Korean Bed Time Story

“There is a story my nanny used to tell me before I go to bed.

My mom used to work, so a nanny and a nanny’s mom used to live with us, when I was little.

They used to tell me the bedtime stories, and their stories are a little different each time, but basically ending is same.

Later I read that story in a book of tales myself, but it was not as fun as their story, since they used to make voices of characters.

The story was very similar to the versions I heard from the nanny and her mother, only thing different is my storyteller used to say corn stalks instead of sorghum stalks.”

Mrs. Lee had told me this story when I had first met her over dinner. She is the mother of my friend and fellow Trojan, Deborah Lee, as well as my sister’s friend and fellow peer at Dartmouth College, Rebecca Lee. Mrs. Lee doesn’t recall the first time her nannies began telling her this story, but she says that she used to tell it to Deborah and Rebecca as well when they were little, and hopes that they will one day tell it to their children as a bedtime story.

The following is a version of the story, as told by Mrs. Lee

“Once upon a time, there was an old woman who lived alone with her two children. One day she left her kids, the boy and the girl, at home and went over the mountains to help prepare food for a festival. That night, when she was on her way home with some rice cakes for her children, a bigggggg scary tiger appeared and stopped her on her way!

He said: ‘Grandma, grandma, what have you got there?” then she answered ‘I’m headed back from a festival with rice cakes for my children,” at this point my nannies always made the tiger voice sound so deep while the mother’s voice was so gentle, I’ll never forget the sounds they made!

‘Give me one!’ demanded the big scary tiger.

‘But…. these are for my children…’ she answered back, hoping that will make the tiger leave her alone.

‘Give me one or I’ll eat you up!’, my nanny always put her face close to mine when she said that to scare me! But it only made me giggle because she meant no harm.

Anyway, back to the story. The old woman didn’t know what to do but to give the tiger a rice cake. She then continued on her way, and as she rested on the next hill, the tiger appeared again and blocked her path.

‘Grandma, grandma, give me a rice cake or I’ll eat you up!’ he said.

So she gave him another rice cake and went on her way, but the tiger stopped her again and again, until she was out of rice cakes. I thought to myself, wow that tiger is so mean!  Why would he do that to the poor old woman?

But anyway, the old woman then rushed to go over the next hill, but there was the tiger again and again he sat right in front of her. I was nervous; I didn’t know what was going to happen! Somehow every time they read this story to me I got nervous all over again, even if I knew what was about to occur.

‘Grandma, grandma, give me a rice cake or I’ll eat you up!’ he repeated once more.

So she said to him, ‘I cannot give you any rice cakes. They are all gone.’

And the big scary tiger said, ‘Then cut off one of your arms and give it to me.’

‘No! How will I live if I cut off an arm?’,  my nannies would make their voices high pitched here, to show the fear in her voice.

‘Give me an arm or I’ll eat you up!’ they would growl here too.

So, the old woman had no choice. She cut off one of her arms and tossed it to the tiger, and while he took his time eating it she rushed to get over the next passes. I was so surprised that she gave up so easily! I would have never cut up my arm, even though the tiger seemed so scary to me at the time. Perhaps I would have actually, since as a child I had no sense of pain yet really…

Okay back to the story! So she gets away but once again, the tiger shows up before her.

So he said to her, ‘Grandma, grandma, give me that other arm,’ and she of course refuses.

‘No! How am I to live with no arms?’ But the scary tiger kept on and said, ‘Give me your other arm, or I’ll eat you up!’

The old woman then cut off her other arm, dropped it in front of the tiger, and continued on her way. As she went over the next pass, the tiger stopped her again!

‘Grandma, grandma!’ he yelled out. And she answered, ‘What is it?’, as if she had no idea what he could possibly want now. So he said, ‘Give me a leg.’

The old woman yelled, ‘No! How will I get home if I give you a leg?’ she asked him. He then insisted, ’Give me a leg, or I’ll eat you up!’.

So she cut off a leg and gave it to him, and she had to hop all the way home, except she met the tiger at the next pass.

Then he said again, ‘Grandma, grandma, give me your other leg!’.

So she answered, ‘No! If I give you my last leg, how will I get home?’ but he yelled out ‘Give me that leg or I’ll eat you up!’

So she gave him the other leg and she had to roll over all the way to the next hill. But there was no escape; the tiger was waiting for her.

‘Grandma, grandma, I’m going to eat you up.’

‘Don’t!’ she cried out, ‘I’m almost home! I need to take care of my children?’

‘I will,’ laughed the big scary tiger, and he ate the old woman up. He put on her clothes and went to the house, where the children were awaiting their mother’s return.

‘Children!  Children!’ called the big scary tiger, ‘I’m back from the festival. Let me in!’ pretending to be their mother.

‘You’re not our mother,’ they said. ‘Her voice doesn’t sound like that.’

‘It is me! I was at a festival. I’m hoarse from singing all day,’ said the tiger. ‘Now listen, I’m your mother. Let me in.’

When they peeked outside, the boy and the girl could see that it was not their mother.

‘Then show us your hand,’ they called out to the tiger.

So the tiger put his paw through the crack in the door. ‘You’re not our mother!’ the little girl said, ‘Her hand isn’t rough and bristly like that!’

‘My hand is rough from working all day, let me in’ said the tiger.

‘No! Mother’s hand is smooth and soft because she uses oil and powder,’ said the boy.

And so the tiger realized he had to trick the kids to let him in, they were smarter than he imagined! So he went to a mill nearby and oiled his paws, then covered them with white flour and went back to the house.

‘Children, children, I’m home. Let me in!’ he called, this time in a high voice.

‘Show us your hand.’ This time, when the tiger showed his paw, it was pale and soft, just like the mother’s.

‘It must be our mother this time,’ the children decided, and they let him into the house.

The tiger, disguised as their mother, quickly put them to bed, intending to eat them as they slept, but fortunately for the children it was he who fell asleep first. While the tiger slept, the boy and girl quickly escaped the house and climbed the tall tree that grew over the well out back. When the tiger came out, he saw their reflection down in the well.

‘There you are!’ he called out, but as he was about to jump in to get them the boy giggled. The tiger heard him and looked up. ‘How did you get up there so quickly?” he yelled.

‘We rubbed oil all over our hands and climbed up,’ said the sneaky little girl. The tiger did just that, but when he tried to climb the tree, it was too slippery.

‘Children, how did you get up the tree?’ the tiger asked again, getting angrier and angrier.

The boy then said, ’We got an ax and hacked our way up,’

And then the tiger hacked his way up the tree, getting closer to the children.

Fearing their unfortunate death, they prayed to God. ‘Hananim!  Hananim!

If you want us to live, please send us a strong new rope, and if you want us to die, send us an old, rotten rope.’

Hananim answered their prayers and a strong new rope appeared, and so the little children climbed up into Heaven.

When the tiger reached the top of the tree and saw the kids weren’t there, he also prayed to God, ‘Hananim! Hananim! If you want me to live send me a rotten, old rope, and if you want me to die, send me a strong new rope.’

Heaven then sent him what he asked, and a rotten, old rope appeared. The tiger quickly climbed up after the children. But before he reached Heaven, the old rotten rope snapped and the tiger fell all the way back to earth, landing in a field of corn, pierced by the corn stalks, he died staining them red with his blood.

In Heaven, the brother and sister became the sun and the moon. The boy came out in the day and the girl at night, giving light to the world. But the girl, who was shy and modest, told her brother that she felt uncomfortable with people looking up at her.

She asked, ‘Let me be the sun, then I will be so bright that people will not be able to look up at me.’

And so, to this day, the sister comes out every day as the sun and the brother every night as the moon.”

I was fascinated to get familiar with a bedtime tale that belongs to a culture I’m so unfamiliar with. Then, of course, it immediately brought to my mind the story of “Little Red Riding Hood” seeing as there is a grandmother’s character that gets eaten up by a big bad beast that then goes after young children. The story also reminded me a bit of that of the thre little pigs, most likely do to all the times the tiger came about saying the same threat, “Grandmother, grandmother, give me ____ or I’ll eat you up!”, just like the wolf who says “Let me in, Let me in, little pig or I’ll huff and I’ll puff and I’ll blow your house in!”[1] What I find fascinating about this tale is that though it is modernized and has been used pretty recently, it was not censored, unlike Little Red Riding Hood. The story involves some very violent images, and very scary aspects of losing a parent, being attacked by a stranger, and facing death.

It strikes me that the Korean culture might be less protective with children, perhaps it does not try hard to spare them from facing the troubles of life at a young age, but instead try and educate them through children’s tales.

The tale ends in a very different note than what I expected, adding a religious emphasis, and in this way portraying another aspect that is to be taught to children from a young age. It shows the Korean culture of religious faith, as well as the belief that parts of nature such as the sun and moon are actually alive. It almost becomes a myth by speaking of how the god, Hananim, created the sun and the moon.

[1] Bonomo, Rick. “The Three Little Pigs.” Somerset Computer Center-Superhighway Online-Somerset, PA. Web. 22 Apr. 2011. <http://www.shol.com/agita/pigs.htm>.