Most English teachers in Korea have a pretty sweet deal. We were given a big pile of money and a free plane ticket and were shuttled around the world to live in cushy, if lilliputian, apartments covered by our schools. We’re generally treated pretty well. And every now and then, the government likes to show us off in one way or another, usually in Hanbok or grinning toothily over mounds of Korean food. I usually find it distasteful being treated like a prize talking monkey, or made to stand around for absurd amounts of group photos of smiling white and brown faces, but I bite my tongue. However, the Incheon board has also decided, for whatever reason, to host a bi-annual festival of weirdness especially for English teachers, ones so bizarre and inexplicable so as to ameliorate the luridness of being treated like a big zoo animal.
The official letter came down, inviting the whole lot of us out for what was described as an “island tour” and a chance to meet the mayor. Usually I would skirt away from such masturbatory glad-handing circuses, but the itinerary seemed familiar. Last Halloween, most of the English teachers were summoned to the English Village (think a really big, weird, English camp in the middle of nowhere) for barbecue, weird music, the mayor, and free money. There was no money this time, but the prospect of a half-day off with everyone I know seemed enticing.
I jetted to City Hall, and quickly ascended onto my bus. Hundreds of foreign teachers were there, 8 coach buses were fully stocked with us. Flitting about us like harried, delicate hummingbirds were our Korean handlers, the suckers with Good Enough English. Their task for the day was herding the waygooks around to make sure we didn’t fall overboard or get lost in the woods. Our shepherd was a tiny, trembling Korean woman who worked regularly at the English Village, who apologized repeatedly for her English and did everything to rush through any large group interactions so she could sit down and shy from the spotlight. She was thrown onto our bus, handed and itinerary, told to translate, and away we went.
Soon we arrived at a pier, and stood around. There was actual, real sunlight on a weekday, and we were allowed to bask in it. I spied people I hadn’t seen in weeks or months, all of them dressed in their school finery with name placards dangling around their necks. (On another note: some peoples’ school finery is… not particularly fine.) It was like orientation all-over again, with none of the lectures or introductory conversations.
As we approached the boat, I noticed several pallid white people doling out bags of snacks. The men in flouncy v-necks down to their belly-buttons, the women in flowy skirts with flowers in their hair. Their cheekbones were high, their skin the kind that would flush the local Koreans with paleness-envy, their cadence distinctly foreign. I was confused, and hopeful. “Are they Russian?” I inquired to everyone around me, with growing agitation audible in my voice. My excitement built: a day that starts with Eastern-European immigrants in Korea handing me a bag with juiceboxes and rice-cake is only going to get progressively less connected with reality.
Soon we were sitting in the vast, cramped auditorium in the belly of the ferry, as various speeches were made, often entirely in Korean. Cameras were everywhere. We reached into our snack-baggies and watched while various traditional Korean dances were performed in about 10 square-feet of space. Women in soft, delicate hanbok flew around with fans, and later another woman sprang about the room ripping mask after mask off of her face. Whoever looked most particularly rapt by the Traditional Korean Culture was captured and immortalized for whatever website or re-election campaign this was all directed towards.
While exchanging juice-boxes with one another, the Eastern-Europeans returned. Without a single utterance in English, the MC told us in Korean that these were Ukranian salsa-dancers, and they flew forward and began their routine. Unbalanced in terms of gender, two of the extra women flounced about in the background pathetically, while the others were hoisted and thrown centimetres from the hilariously low and ill-equipped ferry ceiling. As soon as they were finished, two more oddities appeared, and the MC made, as far as I could translate, some sort of jab about their foreign heritage. These were two shirtless, be-spandexed Chinese guys, one with possibly the greatest mullet in Asia, who proceeded to flex and hop about one another acrobatically. And vaguely homoerotically. Occasionally they would stop and give intense eyes to one another, or to the audience, or to the world.
We took to the back of the boat and rid ourselves of the ddeok by feeding the trailing seagulls, and soon-after arrived at the island. The tour consisted of the following: EVERYONE GET OFF THE BOAT GO HERE NO DON’T GO DOWN THAT PATH IT’S BLOCKED DON’T TAKE PICTURES OF NORTH KOREA EXPLORE ISLAND YOU HAVE 15 MINUTES. As most excursions organized by the government for us tend to be like.
In moments we were corralled once more onto our pen and answered Korean trivia for prizes, and sang large, awkward group renditions of 아리랑. And then suddenly once more, we were on land, in our buses, headed off for the English village. For whatever reason, my bus was the only one that took a sudden, unexplained detour to Songdo to pick up several elderly white people. No one ever explained who these people were, why we drove 45 minutes in the wrong direction to fetch them, or why they were of such critical importance.
When we arrived, most of the food was already eaten, and thus I became a giant sour-puss and raided whatever remained with a nasty grimace. I was even angry about the free beer (though mostly because the lines filled up with jerks getting several cups at once, pushing us into the half-hour-of-queuing zone of horror). Really, I was put into a funk, until my fondest memory from the previous Day of Weird relived itself.
The previous excursion, the hostess sent up on the stage spent the majority of her time muttering into her microphone in mangled English, begging us over and over again to move into the centre of the giant soccer field to begin dancing and being photogenically happy about Incheon. She took up once again, pleading with us repeatedly to begin with the merriment, to join in singing, to start dancing. Her narration was constant, hilarious stream of party-boosting consciousness. When a Korean cover band took the stage, she uttered, “What a great and hot performance!” Later: “Wow, they are really pumping up the vibes in here!” Still later, to us: “Everybody dance! Everybody dance, now. Wow, they’re really burning up a dance floor!”
Eventually, someone did take the dance floor, and in time for that, bubble machines were switchedon, and giant streamers fired into the air. We couldn’t resist but to embrace the weird. And so, as the sun set, I hung out in the middle of a soccer field with my foreign friends in Korea, covered in confetti and the slime detritus of popped bubbles, making happy faces for the dozens of Koreans behind the dozens of lenses aimed squarely for us. Because sometimes my life doesn’t need to make sense anymore.