When October comes to Korea, elementary school students all over the country start practicing their special skills. Homeroom teachers become variety show producers, thinking of new skits and songs and dance routines for their students to produce. The halls are filled with the sounds of recorders playing folk songs ranging from old Korean standby Arirang to the more modern Edelweiss, from the Sound of Music.
My school, Soehae, was no exception. I’d heard the rumors from other schools whose festivals had gone before, but nothing could quite prepare me for the over-arching three-hour bacchanalia of cute and clever talents of kids aged five to thirteen performing on a gymnasium stage.
I went down to the gym around nine-fifteen, a few minutes before the festival was due to begin. The gymnasium had been converted to a theater, with folding chairs down both sides of a central aisle, and in the middle towards the back a platform held a camera on a tripod, and a fifth grade camera-boy, to record the whole show.
The parents were just starting to file in. As is the custom, you are not supposed to wear shoes inside a school, even if it is a gymnasium that has been worn smooth by thousands of sneakers. The parents hadn’t brought the indoor shoes, so they did the alternative: The stuck their feet in plastic baggies and tied them shut at the ankles. Imagine if you will a room full of parents shuffling around with their feet in plastic baggies. It was even odder than you’re imagining.
The show started, as it must, with a cute couple of kids welcoming the parents to the show. Then, a group of school-kids came out to play arirang on the recorder. Then, first-graders in traditional Korean outfits called Hanboks came out. They danced, and lip-synced to a Korean popular song whose lyrics were a complete mystery to me. Then, every five minutes, there was another show: third graders sat on the stage holding soda bottles containing beads; they shook them and pounded the floor in a percussion show. Then came some more third graders, all in yellow shirts and wearing faux American Indian headbands. They knocked together wooden sticks to the beat of a song I can’t remember.
For many acts, the parents moved up front, crowding the pit in front of the stage, and thrusting their cameras up to film the action. I though at some point there were more photographers than performers. I suspect the scene is familiar to anyone with kids in America.
There were no solo or duet acts. Korea isn’t big on the idea of individuals showing off, at least not at the public school level. The smallest group of kids was about six, who came out in berets and played their accordions in unison.
Meanwhile, behind the scenes, the classes lined up for their turn on the stage and frazzled teachers tried to keep the show together. It went on for about four hours, until finally, the crowd thinned out to the final sets of parents, the show closed and we all returned to our classrooms exhausted and ready to go home.
School festivals are awesome, so different from MN school festivals. (One day I’ll do a US/ ROK elementary compare and contrast entry) My schedule was rearranged for a month as each class rehearsed during 6th period for the month.) Classes were cancelled the day before the big show for dress rehearsal. All students sat in the gym and watched the dress rehearsal. It was the noisiest, most rambunctious “watching” I’ve ever seen. During the actual production the teachers were busy watching/ helping the show. Classes that weren’t on stage or in que were supervised by one teacher per floor, a 1/120 adult/ student ratio!
Most of the performances were very similar to Mike’s school festival. The big difference and most memorable was the “play” the 6th graders performed. It went from birth to death. It covered being born, first day of school, first day of middle school, studying for national exams, graduations, fun with friends, going to college (Harvard), compulsory military service, falling in love, graduation, getting married, having babies, a soju rage (professional men binge drinking and questioning the life, very existential and ugly, usually around age 60) getting old, and dying. It was awesome and the one the kids really paid attention to. Super fun, if not a little depressing.
The performances were spotless. The parents seemed pleased, and the kids had fun. None of this would have happened back home, it was strange and wonderful.