Branding Korea! How about Culture Shock Day with Mannam?
By Kyla Polanski (Part 1 )
“Hello!” said two smiling Korean girls (women/girls?) who were standing with flyers and clipboards. They asked us if we knew about an event that was being held at The War Memorial on Monday, August 15th. We didn’t, but it seemed like it was going to be a huge celebration by the way they were going on about it. I remember words like,
“Parade!” and “Laser show!”
“Cool! Thanks, we’ll probably check it out.” She told us that if we signed up (while holding her clipboard out) that we’d receive a free gift, and then gave us a flyer about joining the event’s Facebook group and mentioned the free gift once again.
“Nah, it’s okay. We might check the festival out tomorrow.”
Within an hour or two, we were approached three more times by some young Korean girls, (with pretty good English). By this time it started to sink in: There’s a festival celebration tomorrow at The War Memorial, for Liberation Day! Big event! We’ve got the day off work! Let’s go!
We showed up at the War Memorial in the afternoon and there were people everywhere. We saw a man with the craziest Whoville hair ever, strollin’ around outside the entrance. It was hair sprayed and molded into colored spirals, and topped off with a portrait shaved into the back of his head. Blinded by the excitement of the hair, we walked in and were greeted by a row of about forty to fifty waving and cheering people, smiling ear-to-ear. They stood in a row on either side of the monument at the main entrance. Wow, that was insane.. I can’t believe how much energy they have for the people coming in… Do they do that all day?
A woman came up to us and told us where we could find out the events schedule, in English, while mentioning the free gifts, again. We decided to explore, and within five minutes or so, two more volunteers asked us if we had signed up or not. We smiled politely, shook our heads to affirm, and continued on into the crowd.
The first thing we came upon was an area where people were imitating the torture of Japanese soldiers. The festival’s guests were encouraged to lie face down on a wooden cross, with their feet held down while playfully and slowly getting smacked on the butt with a long paddle. Sometimes the costumed soldiers would do the spanking, but you could spank your friend if you wanted to. Everyone was standing around laughing and smiling. Weird! That’s a little insensitive to the people that had suffered during the war.
But just before I could process those thoughts, any thought, or even exchange opinions with my friends, we were approached by another one of the volunteers (again with the impressive English!). He was persuasive and happy and overly ‘helpful’ so we kinda just gave in and let them lead us to, what sounded like–the foreigner booth.
Quickly and frantically, they signed us up, threw free rubber bracelets on us and gave us Mannam pins. While one of my friends was on the laptop, punching in name/email/phone number, there were other volunteers talking to the stragglers. Not a moment wasted to pitch their pitch, but at the time we didn’t really know it was a pitch. There was a foreigner volunteer next to the laptop telling us that Mannam is helping people internationally– they’re set up all over the globe. I can barely remember looking at the map that she was pointing at. I remember that it looked like it had photos of people helping other people, and how they were probably taken in different parts of the world. But thinking back, I didn’t find out what exactly they were helping with, or what they were even doing in those photos.
Why the fuck did I enter my name and email address into that laptop?! And why did I give them my most guarded email address, and not one of the addresses I use to sign up for things I later try to avoid?? Can you imagine being hung-over for all of this?! (We were all hungover) A guy with a big television camera came into the tent and started filming us at close range while we tried to orient ourselves. After some obligatory group photos with Mannam volunteers, we finally made it out of the tent, and were spit out into the open. Tents and booths were connected to one another, on either side the main stage. It seemed like our bracelets were fending off the volunteers, so that was helpful. We never ever saw the same volunteer twice. There must have been hundreds of them. Every once in a while we’d see a few groups of foreigners. I couldn’t tell for sure, but it looked like they were having the same experience we were. Maybe that’s a presumptuous thing to say.
Our friend Alex called on the phone, unaware of the events unfolding around us. I knew he was certainly unprepared for what he was about to experience.
“We’re at the War Memorial now,” I said. “Just walk past all the fanatical fan-waving people, (pause) past the Japanese spanking section” (pause).
While we waited for Alex, we were able to take in a little more. There was some sort of a play going on in the centre stage, and a sad white horse off to the side for children to sit on and to get their photos taken with.
I should mention that we saw some “normal” looking areas as well–the standard tourist-type tents where you can dress in traditional Korean clothing, play Korean instruments, or check out a timeline of Korean masks. But just when we thought we were able to come up for air– another torture themed photo op! With a noose!! And a rickety old stool to stand on!
I don’t want to get into a safety lecture or anything. It’s just that the stool was so unstable! As a furniture design grad, I would suggest that they use a stool with three legs next time. The noose station would feel less authentic, but it would help make people less reluctant to participate.
On the other side, there were guys dressed up as Japanese soldiers posing with swords. I also noticed some characters in black and white clothing with zombie-like facepaint. Maybe this was around the time when we were shown how to make a “V” for victory, by extending your index finger and thumb. Not like the peace sign “V” you always see in Korea.
I can’t even remember what I was thinking about at this point. We walked back toward the exit to find some grass to sit in, or some water to drink–anything. But we couldn’t ignore the torture play that we were about to pass by. A large crowd was drawn in on ground level and I think it was meant to be a 10-minute piece. I was standing about three rows back. It involved the same costumed folk that were encouraging the public to participate at the other torture areas earlier in the day. There were some captured men and women on their knees, hands-tied behind their backs, getting lashed by the Japanese. Imaginary water was thrown in their faces from an old wooden bucket. At the same time, a guard was whipping the wooden bars of a cell that held two wailing prisoners. The play took more of a serious tone than the other things we experienced that day. The prisoners were beaten and killed. The crowd was given a moment to observe the lifeless bodies in silence. It ended with a synchronized bow from the actors, and an unexpected huddled dance that was silly, but welcomed. There were handfuls of children around so I imagine the dance brought them some comfort.
It must have been 7 o’clock by this point and we were back on our mission to find a quiet place to sit, when some volunteers approached us. They told us about a special VIP section for foreigners during the laser show and that we should head over to the seats. “Nah, it’s okay. We’re going to hang out for a bit,” we said.
She continued to persuade us with something like, “You may not get a seat if you wait.”
“Umm. When’s the laser show?” I asked.
She wasn’t sure but thought it will be starting soon.
After some discussion with another volunteer and with a little hesitation, she revealed, “9 o’clock.”
“Ah okay, we’ll come back later then,” we replied, walking off.
The area around the stage seemed to be filling up, but we decided to take our chances of being without chairs. It was odd that she was offering us front row seating since I’m sure there were people waiting patiently at the front to ensure a great spot. After an hour of processing the afternoon while sitting in the grass under the memorial planes, we wandered back to the main entrance. (But not before witnessing a nun sitting next to Marilyn Monroe on a park bench!)
When we saw the volunteers we were speaking with earlier, we didn’t have to ask or confirm about the VIP seating offer. All it took was a smile in their direction and the Mannam volunteers latched onto us, and brought us to the front while plowing through the thick crowd. The War Memorial was fully packed now and they were rushing us to the front in a complete panic. There were volunteers along the way trying to help us get to the front, even though there were other volunteers already helping us… madness! So much attention, so many helpful, smiling people. They would look back to make sure we were always close behind. All of the rushing stressed me out and I started feeling guilty about all the special attention.
When we arrived at the stage, we were ushered by suited men with earpieces. We all ducked down in front of the crowd as the performance had already started. There were big clusters of chairs, and our cluster was only for foreigners. Loads of older people were sitting on the ground around us. The type of people you give up your seat for on the bus.
Most of the foreigners were in their twenties and thirties. It felt weird, yet again, but this time a gross feeling started to sink in. Maybe it was because our laughter started to fade and we were becoming more critical of this organization. Maybe it was just the combination of everything we took in that day, or that we had been there for hours, and now we were trapped, and had an elderly crowd sitting below us.
The show was decent in the beginning. We saw some drumming, dancing, and typical performances for a festival. My mind started to drift and I wondered if it would be difficult to get out of there after the laser show. There were two hosts for the show, a woman who announced in Korean, and a man who translated everything (but maybe not everything) into English. They were wearing fancy formal clothing and stood behind a podium. The Korean host would say something into her microphone, and get a huge uproar and response from the crowd. After the English-speaking host would translate, he would wait for the foreigners to respond but we kept quiet. The slogan was
“When light meets light, there is victory!”
The English host tried again to encourage us to join in, “When light meets light!” Nothing. Except for one North American girl taking the piss. (She sounded drunk)
We sat through a couple more performances by musicians and dancers. As soon as each performance ended, bright spotlights focused on the VIP section and a crane camera would sweep over all the foreigners. The camera would pan the Korean crowd as well but the foreigners seemed to get a lot of coverage. At one point they even set up their cameras next to us and filmed us for longer than what we felt was comfortable.
True to the pamphlet, the reenactment was about to begin. The “Historical Reenactment”, which would make you think that it had already happened–it’s history after all! We could read English subtitles on the screen behind the actors. They were in English but terribly translated, which was strange since the volunteers whom we had interacted with throughout the day spoke English quite well. We kept reading “Unification!”, “Unification!”, ‘”he North and the South meet!”.
What the fuck!? What happened to Liberation Day? Now it’s Unification Day?
The reenactment began in the 40’s/50’s and was brought to the present day, and then into 2012, where they showed North and South politicians debating over whether or not to reunite. These details were cloudy for me but my friends reminded me of the details. They said that both South and North Korean advisors were dissuading their respective leaders against reunification and for a while it looked as if it would not be possible. Eventually, both leaders decided to bow to the will of the people and reunite the two countries. The terms of the deal included free movement and trade between all people on the peninsula. There would be an election held for one leader and one government. The South Korean leader, suggestive of Lee Myung-Bak, mentioned that it was a risk he was willing to take. The North Korean and South Korean armies would retreat 36 km on either side of the border. (Why would they keep two armies if the country was reunited under one government?)
The North and South Korean soldiers were forced to clear the DMZ. And all is well. Two soldiers from opposing sides traded their military hats with one another. Then one of them comically opened his arms, and the other hugged him tightly like a long lost brother. It was obvious this event had nothing to do with the South Korean government and that it was funded and made possible by Mannam. Kim Jong Il looked upon the soldiers smiling, (he was very reminiscent of Elvis). I’m starting to feel sick at this point; is this what’s it’s like to take good drugs at a bad concert? It makes me wonder.
End of Part 1.
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Watch a video of the event below.
Kyla Polanski enjoys spending her time trolling YouTube videos about quetzals. Sometimes she wonders if she’s wasting her time when her comments are deleted: “Will anyone ever make a decent video about those beautiful birds?”