Halloween in Korea: Multiculturalism, Study Break, or Sugarfest?

I long for a whiff of singed pumpkin, the cold of a Colorado Halloween, the sumo princesses and ninjas in full winter coats clamoring to the front porch. I haven’t had a proper Halloween in two years, and given my acceptance to the first of a few graduate programs in the UK the chances don’t look good for next year, either!

In Korea, Halloween is a blip. For most people, it must have seemed very strange to wear so much makeup and a costume on the bus to work (then again, given the tendency for Korean fashion to go to extremes, maybe not). On Monday I carried a tiny plastic Jack o’Lantern to fend off the stares. Look, lady…I’m literally carrying my cultural difference in hand. I’m not some new and terrifying incarnation of a foreigner. Just an English teacher on her way to a Halloween party.

Halloween is an opportunity to expose the kiddos to something different and give them a dose of foreign culture. In Korea, multiculturalism is brand new and edging out slowly. Some of the efforts to include those not of Korean ancestry or those of mixed Korean-Foreign heritage are good, like the attempts to reach out with free Korean classes. Others seem somewhat showy and Othering, like the TV show I saw a few weeks ago touting the wonders of naturalized Korean citizens while parading them around in hackneyed traditional costumes from their “real” countries. The audience just laughed.

It’s a blood zombie.

Other attempts, like the blaring MULTICULTURAL AREA signs outside the bustling neighborhood of Ansan Station, seem to be there simply to over-insist Korea is welcoming and accepting. See how we label the foreign neighborhood “multicultural?” See? See? There isn’t any discrimination against immigrants or non-Koreans! This sign proves it!

I have no idea what this is, but it is colorful. Open to interpretation.

Halloween in a hagwon means a Prezi about how the holiday came to be, some spooky videos, and a scary story writing contest. We wore awesome (read:goofy) costumes, This resulted in wide-eyed stares from the students and giggles about how ridiculous we looked. To be fair, we did look a bit off as a gyspy-pirate fortune teller, a two-faced penguin, a purple witch, and Avalon Man. The worst of the day was to walk to the shared toilet down the hall past the stares of the dental patients and daycare with whom we share our floor.

The problem is that the costumes became something to further mark us as foreign, as though it weren’t already obvious. It felt conspicuously like that talk show with the costumes, another way to laugh at the ridiculous foreigners. The look of wonder in the eyes of some of my students when I walked into a room was totally worth it. It was as if they had literally never seen me before, as though I’d completely transformed.

Our Korean coworkers also dressed up, one as a ruler-wielding Catholic nun! It was the perfect costume, and even strangers said that we looked pretty cool. It’s interesting to wear one’s culture on one’s face and literally become an “Other” for the day, and I found myself a bit homesick for real Halloween, even though this celebration at the hagwon was supposed to be as real as any back home. Culture is a strange beast.

Just a disembodied eyeball.

It was a strange intersection of culture and identity for some of the kids, as well. Many of our students have lived for extended periods outside Korea, predominately in the United States and Canada. A couple were even born there! They experienced Halloween and all the traditions for themselves when they lived there, and the smaller, more school-like and necessarily pared down experience here disappointed a few of them.

“Why didn’t we do actual Trick or Treating?” asked one of my older girls, who lived in the US. “We could have gone from classroom to classroom!”

Other students didn’t see the point. Some of them have not lived outside Korea and occasionally are pretty hostile to anything resembling outside cultural influence. Last semester one of my students claimed that she was the only “true Korean” in the room since she had never lived abroad. But even she was won over by some candy and a couple scary Youtube videos. Score one for Halloween!

Some parents didn’t see the point of having fun, either. One of our mommas called us up to complain about the concept of a Halloween party at the hagwon. Shouldn’t they be studying? Shouldn’t teachers be ramming more TOEFL preparation down the throats of eleven year olds, even though they just took their semester test? Who will think of the children?! She refused to allow her daughter to attend on the grounds that it was a waste of time, but failed to realize that only one of three contact hours was spent in Halloween mode. Two thirds of the TOEFL and teaching was still intact, but she knew better. If anyone was going to waste her child’s time, it was going to be her. Besides, childhood isn’t for fun. It’s for studying.

Today is the real day, and yet our hallways were stripped bare of their decorations before the work day had even come to an end yesterday. Halloween was over before it even began. Today is the day we attempt to haul in more middle school students, so we couldn’t have any appearance of fun or non-studying. It’s always hard for me to reconcile with the fact that this is a business, and not a school. I would do well to remember what a presenter at the last training said, and stop thinking so academically.

No, I do not wear this much makeup to work normally.

And thus on Halloween I snuck some traditions into my classes, carrying candy in a bucket and wearing a subtle pair of giraffe ears in place of a full costume. I brought a small LED Jack o’Lantern, which turned into a favorite when I used it to project a spooky face on the wall. I’m often accused of over-analyzing, and I know for a fact that no one else is sitting around on Halloween watching the cultural intersections of foreign and familiar, Other and identity. But today felt like the most honest representation of the holiday, the quiet infiltration of a bit of the culture in which I was raised. A continuation of my constant self redefinition through travel.

Or then again, maybe it was all just a day where kids watched silly videos, ate too much candy, and then tore around the halls chasing each other with facepaints. That is the heart of the holiday, after all.

Gyspy Pirate Fortune Teller Teacher

Happy Halloween!

3 thoughts on “Halloween in Korea: Multiculturalism, Study Break, or Sugarfest?

    1. Actually, I did “read the future” for the kids. Mostly, I chose the students who were in trouble for not doing homework and said, “I forsee…DETENTION!”

      They found it pretty cool. I also predicted love in the future and money.

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