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Image: Korea
 Photo: Keith Brooks
 Image: Korea
 Photo: Steve Hong

Harvesting 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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