Saturday, April 07, 2007

playing with fire

Although I was traveling during Lunar New Year, I was back with my host family for 대보름 (daeboreum). 대보름 occurs on the 15th day of the new lunar year--with the appearance of the year's first full moon (in China it's called the Lantern Festival)--and is way cooler than the regular Lunar New Year anyway. On Jeju Island, they light an entire mountain on fire. In the "countryside" of Gongju, we celebrate a bit more simply, with hand-held fireworks.
We drove to the main exercise area of Gongju...a serious of tracks and fields that run along the river. Most of the town seemed to be there, shooting off fireworks, playing a traditional Korean game I don't know the name of (it's played on what looks like a see-saw, but instead of see-sawing, the people on each end jump...sending each other higher and higher. It takes really good coordination and balance) and eating street food. We started off with the traditional Korean fireworks: a can with holes in it and a long wire handle. The can gets filled with sticks and brush, lit on fire, and then swung vigorously around, which stokes it into a pretty impressive fireball. Very exciting. Even more exciting was that no one, my host family included, seemed to have any qualms about letting extremely small children play with the fire--so there were tiny kids everywhere swinging cans of fire and burning themselves and anyone unlucky enough not to notice them in time. Kiyeong burned his hand pretty badly, and mildly burned me and my host dad, since he was a little afraid of his can, a little too small for it anyway, and way too excited to stop jumping around like a little human firework even though he was holding a can full of fire. Another source of excitement was the fact that fuel for the cans was a pretty scarce commodity, as most of Gongju was there and we were in a giant, open, treeless field. People scrounged on hands and knees in the darkness, and packs of children trailing flaming cans ran about, stealing sticks and weed from others. My host dad disappeared for a really long time, then came back with armfuls of wood. He was instantly mobbed by strangers. When we were finished playing with our fireworks, my host dad took each one in turn, spun it madly around, and then released it at the peak of its spin--sending it arcing over the crowd in a beautiful but deadly shower of sparks and flame. We then went to the main, crowded area to get some food and modern fireworks. Here, people desperate for can-fuel had built bonfires of used modern fireworks, and their burning plastic and metallic-paper wrappers created a thick, toxic, horrible smoke. My host family was, of course, undaunted, and the boys gleefully shot off fireworks while I struggled to breathe. We then bought greasy chunks of meat on sticks and returned home to pile en masse into the bathroom and try to wash the soot off each other. All in all, it was an evening Smokey the Bear would have been proud of.

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