Category Archives: Korea 2011-12

Are you proud?

My friends and I outside the embassy in Seoul

This photo was taken three and a half years ago in Seoul, South Korea, on the last day of a month-long protest. We had our blue and red signs printed at a little shop near Korea University in Anam, where we were all studying for the year. They read:

The world is watching; are you proud?

We were protesting the repatriation North Korean defectors. For months, my friends had been teaching English to North Korean students who’d made it, somehow, to Seoul. We’d learned about the famine and poverty in North Korea. I’d seen a tiny glimpse of it for myself at the Joint Security Area, on the 38th parallel – ie. the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ). My friends saw South Korea as a benevolent, faultless player in this and the USA as their ally, while surrounding socialist states were the big bad wolf.

We made little difference to the protest. It had taken us so long to find that we only made it for the final few hours. The whole thing was already on the Korean news – several people had been sitting in a tent outside the embassy for weeks, there were people on hunger strike, and suddenly four white foreigners show up? We did get our faces and voices on the news, little clippings of interviews in English, that many people probably didn’t understand. We were just the token white people (hopefully) adding a minor spike to the viewership on this story. We heard nothing of it after that, and we all left the country a month or two later.

Now, I only hear North Korea mentioned for two reasons: 1) A few of my new undergraduate students speak Korean because they are from Northern Chinese towns very close to the border; 2) Ex-pats who work here semi-illegally have to go on regular visa-runs outside China, and Pyongyang is quickly becoming a cheap and easy option.

It is not as though the danger has gone away. But, rather, information about North Korea is restricted to propaganda. The communist dictatorship seems to have begun to think about how the rest of the world views North Korea. I wonder if our views of North Korea will change?

What’s In My Way?

Moving away from what you know is tough. I miss my family. I miss my friends. My coping mechanism has always been writing. Last time I left home long-term, I wrote hundreds of words everyday for almost an entire year. I documented everything, to the point of inducing boredom for my readers. This time though, my big move seems to correlate with a big flop in my writing. I’m finally learning what it is to get writer’s block.

Until recently, my attitude had been somewhere along the lines of “What is this so-called writer’s block you speak of? What utter nonsense.” I’d never had a real problem writing before – whatever I had to write would just get written. But that’s all gone to pieces in the past few months.

There are all sorts of reasons for the sparsity of my recent writings, but a lack of material isn’t remotely problematic. Quite the opposite in fact. A wealth of ideas strike me at all times of day and night – I have a whole list of things waiting to be written out in full. The bizarrities of life in an unfamiliar culture have left me catatonic with over-inspiration.

I’ve been meaning to write about my students, about my first few weeks of exploring Beijing, about the wonderful people I have met so far, about how it feels to live alone for the first time, about Beijing’s crazy traffic, terrible air and frustrating issues with the internet, about Chinese sexism and sexuality, about a lack of foresight I notice all over the place… I’ve been meaning to write a review of a book I read in August, what it was like going back to school in July, a review of a show I saw in London in June… It simply hasn’t happened.

The more there is to write, the harder it gets to write a single word. It’s always the same. Until I decide to focus only on the first article on the list, I’ll get nowhere.

One big problem is the internet access in China. Everything is tougher when you can’t access the resources you’ve come to rely on. Technology becomes the antithesis of productivity. 

Last night I spent several hours simply trying to send a single email. I gave up and went to bed dispirited.

I know, I know – a bad workwoman blames her tools. I should write by hand, I could write the piece and post it online later. Yes – all that is true. But waiting an hour to log into WordPress seems like a terrible waste of time – that’s the deterrent. As a result, that long list only gets longer.

Another major issue for me is deadlines. For some people, I know deadlines are actually more of a hassle than a help. But I work best to deadlines. In fact, if there’s no deadline, I’m likely to get distracted and simply not do the work until I set a deadline myself. I’m only writing this now because I have decided that not another day of this year can go by without something getting written. (In fact, there’s no more coffee for me until this goes live, dammit!)

In my new Beijing life, I have deadlines for my work, namely the fact I have to turn up and begin teaching up to 25 students at a given time. The only other thing that comes close to deadlines are my Chinese classes – I’ve paid ahead of time for a class at a specific time every weekday in order to force myself to go on monetary grounds if nothing else. In fact, I feel more inclined to go simply because I know my teacher and classmates will know (and possibly judge me) if I don’t. I hate letting people down.

That’s the crux of it: I don’t force myself to do things for me. I force myself to do things with the incentive of “what other people think”. (There goes the devil-may-care attitude I’ve been cultivating for a decade… )

However, I know myself well enough to (subconsciously?) put myself in positions where the notion of outside judgment will force me to do what’s best for me. Day-to-day, I go to my Chinese classes for the teacher, classmates, money… but long-term I go to my Chinese classes for my future benefit.

It’s a lot easier to see the benefit if you think big… But thinking big doesn’t create good behaviours – it creates ambitions without any foundation or method with which to reach the goal.

I keep returning to a video I watched with my undergraduate students earlier this term (I can’t help thinking I’ve probably learned just as much as they have). It was Reggie Rivers on the topic: “If you want to reach your goals, don’t think about them.” At the time, I wondered about the benefit of his advice. But seeing the results of my own short-term behaviour (ie. Achieving 90 minutes of Chinese study 5 days a week by going to class vs. my inability to write because I don’t set a space-time-date deadline) I can see the truth of what he says.

I’m not going in for all that ‘new year, new me‘ stuff – I’m just trying to work out how to get back on track by starting with a fresh outlook and improving my behaviours. Got to start somewhere!

P.s. Happy New Year! 

Unspecific Language

“A new-found sense of balance and movement formulated out of inappropriate ideas and concepts is explored in the piece.” Choreographed/concept by: Ro Kyung Ae

Four dancers, in casual clothing and trainers, did pretty much anything but what the average audience member might call dancing. They were lit by a square of light on a white floor, and they walked onto stage consciously unconscious of their posture, stance and weight distribution. The dancers did a lot of unspecific movement to some unspecific white noise. Their sound technician (Jin Sang Tae) was visible stage right. noise was very difficult to deal with. It was at an almost ear-splitting sound level, or perhaps it felt too high for human ears, like ultrasound. I was impressed at the dancers’ skill in balancing on their toes, moving their weight around on just a small area; I admired the stamina it took one dancer to do arabesque after arabesque in jeans and trainers; I was dizzied by their repetitive fit-like movement. There was a false ending. They then brought out orange rubber gloves. They put them on carefully, then played around with the different sounds they could make using the gloves. One dancer started clapping – the audience was meant to join in and take over the applause, and there was a pause before the audience understood that this was the real ending of the piece.

Viewed and written on 12th October 2011, in Seoul, South Korea. Originally published on Tumblr.

A Batyr Mamai

A multi-disciplinary piece using puppets, a projections, music and physical theatre. There were some really stunning and successful elements to the piece, it was a real shame not to understand the dialogue and storytelling which so clearly underpinned the production.

What I gathered from the non-lingual aspects of things was a story about a mythical warrior, who lives and reappears in many different eras, who once killed or repeatedly kills a mythical leopard-like beast, hanging it’s skin in his house. In one of his reincarnations he loses his lover or wife to the beast as it ransacks the village he lives in. He is bound to hunt the beast forever more as he can never be happy again.

This story was framed by a train journey taken by a young woman and two older men – an “ajusshi” and a “seonsengnim” (‘uncle’ and ‘teacher’) to or through Kazakhstan. The myth originated in central asia, in Kazakhstan I suppose. The three travelers meet the warrior and listen as he tells them his story, which they experience first hand with the audience in the form of projections on two large screens.

The puppetry of the piece was absolutely mesmerising. The puppets were beautiful in themselves, and the projected animation was wonderfully drawn too. One thing I will never forget about this piece is the carved warrior’s face, hung above the stage and screens throughout the whole performance, onto which was projected an animated version of the same face. As the audience entered and sat awaiting the performance, he blinked and watched through thin eyes, and then in parts of the play he took over the narration, his mouth moving as he spoke. It was so effective and realistic I kept getting distracted by it! It was amazing!

I think this piece would  be extremely successful if it were performed in English – I originally wrote “a universal language” – but I’m quite glad we don’t have one, though English is getting to be that way.

Originally written on Monday 10th October 2011 and published on Tumblr.


“The memory of a man who studies the nature, origin and transformation of sound. The urban fable of ‘A Girl Reading a Book’ is explored in juxtaposition with the image of an island and memories of a rural girl.”

There were some absolutely beautiful moments of movement, colour and sound in the piece. I kept thinking ‘what a shame it is I don’t know enough Korean to understand what the dialogue means!’ The piece was based around a man (a Writer, going by the prominence of a typewriter) whose corporate life was stripped from him in the form of briefcase, jacket, tie and shoes, by three hooded figures in black. I thought his glasses might get taken too, but they didn’t. He was surrounded by voices from the ether, unable to decide which to listen to.

The orchestra consisted of a Clarinet, Trumpet, Xylophone and Cello. They played abstract, low, unpredictable music throughout the piece, which was beautifully enchanting. There was a soprano singer, dressed beautifully in white, who came in and out of the piece, also talking, questioning and tormenting the Writer in a sing-song voice. I wondered if she were his muse. Or his lover. Or both?

Through almost the entire piece sat a figure in white, on part of a park bench that had been sawn in two, a book in her hand. She wore white ballet shoes, a white body suit, a white jacket, white wig, white hat and gloves and had a white-painted face. She sat still as a statue until the Writer had taken her hat and book in a moment of despair. She took off her jacket, revealing a beautiful slender body, and danced a wonderful contemporary balletic piece. She had a moment of brief contact with the Writer, before returning to curl up on the bench.

The same three black figures danced with lengths of red, blue and yellow cloth around the Writer, which they used eventually to tie up the writer, almost like a maypole. They pulled him one way and another until he collapsed, tortured, centre stage. They covered him in a white shroud, put a papish pale paper-bag hat on his head and left a large bell by his head. The three figures in black entered in a procession, holding another length of red silk aloft, the middle of the three carrying the female statue on his shoulders, the red silk wrapped once around her waist. She knealt and lifted the shroud, as if mourning. The Writer rose, ringing the bell, tossing his shroud over his left shoulder. The movement and sound grew to a frenzy until the female statue beat the Writer to the floor with a bouquet of white flowers. To end the piece, the Writer returned to the stage in his original costume. The two halves of the broken bench were pushed together, and he sat next to the statue in white, who was now composed once again. He returned her book to her hands and gave her a little box. Finally, she spoke. He laid his head on her shoulder and she opened the box – sweet music began to play and confetti fell upon the pair. It was an enchanting piece, I only wish I had been able to understand the dialogue.

Originally written on Sunday 9th October 2011, and published on Tumblr.

Having thought back to this piece several times over the last (almost) two years, and having written a dissertation on Korean Shamanism, I am pretty sure there are several references to the female Mudangs (priestesses) of Korea. The lengths of primary colour fabric relate to some Musok rituals; the three figures in black suggest the idea of unseen beings from the spirit world; the drawings in my notebook include a hat, traditionally worn by Mudangs (both male and female) during Kut rituals. I only wish I had known all of this before seeing the piece, so I could have fully understood the relationship between the traditional rural practices and the modern practice of theatre.


A multidisciplinary piece about spirits unable to move from this world into the next. Some sections were absolutely beautiful – some utterly impressive choreography in the opening sequence – but I didn’t entirely understand the storyline, if there was one. There was a funny bit with a singer possibly getting killed which I was unsure about – none of the characters in that bit reappeared in the rest of the piece. The ending was beautiful – towering figures with two faces, singing: one person on another’s shoulders facing opposite directions, under a long black cloak, which reminded me of ‘no-name’ in Spirited Away, a Studio Ghibli film. I asked a Korean friend about this later – she didn’t think it was a Korean idea of spirits – maybe it’s Japanese or just coincidental use of a similar idea. I realised during this piece that costume, hair and makeup seemed to be a fairly minor focus in all the dance pieces I’ve seen. Costume is co-ordinated but the clothing worn doesn’t seem specifically designed. Hair and makeup seems to be entirely the performer’s own choice, (some of the girls had their hair down, and it kept getting in their faces, whereas others had it up out of the way) whereas at home I would normally think of it as part of the costume, decided by the director.

Originally written on Thursday 6th October 2011, and published on Tumblr.

Report W

Setting: Two white women and two Korean women, a mental hospital. It was truly weird. I think the two white women were patients; they were wearing pyjamas, doing lots of floor work and making odd noises. The Korean women were doctors or scientists, in white coats, doing experiments on the patients by holding up lighters on opposite sides of the stage, watching the patients run towards one flame, putting it out, and watching as they ran towards the other flame.

It all seemed slightly like a childhood game turned nasty. At one point the Koreans got a patient lying on a table on her stomach and poured hot wax from a lit candle over her back. The audience flinched as the wax dripped across her back, and the other patient spoke angrily in Korean.

Interestingly, the Koreans had spoken in English to give orders, but the white woman spoke Korean. I thought at this point that maybe the piece was meant to be some kind of critique on Imperialism; maybe British (or possibly Japanese) control over Korea – the loss of identity and suffering of the Koreans during the annexation of Korea to Japan: the comfort women? I felt that they were prisoners, trapped in something foreign and unfamiliar to them.

This piece had lost it’s newness and sense of exploration or surprise. It all seemed routine. The dancers focus wasn’t in the moment as it should have been. The only moment in the piece that I liked was the end, not  because it was over, but because although the performers left the space and the house lights came up, the music continued so there was no definitive ending to the piece. At a moment like this, the audience becomes an actor (if they weren’t already) and must make the decision of when to end the piece. Somebody always starts clapping sooner or later, and then everyone joins in then leaves, but the performance could in theory go on much longer than necessarily planned for. Very intriguing.

Originally written on Tuesday 4th October 2011, (Seoul, South Korea) and published on Tumblr.