It’s election season here in Korea.
As you know, I normally take no interest in such things, but it’s proving impossible to ignore this particular election. Never mind the fact that we’ve had a little bit of a falling out with the folk upstairs in Pyongyang – all that means is that it’s one more thing we foreigners can only find out about by reading international news stories, and generally we feel as if you know more about the situation than we do.
No, the reason an election in Korea is so difficult to ignore is that, much like everything else from cherry blossoms to strawberries to butterflies, they seem to turn it into some kind of festival. I was scared half to death on Saturday morning, having spent the night before discussing and researching emergency evacuation plans with some foreigner friends, when I was awakened at some ungodly hour by someone yelling frantically into a megaphone. It wasn’t the usual droning of the grocer promoting his tomatoes and tangerines – this was urgent, almost terrifyingly loud shouting.
I sat bolt upright in bed, my heart racing, convinced that North Korean troops were marching into the city as I lay in my bed, and we were all being warned to run for the hills. What to do, what to do?! I was both relieved and disgusted to discover that it was the campaign van of a local election candidate.
I’ve experienced the bizarre practice of driving around canvassing for votes in my own country, and I can’t say I’ve ever understood it. You can barely hear a word they say anyway. And here it’s about 10 times the volume, and even the Koreans confess to not being able to make out a single word that’s being said. Then, of course, there are the many, many campaign posters plastered all over the place.
But it doesn’t stop there. I must admit to being greatly entertained by the party atmosphere that election season has brought to our quiet little city. I thought it was some kinds of devout religious group the first time I saw the little gathering of colour-coordinated singers standing by a busy roadside, until I spotted the posters and the nearby parked vans plastered in pictures of their beloved candidate. There’s something almost religious in their support of their chosen one, though, so it was an easy mistake to make.
Anyway, these groups of people are everywhere, and increasingly so this week as election day is almost upon us. They stand at busy intersections and sing upbeat songs when the traffic is stopped at the lights. I mean sing as in almost a full scale pop concert – some of them even have bands and stages! There is dancing – lots of dancing. (Koreans like to dance. Even the parking attendants have choreographed moves with which to direct the traffic and pedestrians!)
And then, when the traffic starts to move again, they solemnly bow to each and every passing vehicle. They also greet pedestrians with a bow and a smile and a cheerful “Anyounghaseyo?” – except for me, as I’m a waegook (foreigner) and they don’t know what to do with that.
So despite what you are all seeing on the news, things are actually quite merry and happy clappy here at the moment. Plus it’s election day on Wednesday and we all have the day off to go vote. Except obviously waegooks don’t vote, so I’ll be most likely be in a park or something, having a picnic in the sun instead… hurrah!