Useful And Fantastic: Korea As It Used To Be – 6
...We left in the early morning, when the country-side was fresh and beautiful with dew. It was Chosen, the Land of the Morning Calm, before the wind rises, - with the delicate poplars and quaint bent pines and patterned terraces and tidy clusters of villages and blue lakes edged with white sand. There were the herons and the fishermen; the back of a bullock harrowing among the green barley by the yellow road; the black goats being driven over a graceful stone bridge...
Val Yule concludes her account of the time she spent in Korea some 60 years ago before the country was riven in two by war.
While I was enjoying myself like this, George was down at the customs, trying to rescue our baggage. The Monday delay was nobody’s fault, for it rained. On Tuesday the Australians actually saw their entire consignment, and spent the entire afternoon with a broker, filling in an enormous inquisitive form in Korean. On Wednesday they were told that a new form must be filled in, as the values had not been stated in sufficient detail. When this had been done, and customs officials had been discovered to receive it, an interminable argument began as to whether junior customs men had any authority to handle our stuff.
Finally, a brave junior official acted, and completed the forms. He looked at the entire collection of luggage - 224 cases – and sampled two.
The document was then stamped by four departments and ended up in the hands of the Big Chief. At 4.30 p.m. permission was given to collect the bags. But the man with the keys was at another shed, and could not come until he had closed it, which he did an hour later. He did not come then, because he had to have his photograph taken in some anniversary group of customs men. It was almost dusk when the shed was opened. Japanese (and thence Korean) study of the West has shown them how Customs work, but, mistaking their purpose, they have improved on their model.
Then eight jiggy-men shifted 22 tons in 224 packages in 35 minutes. Most of it was six years supply of groceries for the mission.
George had never seen men work so hard, and he did not like seeing it. For such work, when they have it, the men were normally paid 2/4d a day, notwithstanding the soaring price of rice. Better all the strikes in creation than have people subjected to this economic slavery. No wonder a Korean 61 years old is thought a greater miracle than we think Bernard Shaw.
Afterwards they sweated like horses.
One man asked for a meal instead of wages, which was refused by the Korean foreman. When Miss W., George and boy David heard it, they ran down the hill after him, but he had gone. It did not improve our meal.
All our luggage arrived, except for a few sweets pilfered from one box, and except for the packages that one would have thought least likely to be mislaid - the double beds, mattresses and bath-heater. Our box of books was safe. It was apparently whole until it reached the door of the yard, and then it collapsed on the threshold and fell to pieces.
I took some cotton dresses and other things out of our trunk to take back to Seoul. Three hundred miles later, in Seoul, I found I had left them behind.
Before we left Pusan, Blossom the cook-boy gave George a little American Army phrase-book he had picked up “somewhere”. It was full of handy remarks such as ‘How Many Cannons Has the Enemy?’ and ‘Help, Help’, as well as the conventional Baedeker, with crude phonetics to express the Korean language.
Blossom’s real name was Sangbong. He was a dark, solemn, inscrutable youth with a heart of gold. He was not a cook, especially when he was having a religious revival. He had no taste for Western food himself and had not the imaginative genius to know and produce by instinct what was wanted from any strange Western recipe. If the housekeeper of the week finally capitulated for something very simple like scrambled eggs, rather than test him too far with a casserole, Blossom would, with complete equanimity, bring an eggy soup to the table.
But he was the practical support of his whole family. His little brother earnt a few won by watching the clothes and clothesline on washing day to see that neither disappeared. I gave little brother some toffee one day, to my own complete discomfort. He received it with both brown hands, as a gentleman should, to show his sincerity of acceptance - and I had thoughtlessly given with one hand, as one might give to an animal or “low person”, without any heart in it.
It is to his credit that the clothes-line never disappeared. Economic privation had played havoc with the natural rectitude of the common people. Miss W. had vivid memories of a night soon after her return in 1945, chasing out burglars nineteen times when her colleagues were all away for one reason or another. Fortunately, the Korean thief was not violent then, whatever the later war may have taught him.
After a week’s stay in Pusan, our departure was like leaving home again.
We left in the early morning, when the country-side was fresh and beautiful with dew. It was Chosen, the Land of the Morning Calm, before the wind rises, - with the delicate poplars and quaint bent pines and patterned terraces and tidy clusters of villages and blue lakes edged with white sand. There were the herons and the fishermen; the back of a bullock harrowing among the green barley by the yellow road; the black goats being driven over a graceful stone bridge (Scottish style).
As the morning went on, the train became hot and stuffy. The soldier sitting opposite us - fingering his American revolver as if wondering whom to shoot first - would keep the window down until he was covered with sweat, raise it for a few minutes to cool himself, and then firmly shut it again.
At every station boys were selling the usual peanuts and lollies and dried octopus.
I also noticed that the toughest class in the community, bar police, seemed to be the railway boys. Every station seemed to have an equally yeggish uniformed gangster blowing whistles.
Then I realised he travelled with the train.
This was the country never to be seen again. A few weeks later, the Korean War rolled over it.