I couldn’t help but think of the 1997 film Paradise Road upon seeing the fields of rice paddies. The film is a fictionalized account of a women’s Japanese POW camp on the Indonesia island of Sumatra where the prisoners were often forced to work in the rice paddies. Although I was not in Indonesia but rather South Korea, paddy fields, flooded parcels of arable land used to grow rice and other semi aquatic crops, are a prevalent sight throughout most of Asia.
Earlier that day I had left behind chaotic Seoul and journeyed almost four hours south to Andong in the Gyeongsangbuk-do province. Hahoe Folk Village is a traditional village from the Joseon Dynasty and maintains old architectural styles that have since been lost in other parts of the country due to rapid modern innovations and other development. Blaring noise from the traffic and other 21st century ways of life were non-existent here. At Hahoe there was nothing but a calming silence. One looks around and would have no idea about automobiles and computers and cell phones. A guide pointed out the differences between the aristocratic residences and the servants’ homes. The former had tile roofs, the latter, thatched. Both types of residences showcased the architectural styles of the Joseon Dynasty, a Korean age that lasted for five centuries.
As I was walking towards the outside theatre where the Hahoe Mask Dance was to be performed, I saw the rice paddies, lush areas of endless green which grow a crop consumed by most of the world’s community. I was told that the farmers tend and weed their rice paddies through the summer until around the time of Chuseok, a traditional holiday held on August 15 of the lunar calendar. It amazed me to see the crop in its infancy stage, long before it’s harvested and sold in packaged bags in your supermarket. With the Nakdong River on my left and the rice paddies on my right, I finally felt like I was in the heart of traditional Asia.
My time in Andong ended with a performance of the Byeolsingut Exorcism, a folk drama that dates from the Goryeo Dynasty which ruled Korea from the 10th to the 14th centuries. The name of the drama means an unusual and uncommon form of exorcism. The mask dance is made up of 10 episodes with a satirical story of a former nobleman. Although the story being conveyed was sometimes lost on me, I certainly could appreciate the cultural aspects, the deep history the drama was rooted in. I compared the experience to water puppetry in Vietnam, two deeply cultural and historic traditions that if at all possible, tourists should definitely experience regardless of language barriers or lack of cultural history knowledge.
Although the images of the masks from the Byeolsingut Exorcism will always remain with me, so will the rice paddies. If there’s a positive stereotype one has about Asia, for me it would be the rice paddies and it was the most incredible of experiences to see them.