Archive for November, 2009

A Look at Korean Shamanism

by on Monday, November 23rd, 2009

My friend Frank Concilus came to Korea in 1966 as a teacher with the Peace Corps. He returned to the States and received a graduate degree in Asian Studies in 1970, then came back to Asia for two or three years’ practice in Asian languages. He stayed. He married a Korean woman, they had a child, and he took two jobs, one teaching English at a Korean university and one teaching anthropology and sociology at the branch of the University of Maryland on the U.S. Army post.

Some people smile and call Frank “just a real sweetheart” and others like to go running with him. He has a wonderful, gentle, somewhat self-depreciating sense of humor and an interesting sense of perspective. Here are Frank’s words from an interview done in 1993.

 Frank’s Story

The shaman's percussionists

The shaman's percussionists

When I was in graduate school, I did a couple of papers on Siberian shamanism, and my interest continued after I returned to Korea. Whenever I heard the chiang-chiang-chiang-chiang-chiang of cymbals and drums I would just show up and stand around until someone invited me in. I’ve always been able to gain admission because as a foreigner I’m an oddity. I enjoy the music, which may not sound like music if you’re not used to it. There are hourglass drums and cymbals, and the shamans sing and chant. And there’s a lot of humor and drama.

Shaman in the Taegam costume

Shaman in the Taegam costume

Two Sundays ago I took students out to an area in northeastern Seoul. The shaman wears different robes and hats dedicated to one spirit or another, and these gods descend and speak through her. For example, there’s a Taegam spirit, a kind of greedy official who typically fights with the women sponsoring the kut [pronounced goot]  trying to get more money to fix things up for the spirit in the other world. The women fight back, and that lends a kind of humor to the ceremony. I heard a man’s sister say, “Why didn’t you do something for him when he was alive? Now he’s dead, you want all this money.”

Anyway, I was watching a kut with about ten students when the ancestor segment came up. This is where the ancestors of the person sponsoring the kut come back and speak through the shaman, starting with the most distant ones. After several spirits had come and gone, the shaman suddenly put on tennis shoes and wrapped a sweatshirt around her waist—clothes a teenager would wear. I thought this must be the spirit of the dead son. The shaman danced and became possessed with his spirit. After jumping up and down on her toes and doing the dance, she came up to the mother and started crying and yelling, “Mother! Mother!” The mother burst into tears, and the daughter-in-law started crying. That kind of outburst is common.
Another view of the Taegam costume

Another view of the Taegam costume

Sometimes the musicians don’t pay any attention to what’s going on, but this time they were kind of loud. When I looked over I thought they were embarrassed because ten guests—most  of them foreigners—were sitting watching these three people, who were crying buckets. The musicians served us some little tonic drink to distract us.

The shamanist ancestor segment is very different from the Confucian ceremonies for ancestors. Basically, in the male, Confucian chesa, it’s direct patrilineal principles that determine who’s venerated in a very dignified, unemotional way. In a shamanist performance anyone and everyone appears—the relatives on the wife’s side, the husband’s side, the mother’s side, the father’s side. No one gets left out.

The sacrifice

The sacrifice

Another segment you almost always see uses Buddhist gods. There’s a group of them that appear together. For example, there’s a pregnancy and fertility myth about a monk who comes down from the sky and impregnates a maiden. Her family tries to kill her by burying her alive in a cave. Weeks later when they dig her out, she’s got a healthy set of triplets. When the children grow up, they plant magical seeds, and vines or gourds spring up to lead them to their father. In the Seoul area that segment is called “God Chesok” or “Chesok-nim,” after the monk in the myth, or Samshin Halmǒni [Three-god Grandmother], after the mother of the triplets, who are represented as the three Buddhas. There’s always meat on the altar, a pig’s head or cows hooves. The meat’s covered up with white paper when the Buddhist deities appear because they don’t drink alcohol or eat meat.

 A typical good-luck performance will have mountain gods and martial gods—generals—wave knives around and even ride on the sharp parallel blades of the fodder choppers. These are bolted together so that the sharp side of the blade is standing up perpendicular to the base. Then the shaman climbs on top of the blades. I’ve seen a male shaman do it with a pig over his shoulder. Sometimes the shaman holds onto something for balance. At first the shaman can rest her feet on the cloth, but then she generally slides or moves her feet so that each foot, or at least most of the foot, is right on top of the blades.

The farmers' procession

The farmers' procession

At the good-luck kut you and I saw, there was a procession of people dressed as farmers and two people in a cow costume. It was a type of festival performance for the town’s tutelary deities. There’s a famous one down south where the spirit is thought to descend into the village during the festival. In the Yi Dynasty a lot of the festivals became Confucianized, and then the ceremonies were presided over by the males of the community who are in a ritually-pure state. But apparently, at some of these Confucianized festivals, shamans still play a role. At others they officiate, and then the festival is a kut.

A backdrop showing the spirits who descend

A backdrop showing the spirits who descend

On the Korean peninsula I think there are two different kinds of shamans. Supposedly a hundred years ago the Han River was the dividing line between the two. Shamans north of the Han were the possessed variety, and the ones to the south were hereditary priestesses.

Sometimes a possessed shaman will talk about her earlier experience, which is similar to the initiatory sicknesses of the Siberian shamans. They start acting strange. They have gastrointestinal complaints. They hallucinate. They see visions. They predict fires. They walk around shouting, “I’m this god. I’m that god.” They wander off into the woods. Then traditionally a shaman will see that they are possessed, rather than crazy. If you are behaving that way and a shaman says a spirit is calling you to be a shaman, you can’t refuse. Otherwise, you go crazy and die. So this person—sometimes it’s a man, but usually it’s a woman—has an initiation ritual and becomes apprenticed to a “spirit mother.”  Then she’s cured. It’s therapy for her. After she returns to normal she has to shamanize to remain well. She may not want to do it because traditionally shamans are in a socially marginal position. People look to them for help and depend on them, but despise them at the same time.

The charismatic shaman is supposed to be an oracle who brings messages from the gods. A couple of weeks ago my students and I saw a shaman talk to a man whose wife was sponsoring the kut.  He was a factory owner who was there with his wife. Through the shaman, the god asked the man, “You’ve got a man in his forties working for you at the factory, don’t you?”

“Well, yes, I do.”

“You don’t need him. There’s not enough room for him in the factory. Let him go.”

Participants drinking rice wine

Participants drinking rice wine

So the shaman gave directions for this assistant to be terminated. Cynically, you might wonder if the guy’s wife didn’t disapprove of the assistant and planted the idea in the shaman’s ear. These oracles will say, “Fire the guy,” “Be careful of water,” “In the sixth month of this year your daughter will find a husband.” Or the oracle might give a general blessing like, ”I’m going to bring you wealth,” “I’m going to bring you prosperity,” or “I’ll bring you grandsons.”

The hereditary shaman has no particular facility of possession, although she may mimic it a little in dance. In other words, when she’s dancing she may jerk her shoulders or twitch a little bit, somehow showing that the spirits have descended, but she doesn’t speak in the voices of spirits. What she does, from what I’ve been able to put together, is play a role in helping ordinary people become possessed.

The assistants dancing

The assistants dancing

Once down in the southeast coast, a group of young men drowned in a fishing accident. The families had an elaborate kut because unmarried males who have died are especially likely to be restless and cause trouble for the living. So you’d better make sure they’re satisfied in the other world. At this kut mothers or family members of each to the drowned men danced and held a spirit basket. When the basket started shaking, the shaman asked them yes-or-no questions. The spirits indicated by shaking the basket if the answer was yes and not moving it at all if the answer was no. Sometimes the mother or the sister or another family member was possessed by the spirit of the dead boy and spoke in his voice.

There’s a shaman’s union here of I think around two thousand shamans. The male shaman I’ve seen at the shrine seems to have a position at the shaman association institute. Down in the basement of the building people learn the chants and the dances and the other things shamans need to know. When the head shaman has a kut, the students are given a subsidiary role, maybe as percussionists. People usually get carried away to some degree or another. At the last one I saw, the star student actually spoke in a god’s voice. Obviously she’s becoming a shaman. The key question would be how did those students get to the basement of that building? Have they all been diagnosed, or are some of them there just out of curiosity?

It would be fun to go down there with a tape recorder. They practice chants, and then the teacher gives little lectures. One day I sat through an hour and a half of the class where they were doing the segment of the spirit who rides on the knives. After they did the chant the shaman asked his students, “Well, why ride on these knives? It’s dangerous, it can be painful. Why do we do it?”

The assistants

The assistants

The students all sat there staring at him with open mouths.

“Well, what are ghosts and sundry spirits afraid of?”

Then his assistant blurted out, “Knives!”

“That’s right. The spirits are afraid of knives and blades and so forth. So imagine how afraid they are when we’re able to mount these blades and show our mastery over them.”

During a regular kut there are purification rites, which involve waving knives over people and pelting them with millet and salt to drive away the spirits. The woman sponsoring the kut and her husband will kneel down in the room and face out into the courtyard, and the shaman will drape divination flags over their heads, help them with purifying substances, wave chicken’s and pig’s legs over their heads, tossing these things out in the courtyard, or spit rice wine over their heads and out into the courtyard. This is to purify them. More elaborate measures are called for if someone’s ill or crazy.

Korean Buddhist temples have a shrine or two, like the one dedicated to the mountain god, which is obviously connected with shamanism. But I don’t know of any monks exorcising evil spirits, although they do perform a mass for the dead and pray for the dead. The main Buddhist order here discourages fortune-telling, but certainly traditionally monks have done that. When monks tell fortunes they use various techniques, they read your face or your hand, but they don’t commune with spirits. They also draw good-luck talismans, pieces of paper you paste on the wall or put behind the dresser to keep your husband faithful—that kind of magic.

Mountain god with tiger and magpie

Mountain god with tiger

 It would seem that Buddhism has influenced shamanism, not the other way around. Some of the shamanist deities are associated with Buddhism. The shamans themselves may be Buddhists or go to temples often. At the folk level, people confuse the two. So if you ask village people about shamans, they may start talking about popular Buddhism—it’s just folk religion, folk beliefs. Some people will visit both temples and shamans. And some families that are devout Buddhists will avoid shamans and go only to temples.

Obviously, people feel anxiety about the future, and so they want to be reassured or at least prepared for what’s going to happen. I’ve read that in the country’s past there were times when at the higher levels of society, people used shamans to do other people in—to put a hex on a husband’s girlfriend, for example. But today there’s almost none of that. A Korean psychiatrist says that the good thing about Korean shamanism is that it’s very humanistic. It aims toward harmony—people in the family getting along well together. New attention gets paid to someone who’s been neglected and is suffering. Or there’s a focus on prosperity and health, children, wealth and those kinds of things. According to the psychiatrist, the bad thing is that shamanism is a system of projection. People are encouraged to see their good fortune or bad fortune as a result of outside agencies. It has people look outside for their good luck. So if things aren’t going right it’s because of an ancestor or a spirit of some sort, it’s not because of anything you are or aren’t doing. Which seems to have some truth in it.

 Once you get hooked up in this thing, once a shaman gets to know you and your history, every time you see her, she’ll say, “You know we really need to do a rite for this spirit.” You get into the thing and let the spirits determine what your life’s going to be like, and then you’ve got a lot of obligations to these spirits. You have to dedicate robes to deities, and all kinds of other things come up—maybe to the level that you can afford to enlist supernatural aid.

I think people sign up for my shamanism class because they’re really interested in this sort of thing. The Americans are curious, but skeptical. The Koreans are interested because young Koreans seldom know very much about it. They may have seen a ritual when they were young, but they don’t know the details, like who the gods are. Occasionally, a Korean student will be a Christian and have more invested in being skeptical. He or she may be a little threatened by it all. I’m interested in it myself, so I put a lot of energy into the class.

Coming Home

by on Monday, November 9th, 2009

The foreigner-friendly area of Itaewon in Seoul
Sometimes the discovery of roots can be an exhilarating experience, but for Asian-Americans it’s often very difficult to come to Asia. In Korea there’s a strong prejudice against those who’ve emigrated to the West, as if those who left were somehow traitors. Ethnic Koreans who don’t speak Korean at a native speaker level are often looked down on—or envied because of their ability to speak English. (Please see the links to your right–“South Koreans Struggle with Race” and “Adopted from Korea and in Search of Identity.”) 

In my 1990 MA paper for the Linguistics Department at the University of Pittsburgh, I presented statistically significant evidence of  language as a component in the ethnic boundary, namely that Koreans tend to react negatively both to ethnic Koreans who don’t speak the language at a native-speaker level and to non-Koreans who speak the language above the level of minimal professional compentence. 

 As always, much of a person’s reaction depends on personality. Around 1990, I had an interview with an Amerasian on his experience of returning to Korea. Bill is a young gay man who immediately seemed very likeable, very forthcoming, very easy to get along with. To me he also looked entirely ethnic Korean except that his eyes were strikingly light brown, rather than dark brown.

Bill’s Story

I was born in Korea in 1966. My mother’s Korean, and my father’s a white American. I left in 1973. My mother and I came back for the first time in 1989 just for a visit. But then I found it was much better than I had expected. I thought it would be a bit more like Japan—so Westernized—and I was surprised to see that Koreans maintain their Koreanness. They are very similar to the Koreans I knew back home in the States.

For example, I didn’t realize it was a Korean trait to treat guests so well, to go overboard. I thought it was just my family. Or to physically touch family members so much.

So I decided to get a job teaching English since I was a native speaker with a college degree and a little teaching experience. But I was only twenty-three years old, and the Korean directors of language schools stumbled over that fact. I was discouraged for a while until I found a place with an American director, and he hired me. Then I decided to enroll in a university Korean language program, so I was both teaching English and learning Korean. I was tired and busy most of the time.

I’ve had a much warmer response from Koreans than I expected. When I was in the States I thought most Koreans didn’t like Amerasians like myself. But most people consider me an ordinary American until I start speaking Korean with them. Then they start to wonder about my heritage. They say, ‘You have a native accent. Why is that? Are you really an American—all American?’

“My mother’s Korean.”

Then at that point most people regard me as Korean. I really respect them for that. People take me to heart as far as I can tell. Koreans usually do as they feel. They’ll show you if they like you or not. I’ve had a great response, actually, more so than full-blooded Koreans who were raised in the States. They’re ridiculed when they try to speak the language.

I have a friend whose parents are both Korean. Her language is not so great. She has a strong accent. She goes into some stores, and the women laugh at her, not out of spite, but because it’s kind of funny. They laugh out loud. So she says, “If you’re going to laugh at me, you’re not going to have my business.” And she leaves the store.

I’ve heard that some Korean Americans in my school went downtown and got into a vicious fight with some Koreans. One of them was badly hurt—his spine was broken.”

At first when people came up to talk to me, I would think, “Wow, I get to practice my Korean.” But now I’m really cold to people who suddenly descend on me. I let them prove themselves to me. People just seem to look at me and want to know what country I come from. I also get approached a lot on the street by people asking directions. It’s weird because Koreans don’t usually ask directions unless they’re really lost. I think it’s maybe because they’re trying to see if I can speak the language. Then they give me the obligatory, “Oh, you speak Korean very well.”

When I make mistakes in Korean, people think it’s cute. But when someone who looks completely Korean makes a mistake, they’re offended by it. They think there’s some kind of connection between the way you look and the way you should be able to talk. Koreans can’t handle it when ethnic Koreans can’t speak the language. Unless you speak the language, you don’t belong. They’re really upset and they blame the person. They’ll say, ‘All that time, why didn’t you learn? Why didn’t your parents teach you?’ It causes a lot of bitterness and leads to a lot of confrontations.

After people find out that I’m part Korean they expect my behavior to fit Korean norms. A lot of foreigners are somewhat exempt from social rules, but I’m not. When I got to Korea, I smoked in front of my uncle. He was shocked and offended.

Then my mother said, ‘You’re not supposed to smoke in front of older people. Didn’t you know that?”   

“Well, maybe I shouldn’t smoke in front of women elders, but he was smoking. What’s wrong with smoking with him? I asked him for a drink, and I can smoke with him.’

“He hasn’t given you permission.”

 I also noticed that when other men know I’m part Korean they touch more. At first they don’t do that. You’ve noticed men touching other men. They also get much more personal in their questions. “Why aren’t you married?” and “why don’t you get married soon?” [White Americans get the same questions, although perhaps not as often.]        

I just say I want to finish school first, and they seem to accept that.

I feel I don’t have the same experiences as either white Americans or ethnic Koreans. I don’t get the cold shoulder they give full-blooded Koreans—because they can’t speak the language or because they spent too much time abroad. And I can get close to the people at the same time. I’m really lucky.

Yes, most of the reaction I get has to do with my personality. I also think the way my mother brought me up made it easier for me. I always listened to her and showed her respect. I never talked back to her. If I had had a regular American upbringing which encourages individuality, it would have been harder.

Still there were problems with the relatives. They couldn’t understand. “Why don’t you live with us and just commute to school? Why do you want to live in Seoul?

“Well, I find it easier to do my homework when I’m away from everybody. And I want to meet other people.”

“OK, I guess that’s what’s different about people like you. But we worry so much about you.”

The attitudes Koreans have about families and being alone are very strange. In one of my English classes there was this kid who was working out his independence from his parents. He was about my age. He said he was trying to get money from his mom so he could move out and think things out and do things on his own and just be alone.

I said, “So you’re going to get some money from your parents and then get a job and rent your own place.”

“No, I’m just going to ask my parents to give me an apartment, and I’m going to stay there for two months and think.”

I was visibly shocked. I stood there in class speechless for about twenty seconds trying to understand what he was saying. Then I asked him again in Korean. This was a totally different concept. I would think a person would be empowered by leaving home, getting a job and getting an apartment so he or she could say, “Wow, I did that for myself.” But he just wanted his parents to make it possible for him to get away from them for a while. I finally said, “I don’t think I could persuade my mom to do that.”

Korean parents lay a lot of dependency and guilt on their children. If the relatives give you all this care and you say to them, “I don’t want to live with you, Aunt and Uncle, I want to live in Seoul and attend school there.” Then you hear, “What’s wrong? You don’t like us?” It’s a lot of guilt compared with what my mother threw on me when I was growing up. I never had to overcome guilt problems. Most of what my mother wanted me to do, I wanted to do anyway. She set easy guidelines for me. There’s a difference between saying, “You’re going to do well in school” and “You’re going to get straight A’s and go to Harvard.” That was hinted at, but I always diplomatically avoided it.

When I was young and living here, I’m sure I was spoiled, but I was punished too. I can remember being spanked when I was three or four years old for something like knocking over a vase I was told not to touch. But except for an occasional whack when I was young, most of the punishment I got was scolding. The Koreans can scold so well that they can make you cry very quickly. Table manners were a problem for me. I remember being told, “You should be ashamed of yourself. I told you many times not to eat like that. Eat like a human being.” Then I’d start crying.

There’s a lot of emphasis on things having to do with public face.

Koreans are extremely sensitive to criticism, which was usually interpreted as scolding. At work a superior can’t criticize a subordinate unless the problem is a major thing where criticism can’t be avoided. You can’t correct anyone unless you’re in the right position, and even then you have to do it in exactly the right way.

 The only real example of Korean rules in my household was that my grandmother, who lived with us, always had the last say. I was always supposed to show respect for my grandmother and then my mother—in that order. Because my father was an American, we didn’t follow the Korean notion of putting the man first. My mother always thought she was smarter than my father, and she didn’t respect him because she could wield the power in our house. At first my father didn’t want my mother to work, didn’t want her to learn English or to drive a car. He kept her away from all those things, but she outsmarted him.

Gay bars? I prefer not to think about gay life here. It’s too repressed. It’s really depressing. And it seems to be unsafe. There’s so much extortion of gays who’ve been found out—from what I hear. It’s so sordid I haven’t had much of an urge. I went to one place downtown. It was like something from the fifties. Everyone there was married and going to stay married for another twenty years. It was sad. I wouldn’t want to live with the kind of fear gay people have here.

There’s another kid I know. He’s a Korean American who was adopted. He grew up in Hawaii, which is very supportive of Asians and Europeans and everybody all mixed together. He lived in Japan before he came here, and his Japanese is much better than his Korean, which is kind of poor. Someone introduced me to him, hoping that we would get along and maybe date or something. But I wasn’t interested in him. He was always complaining about Korea, and he expected me to hate it as much as he did. When I told him I liked it, he was really taken aback—couldn’t believe it. I didn’t like hanging around with him because he was so negative about Korea.

He asked me what I liked about it. I had nothing particular to tell him, just that I felt comfortable here, in a city this size I had the feeling of being in a huge place. It felt good being in New York too. The subways in Seoul, my God—clean, safe.

Right now I’m ready for a vacation. I’ve spent so much time in the city in the last ten months. With school and work it’s been kind of rough. I want to go back home to see my friends. But I’ll be back as soon as possible.