Jaha Koo sitting next to three rice cookers.

The inherited roles that drive us cuckoo

Alienation and national identity are strong themes in Jaha Koo’s play Cuckoo. Jaha Koo is a multimedia artist who mixes performance art, self-composed music, video art, texts and installations packaged in a personal narrative approach. Cuckoo will have its Finnish premiere at Hangö Teaterträff on Saturday, 10 June, at 8pm in Hankoniemen lukio.

Cuckoo is a multimedial performance that includes, among other things, an installation of talking rice cookers. Everyone in South Korea has a rice cooker and the Cuckoo brand has become synonymous with rice cookers in general. Just as we in Finland see Fiskars scissors and think back to the longing look we as children aimed at the big orange adult scissors instead of the uncomfortable paper scissors, South Koreans see their Cuckoo rice cookers as a direct link to their food culture and way of life.

During the performance, Koo has three rice cookers of different models in a row. The first and oldest model can “only” cook rice and give an unassuming ping when the rice is ready, while the second model, placed in the middle, can talk and considers itself the smartest, although it doesn’t cook rice very well. The newest rice cooker has a flashy digital screen that shows hearts and smiley faces, but it doesn’t cook rice well at all due to all the extra features that have been developed since the basic model. The two talkative rice cookers argue with each other and have different ideas on how rice cookers should be viewed. The whole thing can be likened to a rice cooker family reunion – you know those family reunions where people don’t get along at all and someone throws up in a bush outside the hastily thrown up tent, someone brings up old traumas and everything is then lined up to be photographed for social media. The elderly must be respected while the middle-aged throw pie at the younger generations. All in a mixture of willingness to understand. My thoughts immediately turn to generationally inherited traumas and how our identities are shaped by trauma-filled roles. Gender studies writer Judith Butler’s well-known theory that we mimic a role that has been modelled on another mimicked role can be applied here. That we don’t automatically have the identity we have, but take on personality traits based on consciously developed societal expectations, where our environment and family have a big hand in the role play. When we are unable to fulfil the expectations and gender roles that are imposed on us from a societal perspective, it leads to alienation and loneliness.

Alienation from the economy’s handshakes

One of the biggest themes of the performance is alienation, especially the loneliness that has resulted from national economic crises. In 1997, many Asian countries were in deep economic trouble, and South Korea, Thailand and Indonesia received a $50 billion bailout package from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in order to stabilise the value of their currencies. This, however, also meant that South Korea’s national economy passed into the legal hands of the IMF. Images emerge of the IMF’s board (consisting, of course, of white American directors) shaking hands with South Korea’s leader. The white saviour comes running in with a hell of a lot of money and the country declares that 21 November 1997 is National Humiliation Day.

Other countries in our recent history have also received multi-billion dollar bailout packages, Greece being a more recent example. However, Greece’s financial support has not been referred to in the media as a “bailout package”, but rather as an “aid package”. Perhaps because Greece belongs to the EU and was not bought out in the same post-colonial sense, precisely because it is not possible for a country like Greece. The different names of these packages bring with them different types of debt that cannot ever be repaid. Such “rescue packages” are only given to countries with a non-Western cultural status, who are then made to feel ashamed for screwing up their economy by the standards set by the West. In plain language, this is about a white gaze that controls who can be part of various economic coalitions. What this leads to is that the debt of gratitude falls ever more heavily on the individual at the grassroots level.

According to economist Thomas Piketty, after the crises of the 1980s and 1990s around the world, issues of identity in relation to one’s own country’s economy deepened, while the critique of wealth was generally silenced. The values and the role imposed on citizens were that they should save the economy again by working up to the level they are supposed to be on. The whole concept is shouldered by people in the working and middle classes. They have no choice but to take on the role of making up for an identity debt that will never, ever end until everyone higher in the hierarchy around them loosens their grip on that view. Being born into a society after major economic crises implies a natural role of taking on work to survive, so that the society will survive.

I was born just after the early 1990s depression in Finland, but all I’ve read and heard is that it meant rebuilding afterwards. South Korea’s crisis was more costly than Finland’s, and the aftermath can be reflected in the generations that grew up in its afterquakes. I mentioned the rice cooker family reunion earlier and started thinking about a friend from a village in Western Uusimaa. Like me, they are one of “laman lapset”, children affected by the early ‘90s depression. Their surname was known for having many alcoholics several generations back, a role they took on in their teens by being the most wasted at home parties. Their parents were working class and had a culture of silence around the traumas of the past. In the end, my friend was so exhausted that, in their delirium, they tried to commit suicide. These inherited roles that people take on both voluntarily and involuntarily can cause so much psychological stress that there is no way out of the role because it is the only role offered.

The bailout package that shaped South Korea’s entire identity lives on and is inherited. The extreme work ethic and strict adherence to family values of the working and lower middle classes goes so far that death feels like the only salvation when there is no way out. In the shoes you have to fill, a rice cooker’s screen may be the only one you communicate with. Instead of solving the mental crises going on all around, the taboos are pushed harder. People face the roles that are imposed on them alone, and these roles do more harm than good. As noted earlier, the way in which expectations arise can be a result of national economic crises, where the expectation of maintaining patriarchal gender roles becomes even more evident. When this burden becomes too heavy to bear, the self is driven to alienated places away from the environment. The individual is instead chased into spaces where the only thing left is apathy.

The balustrades of loneliness

Jaha Koo describes the feeling of loneliness’s apathetic last stop through a metaphor of physical places. Every 37 minutes there is a suicide in South Korea. I googled that South Korea has the fourth highest number of suicides per 100,000 people, with Finland sharing 24th place with Japan. The fourth act of Cuckoo is called Jerry and deals with Koo’s personal processing of his friend Jerry’s suicide. In an emotional outburst, Jerry had run out onto the balcony, climbed the railing and, in his hopelessness, jumped. The intermediate step between standing firmly on the balcony and then standing in complete solitude on the railing about to die, a physical place driven by emotion.

As one of the children affected by the ‘90s depression, I recognise the in-betweenness represented by the balustrade. Standing as a Finn in the dirty shell suits of history and, at the same time, leaning towards the clothing brands of large companies, for example. Koo describes the balustrade’s space with a kind of black humour that brings the audience into a collective alienation. It reminds me of one of the first Finnish novels I read, Arto Paasilinna’s Hurmaava joukkoitsemurha (A Charming Mass Suicide). The main character sends in a newspaper advert looking for people who want to commit suicide together, after which all the suicidal people are picked up by bus from all over Finland. Most are lonely, excluded from society, old, sick or just resentful of the role they have been forced into. The difference between Paasilinna’s novel and the reality portrayed by Koo’s performance is that no bus will ever pick up the alienated in-betweeners. The promised rescue is more of a hindrance than a ride to the next bus stop. The collective traumas, racism from the West and narrow roles drive people into these physical places of apathy.

A list of countries that are “cuckoo in the head”

The performance’s name, Cuckoo, refers at first glance to the rice cookers, but the possibilities for interpretation are of course broader than that. Cuckoos are also birds, the ones whose calls often sound the same as their name. The onomatopoeic word cuckoo is also often used in a slightly humorous, derogatory tone, such as having gone cuckoo. The term is widely used, and in pop culture and older animated films, cuckoos and their sounds are often used to symbolise when a character is physically unwell, misbehaving or mentally ill. Anyone who has seen Donald Duck or any older Disney short film will instantly recognise this slapstick approach to ridiculing mental illness. Ken Kesey’s novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and the even more famous film adaptation starring Jack Nicholson are set in a psychiatric ward. When I was growing up, the Ostrobothnian variant “kokko i hovo” (cuckoo in the head) was often used to describe someone in a derogatory way. Kokko is also a giant eagle in Finland’s national epic Kalevala, a bird whose mood can change quickly from friendly and helpful to becoming the characters’ biggest antagonist. There are even more interpretations of the show’s name and its links to the ridicule of people with mental illness.

I’ve often heard that Finland has the highest suicide rates in the world. I’d heard it repeated so many times during my teenage years that I always thought it was true. Only now, after having seen Cuckoo and checking said list, do I realise that Finland is as low as the 24th. Probably because old statistics have been repeated for years during preventive school lectures. These lists also feed into the national identity of countries, which also explains why I’ve been stuck with the idea that Finland’s statistics are higher than they actually are. However, several articles from recent years describe how suicides in Finland have decreased since the 1990s. According to Yle, talking more about previously taboo subjects such as mental illness has become more common, and young people pluck up the courage to take sick leave from work more than previous generations did. However, rehabilitation for mental illness and municipal care for addicts, for example, is a big black hole in Finland’s health care system. Finland still tops the statistics for drug-related deaths in Europe.

There are many factors that influence countries’ suicide statistics. The fact that one person every 37 minutes commits suicide in South Korea is partly based on the fact that mental health is taboo to talk about, but also strongly influenced by age discrimination in the labour market. The incidence of suicide among older people is sky-high because older people do not want to be a financial burden on their families. In addition, the safety net for older low-income people is fatally flawed in South Korea. The pace of work and the burden of maintaining both personal and state finances are not commensurate with the stamina a person can maintain. People over 50 are being pushed out of the labour market and left to the support of their families, with young men now taking on the role of financial head of the family. Again, strict roles upon roles upon roles that are placed on the individual to maintain. All so that the country’s economy is not seen to collapse.

Comical rice cookers?

The evolution of the rice cookers from simply cooking rice to now displaying hearts on a screen while cooking rice also reflects the societal evolution Koo depicts. Expectations build up over time. We must turn away from our empathetic ability and become so efficient in our work that we lose our will to live. Responsibility is placed on the individual rather than on collective solutions. Even alienation becomes a fact of life in a hectic machine. The roles we are assigned are based on a rice cooker that is based on a rice cooker that came from a previous rice cooker. A role that was created out of a collective survival but has now turned into an individual-based struggle that is turned away from the borderline national idea from which the role originally came. The white gaze that finds singing and talking rice cookers funny gets caught with laughter in its throat when it realises what the role is. What was initially comical about a talking rice cooker gradually becomes more thought-provoking.

Rosanna Fellman is a writer, poet, and activist. Fellman is a columnist for Ny tid and has worked for several Swedish and Finnish magazines. Raised in Jakobstad, she now lives in Helsinki.