Tag Archives: about me

Are Women a Sack of Potatoes?

I never thought that potatoes and onions would ever attract my intellectual curiosity, but lately these two legumes have turned into giant metaphors about gender and politics. Potatoes as a cornerstone of political analysis appeared many years ago when Marx wrote about French peasants as “potatoes in a sack.” The reason he called them potatoes is because he didn’t think much of the French small-landed peasantry as an ingredient in his recipe for class revolt. If anything, this highly individualistic, entrepreneurial group symbolized everything he didn’t like about citizens who would never unite into a class to defend their own interests. He turned his attention instead to the industrial working class. He lauded factory workers with many flattering metaphors, none of which were vegetarian.

My latest thought about women is that we are not potatoes — but a wonderful bag of onions. Well, maybe men are, too, but for women the complexities of private life are much more exposed. Each of us carries around layers upon layers of identities. Some of them were given to me while I was growing up — a daughter, tomboy, student and musician.

Am-6 Indigenous peoples caucus
The Indigenous Peoples Caucus adopted me

As my social world expanded, identities that included me as a member of larger groups were added, like vice-president of the class and anti-war activist. Then, came the grander labels that placed me in the category of an ethnic or cultural group. I became a Korean-American and Asian. As I travelled in countries that were unfamiliar with Korea, I was given many mistaken identities to add to these.

Me in Sari
I adopted a sari and bindi

At a party in India, a woman scolded me for speaking English instead of my native tongue—Nepalese. When living in Thailand, most locals treated me like a Japanese tourist. In Tunisia, a man called out to me in Berber, thinking that I was a fellow tribes woman. I had the most fun with my multiple identities at a UN meeting on environment in Rio (2002), when I was adopted by the indigenous people’s caucus. After joining them for a television shoot and much merriment, they presented me to Princess Basma of Jordan as their chief negotiator to access the Huirou Commission meeting.

While these were cases of simple ethnic misnomers, others had more serious consequences. On the US army base in Korea, I was asked for my venereal disease card because a security guard assumed I was a hooker.  Syrian soldiers pointed their guns at me at the Lebanese border, shouting that I was an Egyptian terrorist and that my US passport “was obviously a fake.” Then there was the amusing rumor in the French village where I did my anthropological research that I was really a Vietnamese novelist gathering material about all of the families’ secrets. Since strangers have given me so many identities that were not the real me, I have developed a category of onion layers just for those purposes called “the me that can’t be.” Of course, we continue throughout our lives to add new layers as well.

Peeling away identities is easy to do and you can do it without crying. In fact, for many women who joined in a demonstration at the UN Fourth World Conference in Beijing (1995) or successfully rally around the “Half the Sky” campaign, the creation of a common Self, united across all differences, is a joyful empowering experience.

Women at the Fourth World Conference 1995
Women celebrate at the UN women’s conference, 1995.

If you have not had this particular onion peeling experience, you might still understand what I mean. Take, for example, pilgrimages that are historically among the most successful means to achieve the same effect. If you are a Muslim, the trek to Mecca is more than a holy journey. It is a joining together in a single place an international gathering of men of the same faith, united across differences in language and nationality, to be a single consciousness and being.

Members of the International Alliance of Women
Members of the International Alliance of Women

Yet, women have been able to be more than vegetables thrown together into a sack. We have stripped layers and layers of identity until we found common ground. Our consciousness as women is almost primitive, primordial, and fundamental enough to let us join hands with strangers from different nationalities and pledge allegiance to each other’s causes during the annual UN Commission on the Status of Women meetings in New York.

Whether we are English, Mohican, Zambian or Burmese, somewhere in our core we manage to find a common identity as wives, mothers, sisters and women. No matter that the issues we hold most dear vary from the promotion of breast feeding, protesting genetically modified foods to defending sex workers’ rights.  We often rally around each other’s issues with one voice.

It feels good to be an onion. And it feels even better to know that you are in the company of others — nearly half of the world’s population. I credit feminists for being able to pick an identity that, at least, is one of the biggest categories of the human species — no small tribes for us. We know how to be lovely personalities with several identities going on simultaneously. Maybe the more we have, the more we know that we are still growing. I wish that men could cross over the gender line just once so they could understand how much fun it can be to be female.

Mun Ok Sun

Mun Ok Sun was a famous Korean shaman who lived on Cheju Island. I met her in 1978 when she was doing a healing ceremony in a straw-covered house near the Cheju Folk Museum. A former diver for shellfish and seafood, she was born and grew up in a rural culture steeped in Taoist, naturalistic traditions. Her contact with the outside world was so minimal that she only spoke a heavy Cheju dialect.

Mun Ok Sun
Mun Ok Sun

The ceremony that Mun OkSun was conducting was a three-day healing ritual for a woman who had gone mute. Dressed in her sequined colors, Mun OkSun reminded me of a gypsy who had become a goddess. I wasn’t sure how to approach her and timidly sat down in the hut. Frankly she scared me with all of those ghostly ancestors surrounding her.  By the second day, my head echoed like an empty cave filled with the endless bang, bang, thump, thump of drums and percussions. Mun pushed the brass clang-cling instrument into my hands and my rhythms began to follow her voice.

Me with shaman musicians, 1978

A group of tourists came by, peered into the little hut and took a picture of me, no doubt thinking that I was also a shaman. Mun OkSun flashed her first smile and read my palm on the spot: “You have five children in your family (which was true), and you will marry before the end of the year”(I had three more months to go with no candidate in sight).

Mun OkSun eventually declared me her adopted daughter. She kept nothing from me and she had many lessons to teach. I was searching for the collective unconscious of villagers that was hidden under a thin veneer of modernization. There, we might find out how traditional rural health cultures intersect with modern medical beliefs—a topic that fascinates all medical anthropologists.

Cheju Divers 1975
Cheju Divers, 1975

Living among Cheju shamans convinced me that life was far from romantic for them. Most of them were illiterate, afflicted with illnesses, from poor peasant families and condemned as “untouchables.” I met shamans who I admired but others who I doubted. Shamans, like any other religious group, varied in their faith and ability. Some were very knowledgeable of the symbolism and meaning of rituals. One person I met was the model of an intelligent, religious leader. Another shaman had lost her faith but kept on practicing to make a living. Still another male shaman was egoistic and solicited compliments on his style.  But the common characteristic —whether or a lowly fortune-teller or chief shaman—was their sharpened insight into the human psyche and the gift of intuitive knowledge.

On Cheju Island, I found a shamanism that was alive and kicking, an experiment in living that might have contributed more to modern life if it had not been buried in Confucianism and its few books burned.  And, yes, I did meet my future husband that year.