I glanced at my two sleeping sisters in the living room, and then I glanced at my watch. 6:15 AM. It was Friday, the national holiday of Hangul Day, and my ETA friends and I were meeting in Jinju for the famous Lantern Festival. It was going to be the first time in weeks that I had seen another native English speaker, let alone another American. It was also going to be my first weekend away from my host family, a thought which horrified Ye Bin.
“Where you stay?” she had asked me all week. “How many friends? You go Jinju alone?”
I scrolled down the list of contacts on my phone and pressed “call.” A woman’s voice answered, “Yoboseyo!” and I gave the apartment address. If the taxi pulls up in front of the gate in the next five minutes, I thought, I will have made my first successful Korean phone call.
I hung up the phone and saw Host Mom poke her head out of her bedroom.
“Odi-e kayo?” Where are you going?
“Jinju.” I held up my phone. “Taxi.”
She nodded, remembering, and waved goodbye. I headed out the door and saw the black taxi pulling up in front of our building. Success!
I arrived at the Gimhae Passenger Bus Terminal, purchased my ticket for the 7:00 AM bus, and boarded. An hour and a half later, as I was pulling into the Jinju bus station, my phone pinged. I got this text from Ye Bin: “Have fun. Please come back and carefully.” Awwww, she was worried about me. She was so protective, I often wondered who was actually the older sister.
As I walked out of the station and down the street, I heard two loud voices trying to get someone’s attention. “Een!” was the only syllable I heard, but because my name is Janine and I am also a migukin (American) or waygookin (foreigner), I turned around. Two Korean men were leaning out of their car, waving frantically at me.
“WHERE ARE YOU FROM?!” they yelled.
“New York!” I called back.
“AHHHHHHHH!” I saw two thumbs up as they sped away.
After a few wrong turns, I found the motel my friends booked the night before. I walked in, but did not see a front desk. Instead, there was a tiny door no more than a foot and a half tall, closing off a small sleeping area. The tiny door opened and an ajumma poked her head out. She brought me upstairs to my friends and we booked rooms for the next few nights. Each room had a yeo, or traditional Korean bed on the floor, and its own small bathroom.
There were five of us for most of the day, with another two joining us in the evening. We spent most of the day wandering around the city, looking at the paper lanterns made by Jinju students and exploring where the festival would be held that night.
As we admired the Jinju students’ handiwork, my friends and I talked about homestay life, our students, and the upcoming Fulbright conference in Gyeongju. While we were taking a coffee break in a cafe, I felt my phone vibrate in my pocket. A FaceTime call from Ye Bin! She wanted to make sure I was okay and that I found my friends in the city. She seemed relieved when I turned my phone around to (virtually) introduce her to my friends. I think my friends were a little jealous of how great my host sister is!
As night began to fall, we entered the lantern festival, which was held at Namgang River and the Jinjuseong Fortress. The lantern festival commemorates a military technique used during the Jinjuseong Fortress Battle of the Imjin War in 1592. In order to prevent the Japanese troops from crossing the river and in order to communicate with their own troops, the Koreans floated lanterns down the river. Today’s tradition harks back to the battle and also serves as a celebration of Korean culture.
The crux of the festival’s exhibits depicted the Fortress Battle, showing scenes of war, torture, and defense. The lanterns were exquisitely detailed, with many of the soldiers crying tears of blood and the hair styles and dress of the Japanese soldiers depicting the samurai hierarchy.
Away from the main exhibition, other lanterns included animals, flowers, and Korean cultural scenes. Some of my favorites were the scholars’ exhibit and lotus flowers.
In addition to Korean culture, the festival showcased lanterns to represent countries around the world. It was fascinating to see which symbols Korea chose for other countries. The United States was the Statue of Liberty. Egypt was the Sphinx. The United Kingdom was a troop of Scots guards. Surprisingly, France was not the Eiffel Tower, but Napoleon on his horse.
We also walked through a small tunnel made entirely out of lanterns. The lanterns were made from a traditional Korean paper called hanji, which is sturdy enough to withstand rain and wind. As with everything else in Jinju, the lantern tunnel was absolutely gorgeous and the pictures do not do it justice.
After nightfall, we also saw a spectacular fireworks display, with the fireworks lighting up the river and complementing the beauty of the lanterns. As I looked up at the night sky, I remembered that fireworks were invented in east Asia (specifically, China). It was a reminder that even though I see so much of the West in Asia (Starbucks, brand names, pizza), so much of Asia has also come to the West. It was a moment of deep appreciation for the culture around me and a new way of looking at something I had never thought much about back home.
As the night grew cold, we walked past the international food stalls selling street food specialties from countries like Vietnam, Japan, and Germany. The “America” stand sold corn dogs. Yes, I fulfilled the stereotype and ate a corn dog. It was delicious and I have no regrets.
On Saturday, we spent the day walking through a traditional market and browsing at a silk festival. I saw various stages of the silk-making process, from the silkworms eating the mulberry leaves to the boiling cocoons spinning into thread. I purchased a few souvenirs for my host sisters and family in America. I also treated myself to a lovely wooden pen with my name engraved on it because every teacher needs a favorite pen!
At both the Lantern Festival and the Silk Festival, I was lucky enough to see a few traditional performances, too. From the exuberant joy of the drums to the quiet grace of the white scarves, I saw some of the many faces of Korean music and dance.
I left Jinju at 9:00 AM on Sunday morning. I was back in my homestay in Gimhae by 10:40 AM. I gave Ye Bin and Su Bin their souvenirs and they asked me about my experience. I think Ye Bin just wanted to make sure I didn’t sleep on a park bench and that I was with someone the entire time.
Next weekend is the first Fulbright conference, which will be held in Gyeongju. What will Ye Bin do when I am gone for three nights instead of two?!