Spreading Warmth through Handwritten Letters
Cho Hyun-sik (Department of International Studies, 4th yr)
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On a peaceful street called gamgodanggil of Jongno-gu, Seoul, stands a pink postbox. The black sign shows that after writing letters about one’s worries, the replies will come back within one or two weeks. Pausing at the sign for a moment, people then decide to stop by to disclose their worries to somebody unknown.
The postbox named ongi, meaning warmth in Korean, is installed by Cho Hyun-sik (Department of International Studies, 4th yr), after reading “Miracles of the Namiya General Store” by Keigo Higashino by chance. “The overall plot of the book is that the characters from the past write letters about their worries to the characters of the future. I focused on the idea of revealing worries and being comforted through exchanging letters,” Cho said.
The power of slowness and sincerity
The plan was carried out due to his thought that even though SNS is popular these days, there are few people who listen carefully to others’ stories by heart. On the contrary to today’s social conditions which handwritten letters are disappearing, due to the discomfort that comes from slowness, Kim believes that there is a special value of the letters. “The slowness of handwritten letters would allow people to be relaxed enough to open up their hearts and disclose their stories,” Cho emphasized.
Cho is the chief manager of Ongi General Store, with three other managers and 60 or so volunteers or ‘clerks’. The managers and the clerks write replies to the worries of people sent through Ongi Postbox. The installation of the postbox was on late Feburary this year, and the place of its location was chosen due to Cho’s personal preference of the street’s quiet, comfortable, and slow atmosphere. “I found ten people who wanted to be clerks of the Ongi General Store from the Internet, but then we wound up getting lots of letters which were more than we expected, ” Cho said. Merely a week after the installment of the post box, over 150 to 200 letters were sent by anonymous people.
“I didn’t know that there were going to be such a lot of letters, and that is why I came to decide more people were needed to reply them. There were no special requirements or even an interview. The most important thing was sincerity which people who applied to become clerks already possessed,” Cho said.
As the manager of ongi general store, he spends his time discussing the management of Ongi General Store with other managers every day, and writing letters with his clerks in a café near Iwha Womans University on Monday, Tuesday, Friday. Each day, with a team of 15 clerks composed of different age group, they read, choose the person who is most relatable with the stories of the letters, and then reply their letters for two hours. As for the expenses for operating the postbox, such as the costs of stamps, letter papers, and envelopes, Cho provides through private tutoring.
The importance of the freedom of choice in life
According to Cho, he puts a lot of value in helping people, continuously participating in volunteering, such as helping prepare events for patients with Lou Gehrig’s disease. His belief was set after his grandmother’s death. “I was very close to my grandmother because she took care of me when I was young. When she was diagnosed with lung cancer and met her death, I thought a lot about how human life is so limited and how we will benefit from helping each other instead of having meaninglessly competitions, ” Cho reminisced.
“My current plan is to increase the number of the postbox, and set up a booth complete with two writing tables as an extension of the postbox. I want people to be more comfortable and thus have more time to write out their worries. I’m preparing a crowdfunding for the project now. Then, I wish that Ongi General Store can develop into a non-profit organization to help comfort more people,” Cho said.
According to Cho, consistent reading and the experiences from his life help sympathize with the letters. "I was a very diligent student before I decided to take a leave of absence. I began to feel skeptical of dull, mindless studying although everybody else believes it is the right answer of life," he said.
After he took a leave of absence, he tried running a street vendor, worked in a social enterprise, and went on traveling. He felt that there is no right answer but to live one’s own life. “If I write a letter to my past self, I want to tell myself that although I once worried a lot, all the difficult things turned out to help me instead. Nobody else lives for you, and the one who feel happiness from your life is yourself. So try what you truly want to do without regret or worries, ” Cho smiled.
Jang Soo-hyun firstname.lastname@example.org
Photos by Kim Youn-soo
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