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Saturday, September 22, 2012

You Can Go Home Again


If taxes and things like the new airline fees we are all paying seem unfair, what do you call the passing of time? --that which seemingly prevents us from ever being able to return home again—as Thomas Wolfe’s book of the same name famously put it.

But is it true that we can’t go home? Yesterday, I returned to the neighborhood I once lived in as a Peace Corps trainee in Daegu, Korea. In the winter of 1973 it was a cold and dusty section of town, bordered by a large park (Dal Seong Park) that brought dignity and some open space to a dense community which once featured an ancient fortress and whose history dates back to the Bronze Age.
Dal Seong Park (spring 1975). Author seated on right.

Today it is no less a hard scrabble place. Mr. Lee, who owns a pastry stall in the neighborhood, told me the nearby alleys still feature old, dirty Korean inns where you can get “s.” “S?” I asked quizzically. “Sex,” he answered with a sheepish grin.  I wasn’t looking for sex but I was searching for something else—an old Korean bathhouse I had frequented for several months during that winter of 1973. In those days, hardly any Korean homes or inns had baths or showers. Every so often people would go to a public bath and share huge scalding hot tubs with dozens of people. I was returning to see what had happened to that bathhouse—an institution which has literally disappeared in Korea along with the less endearing "bucket brigade" of men who used to go door-to-door removing sewage with large sturdy brown buckets dangling from wooden polls that ran across their backs.
Honey Bucket Men (Daegu circa 1974)
I stopped and questioned two old women who were squatting in front of a store. I pointed across the street and in halting Korean asked if the building was a bathhouse about 30 years ago. One of the old women waved me on and the other laughed—they obviously thought I was crazy. But I soon found Mr. Lee behind his counter and asked if he spoke any English. He smiled and said “Yes.”  “Would you know,” I asked, “if that building used to be a bathhouse?” “Sure,” he said. “look at the top, it still has that large vent that was always on the roof of bathhouses.” Looking up, I noticed a barely visible red insignia depicting steam coming out of a circle that was synonymous with bathhouses.

I was pleased. The inn I once stayed at was now a lifeless parking garage but I had at least found my way home. I reminded myself of a traditional Korean folk music concert I attended just a few months ago. Sitting alone in the back row I suddenly started to cry. The familiar music had found an emotional vein sending years of sentiment and stored memories gushing uncontrollably.

One can indeed go home. I was there. But there is an emotional fee to pay for the time and memories that have escaped from the bottle--those things that naively once seemed so everlasting.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

The Way of Rice

In malls throughout the United States I have seen vendors selling grains of rice with microscopic words--even entire poems--novelly inscribed on a single grain of rice. It's an ironic endeavor given the pervasive and timeless role that rice has played in Asian societies. Rice is a central part of the culture here in Korea and has been for thousands of years influencing music, dance, how respect is paid to ancestors, even providing straw roofing for homes.

Rice is literally served with every Korean meal. It is so integral to Korean society that there are perhaps two dozen words for rice--each describing a specific state, stage or nuance. For example, mo is a rice seedling, sal is husked rice, pap is cooked rice, beo is rice grain, nwi is unhusked rice in husked rice--you get the idea.

"Pap" cooked rice, in Korean

My earliest and rather fond dealings with rice were with a black man I met as a kid. Perhaps the most comforting face in the A&P supermarket--where my mom shopped--was that of Uncle Ben. His iconic image graced the package of what was certainly one of America's most popular food products of the 1950's and 60's, Uncle Ben's rice.
My first experience with rice was with this gentleman
The U.S. was, and still remains, a leader in rice production--ranking 11th worldwide. But Korea, roughly the size of the state of Indiana, is 12th, producing 7.4 million tons of rice annually. China ranks first with a harvest of nearly 200 million tons. (data courtesy of Dr. Yoo Man, V.P. of ICID)

Rice paddies found throughout Korea paint the country in rich, undulating shades of green. Visible from high-speed trains, car windows or along local streets and country lanes, rice paddy fields ("non" as they are known in Korea) grace the space between mountains, rivers, cities and villages. In a sense, they fill the spiritual space, the soul of place here.

It's hard to over-estimate what rice has meant in the history of society here, and frankly, what it continues to mean in a Korean's life. Indeed, the words of a single grain of rice have centuries of stories to tell.

Rice paddies on the campus of Yeungnam University