WWOOF (World Wide Opportunities in Organic Farming) means you get free housing and food in return for your labor at a host farm. It started in the 1970s in Scotland, spread to Australia in the early 1980s, arrived in South Korea in the late 1990s, and finally found Handemy Village Co. in 2010 as a part of a government initiative to help agricultural businesses in South Korea. Handemy Village Co. hosts roughly 50 WWOOFers annually from different countries.
Our first WWOOF host in Australia was Inana Community, founded fifteen years ago by a lesbian couple in search of a place of peace. Inana Community is in the deep mountain ridges near Bucketty, New South Wales, where rainbow parakeets, some brown birds, beautiful white parrots with obnoxious squawks, and some black birds wake the community members every morning. Khannah and Vajra, who are not together anymore but live together in Inana nevertheless, gave birth to a little boy, who is homeschooled in Inana. When my group of ten Korean teenagers saw the boy, they had a lot of questions. “Why does he have more than one mother? Who is his father? Why is his family different from ours?”
Vajra, the surrogate mother, explained the family history as the children were doing their WWOOFing task of the day: carrying bricks in the heat. She seemed to be caught off guard by the questions, and listed off different people that she thinks are family. As translator, I had to do some paraphrasing (okay, re-interpreting). I told the kids that maybe Vajra is struggling with our questions, particularly “What is family?” because that’s a question that occupies people even at my age, Vajra’s age, and their parents’ age. I told the kids, even if you’re Korean, this is a complicated question, so feel lucky that you encountered this question at such an early age. Some kids nodded, some frowned; anyway, I made all of them go back to carrying bricks.
This three-week-long WWOOFing trip, organized by yours truly working for Handemy Village Co., was not an easy one. The kids missed rice and kimchi, they couldn’t stand working three to four hours under the Australian sun, and most of them had trouble putting a sentence together in English.
A friend asked me after the trip, “How did the kids change?” To that, I can list a string of little changes that will dissipate as quickly as they had come. Like, the kids saving water (Inana depended on stored rainwater; our second hosts in Orange also lived in constant danger of water shortage). Or the kids doing their own laundry, cooking their own meals, and living without snacks—back in Handemy, where everything is in abundance, especially food and water, the meager and laboring days in Australia will just be another funny story.
I’m not sure about the other sort of changes. The ones I can’t observe, the deeper ones. Like, have the kids become more open-minded about family and homosexual relationships after Inana Community? Are they more understanding about people with tattoos, or overweight people wearing bikinis, or people who are good friends with the opposite sex? Did this trip change their perceptions and prejudices? Will our conversations and questions have made a difference?
Whatever. When I was planning the trip, I didn’t have a specific aim of change. If kids changed somehow, then so much the better (or worse, depending on the view). For me, the most important objective of this trip was doing it. The field trip was three hard weeks of relying on strangers’ kindness and living in their habitat. This was no touring in exotic places; this was traveling to other people’s daily lives.
The point was to acclimate and adjust; what I wanted was for the kids to slowly be whatever about the compost toilets at Inana (no flush), slowly be whatever about living with children and dogs in Orange (the Rossiter family had heaps of both), slowly be whatever about living without rice and kimchi.
The other point of the trip was to make the children remember better. We WWOOFed for a week at each host; we worked, ate, and played in the same narrow spaces. I wanted repetition and familiarity in strange places, so the kids would remember their travels even without a camera. Now, everyone is back in Handemy Village. If I ask the children to close their eyes and think of Bissy’s Café in Orange, they can.
If these repeated moments stay inside the children’s minds, even as fleeting images, wouldn’t that make some sort of a difference, sometime in their lives? I hope so. If the children meet a lesbian couple, maybe they’d remember Khannah and Vajra in Inana Community. And maybe a thought will grow in their minds: “It’s not a disease to love someone from the same sex . . . you can love whomever you want.” Simple recognitions that come from experience.
P.S. Keep in touch for an upcoming blog post introducing Handemy Village Co.!