Religion Part 1 – Christianity in Korea

People are somehow very surprised that 2 of the 3 main religions in Korea is christianity, that is catholics and other christians. In Korea, people somehow separate catholics and christians. Don’t ask why as christinity (in all forms) came all at once to Korea over 100 years ago. I am not sure why christianity was so attractive to Koreans. Despite the initial persecution, the religion took root rapidly and spread wide.

I am technically a christian since my family, at least as far back as my grandparents’ generation on both sides, followed that faith. Well, but I say technically since I consider myself more spiritual nowadays. Since all of my grandparents have already passed away, they would not be upset at me for saying that. But if they were alive, they might have a slight problem with my “technical” christianity.

For some strange reason, you will find that the majority of Korean christians are extremely devout, almost fanatically so. This is one of the reasons why I seem to have very few Korean friends (as you can imagine, this is a bit out of norm). My lack of Korean friends is due to — as soon as I become even remotely close to any Korean people, they try to get me to go to their church. As I am not really a believer in an organized religion, this is a bit of a problem for me. Of course, the friendship fizzles after that since they honestly think I might go to hell or something because I refuse to go to their church. And it’s not just enough that I tell them I’m technically christian. It has to be their church or no church at all.

Thankfully, my parents were only slightly pushy about their religion. I suppose it helps that my mom studied theology (yes, she could have become a pastor if she so had desired). This is the reason why I grew up a little differently compared to others. My parents encouraged me to go to church on the weekends (occasionally forced), but also took me to catholic masses and Buddhist temples. This is not very typical. Most christians in Korea tend to be really anti-non-Christian religions.

So, now that I’ve introduced one of the main religions of Korea, I suppose my next post will have to be the other main religion in Korea…Buddhism, which, by the way, is quite different from ones you find in many other countries in Korea. Yes, not all Buddhism are alike!

신사임당 (Sin Saimdang), A Woman Who Defied Her Time

As Korea has been for many generations, a patriarchal society, one does not encounter too many notable ladies of noble descent. There are a number of common class ladies who were Gisengs that defied their time, but defying the traditional role as a noble lady was difficult. With transmission of Confucianism, a philosophical idea that holds appeal as a pure form, but one that I have hard time liking due to its often misogynistic nature, a life of respected noble ladies in Korea was confined to being a wife and a head of the inner household. Even if some noble ladies were well educated and accomplished through the aid of their fathers, once they were married, their life had to take a back seat to their husband’s. 

신사임당 is one lady who defied that, partly with help of her father who chose a husband for her who would let her flourish, although at the end, he also became jealous and did not act as a supportive husband. She was considered an ideal lady by Confucian standards, yet she did defy the custom of being overshadowed by her husband and male-oriented society. Her extremely accomplished poems and paintings still remain to this day.

Historical Women of Art and Poetry (Giseng/Kiseng, 기생)

Hwang Jin Yi

Historically in Korea, only two types of women danced professionally, 기생 (Giseng or Kiseng in old way of transliterating), and 무당 (Moodang). Moodangs were like shamans. Gisengs were like Venetian courtesans of the 16th century, except even more legitimized. They were not part of the noble class, rather, they were part of the lowest class in Korea, yet they were women of power. They were women of intellect and poise who could compose poetry better than any poet, know politics better than any politician, danced, played instruments, sang, and participated in diplomatic relations. 

One very famous Giseng named Hwang Jin Yi, often portrayed in various dramas, was so desired that one noble man who visited her when she was very old apparently fell in love with her with her beauty, which perhaps came from her intellect and poise since she by then probably had lost all her bodily beauty.

It is true that not all so-called Giseng were of this caliber. There were several tiers of Giseng and the lower tier Giseng were more like the modern-day call girls. The top tier Gisengs, however, were registered as part of government and not even high level nobility could easily touch. Gisengs started their education early in their life. Not all Giseng are born from a mother who was also Giseng, but some chose that life because perhaps they craved freedom or they had no choice because their family, even if noble, was too poor. 

Despite having much more freedom and power compared to other Korean ladies, Gisengs were still women of that era. Those who were born to Giseng could not be anything else. They were not allowed to marry a man of a noble class. And they were forever relegated to a life of a caged bird who sang for their life. There were many poems that survive from the famous Gisengs throughout history. Their poems are often poignant and sad.

More on the poetry of Giseng on my next post…

Personally I wonder what I might have done if I were born in that era. I am from a noble family root, and even though I would have had a life of privilege, my life would have been one of gilded cage. Would I have consented to life of being another’s life, life hidden away into a household? Or would I have chosen to be free and found a life of Giseng more preferable…?

Last Train out of Seoul

On 25th of June 1950, Korean war started with the invasion from the North. After the temporary American military government left several months before, Seoul had already been full of northern sympathizers. My mom was only about five years old, but she remembers the invasion. She recalls seeing tanks, but I am not sure whether that is a real memory or the memory of what she thought she had seen. My grandfather had already been taken by then, a story for another post. There was my grandmother and her three daughters, my mom being the last child.

My grandmother knew they had to flee the city as the North Korean army was very close to the capital where they lived. Before 28th of June, my grandmother was contacted by her cousin who worked at the Seoul train station. My grandmother’s family had been quite rich and influential then so she was able to secure a place for her family on the train leaving Seoul.

My mom remembers packing her small rectangular suitcase, a foreign import that not many people could afford then. Once at the station, my grandmother’s cousin provided them with sitting spots inside the train. My mother remembers sitting on the train seat with her suitcase under her feet. So many others had piled in standing up or on top of the train. Even those people on top of the train or holding onto the side were lucky as everyone else had to flee the capital on foot.

So one of the last trains from Seoul left with my mom and her family, crossing the river on one of the few bridges across Han river.

And on the 28th of June, at 2:30 am, Korean army blew up the bridges across Han river in a desperate attempt to slow the invasion. Only, no Seoul residents were told that there would be no escape for them afterwards…

Why sons?

You learn about gender inequality early in your life in Korea. The idea of male superiority infuses into your life, almost as you are born…as people questioned my mother why after having a second daughter and the last child she will be able to have, my mother was still happy to have me.

My father was the 5th first son of the generation of first sons, carrying on supposedly an important noble lineage (although not as famous as my mother’s ancestors). That meant he needed to have a son, and if he did not, adopt a son of one of his brother’s children as his own. Even at a very early age, I was aware of these questions. When I was very young, I remember my sister telling me I have to be like a son to my father because he did not have one. As though not having a son is such a bad thing. A message received…being born as a girl is something to be unhappy about.

Thankfully my father never adopted any of my uncle’s sons and he did at least send a message to his daughters that women are equal to men, at least his daughters I guess. Of course, what he preached never really showed in his behavior toward my mother. So the next message received…wives were indeed not equal to husbands.

Then there are messages from your schoolmates in the elementary school, those who will tell you that boys are superior to girls. Sadly so many girls truly believe that by then, since that is how they grew up. If a girl has a brother, the treatment toward the younger or older brother is so obviously better that it is hard to ignore. When girls receive top marks, which I have done often, it is often because they are lucky or they are still young so when they grow up, things will change. Another message received…boys are indeed superior to girls.

I have received so many messages in my life, and not just as I was growing up in Korea. I am glad that I escaped to a country with more equality although I have experienced rampant sexism in the U.S. as well. At least my life is not all about getting skinny and finding a husband, a pattern which even very accomplished and smart ladies of Korea seem to fall into.

What is strange is that, at many points in Korean history, there were queens, and women of extraordinary abilities who were never forgotten. What has happened to our society to change that?

I am still waiting to receive that message…

Pigeons in the bathrooms

I don’t have many stories of my dad’s younger years as he has never been a talkative man. The only stories I have heard repeatedly are mostly stories from the three mandatory years he served in the military. Korea had and still has a compulsory military system. In my father’s days, they had to serve three years. Now I believe it is closer to two. So there are just a few stories that I know about my father besides the ones about his military years; one of which is the story about the pigeons.

My father hates pigeons. He generally likes animals and I thought he had a fairly fond spot for birds. I mean I had a veritable zoo of birds when I was young which I had to feed and maintain so I assume he liked birds. I figured he just didn’t like pigeons for some reason. I don’t like them either since they are a bit like rats with wings. So I didn’t really think much of my father’s reason for disliking them. Then one day out of the blue he told me the reason why he hates pigeons.

My father was around nine when the Korean war started and he had to flee his home with his family. I am not totally sure where exactly his home had been nor where they had to flee to. I think his home was somewhere near Daejeon (mid-ish part of South Korea) and he had to flee to somewhere near Pusan (only area not at one point taken by the North). As there was not many places to put so many refugees, he and his family had to spend their “refugee period” at a temporary shelter, which was a public school. That made sense since public schools tend to have lots of rooms and bathrooms.

He told me that there were so many corpses from the war that they could not bury them fast enough, which meant they had to be put somewhere until the burial. Unlike now, there were really no morgues or cold houses so the place people piled up corpses ended up being the bathrooms (coldest place I guess) of these temporary shelters. My father remembers having to go to the bathroom at night, alongside these piles of corpses and the only sounds he had heard had been the sounds of pigeons. So to this day, the sound of pigeons gives him the creeps (literal translation). Some experiences stays with us forever it seems.