Figure 1: Irresistible? Through the Ages the singing swan resides in a pool of tranquility. Behold the design perfection of the venerable Jew’s harp.

Figure 1: Irresistible? Through the Ages the singing swan resides in a pool of tranquility. Behold the design perfection of the venerable Jew’s harp.


Indulge me. Keeping in mind that censorship of the mail in Korea was rife along with a bit of corruption in 1973/1974, what do you imagine were the odds that a letter — much less a package — from the United States would reach the hands of a Peace Corps Volunteer on Jeju Island intact? The correct answer is “zero.” Ask any Volunteer serving on the island in those days: The odds were better  that a Tyrannosaurus Rex chasing a leprechaun on a snowy day in August would collide with a public bus carrying the Pope.

In my experience not only did every letter I received at my work address over a two year period arrive at my desk with the envelope unsealed and the stamps torn off, but a package my Mom sent me for Christmas containing a Jew’s harp got “lost” for about three months after arriving on the island.

I am not pointing fingers here, but if you 1) worked as a customs clerk for low pay back in the day and 2) opened up a small, secured box addressed to an American that was packed with unshelled peanuts and assorted small, soft condiments inserted to protect a shiny, new, Jew’s harp, and 3) if you had never seen or held in the palm of your hand a magical-looking  Jew’s harp in your entire lifetime, then 4) you might just go temporarily insane and be tempted to make that Jew’s harp your own by hook or by crook. That is my theory about what happened to my wayward Jew’s harp around Christmas-time in 1973.

The Jew’s harp may be the earliest musical instrument devised by humankind. Its design has cosmic perfection.  It is a magico-religious instrument in some quarters of the world even today, and this was most probably so at the onset of human civilization.

The ancient ancestors of Chinese, Russian and Japanese peoples manufactured and played the Jew’s harp. Did Koreans do likewise in past times? I don’t know — but I recently heard the tune “Arirang” played on a Siberian Yakut’s Jew’s harp by a Vietnamese musician. It was spellbinding.  Anyway, I doubt that my own Jew’s harp in 1973 was the first one ever to reach Jeju Island — but it may have been.

It is rumored that there are over 1,000 names for the Jew’s harp worldwide at present, with “Jew’s harp” being the most popular phrase in the English-language to describe the venerable instrument. There are heated debates about how this tiny instrument, alternatively called “jaw harp” and “juice harp” in English, got its name.

But I’ve digressed too far here from the story at hand, which is my tale of woe and worry over the Jew’s harp sent to me by my Mom around Christmas in 1973 that mysteriously went missing. Once I knew that it had been mailed from the U.S. and was overdue I mindlessly filed a formal complaint with the Jeju City Post Office. This was a mistake I will forever regret.

I reported that I had received an opened package full of loose peanuts in the shell, small soft candies, and gum — but no Jew’s harp. Then I had to describe the missing item. This part was not easy, for I had not seen the actual harp that was sent. I tried to draw a picture that represented a Jew’s harp, but failed miserably. I attempted to describe a generic Jew’s harp in English to the postal clerks, but no one in the post office was adept at English. The office manager took the opportunity at that juncture to ask me if I could come to the post office a few evenings every week to teach his staff English. Meanwhile, everybody was terribly confused. I grew frustrated then angry and finally left and spent the rest of the day grousing in a makgeolli hut.

A week went by as I searched libraries on the island for a photo of a Jew’s harp. Alas, there was no Internet at that time. Finally I remembered that there was a big dictionary in my Volunteer book locker. Therein I found a small but expert drawing of a Jew’s harp. I took the dictionary back to the post office. They insisted on keeping it. My cynical thought at the time was “I bet they lose this dictionary too!” Obviously, I was getting paranoid and making much ado about nothing. Would that I could, I would turn back the clock and never file my missing mail complaint with the post office in the first place.

About three months went by. One morning I came to work and found the missing Jew’s harp on my desk. There was no note attached. There was no explanation. None of my co-workers would look me in the eye that day. But eventually, everything at work returned to normal. I thought long and hard for many weeks thereafter about the entire situation. Whereas the American-in-me wanted to shout aloud “Yes! Yes! Victory at last!” on that morning when the Jew’s harp finally appeared, I did not succumb to gloating. Already by that time I had grasped that there was absolutely no victory to be earned through filing an official complaint in Korea in order to successfully solve The Mystery of My Missing Jew’s Harp.

The stakes — a silly Jew’s harp — were too small. My complaint was culturally-insensitive and served only to trigger embarrassment for my school and the post office. Given those anxious times in Korea, with the KCIA about and all, my official complaint may have even resulted in some physical and emotional suffering to persons unknown during the investigation process. In the aftermath I tried to play that Jew’s harp but the sound was never sweet, and the harp always left a bitter taste in my mouth. I even chipped a tooth. The device had become a monkey’s paw. I finally gave it to a shoeshine boy down on Chilsong-ro.

Speaking of leprechauns, I would not be surprised if the little buggers inhabit Jeju Island, though as yet undetected. The conditions are perfect: Jeju Island as is well known is a smaller version of Ireland, where leprechaun sightings are frequent.

Figure 2: Dry (mortar-less) stone wall construction is ubiquitous in Western Ireland (left) and on Jeju Island (right).

Figure 2: Dry (mortar-less) stone wall construction is ubiquitous in Western Ireland (left) and on Jeju Island (right).

Irish priests and nuns assigned to Jeju Island during the many decades following the Korean War have often remarked in print on the similarities between rural Ireland and Jeju Island. In both the West of Ireland and on Jeju Island farmers over the centuries have pried boulders from the surface and fashioned boundary fences and windbreaks from them. Archaeologists claim that dry stone wall constructions on the Emerald Isle date from almost 6,000 years ago. Both of these beautiful places have traditionally featured, both seaside and inland, bucolic and peaceful panoramas of cultural landscapes with long, low stone walls enclosing productive pastures and tilled fields, all centering on scattered stone-walled households, isolated hamlets and villages. Personally, I never encountered a leprechaun on the island during my Peace Corps service. But who knows, perhaps more recently some prescient Irish priest in anticipation of loneliness has arrived to Jeju Island facing his his long assignment with a leprechaun concealed up his pant leg?

Returning to the topic of the postal service on Jeju Island at the time of my Peace Corps adventures:  Had anyone back in the U.S. addressed a letter to me and written “Jeju Ireland” instead of “Jeju Island,” I am certain that nobody — not even those notorious sharp-eyed censors in the employ of the Korean government — would have noticed or objected.

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