Rice In South Korea
By Marc Archambault
Hyong-nimís love of sleep has cost us our intended
early start. He blames his wife; she is conspiring
to make him look bad by letting him oversleep. He
is my adopted older brother and my closest friend
in all Korea, and bombs overhead couldnít drag him
out of bed.
Miryang is close as the magpie flies,
but it will take two hours of driving in Hyong-nimís
tiny Tico. Hyong-nimís bright purple car is the cheapest
thing on the market and specifically not designed
for my long American legs. His two-year old son, Chong-min
sits on my lap, making the car smaller but the world
bigger. Together we study the foliage for grandeur
as Hyong-nim drives and smokes.
The road is steep, and cuts back
every couple hundred yards. The sharpest corners have
huge signs and fish eye mirrors set so we can see
impending doom. Leaving the navigation to Hyong-nim,
Chong-min and I take in the color and the cliffs.
Neither is very prevalent in our neighborhood. After
the devastation visited upon this landscape during
the first half of the last century, Korea is now trying
to re-foliate the denuded hillsides. The trees that
werenít cut by the Japanese were pulled down during
the war for heating fuel. The replanting scheme is
strangely tidy. The mountainsides have long straight
lines of evenly spaced young pine trees running up
and down them.
We descend into the village-turning-town
of Miryang. This is Hyong-nimís childhood home. All
parts of Korea are being swept by urbanization. It
is reminiscent of the American suburbs and their malls
and fast food joints. Though the architecture of the
strips is different, the feel and intent is the same.
Abundant capitalism happens here, and itís a place
for the kids to hang out.
We motor through downtown and quickly
find ourselves in an older village, a small cluster
of houses hidden behind tall concrete walls. The streets
are narrow and we go slowly, waiting for old women
to move into doorways so we can pass. Even the tiny
Tico has trouble fitting down these claustrophobic
alleys. Koreaís love affair with the automobile is
a recent phenomenon, but space has always been at
a premium. The houses are packed in close together,
while the rice paddies they sit amongst are wide and
expansive. A few of the houses are modern and comfortable
looking, many are decrepit shacks made of corrugated
tin. Hyong-nim grew up here.
We turn down an alley and then immediately
into the courtyard of a large, modern-looking house.
Hyong-nimís father greets us and gestures for us to
park next to a crowd of cars. They belong to the men
who woke up on time and are already laboring in the
fields. After a quick visit to the outhouse, we head
off to do the same.
Hyong-nim and I begin walking the
half-mile to the rice paddy. Grandfather escorts Chong-min
on his moped. He is delighted to see his only grandson.
They tell us to hurry and then rocket off.
The path we follow is a concrete
trail that cuts through acres and acres of rice paddies.
This road is wider than in the village proper, but
not by much. One side of the path is currently in
use for drying rice. Several tarps are laid out, and
old women with broad-brimmed hats walk back and forth
endlessly turning the rice with rakes. This is the
old-fashioned method. At night they fold the tarps
over, covering the rice. They return the next morning
and pick up where they left off. The tarps are stretched
a half a mile and are three inches deep with rice.
Monotonous is a charitable description of this job.
Upon reaching the paddy to be harvested,
I am immediately sent to work on the combine. The
first order of business is to put on my sleeves. These
heavy-duty fabric condoms are open at both ends. Elastic
bands prevent them from slipping loose. I slide them
over my wrists, and they serve to protect my forearms
from unnecessary abuse and itching.
The combine is a fantastic machine.
Though tiny in comparison to the behemoths that patrol
American farmland, itís ideally suited to the task
at hand. Rows of rice plants disappear into itís churning
maw. Inner workings thresh the seeds loose and dump
them into a hopper. The stalks are then cut and strewn
out behind the machine. Some combines also bale the
cut rice stems for use as hay.
I ride on the sideboard of the combine
with Hyong-nim. Our job is bagging. The hopper fills
with rice kernels at an alarmingly rapid rate. Three
little spouts drain the hopper into large canvas bags
that are adorned with sturdy plastic zippers. Even
with only two of the spouts is use, we are hard pressed
to keep up. When a bag is full, the trick is to momentarily
close the spout, zip the bag quickly, toss it aside,
pull another sack into position and reopen the spout.
Conveniently, the bags have big riveted holes in the
top seam, which allows them to hang from a rack beneath
the spouts. They slide forward into position smoothly.
Once full though, they are not easily maneuvered.
The spout to the front of the machine fills bags twice
as fast as the one to the back where Iím stationed.
Itís still a fight to keep up with Hyong-nim, who
seems to have done this a time or two before.
We turn our first corner. The combine
rolls on treads rather than wheels. It steers by stopping
one track and rolling the other, skidding through
corners. So involved in what Iím doing, I forget that
Iím on a moving machine. I am almost flung off the
hopper deck into the damp mud. Hyong-nim catches me
and pulls me back to my work. After each complete
circuit of the field, we stop in the corner nearest
the road and unload the bags. Unloading involves throwing
them onto the ground. Then we lurch off to fill more
bags. Within a few minutes Iíve figured out how to
lean so that the corners donít send me flying.
Rice is grown in shallow water.
By harvest time the paddy has dried, though the soil
is still rich and damp. Chong-min finds a huge toad
in a mowed section. This monster has not only survived
all the egrets that patrol the paddies when they are
wet but has also escaped unscathed after being run
over by a combine. After he is carefully examined
by all, he is allowed to toad happily on his way.
Soon it is lunchtime. I face mealtimes
as somebodyís guest with a certain amount of trepidation.
I sample all the dishes offered, but I just canít
fill up on Ďspicy hot pepper and cured fish stew.í
I always run the risk of offending my hosts with my
aversion to redness in foodstuffs. So, when we sit
down to a lunchtime meal of Ďspicy hot pepper and
cured fish stew,í I get anxious. Red fish is the worst
kind of red there is. Everyone looks at me expectantly
and asks me how I like it. ďI like it,Ē I say, adding,
ďMip-da,Ē which means hot. Rather than taking
offense, my hosts are greatly concerned. An involved
discussion ensues in Hangul. Two minutes later my
soup is redistributed amongst those at the table,
and Iím given a happily bland, fish-free alternative,
which I enjoy immensely. Eggs I can eat.
With my new meal before me, I set
about trying to understand jong. It is a
uniquely Korean concept. A word with no English equivalent.
Itís like love, but it reaches further and carries
more meanings. There is a Ďpassioní jong
and separate forms of jong between brothers,
sisters, other family members and friends. There is
even a jong for people who have fought constantly
with each other for years, yet are inseparable. Hyong-nimís
family household radiates jong in a way that
his marital home does not.
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