Okay, that was awful. I know. I'm not the first one to make that pun, either. And that's just my point.
Maybe it's the fact that I'm living in Korea's capital city. For the previous two years I was in the hinterlands. I was way down on the islands in 2008-2009, about as far from Seoul culturally as I was geographically. And in 2012 I was in Bucheon, which, even if it is part of the greater metropolitan area (barely), hardly counts as part of the big city. It was relatively quiet, laid-back and dull compared to this hoppin' metropolis.
Seems like everywhere I go in this town, every corner I turn, every street I walk down, every new neighborhood I explore, every event I attend, a new and surprising part of the Korean way of life jumps up and punches me in the nose.
Take the Sejong University Festival, for instance.
Technically it lasted from Tuesday to Thursday, May 14-16. I didn't get much of a glimpse on Tuesday because I had class all day, and I don't have any classes on Wednesday, so I wasn't even on campus. Thursday was my last shot. So after I finished up at two o'clock, I strolled around and snapped some photos.
My friend and coworker Sam and his wife JB (whom I mentioned in my last post) invited Miss H and I to come back to campus at 9:00 and view the proceedings then. I didn't figure there'd be an appreciable difference, but I agreed. My girlfriend and I duly arrived at the appointed hour—halfway through it, anyway—and took a look around.
BOY, was there an appreciable difference.
Those awnings and tents that I had seen being set up earlier were packed with people—students. Soju, beer and cocktails flowed freely. Barbecue lines were everywhere. Snacks of every description were being fried and served to groups and couples at plastic chairs and tables. A famous female K-pop group was performing at the live stage in the middle of the dirt pitch, and dance music thumped from every speaker and amp on campus. Students danced in the streets and under the incandescent lights. Shouts, screams, and roars of laughter echoed and bounded from every darkened window and building. I tried to snap a few pictures, but nothing could encompass the joyous chaos. I'll leave that to your imagination. Sam, JB, Miss H and I sat and nibbled on fries for time, shooting soju, sipping beer from Dixie cups and taking the occasional gulp of baekseju, a Korean wine somewhere between potpourri and cough syrup. Then we got up and wandered around, snacking on chicken kebabs and having conversation when the noise level abated enough for us to be audible. We didn't stay on campus long, but we stayed long enough.
I remember being struck most of all by a feeling of gratitude. After riding my students like a slave master for nearly three months solid, it was nice to see them kicking back before a long four-day weekend. (I bumped into two of them during our wanderings through campus, and they looked like they were having fun.) But most of all, I was awed by the difference in the atmosphere. By day, Sejong University was a somber, venerable educational institution. During these few nights of festival week, however, it had donned a lighthearted and jovial guise, absolutely riotous, star-spangled and comical, infectious in its enthusiasm. A question occurred to me as we weaved through the happy milling crowd.
"Sam," I said, "what exactly is the point of this festival?"
This wasn't his first rodeo.
"It's like spring break," he replied, "but they don't go anywhere."
Well, there you have it. This was the Korean equivalent of spring break. With classes still on and nowhere to go, they threw a party on their school's own grounds. No wonder they were so enraptured. The weather had just turned lovely, the leaves were green and the flowers in bloom, summer was right around the corner, midterms were over and all was right with the world. I was catching a glimpse into a rare sight: Korean students kicking back in grand fashion during a lull in the academic war they'd been waging since grade school.
I felt ever so privileged to have that glimpse.