Sunday, June 06, 2021

Back to basics: hanji making with the one and only Shin Hyun-se

You can see from this snap that I have not yet begun work so that's why I'm still in a relatively nonchalant mood and upright posture. The woman insisted that Mr. Shin's apprentice Park Jae-gyun take this picture, she is some random guest involved in archery who started to cry when she saw Jae-gyun and me there, as young people invested in hanji. Mr. Shin is not this sentimental whatsoever, as he has been making hanji since he was 16 and now he's 75 (his Korean age, though he was born in 1947. I'm too tired to explain Korean ages, but you can probably look it up and learn how they calculate).
Jae-gyun is in his mid-30s (again, Korean age, but I think basically 10 years younger than me) and has been training with Mr. Shin for over 3 years. He spent I think over 2 years with my old teacher in Gapyeong and also 3 months training in Kochi. He studied under Professor Park Jisun, also a renowned paper conservator, at Yongin University. He's done with his master's coursework but not his thesis, but Prof Park saw something in him that would make a good papermaker and pushed him in this direction. What a gem.
He is incredibly dedicated to this work. As soon as he enters the papermill, he becomes silent and singularly focused. He never complains, always gives gratitude and respect to his teacher and elders, and moved from Seoul to the countryside where there is really almost nothing to do or very many young people. He has been driving me around from the jump and his mother (who also moved with him to Sinban, a town 10 minutes away, since there is no place to stay in this village) sent all kinds of things with him to provide for me: face masks, toothbrush & toothpaste, Korean washcloth, shampoo, conditioner, probiotic yogurt soap, cosmetics (2 full sets of 5 steps of Korean facial moisturizers, cleansing foam), and that's all I can remember. He was worried after I noted that I didn't really bring papermaking work clothes from the US since I didn't expect to train this way, and then his mom packed another back the next day full of extra t-shirts, a waterproof vest, and his track pants. So that I could wear everything and give it back dirty because there's no laundromat, either.
It's fascinating to watch this dynamic, and I know it's not easy for either of these men, but at the same time, I'm sure they are learning a lot from this experience. Jae-gyun provides the muscle and jumps to every task demanded of him, while Mr. Shin is always barking at him. It's how he expresses himself, which is typical of a man of this region and age. Any American not familiar with Korean culture would probably go home crying within an hour. Or angry, having picked a fight.
Not to say that Mr. Shin lacks muscle. It is insane how strong he is and how long he has been at this. He deserved the provincial and national designation for hanji making for YEARS and it's really only politics that kept that from happening earlier. But he truly doesn't give a damn about those things. All he does is work at an incredibly high standard. The work week runs Monday through Saturday, and the workers are there from 7:30am to 5pm with an hour lunch break at noon. He provides a fruit snack in the afternoon and always barks at us to go and eat. Here, they are selecting nails from Pringles cans to install a piece of wood at my station to fit between the support bars of the bal teul (wood frame for the bamboo screen).
But I'm sure he also works when we are not there, because he LIVES at the papermill. There is one small room in the corner of the main building where he and his wife live, and a bathroom off of that with a toilet and water fixtures in the wall but no sink. He doesn't drive but she does. Apparently, he is extremely healthy (despite being a smoker and drinking soju regularly), meaning he never gets sick.
He is, however, bent over from years of this work, and I GET IT after only four days of it. I feel the way he looks and I've done basically nothing. Here he is using a piece of wood to pat the screen into better square. He only uses screens for webal tteugi (the traditional Korean method) that were made by a guy who has since passed away who lived in the area. In fact, this whole area used to be quite wealthy (the saying was that even dogs ran around with 1,000 won bills in their mouths - less than a dollar but the equivalent unit) and FULL of hanji everything. Everyone in the village knew how to make hanji or some part of the process. Now it's only him, even though they've named the roads after hanji and built at least two hanji centers that no one uses.
This is what happened to my first post. No, maybe my second. When Mr. Shin took apart my first one, I turned around and thought, what?! But then was so relieved. It's very freeing to practice when you know everything will go back in the vat and you can start over again.
He is showing me it's better to do it this way rather than trying to glop it all into one piece.
It's so satisfying to do even after the work that went into building the post. I think it takes me about an hour and a half to two hours to get through the amount of fiber in the vat before I start over. I was doing it at the pace that Jae-gyun was working next to me for the first three days (destroying the post 4x) but on Saturday I went much more slowly after Mr. Shin said I need to take breaks because I am not strong enough to work straight through the day. It is ridiculous for me to even think of trying to keep up with Jae-gyun, and I have had to work hard to remember that I'm older than when I first started this work. Even when I first started, my teacher said I was about 15 years too late to begin because it's something you have to start as a teenager. I get this now. And I don't take offense because Mr. Shin is right: I am not physically strong, and haven't been in the way that I need to be for some time.
This totally blew my mind, as Mr. Shin loaded his knife beater with totally dry entire huge sheets of hanji to recycle. For our practice vats, he uses a third recycled hanji (which he said is good material but weak paper, that he has sorted out from stashes lofted in different parts of the mill) and the rest is fresh paper mulberry bark. He uses only the best stuff that is grown in cold parts of Korea.
His employee has been here since he opened his mill (20 years ago, as he was in at least five different places working before he set up his own business in 2002). She lives right up the street and even offered to put me up when my housing became untenable. I had seen her during my first 2008 visit and she looks great now, in her 80s. I love the way she chuckles at me every time she walks by my vat and post. She does all of the picking bark from every bit of fiber that passes through to the beater, since the other employee has fallen ill and can't come to work anymore.
She also does all of the drying. Since it's warm and not yet disgustingly humid, it's easy to do this in the drying room since the sheets dry pretty quickly.
It's kind of amazing to see her doing the same thing she was doing when I last photographed her. I show a video that she is in often and to see her still working in person, it humbles me a lot.
The whole experience already I cannot put into words. EVERYONE has taken such insanely good care of me that my heart could burst and stop working because it doesn't get better than this. I was really hesitant about coming because I didn't think I could handle it physically. And I can't. I'm working way past the limits of my ability and every day I think about how my physical therapists would be screaming at me right now to stop, go home, and do more core exercises. But this was my only window and I am so grateful because even in my very first day, I learned so much. I can't get into details because it's ALL in the details. All I know is that my students at WSW this July will have a completely different experience than I've ever been able to provide. Every day I want to be screaming from the pain, and of course on top of that my period began, which always causes my lower back to go out. That combined with doing the wrong motion for the first 2.5 days (aka the worst thing you can do to your back: twisting with heavy weight) has been brutal.
But when I asked Mr. Shin how much longer I should stay, given that I had said I'd do a week and then had to get on with everything else, he said at least another week. If I could barely handle 4 straight days, let's see how the next 6 go. In the meantime, the logistics of getting here were challenging, as the connecting bus left 3 hours after the first one arrived, and none of this would be possible without Jae-gyun driving me everywhere. That includes lunch and dinner. The initial plan was for me to stay in Sinban in a motel and he would drive me back and forth. As soon as I saw the room, I knew it was not going to be pretty. Once I made the bed (covering what was on the mattress as it didn't look clean with a blanket that also did not look or feel clean), I saw a bug on the endtable and immediately freaked out about bedbugs. The whole place was the filthiest place I've ever stayed in, in Korea (and maybe anywhere in my recent recollection) and I asked for bug spray after seeing more of these little bugs everywhere. Suitcase zipped shut whenever I left, working in this ONE café in town (where I had this dinner one night) because I couldn't bear to be in the motel.
[After Jae-gyun heard me say I liked noodles, we had SO many noodles. Apparently, Mr. Shin also likes noodles but does not eat a lot in general, unlike me.] When I got home from the café (and only got that far because I had walked around town trying to find a new place to stay even though I knew no rooms were available: only 3 places in total and they were booked due to construction and farming season), I saw an enormous bug in the gross bathroom, which was probably a version of a roach or whatever. I got 2 hours of sleep that night and made the, "Mooooooommmm!!" phone call home along with another call with a friend who gets this side of the Korean research. She said what I was feeling: pack your bags and GET OUT. I left in the morning and called a place in a town 30 minutes away because even if I had to hire a driver to get me back and forth, I could not do this.
Jae-gyun was extremely understanding when he saw me with all my bags at pickup time, and even handled the motel refund with his own cash (they sent him a wire transfer and he emptied his wallet for me). He would probably have done all the driving to the new place, but once we got to work and told Mr. Shin, we had to start brainstorming. His employee offered her place as well, but I didn't want to burden someone in her 80s. That afternoon in the rain, a guest came to buy paper. She was so amazed by the sight of two young people at side-by-side vats, and asked who we were. When she found out that I had come from the US, she asked where I was staying and I explained I just escaped a motel in Sinban and would try to check into another place in Hapcheon. She insisted instead that I move to her house in the next town. Her daughter had studied abroad in Chicago for a year so she understood the challenges of being in a country not your own. I was floored by this stranger's offer, but Mr. Shin said to go, and his employee rode with us at the end of the day since she knew where the house was. We arrived at this gorgeous garden where I'd get my own room and bathroom, and could eat from the garden since this couple moved from the city 7 years ago and grow their own food and keep chickens for eggs.

I slept so hard when I got here, and they've already taken me (on my one day off) to a gorgeous mountain region in Sancheong, a medicinal herb and veggies buffet, and a walk in a lovely village of Namsa Yedamchon. I forgot to take my phone so I have zero photos but in a way that was such a gift, to just enjoy and be present. I didn't even know my host's name and phone number until yesterday.

The generosity and care, the ceaseless hospitality and kindness, it floors me every time. I have to get to bed to start the week but wanted to share before I get sucked back into the true heart of what I've built my life around.

Also, this interview is great. Ocean Vuong is so good at articulating things that I've been thinking about a lot as well.

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