My impertinent curiosity into other peoples’ business has often put me on the receiving end of “the stink eye.” In last week’s essay I describe my encounter with a traveling band of gwangdae (a Gypsy-like people) entertainers/basketmakers/butchers in Korea during my first year as a Peace Corps Volunteer there. They are among the traditional outcaste groups and their customs and informal/underground economies little-known by Korean scholars and it could be said with confidence “unknown” by non-Korean scholars. They may even be extinct today (though I doubt it). Anyway, I ran across them performing and hawking amulets, magic potions and such to a big crowd of rural folk in a small town.
Like ethnic Gypsies I have studied in other locals around the world these Korean gwangdae were mobile and secretive, and prone to be rude and hostile toward inquisitive observers they perceived to be a threat to their economic stability and security. So when I snapped the following photo of a gwangdae maiden working the inside perimeter of the crowd and in the act of pouring a syrupy, black elixir laced with hooch for a paying customer, I snapped this photo:
My impudent act resulted immediately in a booming reprimand from the ringmaster who bellowed his earsplitting displeasure at me over two elevated portable loudspeakers. Unfazed, I seized that moment to snap another photo — just in the nick of time, as a well-aimed barb from a gwangdae stink eye launched from across the arena struck me full force:
I had inured myself to the Gypsy stink eye while in the United States, but the gwangdae variant nearly sent me reeling. Although I never had the opportunity to photograph an incoming Gypsy stink eye, the French artist Ferdinand Roybet (1840-1920) successfully captured its sensational alienating experience in this engraving titled En Retard Pour la Fête:
JWW readers may have mistakenly concluded that my remarks here about the Gypsy stink eye and the gwangdae stink eye are disparaging of these ethnic peripatetic peoples. Quite the opposite: It is because I sincerely respect the power and the agency of the practiced and applied ethnic stink eye when deployed against outsiders by historically persecuted minorities like the gwangdae and the Gypsies that I bring it up both as an ethnographic fact and a cautionary warning in this present essay.
When some peoples “stare daggers at others” (a.k.a. “the stink eye,” or the skunk eye”) these long, hard looks I believe have the occult agency to inflict harm. The phrase “If looks could kill”) is therefore not a trivial expression. So much has been written in the cross-cultural ethnographic and psycho-social literatures about “the evil eye” and “the gaze” that I won’t digress any further on the topic and leave my readers to explore these fascinating occult avenues on their own — except to point out that Gypsies, gwangdae, and other historically outcaste and persecuted minority peoples are not defenseless as often portrayed by those who would seek to “protect” them as “victim” of majority society persecutions. These minority ethnic groups I have studied and mentioned have myriad defensive strategies and stratagems little understood and underestimated by uninformed and cynical outsiders. Some of these defensive and offensive weapons are mystical (like traditional curses and the powerful stink eye) and some are material; for example, the exquisitely terrible edged-weapons devised and mastered by the feared Gypsy navajeros of the Iberian Peninsula.
Speaking of the skilled use of edged weapons by outcaste and/or despised minority peoples, Jeju Island diving women (haenyeo) were also an armed disparaged cultural (perhaps ethnic) minority group under Korean Neo-Confucian patriarchal rule. They, too, possessed traditional mystical and material defensive and offensive survival strategies and stratagems and not to be underestimated by outsiders.
I personally experienced the haenyeo stink eye on several occasions during my first year of Peace Corps service on Jeju Island (1973) and on one occasion experienced their edged weapons raised against me (see my JWW essay of February 5, 2013 titled “Close Encounters of the Haenyeo Kind”). This was roughly coincidental with my touch-and-go experience with the gwangdae stink eye. In all these instances I was in the right place at the right time facing the right direction — and doing the wrong thing. My relentless impertinent curiosity in all cases made me an easy target for the stink eye. I guess I will never learn.
To any JWW reader who strongly agrees or disagrees with strong sentiments having intergroup conflict implications like “birds of a feather flock together” and to each his own”: here is an anecdote worth thinking about and discussing from Jeju Island circa 1974. It involves a gwangdae youth and a haenyeo maiden.
When I heard this story I happened to be searching for individuals of gwangdae descent on the Island. My good friend Kim Ji-hong claimed to have discovered one and arranged an interview near Shin San Village on the island. When we showed up for the interview the alleged gwangdae suddenly changed his mind. Discouraged, we headed back to Jeju City but stopped by the residence of Mr. Oh Moon-pok, an elderly gentleman with some knowledge about p’ungsu (geomancy) practices on Jeju Island. I mentioned the failed interview and he responded with this anecdote:
“As you know, the basket maker and the shell-diver are the lowest of the low: he with his twisting and twining among the rushes, and she with her poking and prying among the fishes. They are made for each other
… and surely no one else would have them!
So it was that a boy basket maker [gwangdae] and a diving girl [haenyeo] met. They vowed to begin their matrimony in a new village, posing as decent folk. A grand idea, but impossible, as their true nature eventually betrayed them.
It happened in the busy marketplace, when the two began to quarrel. One thing leading to another, and with a great crowd of their new neighbors looking on, the newlyweds came near to blows:
“Bitch!” he threatened, “I’11 thrash you with my willow branches!”
“But not before I carve you with my diving tool!” she cried.”