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.
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.
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.
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.