Down on the Farm, You Can Learn a Lot About the World

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Down on the Farm, You Can Learn a Lot About the World

JINJU - "What does it mean to be German?" I had asked myself this question repeatedly as the bus in which I and about 30 other participants in a four-day UNESCO "experience rural Korea" event approached South Gyeongsang province.

Each of us, in addition to doing a lot of farm work, would have to stand in front of local school classes and introduce our country and its culture. So we had a big challenge - albeit with a slight difference, depending on whether you were Nigerian, Belgian, Bruneian, Mexican, Japanese, American, Filipino or Chinese.

The bus bounced along golden rice fields ringed with trees showing off their autumn colors. On board were 15 Koreans and 14 foreigners, aged 19 to 35, all chatting and joking. After the seven-hour trip from Seoul, we arrived at our destination, a hostel near the village of Jinju, to set up UNESCO Campo Camp 2001.

The camp, organized by the Korean National Commission for UNESCO and sponsored by the Ministry of Education, was being held for the third time. It was conceived in 1999 when the commission's Park Seon-min decided to bring together people from around the world for a few days in the countryside to build a real global village. "For Koreans it's important to live and work together to get to know each other," Ms. Park said. "Farm work in particular requires cooperation and trust, so that's why we came out here."

On Day 2 we arose at 7 a.m. and built morale by donning the same T-shirts and hats and hanging huge name cards around our necks. Another bus took us to a small farm owned by Choi Jon-su, who would be our "agricultural instructor" for the next two days. "We do organic farming, so expect grasshoppers and bugs," he said before we made our way into the non, or rice paddy. Mr. Choi has farmed organically, eschewing fertilizer and pesticides, for 10 years. Handing out sickles and watching our clumsy moves, he said, "Cutting is easy if you just know the trick." The trick eluded us, as we tore more stalks than we cut.

On Day 3 we learned to thresh rice. Mr. Choi introduced us to his semi-mechanical thresher. Shaking violently, the machine separated the rice grains from the husks and spat the grains into sacks. We filled 14 big sacks.

Next on the program was a visit to an alternative school for teens. Called Gandhi School, it offers, in addition to conventional classes, what it calls "sensible subjects," such as farming, painting, traditional dancing and sewing. Mr. Choi also teaches farming classes here. The pupils come from all over Korea, and they boast an impressive variety of hairstyles and colors.

Eventually, my time came: What does it mean to be a German? Having expected a younger audience, I had painted childish pictures of Germans and our beloved sausages and cheeses. The students, aged 13 to 18, graciously complimented those attempts, but then asked sophisticated questions about Germany's education system, reunification and divorce rate, its view of homosexual marriages and the realism of our modern cinema.

At the school we also met a music teacher, Son Jingeun, who has a novel approach to teaching. He encourages students to vent their stress - he made our group drum and shout until we were completely exhausted. Afterward, he smiled and said, "Good job."

On the bus back to Seoul the next morning, Day 4, the question of what it means to be German lingered. Perhaps Germans are people who don't like to have rice for breakfast. I certainly did learn, though, about national differences at the "global village," and realized how special and singular each participant was. All in all, we are too colorful and complex to be stereotyped; there's no more dividing cultures into "black and white."

by Sonja Ernst

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