Of the things that Korea has adopted from the West, I remain surprised they haven’t latched on to Halloween. For one, they are a country that loves cute things, and an entire holiday dedicated to dressing up, often as cute things, should be right up their alley. They love gift giving, and they love candy. The influx of Westerners, and their awareness of Western culture, means that many Koreans are nominally knowledgeable about what Halloween is. So why haven’t they jumped in on this, the greatest of candy-gathering holidays?
I think a lot of it has to do with the culture of humility and conformity. As I’ve said before, and as anyone can tell you, Korea is highly homogeneous. It’s communalist, too, and its rapid growth over a very short period since the Korean war means it still relies heavily on some pre-industrial emphasis on conformity it hasn’t had time to shed yet. At the same time, the people here also have an obsession with presentation, with looking good all the time. In other words, people like to stick out, but they don’t want to stick out too much, because people will and do judge you based on your outward appearance.
I wondered, at first, whether we would find much to do on Halloween. But given the number of Westerners in both Seoul and Incheon, it was not difficult to track down some Halloween parties. Indeed, there were some occurring every day of the weekend approaching Halloween, and all of my expat friends descended into a tizzy. Could we even acquire costumes in this country? At what cost? Would we have to get a train to Busan just to dress up as Spiderman and Sexy Postal Worker?
The situation was far less dire, and we managed to track down a place in Incheon that sold some actually moderately entertaining costumes. Without much of an idea, I entered, found a Batman cape, and decided I could alter it to a costume I desired (a Ravenclaw, a reference already too nerdy for most of the Westerners, and largely incomprehensible to most Koreans, who still made a go of it, and would should, “Harry Pottuh!”). My friends grabbed wigs, plastic weapons, cloaks, and make-up, and we set about the process.
My Korean coworkers and friends began expressing their curiosities casually, surreptitiously. They asked if Halloween was coming up, and then later, if I was going to do anything about it. They encouraged me to bring candy and celebrate ostentatiously. A co-teacher, after a little bit of prodding, began asking if I knew of any Halloween parties locally that she could attend. Others asked me to include some material in class. And finally, some of my Korean friends began planning their own costumes so that they could come with us.
We met in our neighbourhood on the Saturday to head out to Hongdae, Seoul (an area near Hongik University, well-known as basically a den of waygooks and relentless partying), me in my Harry Potter get-up, and two Western friends as a ninja and Barrack Obama. Our Korean friend, who lived nearby, met us and was more sheepish than I had ever seen her.
“I’m kind of embarrassed. Everyone is looking at me!” Indeed, this was not something she was to before, and as we walked down the streets, people naturally turned to gawk. Understandably so: not only were there three foreigners walking about, but now we had dressed ourselves in some bizarre get-ups and were stomping about as though nothing was amiss.
As we got on the subway for the long ride into Seoul, we were joined by some other friends: Superman, a giant monkey, and 2/4 of the Beatles. Our presence was even more noticeable than a small gang of waygooks usually commands, as people did enormous, and humorous, double takes at our presence. We began to ham it up, Superman leaping from each train as we prepared to transfer, the monkey playing dolefully with his tail, me occasionally flourishing a wand. Entire crowds were seemingly buffeted back by the oddity, recoiling but also unable to look away.
Upon entering Hongdae, it became interesting to see the dividing lines between locals and the foreigners. Almost every Westerner was in costume: Jersey Shore denizens roamed orangely in the night, a battalion of zombies staggered through the streets pretending to bite onlookers, and a cadre of Care Bears gamboled on by, chests alight with their radioactive Care Bear stares.
Koreans flocked from all corners to take pictures, some peeling down the street, cameras aloft, asking politely if they could just be next to Superman in a photo for a while. Twenty-somethings screamed “O-ba-ma!!!” from other sidewalks, and in bars and outside, attention was coming from all directions. When we walked into bars en masse, it was to rapturous, appreciative, bewildering applause.
Some Koreans did dress up, but usually they were of the “put on some bunny-ears headbands” sort of costumes. If a Korean did fully dress up, they were typically an English teacher, out for a night with their posse of foreign friends. Mostly, the Koreans we encountered just wanted to be in a picture, or to talk to us for a while.
So why don’t they join in? I can’t generalize, and I don’t know enough Koreans to really dig down in a solid statistical sample, but my impression is that the desire to stick out that obviously is not common here. As westerners, we don’t mind appearing boorish and bizarre in a giant spotlight (occasionally), and at least on Halloween, we actively covet it. A culture of individualism breeds us with some degree of comfort with extroversion and sticking out. In Korea, it seems like a lot of people desire to be standing next to someone in the spotlight for a little while for a picture or a conversation; they want to be spotlight adjacent.