[HEUNGBO'S GOURD]Heungbo and his magic gourd

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[HEUNGBO'S GOURD]Heungbo and his magic gourd

Why would anyone name a newspaper column "Heungbo's Gourd"? And who is this Heungbo anyway? The story of the brothers Heungbo and Nolbo is learned by virtually all Koreans as children, but here's a quick synopsis for readers unfamiliar with it. (By the way, the vowel written "eu" in "Heungbo" sounds like the "e" in "listen.")

When Heungbo and Nolbo's parents die, Nolbo takes the entire family fortune for himself, throwing his brother out with nothing. Heungbo and his large family must live in a small mud hut, barely scraping a living off the land. Nevertheless, he is kindhearted and maintains his joie de vivre (which is what the "Heung-" part of his name implies). Nolbo is the opposite -- cruel, greedy, stingy and completely unwilling to assist his poor sibling's starving family.

One day while out doing chores, Heungbo comes across a swallow with a broken leg. He sets the leg, nurses the swallow back to health, and frees it. The following year, in appreciation for Heungbo's kindness, the swallow returns and gives him a seed, which he plants. By fall it has grown into a big gourd, and when Heungbo opens it, wonderful treasures spill forth, making him and his family instantly rich.

Hearing of his brother's good fortune, Nolbo goes out, captures a swallow and breaks its leg. Then he sets and splints the leg and turns the bird loose. Sure enough, the following year the swallow returns with a seed for Nolbo, which duly grows into a big, fat gourd. Nolbo's gourd, however, contains not treasures but evil demons, ill fortune and foul-smelling things that bring ruination upon his household. But Heungbo is so kindhearted and so devoted to his brother that he shares his wealth, and now that Nolbo has learned his lesson, they all live happily ever after.

Korean readers may object that many schoolbooks call these fellows Heungbu and Nolbu, with a "u" on the end. But the form ending with "-bo" appears to be traditional and is used by pansori singers in telling the brothers' tale.

In Korea you'll run into lots of bos. A bo is a person characterized by whatever the "-bo" ending is stuck onto. Koreans use it to create politically incorrect terms for some of society's less popular denizens. A headstrong bigot might be called an eokbo, while a tricky conniver is a kkoebo ("oe" sounds like "weh"). Children are taught that they should not be an ulbo (crybaby) or a neurimbo (slowpoke), and certainly no one wants to grow up to be a noetbo (lowlife). Thanks to modern medical science, kombo ("a pockmarked person") has all but disappeared from usage, but unfortunately for the likes of me, they still don't have a shot to cure the ttangttalbo (short, stocky person). If you like the nightlife, you might want to slow down on your drinking lest you be dubbed a sulbo (lush), and with all the fattening Western fast food that's available these days, a meokbo or bapbo (both meaning "glutton") can very easily turn into a ttung-ttungbo ("fatso").

You can probably guess why I've named this column "Heungbo's Gourd." I don't expect that it will bring you material wealth, but I do hope it will provide lots of interesting little "treasures" about Korean culture, language, tradition, history and so on. And although it will treat its subject matter in a popular rather than scholarly way, I hope that it will also provide some valuable insights occasionally.

Although I've lived in Korea since 1967 and am a naturalized citizen, I am no expert in all the topics I write about. I'm a learner and enjoy sharing some of the things I've found out. One thing I've learned during previous incarnations of this column is that readers are often my best source of information and inspiration.

Readers are encouraged to send me their own insights, comments, suggestions or questions, and I will try to incorporate them where appropriate. I also promise to try to keep any of that bad stuff from Nolbo's gourd from getting into "Heungbo's Gourd."


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The writer is a columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo English Edition. His e-mail address is gary@korealore.com.

by Gary Rector

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