Graduation (2/11/15)

My right shoulder – covered by a vivid pink coat with a story behind it – is pressed against Ms. Grace’s shoulder, which sports a stylish-looking deep gray coat. A wall of people stands about a foot in front of me – sorry, that’s around 30 centimeters – and to my left is a stranger, not touching me, but hovering close. The smell of coffee lingers over the whole room, and occasionally there is a sweet smell, as a bouquet of flowers passes by. But mostly the air is just hot and stuffy in the school gym, where families and friends have crowded in to see Gimhae Jeil High School’s graduation.

There are no caps or gowns. That is the first difference that comes to mind when people ask me what Korean graduation ceremonies are like. And it’s much shorter. While the student principal does give a speech, as do various other personnel, nobody calls each name one by one. Because our gym is small, the first and second graders (10th and 11th grade) have a closing ceremony first. Then the third graders crowd in, and guests fill the remaining nooks and crannies. For the people standing (read: the majority of the people in the room), it’s a good thing that the ceremony is only around an hour.

The closing ceremony:



My excitement was probably at its highest when, upon arriving the school, I saw the entrance filled with various flowers and decorative bouquets, some of which had candy and confetti. I asked the woman in front if she was a parent and felt a little silly when she told me she was just with the company selling flowers.

I enthusiastically told two second graders “Congratulations!” to which they responded, “us?” When I replied, “Yes! You’re third graders now!” they weren’t so excited.

Once in the office I waited. And waited. Until a coteacher said, “I guess we should go see the closing ceremony.” If the native Chinese teacher was still there, we would have been excited and taken lots of pictures together. I miss you 이탁 샘!

Surprisingly to me, most teachers didn’t go to the graduation (because the gym is already so crowded). The ceremony is just that – a ceremony. Afterwards families gathered for pictures and presumably went out to eat and celebrate, just as my host family did for my host sister’s middle school graduation.

A belated congratulations, Gimhae Jeil graduates!


And what’s a graduation without some shabu shabu afterwards? If you haven’t tried shabu shabu yet – meat dipped into boiling broth and eaten in a rice paper wrap, which is just the first step to a three course meal – you’re not living.


Sports Day

육반! 육반! 육반! 육반! Yuk-ban! Yuk-ban! Yuk-ban! Yuk-ban!

Until I experience it again, the sound of 30+ high school girls chanting their class name is what sports day sounds like to me.

It was a chilly day at the end of November, but most classes wore an extra layer – “class tees” – would could be anything from plain hoodies to a fuzzy pajama set. My favorites were class 2-1’s Hawaiian flower tracksuits and class 1-3’s bright red pajamas speckled with white stars. There were also tiger track suits, camouflage, pink fuzzy pajamas with owls, and multi-colored hoodies.


Yuk-ban (class 2-6 or second grade, class 6) donned standard blue hoodies, unremarkable compared to some of the flashier class tees, but they had class spirit like nobody else. They put cheerleaders to shame. All day they chanted and sang at the top of their lungs. At one point I asked one of the girls and she confirmed, yes my throat hurts and my voice is hoarse, but she didn’t stop. Their self-appointed leaders stood in front of the bleachers, wearing a class banner as a cape, holding up a drawing pad with the words to their modified cheers and songs, and dancing about with a megaphone. This class is normally energetic, but I was witnessing an entirely new level.


The day progressed from the opening ceremony, with speeches and anthems played, a short taekkyeon/택견 performance (which according to Wikipedia is the ancestor of taekwondo), and various games set up for different homeroom classes to compete.



These games included a strategic tug-of-war, 4-legged race, and an obstacle course. All of these were held in a large dirt field. My co-teacher had a hard time explaining the tug-of-war game to me, because it’s more complicated. Instead of one rope, there are five, laid across the field, the same distance apart. The two teams start on opposite ends of the field, and upon starting, run toward the ropes. The goal is to get 3 out of the 5 ropes back to your end of the field. Here’s where strategy comes in. If your team is clearly losing one rope, your team members might decide to give up and join their team members on another rope – outnumbering the opposing team members and ensuring they get the new rope. So it involves some strategy.



While these games were all fun to watch, the most unique round was between two third grade girl classes. At this point in the school year, after the Suneung, third graders have a who-cares kind of attitude. It’s senioritis to the extreme, and justified, because nothing they do for the rest of the school year actually matters. (Apparently their grades don’t either, because universities don’t ask for final semester grades.) So two teams decided to collaborate beforehand. I’m sure it also had something to do with girls not wanting to get sweaty or their hands dirty. Upon hearing START! the two teams walked calmly toward the center of the field, one girl at the forefront of each teams. When they met in the middle these “leaders” did rock, paper, scissors to decide upon a winner, and that team then dragged the ropes to their side. There was grumbling and disappointment in the audience, though some were also impressed.

Next, rather than a three legged race, students did a four-legged race with three students to a team. Of course, it was a class competition, so they ran it relay style.

Finally, the biggest event was the obstacle course, which dragged teachers into the mix. Students began by running to a line, where they chose a piece of paper with a teacher’s name on it. They then had to find that teacher and begin the course. First the student-teacher pair had to do sommersaults, then hug to pop a balloon (coated with flour) between their bodies. For the next stretch, the student had to run in flippers, which was always amusing. Finally the pair had to try a mystery drink, which could be anything from soda to fish sauce, and run to the end. I ran it twice. As did many of the teachers who were actually around at that time. A lot of slacker teachers just stayed in their offices.

Throughout the day, I mostly hung around with the native Chinese teacher and took pictures *cough cough* selfies *cough* with students. We chatted, cheered and shared food. It wasn’t quite as exciting for other teachers, or they had homeroom responsibilities, but I floated around and spoke with some teachers I normally don’t see. A bonus was shocking/impressing many of them with my Korean. Hehehe.



By the time we had the closing ceremony, I realized how tired it had made me to be outside the whole day, having taken only a few breaks inside, plus lunch. But it was really fun and one of the few times I got to spend time with students outside of class and maybe actually get to know them.

Plus I got a lot of selca stick practice.