and the overall atmosphere is warm and relaxing. In addition, since both houses have a young child, there are some objects in the living room which tells the viewers of the existence of a child, such as a doll.

           However, there are some important contrasts between the interior of the two houses. In my house, lives my baby sister who is 10 years old. One of them  is that there is a piano and some plants in my house which cannot be found in Akshadha’s. Both the piano and the plants have great sentimental value for my family. The piano was my uncle’s when he was young. He gave it to me when I was born, and since I no longer play the piano my sister uses it. So it has been in our family for over 30 years now. On top of the piano, there are two big framed paintings. Both of them were drawn by me and colored by my cousins. In the first picture, all members of my family including my grandparents are drawn as mermaids. In the second, all members of my family are drawn as playing on the moon and the stars. The plants in my house were given by my grandparents. The tallest tree behind the sofa was a young tree when my parents got married. My grandparents gave it to my parents as a wedding gift, and over the course of 18 years of marriage life it has grown in to a grand tree.
           Another feature worth comparing between my house and Akshadha’s is the laundry. In Akshadha’s house the Dhobi washes and irons the clothes of the residents in the basement parking lot. Similarly, there is a coin washing room in the basement of our apartment. An important difference is that it is a machine which is doing the laundry in our apartment’s washing room. Taking into consideration Akshadha’s father’s laptop and the size of the TV screen, it is very strange that the Dhobis are doing the washing and ironing using very outdated tools. The disparity between the rich and the poor represented by the Dhobis is quite shocking and deplorable.   

           As it was with the view seen from Akshadha’s window, the view from my house tells us about the many social problems within Seoul and further on, within Korea. The most obvious problem is overpopulation. Seoul currently has a population of over 10 million people and it is growing every day. In order to accommodate this burgeoning population, buildings are being constructed wherever it is possible. There are even houses built directly below the mountain which is detrimental for the natural environment. In addition, due to this massive population, the roads are filled with traffic at all hours. This causes further environmental problems such as air pollution, a problem that Bangalore seems not yet to be struggling with. The view from the window of my house is mainly grey partly because it rained hailstorms later that afternoon, and partly because of the air pollution caused by the traffic.

           On the other hand, another problem is that the gap between the rich and the poor in Seoul is almost as large as its population. The buildings near the Han River are noticeably taller and grander than the buildings far away from the Han River. The buildings near the Han River are widely coveted because they provide a magnificent view. However, only a few minutes away from the Han River and the buildings are all tenement houses with much lower prices and poorer living conditions. The prejudice that Seoul is full of high sky-scrapers and tall apartment buildings shows only a part of the story, as there are still many people living in tenements a few kilometers away from the Han River. Just like Bangalore, Seoul is suffering from polarization between the rich and the poor.
           Two houses and two cities that are so different yet so similar. On the surface, these two houses and two cities do not seem to have much in common. Obviously there are much more high rising buildings and cars within Seoul, and obviously the furniture and interior design of the two houses cannot be the same. However, these differences are only superficial since these two houses and two cities are, in their essence, very similar to one another. For one, both houses host relatively financially privileged people. This explains the similarity in the choice of furniture and household electric appliances. On the other hand, both cities are suffering from a severe phenomenon of polarization, where the rich cannot even bear to live among those poorer than them, shutting these people out by gates. This widening disparity between the rich and the poor is not just a problem limited in Bangalore and Seoul. It is a problem common in all the areas that are becoming urbanized, and it is a problem which needs to be urgently addressed.

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