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Authors: Simon Winchester

Korea (8 page)

BOOK: Korea
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They were completely without shame—not at all the prim and modest figures of the tourist posters—and they stripped naked while talking to me, changing out of their wetsuits and into their street clothes as innocently as if I didn’t exist (though perhaps as a white ‘ghost’, I didn’t, in their eyes). Their bodies were muscular and pale; they had large shoulders and flattish breasts and thighs as solid as trees. I had seen advertisements in Japan touting the erotic charms of Cheju (for Japanese tourists flock in from Osaka Airport in the hope of finding affordable sex—very affordable indeed at the time of writing, thanks to the
yen/won
exchange rate), and all had portrayed the
haenyo
as part of the erotic scene. The divers, as portrayed by the Japanese travel agents, are slender youngsters in white cotton swimsuits, who swim with grace and courage, narrowly escaping death in the jaws of giant clams. The disappointment of the Japanese tourists who fetch up here, and see the Cheju foreshores fill up with what look like Russian female construction workers and part-time Olympic javelin throwers on an annual jaunt to the Black Sea, must be considerable.

At dinner that night—we were eating
chonbokchuk
, a quite tasty gruel made from rice and abalone—I got into a terrific argument with a young woman, a friend of Mae-young’s, when I asked whether the
haenyo
were organized—did they have an employer, were they members of some kind of co-operative? The woman, who had also come down from Seoul, was furious. ‘Why do you bring your Western prejudices to Korea? Of course they are not organized. They are traditional people. They dive wherever and whenever they like. They have done so for hundreds of years.’

I was flattened by the vigour of her response. I protested that I was not a victim of any prejudice but simply wanted to know. ‘Well, you should know better than to ask. The
haenyo
are
independent and courageous people. They would not accept any organization.’

Not content to let matters rest, I produced a trump card. If they were not organized, I said with what must have been an unpleasantly smug grin, then who built their concrete hut? But I had made, I later found out, a tactical error of the gravest kind. The girl faltered, blushed, looked down at her rice. Someone at the table sniggered. She had no answer. She was embarrassed. She had
lost face
. And while Confucian teaching points out how bad it is to lose face, the sin of
making someone else lose face
is inexcusable. So I, in a curiously Oriental way, had lost the argument. Her facts may have been flawed (they certainly were: the
haenyo
are rigorously organized, access to the beaches and times of diving all being laid down by bosses who, it seems, are all men), but my style of debate had been so offensive as to cost me the battle. We left the restaurant in strained silence and went to a bar and drank
soju
in a concerted effort to forget and thus save the evening. At some hazy moment in the small hours all was forgiven, glasses were clinked, and we retired firm friends again.
Soju
is a brand of firewater with splendidly restorative effects.

The next morning Mae-young had to fly home, and I saw her off on the bus to the Cheju Airport. I would miss her: she had been infectiously cheerful, ever optimistic, a good companion; she seemed then to have none of the darker, more brooding side that is said to be a characteristic of the Koreans, a side that has made more than one visitor talk of ‘the Irish of the Orient’. As I tramped away northwards from the bus stop in a thin rain I felt in a dark and brooding mood: would she come back? I wondered. What had she felt about the weekend? Had she taken as much pleasure from the day on Halla-san as I had? There was a curious dissonance to our friendship; I was struck that I had no firm idea of what she was thinking about almost anything.

The drizzle became a steady downpour. I had deliberately left any wet-weather clothing out of my pack to save weight. Before I left England I had asked the Meteorological Research Depart
ment of the University of Reading for an analysis of spring rains in the southern half of the Korean Peninsula, and they had obliged, offering the cheering news that only two or three wet days might be expected in a month. (The department can offer weather records for almost anywhere on earth: the last time I had consulted a friend there I had been off to Ulan Bator in December, and he had given me complete snowfall records for every settlement around the Gobi Desert.) Whether or not the forecast was correct I would not now dispute: I was getting soaked.

 

A car slowed down beside me, and the driver rolled down his window. ‘Would you be Simon?’ asked an Irish voice, and when I said that I would he roared with delight. ‘I thought I recognized you. Not many people are fool enough to walk in this rain! Patrick McGlinchey. Father McGlinchey of Hallim. You remember? You wrote to me last winter? It’s good to be seeing a foreign face again. You’ll be coming to dinner, of course. You’ll be staying the night?’ And then, looking at his wristwatch, he started. ‘Jesus, Mary and Joseph, I must be off! I’ve an appointment with the bank manager. Another blessed money crisis.’ He gunned his car and drove off again northwards, in the direction of Cheju City, with a promise that he’d be ‘back at the farm’ by dusk. ‘Make yourself at home!’ he cried as the car sped away. ‘They all know you’re coming.’

What a tonic! I had indeed written to Father P. J. McGlinchey at something mysteriously called the Isidore Development Association when I read in an old guidebook that he and a small community of Irish missionaries enjoyed the somewhat eccentric pastime of making Aran sweaters on Cheju. I had no idea whether he was still alive—the guidebook was a good twenty years old—but indeed he was, for a fortnight after my inquiry I had his reply, written in a spidery hand. ‘It’s a novel idea you have, and I wish you every success. If God does not in the meantime untie me from these shackles of space and time, I should be here when you arrive, and I look forward to meeting you….’

The Columban Fathers in Navan sent Patrick McGlinchey out from Ireland to Korea in 1952. He left a country of comparative peace and came thousands of miles east to live with a war still raging around him. His task was formidable, but simple: he had to help bring Christianity into this darkest (and very Buddhist) corner of the world. Another hundred or so similarly young and energetic brothers were dispatched from Ireland—men with names so redolent of the sea and the peat bogs and the soft Irish rain, names like Sean Hogan and Kevin Fleming and Padraig O’Hara and Flynn Brennan. From Patrick Bannon to Thomas Walsh, through all the O’Briens and O’Keefes and O’Neills and O’Rourkes, the names of Ireland are now firmly woven into the very south of the Korean Peninsula. In villages and towns obscure and renowned, the Irishmen built little stone churches and tiny wooden schools, they learned Korean, they preached, they converted, they gathered about them small coteries of the faithful, and they ministered to a people confused and wasted by war and perhaps disappointed by the languorous resignation and fatalism taught by their Buddhist masters. ‘They were an ambitious people,’ one priest said to me later by way of explanation, ‘and they wanted an ambitious church. We showed them that it was possible to combine faith with ambition and aspiration. It was one of the secrets of our success.’

They preached and they converted and ministered—and, most important of all, they stayed. Patrick McGlinchey goes back every four years to see his brother in Donegal and to visit the grave of his father, who was a veterinary surgeon, and who taught young Patrick a fondness for the countryside, for animals, and the rhythms of crops. But essentially, he is now a part of Korea; he doubts that he will ever go back to Ireland to live but will see out his days on Cheju Island, which looks, after all, ‘so much like Connemara I could be home right now, really’.

I reached the farm after another hour or so, and indeed the staff were expecting me and had made up a bed for me in a room just off the main chapel. I eased off my boots and glumly inspected my blisters. Dusk was settling into the valleys when P.J., as
everyone seemed to call him, arrived home. He had settled his argument with the bank, and was in high good humour. ‘Will you not take a small drink or a cup of tea first, perhaps? It looks like a whiskey by the fire is what you need.’

He was a giant of a man—red face, a shock of white hair, his frame covered in the black cloth of his calling. His living room, a pleasantly untidy library, had a noisy stove in the middle, and it was within its corona of fierce heat that we sat as the darkness deepened outside. The windows faced west, and the setting sun, now glimmering weakly through the scudding clouds, glinted on the distant sea. The grasslands were dotted with sheep, and from somewhere unseen came the constant lowing of cattle ready for their evening milking. It was a moment of the purest tranquillity. P.J. splashed whiskey into a cracked glass—‘Sorry it’s not Bushmills, damned hard to get out here’—and he told me something of the place they call Isidore Ranch.

Saint Isidore is one of Catholicism’s more robust and bucolic saints. He was Spanish, a seventh-century farm worker from Seville. As the papers relating to his beatification have it, he was a man who spent more time than his colleagues thought suitable reading the Bible and praying, and he was denounced for what they charged was his laziness. The farm manager, an ungodly fellow, agreed: the sack was mentioned, unless Isidore pulled his socks up. Which of course he did. He ploughed and sowed and reaped like a maniac, so keenly that his fellow workers began to suspect that he had a seventh-century version of a Massey-Ferguson hidden in his room. One morning as he was turning over a meadow, a couple of them spied on him, and to their general astonishment spotted two angels swoop down from heaven and put their hands to the plough. Verily, they thought, this Bible-reading habit of Isidore’s must have something; they promptly converted to the faith, and within a couple of years all rural Seville had gone Catholic, and Isidore was made a saint, the patron saint of the farm labourer. A concrete statue of him pushing a hand plough stands outside P.J.’s office.

‘I suppose I subscribe to the philosophy of that American
Indian—what was his name—Geronimo,’ P.J. said suddenly. ‘The only way to cross a river is to cross it. That’s what he said. I came here in 1952, the island was unbelievably poor, the farmers were the basest of peasants. My father having been a vet—and vets in Ireland in those days did a bit of everything, they knew quite a bit about farming—I thought I could persuade these people to farm properly. But Jesus, it was difficult.

‘I started with pigs. I organized 4-H clubs in all the tiny villages, and I gave pigs to the teenagers who were members. They were good pigs I had had imported—Durocs, Landraces, Yorkshires—much better than the scrawny little black things they had running about. And the deal was the same as in any 4-H club back in the States: the members could have the pigs free, except that they paid me back by giving me two piglets from the first litter born. I would give these two piglets to other members, and so it went on.

‘I had hoped the teenagers’ ideas would filter upwards to their parents. Not a bit of it. Confucius never permitted the idea that a child could teach anything to his father. Everything went the other way. Besides, by the time the annual ceremony to honour the ancestors came round, father looked about for something nice to sacrifice, saw this nice plump pig of his son’s, and bingo, the blessed thing was roasted and carved while the son grizzled in the corner. End of experiment. It was like that, Cheju in the old days.

‘Same with sheep. I’d say, “Why don’t you raise sheep, you’ve got great country for it?” They’d say, “No, the Japanese tried it and got nowhere, so why should we?” I persisted. “Okay,” I said, “why not resow the uplands with good quality grasses to give the sheep something to eat for most of the year?” “Nope,” they said, “the soil up on the hills is too acid, and the grass wouldn’t grow.” But still—I was young in those days—I went on. “Why not control the acidity by putting down lime?” And then came the coup de grace. “Nope,” they said. “That can’t possibly be done on Cheju because if it had been possible
our ancestors would have done it long ago
.” Could you credit it? Damn
Confucianism all over again. Dead pigs. No sheep. I tell you, it was depressing in those early days.’

But the good father persisted, and in time there were sheep, and there were cattle, and the government allowed the church to buy land, and the priests set up credit unions to help the farmers finance themselves—it was a real revolution, and it helped turn Cheju from a wasteland of ignorance and penury into an island that is now well farmed, even moderately prosperous. ‘Every time I see a farmer driving a Daewoo car, I think, We helped him do that. The church can do a great deal more than merely preaching the good word, you know.’

There were moments of luck, too. P.J. talked with great amusement of one hot and dusty day in the early fifties, when he was at his church in Hallim, the tiny coastal village to which the Columbans first directed him. He was troubled by a pressing problem: there had been no rain for months, and the local water supply had failed. He knew of an unfailing spring high up on the slopes of Halla-san, but the only way he could bring the water down to the coast was to get hold of about ten miles of plastic piping—impossible to acquire in Korea in those days other than by importing it from abroad. The Isidore Ranch had little money, so he had written to Oxfam asking for help. A pro forma reply had come back from Oxford, but nothing since. And that was six months before. It was very much on the young priest’s mind.

‘I remember vividly. I was standing out in the roadway when all of a sudden a U.S. Army jeep came bumping along down the hill. It was all bashed about; something had gone through the windscreen, and it had a big hole in it. It stopped by me and a white couple got out, a middle-aged man and his poor wife, covered with dust and looking terribly tired. It was the British ambassador and his wife, down from Seoul on an inspection tour! Bless me, they were a courageous couple. But so tired and fed up. I invited them into the parlour, and by chance one of the sisters had taught my young Korean cook how to make apple pie. She had had a lesson only that Saturday, and this was her first experiment. You can imagine the smell, and how the lady
ambassadress or whatever you call her felt when she smelled it. She went weak at the knees, I could see it. Anyway, she and her husband sat in the parlour—just like Ireland, it was—eating this pie, and we had some fresh cream. And we had tea. They were transported, positively transported.

BOOK: Korea
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