Glowsticks, Violins, and Cross-dressing: The School Festival

An annual tradition in middle and high schools in Korea is the school festival. In the morning, students turn their classrooms into carnival booths and food stalls to raise money for charity. In the afternoon, they showcase their talents in a concert. Our school festival was held on Christmas Eve, and it was one of the most memorable days I’ve had in Korea so far.

Back in October, one of the music teachers asked me to perform a violin solo at the school festival. I didn’t bring my violin from the states, so one of my students lent me his. I kept the violin at school and played in the English classroom during some of my breaks. By the middle of December, some of my students were peeking in the classroom window to watch me practice–until I shooed them away.

I am a decent musician (well–when I practice!), but I usually prefer to play for myself, without an audience. I can play in an orchestra without any nerves, but a solo has always made me self-conscious. I was more than a little nervous, especially since I hadn’t played regularly since graduation.

At least I knew my students were excited to hear me play. For the week leading up to the festival, my students would stare at me with wide eyes, say “Teacher?”, and pantomime playing the violin.

The morning of the school festival, teachers went from classroom to classroom to be the customers at the students’ booths and stalls. Some classes sold bracelets, one class had a haunted house, and still others sold street food like chicken kebabs and ice cream. A group of students ambushed me in the hallway and wouldn’t let me pass until I bought their glowstick bracelets. Whatever I bought, I gave away to other students. This seemed to be the standard practice.

After lunch, the students went to the gymnasium for the concert/talent show. My ETA friend Ted, who works at the boys’ high school next door, stopped by to watch me play my solo. Luckily, I was one of the first performers, so I wouldn’t have to stress too much about playing or worry about the violin getting out-of-tune. Even if the violin were out-of-tune, I was pretty sure the students would still like me even if I walked on stage and played an overturned bucket with a string. At any rate, they would be too polite to throw rotten tomatoes at me.

After one of the music classes played a Korean song on their traditional instruments, I walked onto the stage and played my Mozart concerto. I had never played a violin solo for that many people before, but I’d played this piece so often that I wasn’t as intimidated as I expected to be. Two minutes later, I finished the solo, the students applauded, and I left the stage, tomato-free.

I went to the back of the gymnasium, where the other English teachers were sitting. They praised my performance as the next group of students rushed to the stage. I looked at the program and read the Konglish: “Ms. Jeilgo.” Ms. Gimhae Jeil High School?

When I looked back at the stage, I realized my second grade boys were doing a pageant show–in drag.

I felt a strange combination of amusement and horror as I watched them strut across the stage in red sparkly dresses and blond or ginger wigs. At one point, a student emcee asked them questions as if they were really in a beauty pagaent. The students and most of the teachers were laughing and cheering throughout the skit. When they finished, the students rushed off the stage to change back into their uniforms. At the end of the performance, one of the students found me in the gymnasium and pulled up a picture on his phone.

“Janine Teacher–don’t I really look like a woman?” he asked, showing me a headshot of him in a platinum blond wig and messy red lipstick.

“You look best as yourself.”

For the rest of the concert, other students rapped, danced, and sang. Most of the songs were in Korean, but a few were in English. Toward the end, there was an almost-obligatory performance of PSY’s new song “Daddy.” The students concluded the concert with a few Christmas songs, and then the school day was over.

I appreciated that the school festival was a time for the students to express their creativity and have fun, especially in a school system that seems to stifle those two qualities. I could tell how much the students had looked forward to the festival, and I was glad to play a part, however small, in their special day.




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