USC Digital Folklore Archives / Posts Tagged ‘Korean’
Magic
Rituals, festivals, holidays
Signs

Predicting Children- A Korean wedding ritual

Main Text:

Collector: ” You mentioned the clothing of the bride and groom that is traditional to Korean Weddings, but are there any acts that the bride and groom perform at most weddings that you have been to?”

HK: “I do remember one actually. So after the wedding ceremony, the bride has a white cloth that they have to drape and carry around their arms and someone else would have to carry the bottom of it because they are really long. Usually the groom’s parents will toss little ball-like objects into the air towards the bride and however many the bride can catch with this cloth determines how many kids she will have.”

Collector: “Does the cloth have a specific color like the clothes did?”

HK: ” I think the cloth can be any color but usually I have seen it as a white cloth.”

Context:

After I asked HK whether or not there were specific acts performed at Korean weddings she listed out many traditional pieces ranging from the color of the clothes the bride and groom are supposed to wear all the way to this piece about predicting how many children the new married couple will now have has been to family weddings in Korea as well as in the United States and and observed these wedding rituals in practice. When asked about her interpretation about why Korean weddings contain this act she said that children and family are a large part in Korean culture and that once a couple gets married it is expected that they jumpstart the process to conceiving children, so the act of predicting how many children they will have is a sort of precursor to this. I also asked her why she remembers this ‘performance’ specifically and if she would do it at her wedding to which she responded, ” I remember it because I thought that it was a really cute thing to do for a new family and I like to think I would do it at my wedding too because it is a fun part of my culture.”

Analysis:

The ritual that HK is describing is a ritual that is used in many Korean weddings to present day and the “ball-like” objects that the bride is catching are dates (대추), also called jujubes. While the weddings HK described in particular use the dates as a way of predicting the number of children that the couple is going to have this ritualistic act can also be interpreted in another way that is very similar to her explanation. The dates that the bride catches also symbolize the fertility of the bride and her ability to bear many children. As HK explained, children and family are very important to Korean culture so it makes sense to have such an act in the wedding.

Another explanation for this act is that it could figuratively symbolize the “deflowering” of the bride.  Proof of this symbolic deflowerment is that balls are being tossed into a cloth which is supposed to represent fertility or one’s womb and since the cloth is white , it is also supposed to represent purity and virginity. To many cultures, marriage is not necessarily about love but instead building a home together as well as procreating. This being said, the symbolic deflowering of the bride represents this belief that marriage is all about the next generation and establishing a place for your children in society. I think that this wedding tradition continues in traditional Korean Weddings because it is does, as I mentioned before, serve as a nice precursor for the family that is to be built by the newly married couple, which Korean culture places a heavy influence on.

Proverbs

The Eagle with Brains Hides its Claws

Piece:

Interviewer: “Do you have any advice or something that your parents told you that you still remember?”

I.N.: “Well… kinda… your mom’s Bachan was so mean to me. I would call my mother crying… crying. She would say to me ‘the eagle with brains, hides it claws.’  I think she meant that no matter how mean someone is to you, don’t let them provoke you, you know. So I was always held my tongue when she was around!”

*the informant is elderly and does not speak Japanese as fluently as she once did. Although the original proverb was in Japanese, she could not recall how to speak the proverb in Japanese*

Informant:

Informant I.N. is an elderly Japanese woman. She was born in a Japanese Internment camp and grew up with second generation Japanese American parents who spoke primarily Japanese. She was raised in south Los Angeles in an area that was mostly filled with Japanese American Immigrant workers. She came from a middle class family. Her mother ran a boarding house and her father was a gardener. She moved to northern California in her twenties and raised her family there. She still resides in Northern California today and spend much of her time volunteering at the San Jose Japanese Town Yu-Ai Kai Senior Center and Buddhist Church.

Context:

Informant I.N. and I were sitting at a restaurant for lunch and I thought I would ask a few questions for my folklore project. She recalled a time from her past when she was struggling with maintaining civility but ultimately was able to overcome hardship by following the advice of her mother.

Interpretation:

I.N. interpreted this piece of advice to mean that despite the anger she felt towards her mother in-law, it was better to hide her passionate emotions and be kind because it would lead to a more pleasing relationship. She learned this folklore proverb from her mother and it stuck with her because she found it to be a relevant and intelligent piece of advice. I think this reflects on the Japanese cultural trend of not wanting to be overzealous or create tension. Generally, Japanese people are known for their polite nature and this proverb that tells its listener to hide their feelings essentially is a great example of that.

 

 

Folk Beliefs
Gestation, birth, and infancy
Signs

Korean Childbirth Dreams

Context:

The following informant is a 21-year-old Korean American student. I was having a conversation about dreams when this topic came up. The informant stated that she heard the story from her parents who are Korean immigrants. In this I will be denoted as C and the informant will be denoted as S

S: So there this like thing I don’t know if it’s only for Korean women but apparently you get like a pregnancy dream when you’re pregnant. So like my mom’s pregnancy dream when she was with me was by a river or a swimming pool or something and then like a giant shiny black fish jumps out of the water and she catches it, and that’s kind of the dream she has. And then for my sister she had a dream of a shiny beautiful pearl. So my mom had a dream that I was a beautiful shiny black fish that she caught.

C: And what does it mean?

S: Apparently, I was talking to my photography teacher who is also Korean, what she’s heard about Korean pregnancy mother dreams is that if you dream of something really really small then it means girls, wait no, if you dream of something really small it’s a boy but if you dream of something big it’s a girl. So the big fish, me girl. So that’s it.

Analysis: This is an interesting folk belief and I have heard similar folk beliefs that are said to indicate the gender of the baby.

Tales /märchen

Cutting Tofu in the Dark

Main Text

Subject: One day, a young man who had been a scholar for many years, was like, mother I have been writing calligraphy for many years, I’m really good at it and I am going to drop out of school, because I’m, like—this is as good as my calligraphy is going to get, it’s beautiful, it’s fantastic. (Subject chuckles.) And then the mom is like: okay. Like. That.

Interviewer: (Interviewer laughs.)

Subject: So she turns off the light, and she made him write, like, ten lines calligraphy or something, and she is like, you will—in that time, I will be cutting my vegetables. And when she turned on the lights, her like, knife cuts were like, really beautiful, all these like, perfect little equal, equal squares. And his calligraphy was shit. And so I think the moral of that was like—(subject laughs)—don’t do—like, you can’t, you’re not allowed to quit something unless you’re as, you’re good enough to do it in the dark.

Background

The subject is a 20-year-old Korean-American student at USC. Her parents frequently told her tales from Korean folklore or Korean books throughout childhood. She first heard this tale when she was five.

Context

This was a tale the subject’s mother told her every time she said she wanted to quit piano or viola, which is why the subject feels like it’s “really Korean.” At five, the subject argued with their mother about it, protesting that cutting vegetables and writing calligraphy were two entirely incomparable things. She felt that the premise of the tale was unfair and illogical.

Now, the subject thinks the tale is funny—she thinks the mother is right to put “the small man” in his place. As a child, the subject devalued the domestic labor of cutting vegetables, thinking calligraphy was clearly the superior and more useful practice—but as a present-day college student, she understands and appreciates the difficult labor involved in vegetable cutting. The subject also disagrees with the moral of the story, for different reasons. She thinks that anything worth doing is worth doing poorly, and that being able to do something perfectly is no reason to quit.

The subject shared this tale to a friend at a majority-Asian social event recently, when she was making fun of her friend for being bad at cutting tofu. The friend had never heard of the story, and did not respond with hostility to the folkloric jab.

Interviewer Analysis

Tracking the subject’s changing relationships to the tale show how power dynamics between a performer and their audience can really affect the interpretation of folklore. As a child being told the tale by a mother who was using it to essentially scold the child for wanting to quit undesirable extracurricular activities, the subject naturally had a resentful narrative interpretation. The subject likely identified with the son in the story, who was forbidden from quitting calligraphy even though he wanted to.

Once the subject grew up, and the power dynamic between them and their mother became less unequal, the subject was able to go beyond interpreting the story from the perspective of the son, and empathize with the perspective of the mother. In addition, the subject felt comfortable enough with the lack of true psychological threat in the story, to jokingly using it to make fun of a peer, and have a little fun with the power dynamics that once wounded her as a child.

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.

Folk speech
Proverbs

Proverb “Birds of a Feather, Flock Together”

Main Piece:The birds of a feather flock together. This is big in Korea, because there were a lot of celebrities who had drug problems and would be seen with bad people. Koreans are judging them, and saying that nasty low class people who just got rich still hang out with low class people, but all the smart people hang out together. Family from good background will tend to hang out with similar background family.”

 

Background: MP grew up in South Korea, and he said that he recalls hearing this proverb the most frequently of any other proverb. He also mentioned that when he got into the United States, he heard this very saying from other people in his friend group and he found it interesting that this saying was as meaningful in our culture as his. He recalls that his parents would tell him this to remind him of the importance of you who surround yourself with. In Korea he said it was very important to make sure that not only you were honorable and did good deeds, but that the people who you spent time with had similar motivations and character traits. He saw this proverb as a way to remind him that he needed to choose his friends wisely, so that he don’t get roped into bad deeds. He also mentions that the idea of “friends” is very selective in Korea, so there are far more close knit groups of friends in Korea than what he found in America. Additionally he said that when choosing his friends at USC, he was very cautious about who he trusted and who he wanted to be friends with as a result of that proverb’s meaning.

 

Context of Performance: MP told me this proverb while we were at my apartment discussing the different cultural stories and proverbs we remember when we were kids. As I grew up in America, it was interesting to hear a proverb that I too was familiar with and had seemingly no different elements to it. MP was also interested when hearing that I was familiar with it, and he seemed to really enjoy the fact that there was a level of connection between us, even though we are from two very different parts of the world.

 

Analysis: Hearing this proverb form MP was super interesting to me because I was expecting to hear stories and proverbs that were entirely different from my culture. However, I remember hearing this very same proverb, verbatim, when I was a child as well. I too believe that this proverb is stressing the value of choosing your friends wisely and making sure that you do not sacrifice your own values for the sake of making friends. It is very interesting to see that while South Korea and America are two very distinct cultures, this one proverb seems to have been able to cross that cultural barrier seemingly unscathed. I believe that it is a testament to the fact that both cultures have a very heavy emphasis on the importance of the image you present to people, and the company you choose to keep is a direct reflection of that image. Similar to the proverb “Show me your friends, and I’ll tell you who you are,” this one seems to emphasis that no matter how good of an image you put out, your friends and your company speak far louder than you do.

Folk Beliefs

Becoming A Cow

Main Text

Subject: When I was little my mom told me that if you—this is like the whole story. My mom was like, oh, if you lie down after you eat, you turn into a cow.

Background

The subject is a 20-year-old Korean-American student at USC. She remembers her mother telling her this folk belief from the very beginning of her memory, and estimates she was probably four when she first heard it.

Context

The subject’s mother told this folk belief to the subject, once when she was lying down on the couch after eating lunch or dinner. Her initial reaction was not wanting to be a cow. For several months, she was also convinced that the folk belief was true. She worked very hard to avoid the fate, while also attempting to convince her younger brother to test the folk belief out, before she eventually tried to test the folk belief out herself, after convincing herself that it was “not bad to be a cow.” Upon testing the folk belief out, she “was so scammed.”

The subject confronted her mother after discovering the falsity of the folk belief, recalling that she was “very accusatory.” The confrontation devolved into her mother questioning her why she would want to be a cow. The four-year-old subject argued that being a cow meant an easy lifestyle, because cows just had to sit in the backyard and eat grass all day. Her mother asked her if she knew that their family ate the meat of cows. The subject then countered that she would have lived a good life for a worthy cause. Her mother accepted this and ceased the debate.

Despite having discovered that the folk belief false, the subject still felt uneasy about lying down after eating, and still took folk beliefs from her mother seriously. She felt that even if the folk beliefs were not factually true, they were still “a little more true” since they were supposedly passed down from her grandmother to her mother.

Interviewer’s Analysis

Bizarrely enough, this is a case where the subject transformed a folk belief that had been “proven” untrue, into a “true” superstition. The subject derived her superstitious beliefs, seemingly from the folkloric origin of the belief itself. She seemed to believe that there was a mystical power inherent in the act of passing information down through generations. One could argue that this is a highly abstract form of contact magic, where information “touched” by what was considered truth in past generations, will transfer as the information continues to be passed down the family line. One could also argue that the subject probably derived her superstitious beliefs from romanticized visions of the folk as a “primitive” people with “primal” knowledge.

Folk Beliefs
Folk medicine

Stomach Ache? Try a Needle in the Thumb

Piece:

Interviewer: “Do you know any folk medicine?”

R.B.: “…oh my god… actually yeah. My mom used to tell me if my stomach hurt to stick a needle in my thumb and the it will go away.”

Interviewer: “R.B, what that makes no sense… did it work?”

R.B.: “… I mean I guess. It lets out all the bad blood”

Informant:

The informant is  half-Korean, half- caucasian young adult female, who grew up in Seattle, Washington. Her mother is an immigrant from Korea and spoke to her frequently in Korean growing up, but was not surrounded often by her asian family as they lived in Korea. Her father is white American man of European descent who grew up in the Pacific Northwest. She spent a lot of time with her white side of her family growing up because they lived nearby.  

Context:

Informant R.B. and I were at dinner when I was interviewing her for the folklore collection project. When asked if she had any weird medicines, this is the folklore she remembered.

Interpretation:

Informant R.B. took this piece of folklore very seriously. And, when asked later if she would still use this method of treatment, she responded yes and that she would tell her friends to because it worked. R.B. received this piece of folklore from her mother her learned it from her own mother in Korea. For their family, this folklore represented more than a cure, but a lasting family tradition. I found this piece to be very interesting because it showcased how different cultures treat their illnesses.

 

general
Legends

Korean: Origin of Man

Folklore:

This is Korean legend on the creation of man. In the beginning of time a tiger and bear wanted to become human so god put them in a deep cave. They both stayed in the cave for years without any food and as time passed they both started to freak out because they did not know why they were in cave. Eventually the bear decides to leave the cave and when he emerged he  was a man. As soon as he realized he was human he started wondering by himself looking for his best friend the tiger. In the end the tiger emerged from the cave as a woman.

Background and Context:

The informant is a Korean American sophomore at USC. He was born and raised in Northern California but he lived in South Korea for six months right after highschool. I collected the folklore on a Wednesday night in a very casual setting. My informant learned this story growing up as bedtime stories from his parents. While he does not believe in this creation story he still finds it interesting and relevant to his cultural heritage.

Final Thoughts:

My thoughts on this work was that it was new to me and interesting because I am Korean-American but I have never heard of this story before. I also found that the story contradicted itself slightly as the tiger and the bear wanted to be human but humans did not exist in the context of this story because it is a creation story on humans came to be. Otherwise I thought the story was interesting and unique because I have never heard stories similar to it.

 

general
Legends

Starcrossed Lovers

Folklore:

This is korean story about two star crossed lovers. The star crossed lovers are a peasant boy and a princesses, who fell in love and married. The king the father of the princess decides to have the marriage annulled as he does not approve of the marriage because of their different social classes. and spectated then across the heavens. However the birds see the star crossed lovers and black birds help them reunite so build them a bridge out of their bodies that connects to two halves of heavens so the the lovers can can be reunited. The birds build a bridge once a year for the lovers.

Background and Context:

The informant is a Korean American sophomore at USC. He was born and raised in Northern California but he lived in South Korea for six months right after highschool. I collected the folklore on a Wednesday night in a very casual setting. My informant learned this story growing up as bedtime stories from his parents.

Final thoughts.

Final thoughts on this story is that there are a lot of stories similar to this story in East Asian cultures. I believe the message of this story is true love conquers all as the two lovers get over many difficulties. There are three main difficulties the lovers get over the first being their different social classes, the second being the disapproval of parents in the stories case the father and a long distance relationship which is only being to meet once a tear. All of the hardships the lovers  overcome are similar to ones couples today struggle with but at a extreme.

 

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