Friday, April 20, 2012

Wandering Mystic Meditation From Jindo Korea

If the ajummas had an Easter egg hunt, they would win the solid-chocolate-bunny prize hands down. I know this because, as I’m slipping and sloshing through seaweed, the ajummas (a Korean term for elderly ladies) are tearing through moist earth with tiny rakes to find fresh abalone. They only have two hours to fill up their shell bags. This is how long the “miracle” lasts, a parting of the sea in Jindo South Korea. On Easter, a Christian holy day, I get to be a modern Moses, along with thousands of Koreans and foreigners, as we walk across the sea in ice-cream-colored rubber boots.

I partake loosely in Easter. Rarely do I give up something for Lent, yet eagerly do I devour the Sunday meal with family. Still, when I came to Korea last year, I barely noticed its occurrence - not for a lack of Christianity, which is the dominant religion here, but for a lack of celebration, at least the type an American would recognize. No Easter candy sales or Sunday meal. Without celebration, it’s like any other lazy Sunday. I didn’t want to be the traveler who loses all sense of religious tradition, however loose it may be, because I’m abroad. I needed to remember Easter in Korea. So, venturing out to a festival where you can re-enact a scene that inspired The Passover and The Passion seemed the way to go.

While the actual parting of the sea may only last two hours, the festival lasts the whole day, including everything from a Jindo dog show (a prized intelligent species from Korea) to sampling seafood such as fresh wriggling octopus. Still, for many Koreans who participate, it’s an ancient grandmother who attracts them here.

The legend behind this sea-parting tells of an old lady called Grandma Bbong, who was left behind when her entire village fled Jindo for Modo Island to escape tiger attacks. After she prayed for deliverance, the Dragon King heard her plea then told her to run to the sea, where a rainbow bridge would be created for her. Crossing the bridge to Modo, Grandma Bbong met with her family one last time before dying from exhaustion. Her lasts words were these: “I'm happy because the Dragon King has reunited me with my family.”

Every year, dances and shamanic rituals to ward off evil spirits are held in memory of this grandma. Elderly men and women twirl around with huge flower headpieces while simultaneously playing instruments. When the 5 pm start time for crossing the land bridge arrives, many people trudge through the mud to reach a statue of the waiting family on tiny Modo Island. The family is poorly clothed with a longing in their eyes to be reunited.

Along my way to the statue, I'm surrounded by contrasting families. I see one screeching in celebration as they catch a baby octopus with bare hands. Further down, a young girl in a leopard-print coat is rummaging through the earth daintily with her tiny shovel. She’s helping her mother who keeps fashion forward with a Louis Vouitton bag in hand even as she crouches on wet ground. Across the way, a brother and sister are cautiously approaching starfish then poking the orange creatures with sporadic giggling.

At the halfway point to Modo, I spot Moses, complete with his own private cameraman. Upon closer inspection, Moses is a tall girl wearing fake white hair and beard, while holding a notebook in her hand. When Koreans come up to take photos with her, she flips to the Korean wording 모세 의 기적 (Moses’ miracle), then flips back to the English version for foreigners, thereby letting diverse festival attendees enjoy this surreal moment.

Complete with raised stick in hand, she shouts in her deepest, manliest voice, “Let my people go!” as she lets me snap a quick photo. She’s in a hurry to mingle with all the Koreans and reach “salvation” in time. However, I don’t think I ever see her reach Modo. Instead, I witness a pale 20-something with a beer in hand, wearing nothing but his underwear and sandals reaching the island. A towel hangs on his back, in case the “miracle” ceases before he returns to Jindo and he needs something to dry off with. While this isn’t exactly what I had in mind when I sought a memorable Easter, it makes me laugh, it makes my friends laugh, and in this opportunity to walk across the sea, I feel happy.

Stephanie Santana is a writer and photographer from Queens, New York. She works as an ESL teacher in Busan, South Korea. When not teaching kids the Hokey Pokey, she’s salsa dancing, writing about salsa, or documenting travel adventures at

1 comment:

  1. Fascinating! It's a part of the world I've never seen.