2009 Sejong Writing Competition

Winning Entries :: Essays :: Senior second place

The Old Woman and the Tiger vs Bremen Town Musicians
Gene Kim

I was born in America. I feel as though I’ve always known about George Washington crossing the Delaware and Patrick Henry’s “Give me liberty or give me death.” Each morning I proudly recite the Pledge of Allegiance—in fluent English. And in November, I sat at the edge of my seat waiting to see if America would elect its first black president. I am American.

And then I go home, where I speak with my parents in fluent Korean and regularly eat kimchi and bap. Sitting around the dinner table while pointing emphatically with chopsticks, I discuss the exploits of Admiral Yi Soon-shin, one of my personal heroes, as well as Korean pop culture. I am Korean.

Naturally, I have come to question my identity. Am I Korean on the outside, American on the inside—or the other way around? I know I am both, but in what order? Does it even matter?

I cannot claim to know the answer, but it appears that folktales might give me—give us all—a clue. Common human experiences often lead societies to develop strikingly similar stories, and the tales of Korea and the Western world are no exception.

As a child I was always passionate about animals; as such, the characters in my favorite stories were usually lions, elephants, birds—or in the case of the Grimm Brothers’ “The Bremen Town Musicians,” four farm animals. I remember reading and rereading this short but inspirational tale that taught me that though the animals had outlived their usefulness—at least, in the minds of their masters—they clung to their dreams and worked together to drive away robbers.

Compare that with the Korean tale “The Old Woman and the Tiger,” in which the vicious big cat threatens the life of an old woman. She isn’t eaten though; her farm tools come to life and collaborate to defeat the predator. The underlying message is the same: When the weak come together as one, they can succeed and drive away the “bad guys.” These are tales from two different cultures, whose people walked different paths with different values—but they draw the same conclusion during their journey through life.

The historical experiences of the two cultures were certainly divergent, however, as the settings of the two stories reveal. The time of the Grimm Brothers was one of significant change in nineteenth-century Germany. The Holy Roman Empire had been dissolved; with it went the remnants of any centralized power governing the region, which shattered into numerous independent states until reunification began in the 1860s and ushered in an era of greater urbanization. These trends are reflected in “Bremen” where there is an absence of any unity or strong order governing the setting. Robbers are freely running about in the countryside, and the scene is dominated by individual farms where we encounter the animals one by one, suggesting a focus on local independence rather than any unifying nationalistic sentiment. As the story progresses, however, this changes. Regardless of their farm of origin, the four animals join together with a common fear of their impending death to “set out on the road to Bremen.” As in German history, the focus shifts from a rural setting to the city, from a local focus to a broader unity. These changes are not limited to Germany, however. Much of European history has occurred in a similar mold. Thus, “Bremen” serves as an effective model for much of Western civilization. 

Such characteristics are not present in “The Old Woman and the Tiger.” In Heinz Fenkl’s translation, the story describes the “old woman who lived all by herself.” Unlike in “Bremen,” here the setting is entirely pastoral—no hint of urbanization at all. The objects that help the old woman are all reflective of the strong rural culture. They are all useful farm tools commonly found in the Korean countryside—so common, in fact, that I’ve seen tools like the chiggye featured as miniature artwork on the walls of numerous Korean restaurants.

This story brings to mind one word: isolation. The old woman is firmly rooted in this lone rural setting and unwilling to leave, even though she has an opportunity to escape after her initial clash with the tiger. Her strong spirit and loyalty to her land characterize the spirit of the Korean people. In fact, the old woman could represent Korea itself, and the tiger, foreign powers. Against the might of the tiger, she cannot be victorious. Similarly, throughout its history Korea has been invaded and occupied by numerous powers with greater armies, greater financial capital, greater territories—the Japanese, Chinese, Mongols, the Soviets. The story suggests that hope lies within. In the struggle against more potent forces, Korea, and the old woman and her farm tools, can triumph as long as they stand united.

In “The Bremen Town Musicians,” the conflict is different and brings to light more cultural contrasts. Unlike in “The Old Woman and the Tiger,” the first threat to the animals comes not from any foreign power but from within: the animals’ own masters. Again, the emphasis here is on local interests. Furthermore, this conflict between the masters and animals may represent the clash between peasants and landowning aristocrats who have used and abused these peasants. Hope lies not within, but without—in the cities. And so the animals journey there to pursue their dreams—together.

The two stories reveal so many differences between Korean and Western culture: different values, different conflicts, different focuses. Yet, the moral of the day was the same: united we stand, no matter how different or weak we are individually.

Fast-forward to a complex, high-tech twenty-first century world, globally connected but often in conflict. Are the morals of the two tales now obsolete—or do they still ring true? As humans we have walked and will continue to walk the same path, and in the end, like the people of nineteenth-century Germany and ancient Korea we can draw the same conclusion.

And I can draw the same conclusion, about my questions of identity—Korean American. Korean and American. Together.