USC Digital Folklore Archives / Posts Tagged ‘korea’
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Seaweed Soup on Birthdays -A Korean Tradition

Main Text:

HK: “On somebody’s birthday it is tradition to have seaweed soup”

Collector: “Can it be any kind of seaweed soup?”

HK: “I don’t think it really matters, but there are a lot of traditional recipes for seaweed soup out there”

Context: 

HK moved to the Unites States from South Korea when she was in kindergarten. After being raised in different parts of Asia an coming to the United States HK has acquired many traditions, customs and folk beliefs that have been passed down from her family. The ritualistic act of eating seaweed soup at someone’s birthday is just one example of a ritual that HK told me during my collection helps to keep her culture alive. She said that at least for her family specifically, having rituals and customs like these allow for people living in the Unites States to still connect with their family and homeland in Korea. This connection that HK feels to her culture and family is one reason that she says that she will continue to educate and pass down this seaweed-eating ritual. Another reason that she says that she remembers such a ritual is that it has happened on every one of her birthday’s so that if she evert had a birthday without it, it would not actually feel like a special moment anymore to her.

Analysis:

According to HK when asked why the meal of choice for a birthday is seaweed soup she said that it is related to another ritualistic act what they give to the mother after giving birth because it helps to nourish the body. One obvious interpretation of why it is a Korean tradition to eat seaweed soup at the birth of a child and at a child’s birthday party is the nutritional value of seaweed. Seaweed has high quantities of calcium, magnesium, iron and other important nutrients.  It makes sense for a mother to eat this after brith for this reason because magnesium and iron will aid in a quick recovery of the energy and bloodlust that naturally occurs at birth. The second reason for why this tradition may have occurred in the first place and is still being passed down is the accessibility to seaweed. Most of Korea is bordered by Ocean where seaweed is highly accessible. This accessibility could lead one to believe that seaweed has been eaten as this tradition for centuries because it is cheap and easily accessible to even the common folk. This ease in retrieving and eating the seaweed has led to South Korea pressing about 90 percent of the country’s seaweed crop and to cultivate it they just let it grow on ropes that float near the surface of the water by tethered boeys.

To summarize, in addition to the explanation that HK provided of feeling close to one’s family and culture, there are two other explanations that help understand the reasons that it is traditional to eat seaweed at birth and on somebody’s birthday: The first reason is its obvious nutrient values that help growth and recovery of one’s body and the second reason its Korea’s ease in accessing such a food and its large farming industry that has been built around this access.

 

Customs
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Placing Cutlery for the Dead- A Korean New Years Tradition

Main Text

Collector: I know the your family does special acts for the Korean New Year. Would you mind telling me a few of these and what you think is the most important part for the celebration?

HK: “The most important part is that every male family member has to have a different spoon and chopstick. The spoon and chopstick represent the dead person’s utensils so that they can eat the offering of food. What my dad would do is place the spoon and chopstick to each of the dishes that he made each time so that the dead person has time to eat it.”

Context: 

I was in a conversation with Hk in order to solicit information about how her family celebrates the Korean New Year. Before I collected this piece from her she had listed out at least five other customary acts that they perform at the Korean New Year celebration at her house and to narrow it down I asked her what she believes the most important act out of the day is and she provided me with this piece. She said that she remembers this piece because it is a very emotional part in her family and since her dad is a chef, he likes to prepare traditional food and it is of great importance to him that members of his past family can relish in this meal as well to have some happiness and enjoyment after life. HK said that she likes seeing how happy this makes her father so it is a very joyful moment to share with her family which is why it sticks with her. When I asked her if she would share it with her future family she responded that it was a guarantee because she wants to teach her kids the importance of family and sharing these kinds of emotional experiences with each other, especially over a good traditional Korean meal.

Analysis: 

One of the main reasons for celebration of the Korean New Year is not just to celebrate the passage into the new year but as a way to spend time catching up with your family members as well as paying respect to your dead ancestors. Understanding that a large part of the Korean New Year celebration revolves around family and paying respect to one’s ancestors, it makes sense that the custom of setting out utensils for one’s deceased ancestors would be passed down, taught to new generations and vary between family.

Another large part of this piece that needs to be analyzed is why this part of the honoring of the ancestor is centered around food. In Korean culture, food is a way of getting one’s family together and sharing a Korean style meal keeps the family close. Traditionally, eating in Korea is done family style, where main dishes are shared and eating is considered a major social activity for friends and families. The social setting of eating such as exchanging food, taking pictures of food and even talking about food all brings people and family together, especially when eating at a restaurant. I have known many people from China and Korea who all say that a two hour wait at a restaurant is worth it because they get to spend two hours or more there catching up and socializing as a large familial group. In this explanation I have argued the fact that the tradition of placing eating utensils out for ancestors as a way to honor them on Korean New Years is culturally centered around the belief that food really brings family together in a very close and personal setting.

Another reason that this tradition will continue to be passed down is that there is a lot of history behind each dish that Korea has. Food has a distinct impact on the culture itself because of all the history and meaning behind the food that is eaten and the food that gets eaten and cooked even when away from the motherland. Korean food plays a huge part for me because not only they are rich in value and nutrients also because of their taste which is unique and the traditional foods that traced back to Korea arguably all are extremely nutritious. In a way, serving this traditional food to the dead a a way to honor them provides the dead with a sense of connection tho their family and their culture as well as a way to nourish them in the afterlife. The nutrition value of the food and the uniqueness of the textures and flavor that are employed in Korean cooking act as a way to unify one’s family and help them to continue to identify and even preserve their culture when they are away from their homeland. This cultural significance that is put on Korean dishes  in the end plays a large part in why these individuals who celebrate Korean New Years and perform this ritual continue to do so.

The final way that I am going to analyze this ritual performed on the Korean New year is through a religious lens. The main religion in Korea is Buddhism. In Buddhism, ghosts are fairly common and fully accepted, unlike what is allowed for Christians. Because many Koreans have this religious belief that entertains the existence and acceptance of ghosts, it is not so strange or out of the question that folklore involving the placement of utensils for one’s dead ancestors would be passed along and practiced today by Korean families.

In summary, the cultural stance that many Koreans share in family and in food as well as the religion practiced by many Korean individuals serve as an explanation to why the act of placing a spoon and chopsticks out for one’s ancestors is an important ritual that takes place on Korean New Years.

Contagious
Customs
Folk Beliefs
Foodways
Gestation, birth, and infancy
Holidays
Life cycle
Magic
Material
Narrative
Protection
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Persimmons scare the tiger who wants to eat crying babies

Context
I was having lunch with the subject, and he told me about this bed time story. He lived in Korea until he was 14 years old, one year from finishing middle school. He then moved to the United States to finish his middle school and high school.

Piece
Informant: It’s really for a kid who don’t go to bed or like keep crying. So, this involves a baby crying. So, basically, you are the main character. And, there is an evil tiger outside. Trying to get the crying baby. So, basically the old ones, for me it was my grandma. My grandma keeps telling me,’if you keep crying the tiger is going to get you.’ But I’m in the middle of an apartment. There is no way the tiger is going to get me. Or else, the zookeeper is going to come and pull it away. And now I still don’t know how I believe in this story. I believe that the tiger is going to come and get me.”

Interviewer: Are you afraid of it?

Informant: Not any more. Yeah, so the way you defend off the tiger is actually like — you know what persimmon is? Persimmon is like a fruit. It’s very sweet fruit. So, the dry version of it. They say, if you give that to the tiger, the tiger will actually run away. So, they will actually bring it from the fridge and give it to you, and you basically eat that. And people eat it, because of the childhood story. So, to summarize it. A child keeps crying so the grandma basically threatens the child that if you keep crying the tiger is going to come for you. But the kid stills cries because there is a tiger coming, right. So, the Grandma gives the persimmon and the child stops crying, right? Because it’s food and you can eat it, and you can’t cry while eat it. So the tiger outside is scared by the persimmon because persimmon is stronger than the tiger.”

Analysis
I ask whether persimmons carry some special meanings. He explains that the fruit is eaten in late autumn. It is also dried so that it could be eaten in the winter, like in early February. The fruit is eaten on holidays such as Lunar New Year, which is on Jan. 15. The informant believes that persimmon symbolizes family reunion because people eat it when they meet their family on holidays. He says that it is not a national fruit. When I asked him why persimmon scares off the tiger, he said persimmon is not a repellent against the tiger, but rather a stronger version of the tiger because it stops the baby from crying better than the tiger does. He explains that persimmon stops the baby from crying, because it is a sweet food, and the baby has to stop crying so that it can eat the fruit.

Narrative
Tales /märchen

The fairy and the woodworker

Context
I was having lunch with the informant. He lived in Korea until he was 14 years old, one year from finishing middle school. He then moved to the United States to finish his middle school and high school.

Piece
Informant: So, the male is not a farmer, but actually a woodworker. So he just like, cuts down trees.
So, the fairy is taking a bath. And like in a mountain, like a hot spring, for example. And then, the guy sees it. The guy cutting down trees sees it. So he takes the clothes away. And the fairy doesn’t know what happened. So the guy comes out and is like, if you want clothes you’ve gotta be my wife, which is, criminal. And then they become a forced couple, because that’s the guy’s wish. And then the girl somehow sees the clothes in the house and wears it and goes to the sky with her kid. And the guy doesn’t know what happened. That’s how the story ends basically.

The guy and the girl – they both didn’t want to be separated, but I don’t know why the girl wanted to be separated – wait, the girl wanted to be separated. She’s basically going back home.

Comment
Interviewer: so it’s the guy trying to find the girl?

Informant: Well, that’s the worst thing. I think, technically the both want to stay because they have a child. But she took the child with her. Then who pays for the child? (smile) That’s like a two-thousand year-old divorce story.

Analysis
The story is a shortened variation of the Chinese folktale the Cowherd and the Weaver Girl. In the story, a cowherd hides a fairy’s clothes and keeps her as his wife. Then, the fairy finds her clothes and is forced to return to the sky, leaving her children behind. Her mother forbids her from seeing her husband and separates the family by creating the Milky Way. Finally, the family are able to reunite on the Qi Xi Festival (七夕节) on the bridge formed by magpies.
The informant told me that Korea had two separate stories developed from the Chinese folktale. This version is a variation of the first half of the Chinese folktale. The cowherd becomes a woodworker, because forests are abundant in Korea, while fields and cows are common in China.

 

general
Narrative
Tales /märchen

The Tiger’s Whisker – Korean Folktale

TEXT: Once upon a time, there was a woman with a husband who had just come back from a war. When her husband came back from the war, he was a different person. He used to be very kind and loving and stuff. But after the war, he was very harsh and short-tempered. He would snap at her if she had said something that he didn’t like. So the woman went to a local witch and after explaining her situation to the witch, asked if she had a potion that can change her husband back to who he used to be before the war. The witch said that this would be a very difficult potion to make but she did have a recipe for a potion that can help her with her husband. The witch told her that she needed the whisker of a live tiger to make the potion. The woman told her that that would be too difficult and almost impossible. The witch told her that if she did not have the whisker, she would not be able to help.

So the woman went home and made a bowl of rice smothered in meat sauce and brought it to the side of a mountain where a tiger lived. She left it on the edge of a cave and left. The next day, she went back to the mountain and saw that the rice bowl was empty. She replaced that empty bowl with another bowl of rice smothered in meat sauce. She repeated this for multiple days, weeks, months. Eventually, one day, when she was replacing the bowl of rice, she noticed that the tiger had been outside of its cave, waiting patiently. The next few days, she noticed that the tiger was closer and closer to where she normally put the bowl of rice. One day, she decided to stay by the rice bowl to see if the tiger felt comfortable enough to come and eat while she was watching. The tiger came and started eating the bowl of rice, and she even softly pet his head as he ate. The next day, the woman went back up to the mountain where the tiger lived with a bowl of rice and a pair of scissors. While the tiger was eating the rice, she carefully cut off a portion of the tiger’s whiskers, making sure that she did not hurt the tiger.

The next day, she ran to the witch and brought her the tigers whiskers. The witch grabbed the whiskers and threw it into the fire. The woman was very angry. The witch said that if the woman can tame a wild tiger, then why can’t she do the same for her husband. If she can gain the trust of a tiger, then why can she not be just as sensitive and caring for her husband, learning to gain his trust again.

CONTEXT: I asked my informant if she knew any Korean folktales while I was driving her to Orange County. She asked me if I had ever heard about the story of the woman and the Tiger’s whisker. I told her no so she started telling me the story from her memory.

INFORMANT: My informant originally learned of this folklore when she was in junior high school during her Korean Language school that she attended every Sunday after church. She remembered this story primarily because she had to learn it in Korean. This meant that she had to read it over and over again. She also had to practice telling the story in Korean. However, when she told me the story, she told me the story in English because that is her primary language.

My informant really likes the story because she thinks that it has a really good meaning and moral behind it. She likes the fact that the story emphasizes diligence and working at something. She liked how the story was saying that if you work hard at something continually without giving up, you would be rewarded.

MY INTERPRETATION:  My interpretation of this story aligns with my informant’s views of the story. I think the point of the story is to learn how to be sensitive and adapt to people who may be difficult to deal with. Similar to how someone would be very cautious around a dangerous wild animal, the same level of care and caution is required when dealing with people that are difficult. It’s clear that the husband comes back from the war a different person because of the trauma associated with war, or PTSD. If we truly care about something or someone, this story says that we must diligently care and be sensitive to them.

This tale is clearly not meant to be seen as a factual story that happened in the real world. The purpose of this story was primarily to get the meaning of the story across. There was a moment of implied causation within the story that I realized was there after I rewrote what she told me. When the woman in the story first sees that the bowl of rice was empty, it is implied that the tiger had eaten the bowl of rice.

Also, the use of the tiger and rice seems to be a cultural detail, rather than a universal one. If this story were to be told from an American perspective, I would think that the animal would be a lion, primarily because we view lions as the top of the food chain. When it comes to food, I would think that an American folktale would incorporate something specific to America, not rice. Tigers are strongly associated with Korean culture. Everything from the Korean Olympic mascot to children’s television shows, tigers are often used to represent the Korean culture and tradition. This seemed far more real to me when I asked my informant if she knew other stories and she listed off a few other folktales that she knew, all incorporating tigers.

Proverbs

Korean Proverb: Sparrow Following a Crane

A sparrow tried to follow a crane and split its crotch

BACKGROUND:

The direct translation of the proverb tells of a Korean Crow-Tilt (closely related to a sparrow) who tries to be as elegant as a crane. In doing so, the crow-tilt ends up making a fool of itself. Crow-tilts are often known for having short, stubby legs unlike the crane. So if the crow-tilt were to walk the same strides as a crane, it would split the crotch of its pants and completely embarrass itself. The moral of the proverb is to not try to put so much effort into the way that you look and to be satisfied with who you are, otherwise you’re going to fall flat.

MY THOUGHTS:

I feel like this is a clever proverb with a beneficial lesson. Admittedly, I was a bit taken aback when I first heard the English translation. My source was very kind and patient with me in explaining what the actual meaning behind it is. After a little explanation I was able to value it for what it is.

general

Hand Gesture – Korea

My informant was born in South Korean, but moved to America when she was 16 years old. She explained to me how when she first moved, she was very confused by some of the cultural differences including hand gestures.

In America, we wave people over with our palms facing up. A similar motion that is common in western culture to beckon someone over is curling the index finger. However, in Korea both of these are considered extremely rude and degrading. They typically use the same hand motions to gesture over dogs.

Respect is a huge attribute in Asian culture. It is deeply rooted in family and demonstrated formally through gestures and language. Therefore, using the “American wave” on a human is equivalent to treating or calling them an animal. Koreans will signal people over by having their palm face down, and using a little “digging” or small swimming motion with their hand. Another way to describe it would be having your palm face down and waving it up and down vertically. If you tried calling a cab in Korea using the Western style wave, you would undeniably be rejected and ignored.

At first, my informant thought that Americans were “kind of arrogant and snobby.” She didn’t realize that there would be a significantly different meaning in something as trivial as gesturing someone over. She eventually caught on that people were not intentionally trying to be rude, and that it was just part of western culture to call people over using the palm facing up.

This made me really think about how important it is to be culturally aware, especially while traveling. There are so many little differences that may seem insignificant, but is actually really important to recognize. It helps us better understand our global peers and can prevent us from accidentally offending others.

Tales /märchen

Aesop Tales

Interviewer: What is being performed?

 

Informant: We have our own series of ‘Aesop Tale’ like folk stories and stories with moral lessons. By Jacqueline Jung

 

Interviewer: What is the background information about the performance? Why do you know or like this piece? Where or who did you learn it from?

 

 Informant: I like these pieces because having exposure to Western and Eastern stories- it’s so interesting to see the cross over of  ‘moral lessons’ (air quotes) or the emphasis of compassion or community. I learned of these stories when I moved to Korea.

 

Interviewer: What country and what region of that country are you from?

 

Informant: South Korea. (but born and raised in the US)

 

Interviewer: Do you belong to a specific religious or social sub group that tells this story?

 

Informant: Not tied to a specific religion but they are Korean folktales.

 

Interviewer: Where did you first hear the story?

 

Informant: When I was living in Korea, moved there in 2006 and when I was learning the language, reading various folktale books.

 

Interviewer: What do you think the origins of this story might be?

 

Informant: I think very similar to Aesop. They were developed as stories for kids to be compassionate and hardworking.

 

Interviewer: What does it mean to you?

 

Informant: They are very sweet stories. I find them particularly fascinating because they have really similar aspects with tales like Cinderella, The Ant and the Grasshopper and other Western Folktales.

 

Context of the performance- conversation with classmate before class

 

Thoughts about the piece- Reading a children’s book to learn a language is common and this exposure to cultural beliefs seems to have another purpose, to teach about societal values through story at a young age or to an immigrant. You can read a version of the Korean Ant and the Grasshopper here: http://www.uexpress.com/tell-me-a-story/2015/6/28/the-goblin-treasure-a-korean-folktale

 

Folk Beliefs
Gestation, birth, and infancy

The Golden Dragon

Interviewer: What is being performed?

Informant: Folk belief by Crystal Soojung Choi

When a Korean mother becomes pregnant with a son, she has a dream that a golden dragon appears to her.

 

Interviewer: What is the background information about the performance? Why do you know or like this piece? Where or who did you learn it from?

Informant: My dad told me this story because my grandmother (his mom) had that dream when she was pregnant with my dad. I really like this story because of the mystical qualities surrounding it.

 

Interviewer: What country and what region of that country are you from?

 

Informant: I was born and raised in Los Angeles, but my dad was born and raised in the Boseon area of South Korea.

 

Interviewer: Do you belong to a specific religious or social sub group that tells this story?

 

Informant: It’s a dream that Korean mothers have when pregnant with a son so I suppose it is prevalent in Korean families.

 

Interviewer:  Where did you first hear the story?

 

Informant: From my father before I went to sleep one night.

 

Interviewer: What do you think the origins of this story might be?

 

Informant: It could be part of the values of royal families in older generations that a son was desired for offspring and thus, they were welcomed as a precious treasure before and after birth.

 

Interviewer: What does it mean to you?

 

Informant: With the appearance of the golden dragon, it could show how precious a child is in a family and that they are treasured and loved.

 

Context of the performance- conversation with a classmate

 

Thoughts about the piece- Other portents of sons include dreaming of cows, tigers, snakes and pigs but dragons are the luckiest. Daughters are symbolized in dreams by flowers, jewelry and other delicate objects. More Korean dream interpretation here: koreancultureblog.com/2015/03/17/try-the-korean-way-of-dream-interpretation/

Tales /märchen

Shim Chung

심청은 태어나자 마자 어머니를 여의고, 맹인 심학규의 딸로 홀로 아버지를 극진히 모시며 살아간다. 어느 날 심봉사는 실수로 개천에 빠져 허우적거리는 것을 지나가던 한 스님이 구해주고, 그 스님에게 부처님에게 공양하면 눈을 뜰 수 있다는  말에 넘어가 절에 공양미 300석을 바치겠다고 약속한다.

 

심청은 중국과 조선을 오고 가며 장사를 하던 상인들이 물살이 심해 사고가 자주 발생하는 인당수 지역에 용왕님을 달래기 위한 인신공양으로 바칠 사람을 찾고 있다는 소문을 듣고, 아버지의 눈을 뜨기 위해 자신이 그 제물이 되기로 작정하고 공양미 300석을 받고 인당수로 몸을 던지는데…

 

이에 감복한 하늘에 의해 용궁을 거쳐 다시 지상으로 올라가 황후가 되고 맹인 잔치를 벌여 아버지를 찾게 되었으며, 딸과 재회한 기쁨에 심봉사도 눈을 뜨게 된다는 내용.

 

Shim Chung lost her mother as soon as she was born, and lived alone with her father, Shim Hak-gyu, who was blind. One day, Shim Hak-gyu fell into a river and saved by a Buddhist priest and promised him that he would give 300 bags of rice to the temple, for which Buddha would fix his blindness.

 

Shim Chung heard rumors that the merchants who went to China and Chosun and went to the market looking for a person to serve as a human sacrifice in order to appease the King Yongdang in the frequent occurrence of accidents. In order to open his father’s eyes, she determined to become this, and take the 300 bags of rice throwing herself into the sea.

 

When she threw herself into the sea, the heavenly god was moved and saved her. She became the wife of a king and the King provided a party for blind people and her father was invited there and met her daughter. Surprised and pleased, he opened his eyes.

 

Background Information:

 

This story emphasizes serving one’s parents with devotion which is very important in Korean culture. This story is in children’s book and learned at elementary school.

 

Context:

 

This is mostly performed as Korean traditional opera.

Personal Analysis:

This story shows that Korean people care about respecting elders. It’s a part of their culture that respect is given as a default unlike in America where respect should be earned. The happy ending seems a bit unrealistic, but it shows the daughter doing her duty to serve her dad as well as the blessings that came because of it.

[geolocation]