No matter where you are in the world, there are certain life cycle events that are remain monumentally important in a culture, moments that seem to always call for archaic ceremonies, long speeches, and butterfly-filled stomachs. Weddings, boy-becomes-man moments, births–every society celebrates these events with its own traditions, and I had the privilege of witnessing another meaningful life cycle event in Korea: the high school graduation. Education is a focal point of Korean society, and to finish high school is a memorable achievement.
I entered the gym about an hour before the ceremony began, to witness some preparations and rehearsing. This, like most Korean events, was extremely chaotic and seemingly disorganized, but was probably highly structured in a way that I could never understand. The 230 graduating 3rd graders were seated in the center of the gym facing the stage, a sea of maroon in their western graduation caps and gowns. One of the only other English speaking faculty members is the school nurse (who happens to be my age–very young compared to American school nurses!) told me that wearing graduation garb is a new phenomenon in Korea and that she only wore her school uniform when she graduated high school. The homeroom teachers for the 3rd grade classes all wore gowns, along with the principal and VP–a group of 2nd graders seated on bleachers next to me roared with laughter when they saw one of their teachers in his gown (because he is “short and cute,” I was informed).
The mass of gown-clad students was sprinkled with the brightly colored smart phone cases that about half the students own, angled above their faces taking photos in their funny outfits.
The ceremony began with a musical performance from three of my wonderfully talented students, followed speeches from the principal, VP, and a financial supporter of the school. Then, in true Korean fashion, instead of calling up each student to accept her diploma, groups of students who had won awards or top grades were called up by the principal to the stage. I’m not sure which I prefer: waiting around for each student to have his or her named called for hours, or only honoring specific students and ignoring the rest. The award being given was described, their names were read, the principals handed out the awards, and everyone bowed to each other. The entire ceremony was a complete hybrid of Korean and western traditions, it was intriguing to watch. Another musical performance was given, this time 2 girls sang the English song “You Raise Me Up” – I wondered if I was the only person in the room who understood what they were singing. Probably.
After the ceremony, the rush of parents to hug and kiss their graduates, give them flowers, and take photos commenced, a flurry of smiles and confusion. This was definitely a familiar sight to see, and reminded me of the fact that even if I can’t understand the words of the principal’s speech, or the titles of the awards that were distributed, the emotions and meaning behind a high school graduation are universal.
All of the teachers were treated to a phenomenal lunch of barbeque duck, and lots of other side dishes after the graduation was over. And, just like every important ceremony in America, there were massive amounts of mouthwatering dishes!