country notes – or knee high by the 4th of July


…but here it is knee high by the 4th of June.

The corn growing on the slopes of the Tulli bldg. homestead next door is waist high, but at farms all over the region it is way taller than a man already.  As several of us have remarked to one another here – there is no need for “miracle gro” in Korea.  In the rice fields, the green has totally obscured the water already.  It’s crazy how bountiful the land is, this red, clay-filled soil.  With spring nearly non-existent, the growing season is really long here.  It’s already melon season and tomatoes are beginning to appear on the market shelves, thanks to the rows and rows of hot houses everywhere.

I have had Koreans tell me that they must learn English because Korea has no natural resources.  As a person who believes in local self-sufficiency, I wonder if Korea could just stop importing food and support itself, and what natural resources they think they need to be successful?  There is probably a full woodlot for every man, woman, and child in Korea in these mountains if managed properly.

What is it that determines what man needs?  I often think the measure of civilization has been turned on its head.  All over the world, honest living is now perceived as inadequate for life.  Another reason I abandon architecture, yet another contributor to the promotion of a frozen moment of perfection that is unattainable that is fed to the masses to promote consumption.  Sloppy, messy life is so much more beautiful to me.

Outside the train station halmoni’s sit and sell steamed corn-on-the-cob and roasted chestnuts.  There is no butter or salt and pepper:  people just eat it plain.  The corn is not as sweet as the varieties we’re used to in America.  It’s starchy and more like the corn we feed cattle.  But it’s nice to see it’s varied colors and to know it’s not genetically modified and owned by Monsanto.

Koreans also eat tomatoes as a fruit, which makes sense since it is a fruit.  It’s also considered a treat, just like fruit is.  They like to add sugar to it if possible.  They like to add sugar to everything if possible.  Avoiding sugar and salt in Korea is almost impossible.

In general, produce in Korea feels good because you know it’s raised locally and intensively and that you’re supporting the farm economy.  It’s also a little scary, because I see the farmers walking down the rows with their pesticide bottles, spraying everything (and themselves).  There is a craze for “well-being” foods among those that can afford it, but the terminology is stolen for everything and can also be seen on things as unhealthy as “well-being” fried chicken and “well-being” candy and “well-being” ice cream.  There are organic items to be had, but I have no idea about the certification or how stringent its regulation.  So I just wash all my fruits and vegetables and am sure to completely peel them.

In the city most people seem to go to bed around midnight to 2a.m.  And shops do not open until 10 a.m.   But here in the country, the old people get up early.  It’s nice and cool at night, but most people congregate inside or at pubs (hofs) and watch t.v. together.

Every day as I come home my impending doorstep is signaled by a halmoni squatting in the street, smoking.  She’s always there, smoking, sitting on her haunches, always!  and there is an amazing containment of a human body in that position, folded up, hugging itself.  I wonder at what point it’s acceptable for women to smoke in public, or how she can walk after sitting like that for so long, or how many packs of cigarettes she goes through a week, but especially what she thinks about…

During the day there are always retirees sitting together outside.  I’ll take a photo when I can remember to bring my camera.  In Korea, you’ll see these vinyl-covered platforms everywhere.  They’re essentially an outdoor floor, and typically square in shape.  So instead of benches about 15″ deep, there will be these platforms anywhere from 30″ deep to maybe 9 feet deep.  That way, you can sit on them cross-legged or lay down or stretch out your legs, etc.  The things may be dirty as all get-out, yet people will still take their shoes off and treat them just as if they were the floor inside their houses.  And they will lie on them and take a nap.  Gazebos are really big out here – made around these platforms.  This is the coffee shop in Korea, the town hall, the square.  In the absence of anything this intentional is whatever refuse there is handy to sit on.  On one walk home I was really delighted when thee old folks were so swept up in their singing that they stood up and started dancing.

Singing and dancing are not like my experiences in the Caribbean countryside.  Dancing here is more folkish.  It seems almost baltic in ways – the arms always up and outspread.  It’s refinement is more in the hand gestures and head tilts and snapping of the body in rhythm, than it is to any awareness of ones body or sexuality.  It’s more about balance…Your arms kind of float.  You tense and balance and then release.  It’s more like drawing breath.  I saw some pretty fancy footwork one time at that picnic I was kidnapped to go to.  The party across the river was singing and dancing and everyone was singing loud folk songs and laughing and dancing.  (the grass is always greener)  And this one 30’s something guy was folk dancing, but it was definitely complex.  Maybe when we see halaboji’s dancing this is what they looked like in their younger days.  And maybe we just don’t get to see what it’s supposed to look like anymore, because everyone young is trying to do choreography to bad pop songs.  No.  Singing and dancing in country Korea is more akin to Fiddler on the Roof.  It’s a group joy/group sadness thing.  It’s one under-employed guy standing with nothing to do singing out loud to himself and another joining in.  It’s a drink and song while you sob in your beer and hug everyone and say, “I love you, man!” kind of thing.  I don’t have the privilege to join in, as I’ve still not formed one relationship here yet.  I can only register a few moments with my trained eye.

When I am an old lady, will I have a gazebo to shade my brow?  Will I have friends to raise a glass and sing and dance with? Will I squat in the street smoking, hugging myself, reflecting on this life?

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