Wednesday, October 23, 2013

The Feminine Divine--Jeju-Style

All photos by Frances Madeson

Since leaving Missouri last Spring my life has felt like a beautiful, if peripatetic, dream. Most recently I touched down in Jeju, South Korea, and was plunged into the realm of the feminine divine. No doubt the concept was implanted at the forefront of my mind during shamanic healing sessions at SpiritpathTransformational Healing just before embarking to Korea, in which I was cannily led to visualize my inner divine being. A lusty wanderer, she turned out to be a somewhat rustic full-bodied creature with ivy tresses, gamboling about in deerskin moccasins looking for fun and trouble, in that order. 

The feminine divine served as an apt bridge to the volcanic island just south of the Korean mainland that was my destination. Jeju's creation myth is one of the goddess Seulmundae Halmang shaking seven scoops of soil from her apron to form the island. According to historical legend Jeju was once organized as a matriarchal society, and it is still an abiding home to the Haenyo, a remarkable subculture of (mostly elderly) women sea divers.

My hostess on the island was Elizabeth Holbrook, a professional freelance journalist, who had contributed insightful and enlivening travel essays to the newspaper I’d published in her hometown in southeastern Missouri in 2012.  A source of local pride her enthusiastic readers, myself included, were transported by Elizabeth’s sensitive depictions of her travels in far-flung destinations such as New Zealand and Jeju Island. The accompanying images were of an adventuring young woman with her wits fully about her, upon whom the gift of travel could never be wasted. 

Elizabeth has a full, active and rather amazing life in Jeju teaching English, mentoring junior journalists, working as a television news anchor, and developing her own media and editorial projects. In addition, she is an accomplished volleyball player who was recently invited to compete in a tournament in North Korea; she declined, not wishing to appear to support the regime there. Her future travel plans include possible expeditions to Nepal, Tibet, India, Turkey, Israel and Peru where she hopes to live with a host family in order to achieve fluency in Spanish. When her students recently asked her if she thought she was thin or fat, she replied, "Strong!" and made a muscle for them to prove it. Needless to say, I am rather in awe of this accomplished and worldly young woman.  And grateful to her, too; if it hadn't been for Elizabeth, I might never have ventured to Asia.

Via “Holby” as her many friends like to call her (one of their many pet names for her), I was immersed in the delightful and fascinating company of mostly twenty-something ex-pats teaching English in various public and after school programs in Jeju City. She had kindly arranged for a friend to meet me at the airport while she worked, and, two days later, for an intimate dinner party on the floor of her flat where we all laughed and drank red wine and talked politics and literature and climate change into the wee hours. 

The group loosely defines ex-pat as those with no immediate plans to return to the home countries—in this instance the US, UK, Australia and Canada. In this fluid, open and self-selecting community the glue that binds them is equal parts the English language and participatory sports, primarily sand volleyball; the close-knit group of young men and women, friends and lovers, routinely meets to spend a Sunday afternoon bumping, setting, and spiking together as the Pacific’s surf crests over the black volcanic rocks that border the beach just a short drive from town.
More divinely feminine ones: Elizabeth's friends Sun Hee Engelstoft and Emily Baker
Another gorgeous snap of filmmaker Sun Hee Engelstoft

Canadian, Emily Baker, age 23, teaches English to Korean children. She tries to make the lessons as much fun as possible. According to Emily, her driven and goal-oriented students are always working at their studies and rarely get to play.

Community service provides an additional vehicle for creative play and loosely structured togetherness among the ex-pats. Under various leaders the group has coordinated competitive fundraising Haiku battles, beach clean-up days, as well as the ongoing volunteer service performed by Elizabeth and her friends Emily and Sun Hee at the Aesuhwon Sisters Heights Shelter for moms and babies. Sun Hee is herself a Korean adoptee returned from Denmark to cinematically explore the tricky emotional terrain of mass foreign adoptions of Korean babies.

Not fully recovered from an arduous flight from Sydney, via Beijing and Seoul, I accompanied them, and for a few lovely hours we baked white chocolate macadamia nut cookies and visited with the clients. 

We had a lot of laughs playing cards, listening to a few pop songs, showing each other pictures, posing for some new ones.


Elizabeth took it in stride when some of her co-bakers didn’t care for the final result—too soft a cookie and too sweet to their liking. “In Korean culture people are very direct in their communication with each other,” Elizabeth explained.

The shelter is a government-funded facility and program operated under the leadership of director Ae Duck Im (not pictured). When I asked her what she thought the fundamental differences in Korean and American cultures might be, she answered without hesitation: “Values. We have Confucianism, respect for ancestors, tradition.”
Typical and delicious luncheon cooked and served in the 
kitchen of the Aesuhwon Sisters Heights Shelter.
In the following days I was to be the recipient of extraordinary generosity from Ms. Im, who could not have been more welcoming. She accompanied me to the opening ceremony of the 14th Jeju Women’s Film Festival, where after some speeches and musical selections, we saw a stylish Korean film by Kim Sung-hee celebrating  the life and career of Nora Noh, the mother of modern Korean fashion.

On the following evening she arranged for a rather fabulous impromptu dinner of her women’s group at a vegetarian temple restaurant where we sat on mats and ate traditional dishes like bimbimbap and garnishes like kimchee. I was thrilled to meet Ae Duck's circle and especially honored that one of the attendees was artist Kim Juyeon (formerly of Berlin), who will soon be installing her new show at Viaart in the Daedong Hotel Art Center. Her sculptures in the installation called Metamorphosis VII are constructed from collapsed packing crates layered with old clothes and paper, and covered in grass which continues to grow during the course of the exhibition. Her piece collapses the nature/culture split (it's all in nature) and evokes the economic devastation represented by feral structures.

The next morning Ms. Im included me in a calligraphy class with the “single-moms” where I was taught some elementary brush strokes and, to my utter astonishment, was presented with a silk scroll inscribed by the instructor. First in Chinese and then in Korean characters he wrote the title of my novel—Cooperative Villageand beneath it the most gracious possible greeting thanking me for visiting Jeju. Truly humbling, I will always prize this great treasure, a momento of a wonderful shared creative experience, and, as such, so much more meaningful than any other souvenir could possibly be.

Holding the mic during the Q&A, Aori, director of My, No-Mercy Home

Despite a chock-a-block packed schedule of socializing and sight-seeing, at times scooting around town on the back of Elizabeth's motorbike, I was able to attend some portion of the festival on all four days and saw several compelling Korean films, notably: Aori’s My No-Mercy Home, an absolutely transfixing documentary about a young woman’s legal travails in connection with prosecuting her father for sexually abusing her; and, almost as if the rapist/father were a metaphorical stand-in for the corporate predator, the showing of Hong Li-gyeong’s The Empire of Shame, a documentary about suspicious worker deaths among the young women employed at the Samsung Corporation, which concluded the festival. 

I learned that when the latter film was scheduled to be shown at the Seoul Women’s Film Festival, Samsung tried to have it suppressed. The festival showed it as scheduled and the women there have subsequently lost all of their government funding. Samsung makes up 20% of South Korea’s GDP; as Nick, one of the astute UK ex-pats told me: “Samsung is the government.” 

It is feared that this withdrawal of support for the women's film festival will have a chilling effect on future artists and festival directors alike. It also makes all the more courageous the decision to show the film at the Jeju Women's Film Festival. It was my great privilege to be there to witness their inspiring act of female solidarity.

(To be continued...)