My fluency being middling and bereft of the necessary vocabulary as it is, the recent election in Korea has mostly gone way over my head. Everywhere, people speak into microphones and stare meaningfully into television cameras, and none of it makes a lick of sense, because I don’t really know any words about the economy in Korean. With that, it has become a sort of sea of unending gibberish, impassioned and grim and stern and hopeful and holding all of the emotions of mankind looking forward to building tomorrow–a beautiful orchestral piece played only on kazoos and singing saws. And it has led to a discovery:
An election, with all the icky politics removed, is pretty damned wacky.
That the ridiculous pageantry and jingoistic overzealousness combines with Korea’s already well-rooted love of pageantry and jingoism means that this is the idea of an election, crawled inside of its own butt. It has rapidly approached a kind of absurdity I thought only possible by late 19th century Frenchmen drunk on absinthe and self-satisfaction. More than that, the entire country is so drenched in it that looking out my window becomes like opening the curtains to a great, beautiful, bewildering stage.
They are, of course, talking about important things. They will form the government and decide parts of Korea’s future, and all of those critical facets and whatnots. But not being able to vote, and not being able to understand the majority of the words that they use leaves me only the role I love best: popcorn-eating, wide-eyed spectator. Each of the following observations serves not to inform, nor to give any real depiction of what modern democracy in Korea looks like. They are only to give you some indication of what watching an election underwater through a telescope while on acid might feel like.
The candidates in local election are each assigned a number and, I suppose either based on party affiliation or whatever goes best with their eyes, a colour.
Banners are made. Sashes are designed. The candidates’ volunteers and supporters wear matching, single-hued uniforms. It is a sort of children’s show gone wild and serious, and on the news, great scores of time are spent trying to take middle-aged people seriously while in bright yellow sweatsuits, surrounded by people in sashes chanting their names. A woman in her sixties has a shock of white through her regal, prim hair, and she nods seriously while talking with her constituents in a fish market. They are discussing the future of this nation, and what direction they both want it to follow. The woman is in a yellow zip-up sweatshirt and matching track pants.
Korea is a place that already loves banners, but election time is where the banner industry gets a chance to shine. Enormous signs are printed, ones that cover the sides of entire buildings, showing the faces of candidates, reminding you of their number, and giving a catchy slogan. “This time, let’s make sure to change things!” they declare. The dashing and thoroughly airbrushed faces stare down benignly at those who pass-by. When banner technology advances, they will almost certainly give you an encouraging wink.
Without understanding the actual content of the opinions being spouted, I can only intake the prosody; the message is all but lost, but the method is received loud and clear.
Small packs of canvassers lie in wait in subway stations, sandwich boards or full-body advertisements ready, and assault anyone who drifts too closely to their perimeter. If their patron is rich enough, their signs will be electric, scrawling sentence after sentence at anyone who cares to read. Posters are everywhere, in bright, attention-humping colours. Candidate trucks lurch through the streets blasting polemic music, or pop songs reworked to repeat the name which you should vote for (and their number) at a chugging, hypnotic drone. One of these trucks stops outside of my school, and when I stop to try to understand, I realize he is talking directly to the staff of the school: hey! You guys inside! You should totally vote for me! In another few minutes, he has driven on, and is shouting his next bevy at the police station.
Mobile party attack squads hit places where people are likely to be in large number with precision and deadly non-sequiturian behaviour. If you exit from a subway station in the wrong time in the wrong place, suddenly you are in the centre of a choreographed, partisan dance party, as young, starry-eyed and credulous youths gyrate and flounce about for their chosen representative. Said representative usually stands bathed in hot light in magenta or vermilion, their sweat suit clung tight against their bodies as they robotically swing their arms in grand, thumbs-up flourishes to the people. They are inviting me to be a part of them, this hive.
On the news, the dance parties are shown like an epidemic, a kind of flash mob virus with an enormous infection rate and rapid progression to terminal, political go-go dancing.
Where one group of dancing, be-sandwich-boarded posse roams, so do the others. Party vans set up on opposite sides of intersections, and twenty-somethings in colour-coded slickers hoot and heckle at the opposing forces across the street. They try to drown one another out with light and sound and conservatively hip-hop movement. If you pass through this mêlée, you will be embraced as a brother or a sister, and handed so flyers and brochures and pamphlets that your arms may ache. It does not appear to be night down here, close to the ground, close to the election. Here it is too bright.
Police meander back and forth, calling to one another to keep the peace. The various opposing sides are kept at bay only by the regular changing of the traffic light. Their fervour could, the police sense, turn to vicious warfare at any moment. Every time the light turns green, pedestrians drift from one political rally into another, and are called upon to join another, a different cause.
Candidates give speeches at one another, the great teeming sea of asphalt between them rocked by their garbled missives of hope, of horror, of the future. Their advisers give speeches. Their children give speeches. Everyone involved favours the orating style of mid-century European dictators, with heady baritone and vigorous, aggressive hand-movements. They punctuate sentences with closed fists. There is so much passion, so much virulence, so much grandeur. It is terrifying and mesmerizing. They are calling for more money for education, or maybe less. An embracing of multiculturalism, or maybe isolationism. Conservative economics. Social liberty. A shattering of the glass-ceiling. Abortions. Relations with the North. Justice. Peace, or war. The new Big Bang album. Unicorns. Rainbows. Nikon vs. Canon. Artemis, the goddess of the hunt. Grilled-cheese sandwiches.
For me, it doesn’t matter what they are talking about, or why they are dancing, or the sweatsuits, or why a man’s face as large as a military plane stares at me unblinking from most of the side of the sky-scraper across the street. It is for the Korean people to engage with on a serious, philosophical and personal level. It is for me just to gape.