One early Saturday morning in October, I ventured out on the first leg of a quest to discover the hidden Korea, that of the former war zone. Destination: the southwest of the country, Jeollanam-do province. I wanted to see the tea plantations of Boseong and the eco-park of Suncheon Bay. I was lugging a hardback copy of the 2010 book, The Surrendered, by Korean author Chang-Rae Lee, who teaches creative writing at Princeton University.
Since I had a 3-month stretch ahead with virtually no holidays, I decided I would explore as much of Korea as I could on the yellow- and scarlet-hued autumn weekends. Granted, my destination this time was not a war zone. Maybe this destination never even figured prominently in the Korean War. Maybe. But as I read this book, I thought that there was probably not a place in Korea left unscathed by that war. I was trying to dig in deep, to see Korea in a light shadowed to this day by a war that ravaged this country fewer than 60 years before.
I left my apartment at 6 a.m. to catch the 7:05 bus to Suncheon from the Seobu bus terminal in Daegu. The bus ride, which I was told would be 3 to 3 1/2 hours, was uneventful, except for the delightful surprise that it was only 2 1/2 hours! During the ride, I was caught up in the story of June, an 11-year-old Korean girl, who in 1950 witnessed the death of her mother and sister, and the arrest of her father and older brother. On her own, she was caring for her 7-year-old twin brother and sister. June took on the responsibility for transporting her siblings safely toward Busan, along with thousands of other refugees fleeing the war. What might have otherwise been a pretty journey through “hills just turning the colors of pumpkin and hay and pomegranate” was in fact a harrowing journey; this 11-year-old girl suffered horribly and ultimately lost both of her siblings in a gruesome train accident along the way.
Not happy reading, granted. But I wanted to see what makes Koreans tick, what in their history makes them the way they are. So I read along, totally engrossed, until I got to Suncheon.
At the Suncheon bus terminal, I boarded a bus to Boseong. Walking down the aisle, I passed a Korean man dressed in black yelling into his cell phone in the front seat. This was not so abnormal in Korea; many Koreans yell into their cell phones as a matter of course. But it became quickly evident that this man was furious.
I didn’t witness what happened next, but possibly the bus driver came on board and told the man to quiet down. By this time, I was seated about a third of the way back from the front of the bus. Suddenly the yelling man began to punch the bus driver, forcing him toward the back; he pushed the driver into a seat maybe four rows behind me. The yelling man was pummeling the poor bus driver who was cowering against the window. This violent man then pulled off his shirt, revealing tattoos on his arm and back, and grabbed the bus driver around the throat and was knocking him upside the head, so that his head was bouncing like a rubber ball against the window.
All the passengers sat in their seats, stupefied by this spectacle. I stood up along with a Korean girl. I thought briefly about stepping into the middle but realized this would be idiotic. This man wouldn’t hesitate to hit a woman. I was terrified he would kill the poor bus driver. The Korean girl and I looked at each other and we quickly ducked off the bus to find help. She spoke to some guys standing in the bus terminal (they looked like employees at the terminal) and I was yelling and making fighting gestures and beckoning them to follow, which they did.
Back on the bus, the man was still beating on the bus driver. Both of them were yelling angrily, but the bus driver was taking the brunt of the blows. The bus terminal men entered the fray and pulled the two apart and forcibly removed the crazy guy from the bus. The bus driver, clearly shaken, went to the front and started to collect tickets, front to back. Surprisingly, he didn’t look bloodied or bruised, but he was an emotional wreck. He said something to me, and a Korean guy sitting nearby told me in English that the bus driver thanked me.
As the bus took off, I caught the eye of a young red-headed guy who I’d seen earlier in the bus terminal. We started commiserating about the fight, trying to figure out what precipitated it. He said, “Did you see that guy’s stomach? It had scars all over it. He’s been in a lot of fights.” We couldn’t figure out exactly what started it. I told him I was thinking of stepping into the middle; I hoped they wouldn’t dare hit a woman. The red-head said he was told that if there were ever any trouble in Korea, a foreigner should NEVER get involved because foreigners are often blamed as instigators.
On our one hour ride to Boseong, we talked a lot: the red-head whose name was Peter, the English-speaking Korean guy who went by the English name of Jacob, and me. The fight excited us such that we became garrulous. Jacob was full of questions about both of us, asking Peter and me what we were doing in Korea. Jacob himself was a Korean who had been living and working in the Philippines for 10 years. He was 50 years old, married, and had three children: a 20-year-old daughter, and 18-year-old twins. He was in “trade” – mainly vitamins and health foods. He asked my age, but I insisted it was a mystery. He was in Korea working and also exploring on weekends parts of the country he hadn’t seen before. He told me he was headed to the tea plantations for the day and I said that’s where I was going too.
Peter, who was 27, was from New Brunswick, Canada, and had been teaching in Korea for one month in a public middle school in Boseong. He told me that in Boseong they have a 5-day market. Every 5 days, everyone gathers their goods together to sell or to barter. Today was the market day.
Once we arrived in Boseong, Peter took off for his home, and Jacob and I waited for the bus to Yulpo Beach, which would drop us at the tea plantations.
At the bus terminal, Jacob motioned for me to sit on a bench with some ajumas for a picture. I was happy about this as I’ve been trying to surreptitiously take pictures of ajumas but have never actually gotten one full on with their awareness and participation. They were quite happy to smile and pose; afterward I showed them each the picture and the one wearing a pink shirt held on to my camera, telling Jacob she wanted a copy of the picture. They asked Jacob if we were husband and wife. This was the first of such questions thrown our way throughout the day. Each time we laughed and said, no, we had just met on the bus!
On the derelict bus, hardscrabble Korean locals carried bags or boxes of products to take to the 5-day market: dried chili peppers, live chickens (!), rice, roots and various leafy vegetables. They disembarked well before the tea farms. The bus driver made one stop to drop off a huge plastic bag full of red chili peppers. I wondered if the chili peppers had to pay the bus fare.
Jacob and I got dropped at the entrance to Daehan Dawon, touted as Korea’s one and only “green tea farm” theme park. We went into a little shop and the lady there served us some green tea. I was surprised that green tea tasted more like a broth than the tea I’m accustomed to. The lady asked Jacob’s age; he told her 50 and she told him he looked very young. She asked him my age, and he explained to her that apparently it was a very sensitive issue! She then asked us if we were husband and wife, and we both laughed and said that we just met on the bus. We drank our tea and walked through a lovely canopy of trees toward the plantation. This place was so lushly green, with its millions of tea plants and its cedar, cypress, yew, ginkgo, maple and camellia trees.
In 1939, a study concluded that Boseong was an ideal place to cultivate green tea. Optimal conditions include annual rainfall of more than 60 inches (1500 mm), porous and permeable soil, cool weather with a great daily temperature range, and high humidity. Soon after the study, tea planting started across the region. But, during the Korean War, all the fields were ravaged.
It turns out I was right: no place in Korea was left unscathed by the war. In 1957, the tea industry started again. Now there are 5.8 million tea plants growing on this green tea farm. In 2005, the plantation’s tea was certified as organic.
Jacob and I wandered leisurely through the lush green carpets of tea bushes and then climbed up a steep hill to a vantage point. He said, It smells so good! I sniffed the air and I couldn’t smell anything. 😦
After walking up and down and taking multitudes of photos, we returned to the bottom. Jacob told me his wife worked as a volunteer teacher for a Christian missionary organization. She taught elementary school. Apparently when their children leave home, his wife would like to return to Korea where, because of her years of teaching, she could make a lot of money. But Jacob told her that he could provide and that God would like it best if she continued her volunteer teaching. Both he and his wife were really concerned that their children didn’t know enough about Korean culture. Jacob told me he went on a trip with a church group to Turkey to follow St. Paul’s travels. He went to many of the same places I did, but he lost his USB with all his photos on it. Jacob also told me that that morning he had prayed to God that he would meet someone today to explore Korea with. He says his prayer was answered because he met me.
We returned to the tea shop to retrieve our bags, with the intention of taking the Yulpo Beach bus further south, where there were supposedly even more beautiful tea plantations. The proprietor told us the bus would arrive at 2:50. We waited until 3:30 and then decided we couldn’t wait any longer. Jacob had to go to Gwangju and then to Daejeon this evening to meet some friends and I wanted to go back to Suncheon and find a hotel before it started raining. So we crossed under the bridge to catch the bus back to Boseong. In Boseong, Jacob went on his merry way toward his friends. I was disappointed not to see the next tea farm, but, as it turned out, I finally arrived back in Suncheon just before a downpour. I had to find a hotel and with the help of a patient and kind-hearted lady at the Suncheon terminal tourist information, I was directed to the BMW Motel.
When I walked up to the BMW Motel, smoke was pouring out of the parking lot into the entryway. The proprietor was using a fire extinguisher on the source of the fire; it looked like a trashcan and some bedding from one of the rooms. He sprayed it with the fire extinguisher and came into the hotel to check me in. I told him, using gestures, that I wanted to see the room before paying, but he simply could not understand and kept sticking out his hand for my money. While this failure to communicate was transpiring, the fire flared up again, and I gestured wildly to him that the fire had revived. He was unperturbed by my gestures, so I got wilder and more demented-looking in my miming: Come! Come! Fire!! He was utterly clueless. Finally, he got up from behind his little glass enclosed cage and grabbed the fire extinguisher again.
Meanwhile, I called a friend to translate for me that I wanted to see the room before paying. Finally. I inspected the room and paid the 30,000 won. I left my bag and stupidly headed out into the rain and the impending darkness to go to Suncheon Bay. I was hoping that by the time I returned to the BMW, the fire would be extinguished. I hoped the whole motel wouldn’t burn down in my absence.
By the time I finally got to the bay, it was dark and pouring down rain! I was obviously not yet ready to accept the shorter days of fall. I didn’t want to be dropped in the middle of nowhere, but the driver gestured vehemently that I had to get off. Luckily the bus stop was covered and I waited with a few other stragglers for a good 20 minutes to go back to Suncheon. I caught the same bus with the same driver who forced me to get off in the first place.
In Suncheon, I found a Paris Baguette, ate a shrimp and vegetable bun, bought a beer, and settled into my room, where I planned to relax, read, and watch TV. However, I was so wound up that I couldn’t sleep. I dove into The Surrendered, which was so intense that I found it impossible to sleep. I was up until well after midnight, trudging along with 11-year-old June Han and other desperate war refugees to the south of Korea, hungry, terrified, surrounded by death and utter confusion, and hanging on to survival by a flimsy filament of hope and determination.
The story followed three main characters: June, Hector and Sylvie; its locale moved from Korea to New Jersey to Manchuria. It was a complicated story about the effects of war on people’s psyches. I came across excellent descriptions of the Korea I had come to know. At one point, Hector, who had fought in the mountains of Korea, ruminated about the cold: “He knew the cold in Korea, at least in the mountains in the far north, how it seeped into you and then resided with an unrelenting grip…” My own father, who also served in the U.S. Navy during the Korean War told me before I came here that all he could remember about Korea was that it was the coldest place he’d ever been. I arrived in Korea in February, and it was bitter, unrelentingly cold.
Hector also mused about the mountains of Korea, which are certainly ubiquitous: “The grounds of the orphanage were set on a low and wide plateau amid steeper, higher hills and mountains that ranged across much of the country. The land was a lesson in hills, one right after the next.”
The book reminded me how tenuous life can be. There is normalcy, and then, suddenly, there is not. War does that. The atrocities people are capable of inflicting on one another during extreme situations like war are beyond belief.
After reading The Surrendered, when I saw old farmers and bent-backed ajumas in Korea, I knew they had seen horrors in their lives that we could never imagine. I hoped the 50+ year armistice between North and South Korea would hold, or would someday be resolved, so that this resilient country wouldn’t have to suffer such hardships again.
*Saturday, October 2, 2010*
“ON JOURNEY” INVITATION: I invite you to write a post on your own blog about the journey itself for a recently visited specific destination. If you don’t have a blog, I invite you to write in the comments.
In this case, my intention was to explore far flung parts of Korea and to learn something about how the Korean War impacted the people and the country, as informed by taking along the book, The Surrendered. On the journey, I encountered a cast of unusual characters, a cross section of Korean culture.
Include the link in the comments below by Tuesday, November 20 at 1:00 p.m. EST. When I write my post in response to this challenge on Wednesday, November 21, I’ll include your links in that post.
This will be an ongoing invitation, once on the third Wednesday of each month. Feel free to jump in at any time. 🙂
I hope you’ll join in our community. I look forward to reading your posts!
the ~ wander.essence ~ community
I invite you all to settle in and read a few posts from our wandering community. I promise, you’ll be inspired! See below in the comments for any links.
Many thanks to all of you who wrote posts about the journey. I’m inspired by all of you! 🙂