Wooriwa: A Weekend in Pyeongtaek

We left Goyang immediately after work bound to Jinwi station where we were promised a farming experience. So began our farming experience: three hours on public transportation, two backpacks, a couple of sweatshirts and some basic supplies, a guy named William and the promise of a “once in a lifetime experience” somewhere on the outskirts of Seoul; the ones exactly opposite from the outskirts in which we presently reside, to be exact.

26 September 2009, Morning

Some people wake up looking terrified of their surroundings, as if to say, “where am I and what are all these strange people about to do to me,” others wake up confused and perplexed with a look asking for help, as if they are no longer sure where they are or how they got there, in the broadest sense. These people look out the windo in pursuit of a horizon they can focus on to cure their slumber-induced spatial disorientation. Regardless of how any of us wanted to wake up, we were all foced to roll up our sleeping bags and blankets at 7:00 when one of the Korean organizers walked through with some kind of K-Pop tune blaring from his cell phone, which brings us to the final class of sleepers: the holdout. These people will do anything thing in their power to squeeze every last moment of sleep from their nights. Here on the farm there are no pleasantries for these people, no merciful nudging and prodding, no whispering, “wake up…wake up…” in their ears, in stead these folks are greeted by their new best friend who jumps on top of them, seizes their body and shouts “WAKE UP” loud enough to hopefully wake up the other holdouts, violently shaking them.

Breakfast was cereal and rice with kimchi (??) soup. Across the room hung a sign telling us our schedule for the day. Breakfast ran until 8 today. Nearby one of the louder of us foreigners is trying to explain that it wasn’t because he was so drunk last night that he couldn’t remember any of our names, but that he never remembers names, he remembers stories, places, he says. He could just say he didn’t bother to remember our names because he didn’t care who you are, only what story you can add to his vault.

Becoming Farmers—9:45 A.M.

I was surrounded by members of a nameless family. The father was filling a vat resembling a planter large enough to house a corpse flower with some variety of insecticide. To my left were rows of crops covered by large plastic tarps to create a greenourse with some kind of intricate irrigation system running through it. The father fired up a hard-cart sprayer and walked it backward through the crops, the tank held just enough insecticide for one pass. The wife of the family spotted the back of my shirt: makguli, it read, a Korean rice wine that is cloudy like milk tea but also sweet. They chattered some in Korean and all I could understand was makguli, over and over until Sun—one of the Korean workers in our group of four. I said I thought 9:45 in the morning was a little early for a glass of wine, but quickly realized I had no choice when she brought out a tea kettle full of some high quality, homemade, makguli, which apparently doesn’t give you a headache in the morning.

The day consisted of tearing wees from a spiach patch in amongst the most diverse acreage of farmland I’ve ever seen. On the jaunt from the greenhouse where we had secham, (pronounced: Say-CHam) a break in the farming day between breakfast and lunch, to the field we were tending we saw sesame, squash and chili peppers; the patch next to ours grew cucumbers vertically up poles stretching to the top of the canopy, and a small patch of corn sprang up near the end of the field. We also experienced first-hand that family farms can and do feed themselves on the crops they grow. When we left for lunch we were given a box, a little bigger than a paper box, filled with cucumbers to give to our Wooriwa crew.


The afternoon hours ticked by with rapid speed. After a filling boxed lunch and fresh cucumbers with red bean and pepper paste, and the morning seacham, we were far from hungry when we the afternoon secham came along. We conquered nearly the entire 200 meters of crops with graceful agility.

The farm family offered up his shower as a token of appreciation for our work when we finished a long day of tiring dirty work. I was told by Sun that much like in the US, Koreans have taken to preferring to insource migrant workers, in this case from Thailand, to do the “dirty” jobs most Koreans don’t want. This is the extent of my knowledge of Korean agriculture issues.

Dinner was a feast of Korean food featuring one of my favorites, pajeon—Korean seafood pancakes—and pork served with rice and, of course, kimchi. Before leaving the farm I asked Jin, the other Korean in our G4, about how kimchi pots are used. Kimchi pots are large terra cotta drums in which Korean families store their kimchi. Traditionally, Jin explained, kimchi pots were filled during the summer and autumn months with enough kimchi to last through the winter. It has nothing to do with the fermentation process, as I previously understood, rather it was simply a traditional means of keeping the staple of all cuisine fresh and cold throughout the winter. During dinner we were finally, formally introduced to Wooriwa.

A word in Korean that means “we all come together,” Wooriwa is an organization of university students who come together to learn and experience the finer points of Korean culture and multiculturalism. In this trip’s case, the goal or mission was to do a public service related to the long standing cultural pillar that there is one Korea and that all Koreans are a singular nation, a single people.

Korean farmers are apparently facing some hard times and whether by university edict or otherwise, these students made this trip in part, out of civic duity. The Koreans seem to believe quit strongly in the adage, “we all do better when we all do better,” and these students were here help.

So long, and Thanks for all the Makguli

We arose after a night of drinking Makguli and meeting new friends from all over Korea and the globe, and greeted the day with a fresh sense of what it meant to be here, working the land for Koreans, and a readiness to dive head-first, into another day of agriculture.

Today our project was helping a zuchini farmer excise the invading weeds from his field. Armed with handheld hoes, Danielle and I were two foreigners in a triad with a Korean student. We left for the farm around 9:00. The weeds today were a little more sparse and remarkably easier to pull thanks, in part, to our tools. The conversation revolved around our newest friend, Benny.

His English name, of course, Benny spent a year of his high school career in Chico, CA where he had what may have been a quintessentially American experience. He tried out and made the varsity football team at his high school and revived its soccer team almost by himself. He met Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger at the California State Capitol, asked a girl to the prom, and visited SanFrancisco and Disneyland.

After returning from the U.S., he went to a university for a year before enlisting in the Korean military. In Korea, he told us, you’re either drafted into the army, or you may enlist in another of Korea’s armed forces. He chose the latter and paid his dues with a year in the Korea Coast Guard where he protected the Korean shores from all manner of trouble including helping clean up efforts during the 2008 oil spill off the peninsula’s coast.

Our farmer told us to not work too hard, and was greatful that we were there. He was a bit upset that we had to leave so soon because he wanted to show us more of his farm and let us prune some tomato plants. I have to say that while I was sore to my core and really was looking forward to falling asleep in my own bed, I found myself trying to think of ways in which we could stay. When we got back to the base camp-like building we were all sleeping in, I noticed the posters with all our names had been taken down and I realized that it was time to go. This amazing experience I will never forget, was coming to an end.

After eating a quick lunch we all packed our things, collected some email addresses and gathered together for a group picture. The final item on the schedule posted in the main room read “C U AGAIN!!” and I think we were all hoping to hold ourselves to that commitment.