Long lasting Western folktales, such as Cinderella, Snow White and Rapunzel, have long been made into books and even in Disney's animated films, taking root and growing in children's hearts from around the world. Professor Shin Dong-heun (aged 59) who teaches Korean language and literature at Konkuk University has been researching for over 30 years on traditional stories that have passed down orally. He is interested in folktales other than those already well known to many. He found old tales of people from different cultures living here in Korea intriguing. He lives in Yangpyeong County, Gyeonggi Province, where many Chinese immigrants have settled down. In the county, you can also easily find women from Vietnam, the Philippines and other Southeast Asian countries. The professor thought he may be able to encounter some new stories from those foreigners living among us.
"We are familiar with folktales from the West but have not been paying enough attention to folk stories of foreigners from Southeast Asia who actually live with us,” Professor Shin said. “They may be the sources from which we can find stories that are truly inspiring."
Professor Shin and 15 other folktale researchers recently published 21 world folktale books in a "Multicultural Folktale Series." The series is a compilation of three-year work launched in 2016 interviewing some 136 immigrants from 27 different countries, including Cambodia, the Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia and Kazakhstan. Professor Shin together with Research Professor Oh Jeong-mi (aged 46) from the Convergence Institute for Multicultural Studies at Inha University and Research Professor Kim Jeong-eun (aged 48) from the Epic and Literarytherapy Research Institute at Konkuk University said that "old stories are the link that connects people from different worlds and cultures" in an interview on Monday conducted at a research office in Konkuk University.
Though delivered in different languages and in different places, stories deal with similar people and themes. One Vietnamese immigrant (aged 32) Professor Kim interviewed in Gyeongsan, North Gyeongsang Province in December 2017 was excited to tell the interviewer about an old Vietnamese story of Tấm and Cám quite similar to a Korean old tale of Kongjwi Patjwi. Both are a Cinderella story in different versions where a step mother and her daughter(s) bully the stepdaughter before they get punished for that. The story shares the idea of what goes around comes around. Comparable examples abound. The story of "mesh bag grandpa,” the Korean version of boogeyman, conveys the same frightening message for children who misbehave. The only difference is that sometimes the story features grandma instead of grandpa.
Folktales sometimes serve as a way to better understand different cultures. A Filipino story of the First Monkey featuring an enraged god turning a merchant who skinned the animals and made clothes out of them into a hairy monkey demonstrates how much Filipinos value animals. "Southeast Asian folktales are deeply rooted in a culture that appreciates co-existing with the nature and embracing others,” Professor Oh noted. “The three-year research on their stories provided me an opportunity to recognize the prejudices I have in me."
Professor Kim is lecturing on creating children's stories based on the Multicultural Folktale Series, believing that those stories from different cultures may offer solid foundation for Korean children to better embrace diversity in our future society which will be more multicultural.
"The 1,364 stories in the series we published are valuable cultural resources that are translated in Korean through immigrants who have become one of our own in our society,” Professor Shin said. “I believe their tales will make our society more diverse and colorful, going forward."