Oh, boy. This is embarrassing. I remember saying in my last post I would write another the following week. That was five months ago now. What happened? I actually moved to South Korea and now I’m living and working here as an English teacher, though hopefully I can someday move on to something a little more specialised. We’ll see. In any case my last story got a lot of great feedback and it seems I owe you all a new story. I know I said this before, but I swear to you I will try my utmost to post these more frequently as things have settled down in my life to some degree. Without further ado . . .
*This story contains references to alcohol consumption*
This story comes from the year 2012 when I was studying in Seoul . . .
Anyone who tells you that you can learn a language by going to another country for a prolonged period and simply “pick it up” passively, has either never studied a language before, lived in a place where absolutely no one spoke their first language and thus were forced to adapt, or is some kind of linguistic wunderkind whose brain was specifically designed for language acquisition (i.e. not myself). This is what I found out when in 2012 I headed back to South Korea for the third time, this time as an exchange student at Yonsei University in Seoul. It was to be the third year of my East Asian Studies honours degree which required me to have at least intermediate proficiency in the Korean language in order for me to graduate. At the time I was a beginner and I hoped that studying at Yonsei would give me an edge and allow me to improve by leaps and bounds.
Korean was the first language I made a serious attempt to learn and I quickly found that language learning was a totally different beast than history or culture. My first attempt at a Korean class had me dropping the course half way through and the second attempt had me squeaking by with a 57%, enough to earn the credit but not enough to move up to the next level. I decided to spend a full academic year at Yonsei in the hope I could leave an intermediate speaker and test up into the next level of Korean, and maybe even continue to raise my level to advanced back in Toronto.
Suffice to say it didn’t quite work out like that. I had dreams of making strong bonds with Korean students and taking intensive Korean courses that would help immerse me in my surroundings. I was going to give it my all, no matter what and come back better then ever. The reality ended up being considerably less impressive. It turned out that at Yonsei the majority of the exchange students went to live in one of the two international dorms which were right next to each other, and those who could not speak Korean did most of their cultural and history courses in special exchange classes held in a building across the courtyard from the dorms. The Korean language classes were all held in a building across from that, forming a triangle, tucked away in the north-eastern corner of the campus.
Not only were we geographically isolated, but many of the Korean students understandably did not speak English at a very advanced level and many were reluctant to speak to the foreign students because of this. If you weren’t at least somewhat fluent in Korean, your best bet for meeting Korean students who would be willing to talk with you, save for accosting people on the street, would be to hang out at the international student centre which was run by Korean student volunteers, or by joining a club, the majority of which were open to non-Korean speakers which was nice. Combine this with the fact that you can survive quite comfortably in Seoul relying exclusively on English, and suddenly learning Korean becomes a much more active endeavour.
Because of the previous conditions, by the end of the first semester I was somewhat disappointed in myself as well as with my situation. The history and culture courses were quite interesting and fairly easy, but juggling these with the intensive Korean classes, which had us learning new content every day from 4-6pm was just a bit too much for me, especially since I wanted to see and experience the country as well. It’s worth noting that in my previous two trips to the country, I was visiting native friends and through them was as immersed in the culture as I could ever hope to be. However, this time around, as a foreign student grouped together with other foreign students, my experience was altogether different and less inclusive, though I did meet many wonderful individuals.
By the time winter break rolled around I was tired, depressed and considerably less confident in myself than when I’d arrived. After a trip to Japan and Philippines with a good friend of mine from the States, I returned to South Korea with renewed vigour and resolved to make my remaining semester something special. I moved out of the dormitory to a small apartment and as soon as club day rolled around I decided I would join a club with a good mix of Korean and foreign students so I’d be able to practice my Korean but also be able to speak my mind.
Throughout the year I had noticed these traditionally clad drum (or pungmul-nori) troupes that would pop up during school festivals and celebrations that would play drums in formation and I thought that looked like a lot of fun. As I was browsing the various club tents that lined the main road on the campus I happened upon one of the those very troupes. As I looked their way they started calling out to me and banging on some of the drums they had. They seemed like a welcoming bunch so I headed over and signed up then and there. A few days later I got a text message for where to meet for our first practice the following week.
For the first meeting we headed to a building just to the right of the main auditorium which housed a number of club meeting rooms and entered through a door adorned with a traditional-looking wooden Korean sign board. It had a bunch of characters but ended with the word 떼 (ddae – translates roughly to crowd or group) which I found was what the group called themselves in shorthand. I also found that Yonsei had six similar troupes and that ddae was the oldest and had a record for being inclusive to foreign exchange students. We spent the first few practices getting familiar with all the various percussion instruments of which there were four. The bbuk which was a big, thick circular drum that you played with a single mallet; the janggu an hourglass shaped drum which you hold vertically and play on both sides with a mallet and a flat stick; the sogo, a little drum, about the size of a tambourine that you played with a single mallet, and finally the kkwaenggwari a small gong used to keep the beat. I chose the janggu because it seemed the most interesting.
One month after joining the club, in April, we were summoned to the club room for a meeting. We were told that a spring festival was coming up and that traditionally ddae would get together with drum troupes from other schools and parade through the streets, playing in front of shops and restaurants to offer good luck in the coming year (sort of like the lion dance in Chinese tradition). I thought that sounded like some good fun but wasn’t sure if they would let us new members take part, as we had virtually no experience. To my surprise they did! They even went about getting us traditional uniforms!
On the day of the parade we met outside the club room around 3pm and got fitted in our uniforms and each one of us was given a sogo. We were then given a little tutorial on how we would play it in this specific parade. You’d sort of dance with it while hitting it, and you could pretty much free-style, it was a lot of fun. Before I knew it we were lined up in front of the auditorium, ready to set out in a long procession containing several drum groups from Yonsei, Hongik and Ehwa Universities.
We made our way down the main road of Yonsei towards the surrounding neighbourhood of Sinchon, a popular hangout spot for all sorts of people, and after passing through Yonsei’s main gates we crossed the street and headed through a tunnel and suddenly we were in Sinchon. To recall each moment of the parade would be difficult as it was this kind of magical blur, but we’d march down the street, drums beating and gongs clanging. We’d stop at one restaurant and form a circle and we’d all go nuts! The seniors would play more complicated arrangements on their janggu and buk and we newbies danced around with our little sogo, occasionally being goaded by our seniors to jump into the middle of the circle and ad-lib some wild dance or rhythm. All the restaurants we played in front of gave us food and drink, rice-wine, soju, beer, juice, pop, water, whatever – it really kept us going. The restaurant owners and people on the street stopped to watch us and many were clapping along with the beat and seemed to be having as much fun as we were.
The time flew by and before we knew it, the sun was hanging low in the sky, but I didn’t want the parade to end, fortunately there was more fun to be had. After playing for the last of the restaurants we all gathered at a park in Sinchon and all the newbies were asked to sit and watch while our seniors played solo routines. By now it was dark and the orange glow from the street lights gave a kind of magical air to the this huge group of traditionally clad drummers that had gathered in this tiny park. It was really cool. After the last of seniors played we got back into formation and marched the procession back towards Yonsei, playing all the way. By now whatever alcohol I had consumed earlier had been thoroughly metabolised.
Upon arriving back at Yonsei, instead of immediately going back to the club room and getting changed and washed, we instead headed over to a small field where I’d often seen the baseball club practice in my frequent wanderings through the campus. From there we were told by our seniors to just follow their lead and this is when things got wild!
One of the key components of pungmul-nori is formations, often circular or linear, while playing, groups are required to make patterns and formations. In that field, all of the parade participates, spanning several groups from three universities got into a giant line and started running in snake like patterns playing furiously on their drums occasionally forming a circle and then breaking it. As we marched, ran and played members of the troupes that hadn’t taken part in the parade hung out on the side lines, giving us rice wine, beer and water. This revelry culminated in a bunch of the drummers forming a giant circle and everyone else playing freestyle inside of it. The energy was unreal and contagious and everywhere I looked I could see people dancing around me in traditional dress, beating drums, everyone matching each other’s beats. It was like being part of a giant musical organism and just for that short time all my stress and worry over my lack of improvement in Korean and the stress of school and the depression, melted away. We played and played until finally things started winding down.
We were thanked by our seniors for coming out and doing our best and told that there would be an after-party at a local pub that had been reserved for the occasion. After changing back into our normal clothes our club headed out to Shinchon, to the pub, where everyone got sloshed, but nothing particularly unsavoury happened. Since many of the students from the other drum groups lived far away, we marched them back to the Yonsei student centre and a number of them crashed in a multipurpose rehearsal space that was being unused. Eventually I headed home after making sure my help was no longer needed, and after a quick shower, realised how exhausted I was and promptly fell asleep.
This has to be one of my fondest memories of my time as an exchange student at Yonsei University.