2008 Sejong Writing Competition
Winning Entries :: Essays :: Senior second place
The Green Frog
“Kaegul! Kaegul,” green frogs to this day lament every time it rains. The Korean folk tale of the green frog, translated by Heinz Insu Fenkl, is a short tale but a very powerful one because of the universal themes it encompasses. Everyone who hears this tale, regardless of culture, will experience a familiarity with the dilemma that is posed in this story. The green frog is the typical rebellious child who never listens to his parent and instead performs the exact opposite of any tasks requested. The frog lives only in the moment and does not look forward toward the future; thus he troubles his mother day after day because he does not consider the consequences of his actions. When his mother is on her death bed, he finally does what he is told; however this compliance comes much too late to change things. His predictable attitude is the main motive for the frog mother’s unwise burial request. His mother expected her son to do exactly the opposite and thus fulfill her true wishes. Unexpectedly, he obeys her final request and buries her unwisely so her body washes away with the first monsoon rains. That there is irony in life is just one layer of meaning in this very substantive tale.
Animals often appear in the plots of folk tales because this use of personification effectively creates characters that have universal appeal. The use of mother and child frogs creates characters neutral enough that all readers may relate to them, and this identification permits the promotion of the tale’s intended messages.
This story had such an effect on me. It reminded me of myself because I could compare myself to the green frog. I have lived with my grandmother for my entire life. We had our share of disagreements and arguments but I always loved her. Yet as I matured into my teenage years, I spent more time with friends and less time with my grandmother. Then when her health slowly deteriorated, I did not notice until it was so bad that she was in and out of hospitals. Only then did I feel great sorrow and shame. I regretted forgetting about her and leaving her alone a lot of the time. From then on my little sister and I walked every day to the hospital and spent hours on daily visits with grandmother. When she finally died, I felt horrible; I felt as if my efforts were not enough for I could no longer make things right. Like the frog, I learned much too late that life is full of surprises. I took for granted that grandmother would always be there tomorrow. As in life, the folk tale teaches about the tenuousness of life; someone can be taken away from you in a moment.
The main theme of this story of the green frog is that there is great value in filial piety, in observing respect and obedience for one’s elders. This is a more that transcends cultures and ages. Even human groups from Cro-Magnon times had customs of filial duty, of care and affection for their aged members. This belief is particularly prevalent in Asian cultures and the concept was formalized in writings by Confucius. The green frog was disobedient and disrespectful to his mother and caused her “much distress and embarrassment.” There is an implication that the embarrassment was caused by the mother’s view of what her own family looked like within the community of frogs. “Why can’t he be like other frogs?” Her question further suggests that the mother was made unhappy by the negative image her son created in the opinions of the frog community.
Here a lesson is suggested to Korean children that one must adhere to community standards and expectations of behavior. The message is that had he been a more dutiful son, his mother would have probably lived a happier and a longer life. The further loss of his mother’s grave prevents him from making amends and showing even a minimal respect for his parent by caring for her burial site, an act particularly important in Asian cultures. Thus the frog is doomed to be tormented by a regret that moves him to weep mournfully whenever it rains.
Grief is an emotion that even animals experience, but regret is strictly human. Regret digs deeper into the pain that is grief, and though one can move past grief, regret remains forever. Regret is a tortuous mix of emotions and intelligent thought. It is a mental distress of remorse, a yearning to change things in the past. With my own grandmother, I still think painfully about things said and left unsaid, about things done and never done. My regret is the damage left behind that tidal wave of sudden learning that swept over me the morning when we could not awaken my grandmother. Regret, I learned belatedly is the pith of grief; it is that soft center of feeling that nothing healing, neither time nor therapy, can reach.
The tale of the green frog is on its surface a seemingly simple tale. Yet it serves a role in instructing cultural mores to generations of Koreans and it attempts to impart some wisdom about life to children. Like an onion, this tale surprises one with layers of meanings, each one a deeper and deeper one. The general belief is that people will learn by personal experience; they learn their lessons as they proceed through life and eventually become wiser and change their ways if necessary. However, the tale of the frog teaches us that learning through personal experience often comes too late. If one takes heed of this and other tales told by parents and elders, one can be saved from a life of regret. The tale remains with us because whenever it rains and we hear the plaintive cry of “Kaegul! Kaegul,” we are forewarned to lead a better life than that of the poor green frog.