▲ Samsin or Samseung Halmang protects children until the age of 15. Image from Myths of Jeju Island, Jeju Cultural Center.
Migrants are always learning. Whether as a necessity for survival, or just to further enrich the experience of being “the Other,” we are constantly challenged by the unknown. In this sense, we never really graduate from the “University of Life,” continually re-sitting our finals.
After four-and-a-half years living in Jeju, I still feel unprepared for the tests that might expose the wetness behind my ears. In that challenge, however, there is exhilaration, pushing me to learn more, before the next oreum looms. “San neomeo san,” as the Koreans say, “mountain after mountain.”
To be sure, having a baby was more of a cultural challenge than getting the order right in Beer King - or so my wife claims - but similarly, it was a reminder, perhaps starker, that I am not a Jeju native. But therein lies its true value.
My beloved daughter was born six months before this article was written. Unable to avoid rehashing the tired cliches of fatherhood, suffice to say she is the apple of my eye. She has also been my guide on a journey into the local culture, and for that I am truly blessed.
She hasn’t been the only addition to my life. Another character, just as large, has entered my home and influenced everything from my thoughts, to my speech, to my behavior. She is Samsin Halmang, one of Jeju’s pantheonic goddesses, the guardian of childbirth and, it seems, keeping sons-in-law in line.
It has, you see, been a very disciplined relationship. I do something, and then I am told She is displeased. Whether it was at my overly keen celebration of pregnancy - “Don’t do that, Samsin Halmang will get jealous” - or attempts at childcare - “forgive him, Samsin Halmang, his mistakes are innocent” - She has kept a tight watch these last 12 months.
Mysteriously, she mostly communicates through my mother-in-law. Her presence is felt in other ways, however, and on the day of the birth I noticed a large box of matches placed near the baby’s resting place. It was not to be removed. I have no idea what it is for, but months later it still sleeps near my daughter, taking on a guardian-like air.
I was also thankful for the bowls of makgeolli brought in daily, ostensibly to help my wife produce milk in the days after the birth. I have another theory: This was Samsin Halmang’s way of thanking me for putting a fatherly shift in. I imbibed, giving a thought to Her.
My mother back in England amazingly takes this in her stride, something I sometimes take for granted. Her granddaughter’s regimen possibly raises concerns, and our repeated mentions of “the shaman” - over a crackly Skype connection - often get mistaken for mid-1990s rave flashbacks, something perhaps just as foreign to my Jeju mother-in-law.
My gratitude is depthless, on all counts.
Not only have I gained a daughter, but invaluable access to a culture I remain largely ignorant of. Jeju’s rich traditions are notoriously opaque to the outsider, yet daily I am challenged to confront a mythological deity within my sitting room, trinkets, incantations and all. There have been no attempts at proselytization, for which I am thankful. In fact, I am scolded if I enquire too keenly; I mustn’t provoke her with my curiosity, I am told. Even the timing of this article has been influenced by my daughter’s third Grandmother (“Halmang” meaning grandmother in Jeju dialect, and also signifying divinity).
In a tradition surviving from the days of high infant mortality, Samsin Halmang urged us to remain indoors and secluded for 100 days. She even advised us to keep “mum” on the matter, lest we test Her patience. (Mine certainly was, on many occasions.)
Other additions have been less animate. The “gudeok” is the traditional Jeju cot highly recommended by Samsin Halmang, and it lies in my sitting room, enveloping my daughter. I love it - it sends her to sleep. She loves it for the same reason. As she is rocked, an old lullaby is sung, peppered with the velar nasal “ng” of the local dialect.
As all lullabies should, the words comfort her and impel her to sleep; she invariably does. Myself, I remain thankful her first comforting words are in the local tongue while lying in a bed which itself is a vessel of traditional cultural wisdom.
Everyday I ponder my daughter’s role, as the next generation of Jeju’s strong female line. I sometimes wonder what the future will make of her, and how she can survive in a male-dominated culture riven with gendered obstacles.
Then I remember her three Grand-mothers and my fears are eased.
You can read the story of Samsin Halmang and many of Jeju's other gods and goddesses in "Myths of Jeju Island," written by Kim Soonie and published by Jeju Special Self-Governing Province and Jeju Cultural Center. Translation is by Song Pill Soon.
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