Finally, after hours of late-night practice, the festival day arrived. After a brief opening ceremony, many events transpired that required explanation from some of my fellow English teachers.
In the first activity, students all gathered in the middle of the gymnasium. A statement flashed onto the screen. Two student helpers stood in the front holding up large poster board signs like college cheerleaders. One said “X” and another said “O.” Students were to decide whether a given statement was true or false.
“O-sa-sam-ee-eel,” (5-4-3-2-1), teachers counted down. A rope raised, separating students and cementing choices. The correct answer was revealed. Those who chose correctly stayed and cheered. Everyone else shook their collective heads and sat down. In a classic game of survive-and-advance, students summarily eliminated themselves until only a select handful remained. From there, the true/false questions gave way to whiteboards and markers. The students sat on the floor, writing answers to difficult questions.
Two questions later, I recognized the word “sun-sang-neem” (teacher). A student grabbed my arm and asked me to stand next to him at his whiteboard. On the microphone, a Korean English teacher looked at me and said,
“Ian. How are you liking the festival so far?”
One of the student helpers thrust a microphone into my hands. I didn’t know I was capable of sweating in such a cold gymnasium.
“Ooo-wah,” I said in my best Korean pronunciation of the word “wow.” Students cheered. “This is wonderful,” I finished, returning the microphone.
I sat down. From the context, I discovered that the student wanted me to substitute for him on the next question (the equivalent of a “celeb shot” in beer pong). I gulped when a wall of Korean text covered the screen. I only recognized two words: “United Nations” and “1946.”
“Oh well,” I thought. “Might as well have fun with it.” I tried to write Na-mak-go jo-ah-yo (Namak High School is good) in my best Hangeul to at least go out graciously.
“Ian,” the microphone-wielding English teacher said, separating me from my lamentable penmanship, “perhaps I can help you.”
She then read me the question in English (I do not remember, but the correct answer was UNICEF). I smiled and scrawled the answer in English. With a few seconds to spare, I went for bonus points, writing 유니세프. Not only did I get the question right, but the English teacher said in Korean that I had written in Korean. Students cheered. I beamed a smile of victory.
That quick victory quickly spiraled into dizzyingly rapid defeat. In the next event, I was chosen to be on a teacher jump rope team. Because of my height, they picked me to turn the rope. That was a mistake. I did my best, but we managed only three collective jumps. The other two teams managed 19 and 27 jumps respectively. I shouldered the blame, my head hung in humble shame.
Next came a bizarre ritual in which students sang songs covered head-to-toe in anonymity-cloaking clothing. A mask and robe concealed their identity. They sang nary a song I recognized, but all were beautiful nonetheless. After the performances, each student unmasked themselves to a volley of cheers from fellow students.
After that, students and teachers engaged in small competitions. Students asked me beforehand if I would be willing to participate in a lemon-eating contest. I agreed, knowing full-well that my job was to entertain students and speak English. What I didn’t realize was how easy it would actually be. I wolfed down the lemon like it was a ripe orange and then clapped and encouraged my opponent for another 30 seconds. I almost felt bad. Almost.
Next, some students came up to perform impressions of their teachers. Although I knew very little about the teachers represented except two English teachers (whose impressions were spot on), it was a riot. Teachers even came up to speak. In turn, the student-comedians would imitate them.
Next came the talent show portion (at this point the show had lasted several hours and was still approaching the halfway point). I smiled seeing students I see on a weekly basis showing off their singing and dancing talents. One girl who frequently uses her ear-piercing squawky voice to quiet chatty students sang in mellow tones that completely floored me. Another small passel of boys danced to a BTS song (a popular Korean boy band). Seeing these performances in action finally helped me understand why so many of my classes requested practice time. It looked like a ton of work.
Finally, after a hasty dinner, class performances commenced. First came the first graders who all performed choral song-and-dance routines. One-by-one, classes paraded and performed in their matching full school uniforms. I was impressed by the sheer number of English songs they sang. Each of them sung at least one. Some sang more. One class did a whole medley of songs from Frozen (many students love Frozen).
It’s strange. When I speak to students individually their strong accents are unmistakable. However, as a group, their aggregate sound is far more native-like. I feel the same way about British songwriters. I can’t always discern their English accent by listening to their singing alone.
Then came the second-grade musicals. I barely understood their content (one was about some kind of secret iPad and I think another one had deep themes of marriage and unrequited paternal love). Nonetheless, the dancing was fantastic and the splicing of music, dance, sound effects, and pre-recorded dialogues was quite novel to me. I performed my bit part as a mirror brilliantly. Many students laughed as my pre-recorded voice blared through the speakers. I expect my Korean Tony Award in the mail any minute now.
By 9:45, the performances concluded for the day and I returned home. My mind was still stuck in a day-ahead fugue and I dreamed of sleeping in tomorrow.
Instead, I awoke at 4:45 ready to hit the gym and, afterward, my dance moves.
At school, 9:00 to 12:00 was a blocked off for student festival “stands”. Students made over their classrooms to provide activities, food, drinks, arts, and crafts for a nominal fee. Many students loved my willingness to participate. I accomplished more than I wanted to. I made a dream catcher, unwittingly drank a cup of soy sauce, touched raw octopus through a secret box, took my Christmas card photo (one of my Facebook profile pictures), enjoyed a traditional Korean pancake, took a virtual reality trip through a haunted house (critiquing my character’s choices the whole time), and took a picture next to a zombie. I knocked out much of my Korean bucket list in a single morning.
After a brief lunch, the final stretch of the festival commenced. I was floored by the talents of some of my students. Some sang. Others danced. Musical talents included the violin, piano, flute, acoustic guitars, electric guitars, and even a cello. One teacher commented about the prevalence of music education in many Koren children’s lives. I believed her instantly.
Our dance was scheduled for the last performance. A fellow teacher tapped me on the shoulder and told me to follow her. It was showtime. I put on my dancing shoes and matching sweatshirt, waited in line, heard the first note of our song, took three steps out on stage, and blacked out. I descended into pure presence, muscle memory guiding me like a skilled dancer guides a woman across the dancefloor.
When I came to, students were screaming with cheer. I guess we did well. I high-fived so many teachers and students that my hand ached. It was an exhilarating feeling that only compared to the dance I performed with my fellow Sigma Alpha Epsilon pledges at Willamette University. Unfettered flow and ecstasy overtook me.
The concluding hour of the festival made my eyes glaze over from confusion. Fatigue didn’t help either. There was a bizarre series of mini-skits that seemed part fashion show, part dance routine, and part drama. One well-dressed boy fake-proposed to another boy dressed in wedding drag. A group of troll-doll-hair-looking students performed a skit about a motorcycle gang.
After these strange skits, an even stranger event ensued. Male teachers walked hand-in-hand with female students dressed in hanbok (traditional Korean clothing), bowed to the crowd, and then left abruptly. That’s not the first culturally-accepted thing I’ve seen that would draw a “sus” label at most American public schools.
A gym teacher did the same with our principal. Finally, after some concluding remarks from the principal (ending with what I think means “I love you all”), the festival concluded. Students filed out of the gymnasium and my head was left swirling in a maelstrom of different emotions:
- Utter confusion from what I just witnessed in the last hour.
- Happiness from the joy of slaying our dance performance. All those hours of practice paid off.
- Nostalgia from my own experiences at high school dances and pep rallies.
- Homesickness knowing that Christmas was only three days away and I would be spending it away from family.
- Brain fog from relative sleep deprivation (5-6 hours isn’t terrible, but not my norm).
Regardless, as I helped clean the auditorium for the last 15 minutes of my day, teachers and students, and my vice-principal alike all wished me “Merry Christmas.” In those moments my conflicting emotions vaporized. A eudaimonic bliss flooded into its place that produced nothing but smiles. I may not understand everything happening around me. I may not always feel comfortable. I may not always feel unencumbered joy. It doesn’t matter. My heart is full.
We made quite the entertaining dance crew. We killed it and I had an awesome time.
I think this piece speaks to the brevity of life that we must appreciate. Even mantises find time to get married.
My school’s super beautiful principal gave a beautiful concluding speech.
Coming Soon: Haribo Vol. 3 by Gummy Bear Gang featuring their hit new singles “Too Sweet to Handle Me” and “Chewy Chewy.”
This is an example of the strangeness I witnessed during the “craft fair” part of the festival. It was an awesome time despite it being on a sleep-deprived Friday morning.