My third week of teaching, I stood before a class of very confused ten year olds. Seems like a given, right? The average Korean student spends about 90% of English class without any clue what is going on, but this time it was different. The kids weren’t perplexed over the subtle differences between “vase” and “base” or “fork” and “pork”, nor the mind-boggling similarities among ‘to’, ‘two’ and ‘too’. This time it was because they couldn’t locate the imagined photographer in the room.
The students had finally given up their “she’s new and still sort of interesting so we’ll be nice” silence and began to behave as you’d expect elementary students to behave: loudly. I, not yet having faced their incessant chattering alone, couldn’t remember the little chants and cheers and claps that we’d been taught to get their attention. So I did the only thing I could remember from my elementary years, raised one hand to my mouth signaling “SHHH” and then the other above my head, making a “peace sign”. This is how I recall my teachers shushing us, and we were meant to copy their behavior to demonstrate our complicity.
Eighteen years later I was excited because, after a moment, the technique appeared to be working. No one was actually copying me but about half of the conversations stopped. I noticed more eyes meeting mine, but then, I also started to see a lot of kids twisting in their seats to look behind them. Their eyes wandered all over the classroom and I couldn’t ignore that as quiet settled over the room, my pose had triggered some sort of nervous “Where’s Waldo?” search.
Everyone say “Kimchi!”
It was a few days before I figured out what exactly happened in that room, but basically Korea happened. Korea (Asia) and all its love for the ubiquitous ‘peace-sign photo pose’ made my kids think I was preparing for a picture instead of trying to shut them up.
Here in the Land of Kimchi and Cute, the peace sign is reserved for photo taking. Koreans (younger ones in particular) are big hams in front of the camera and wouldn’t be caught dead in a photo without an extra little hand pose to accompany their smile. Erin recently described to me how her 6th graders’ graduation slideshow was full of individual pictures of the kids, each posing with their hands next to their face in some ridiculous way: “rabbit ears”, “peace sign”, “thinker”, “awkward pose with chair”, “Charlie’s Angel gun”. While it seems playful and lighthearted, they take this kind of posing super seriously and you start to imagine that they feel naked in a photo without a hand gesture.
A quick internet search tells you that these peace sign portraits are the legacy of American figure skater Janet Lynn. She fell during 1972 Winter Olympics warm-ups in Japan, but demonstrated her unwavering passion by flashing a peace sign while she sat cheerfully with her ass on the ice. It resonated with Asians and ever since we’ve been subjected to this:
And (blech) these:
On a personal level, I find this behavior horrifying. It suggests that a.) the person doesn’t know how utterly ridiculous they look and b.) they are thrilled by the opportunity to be in a photo. I am the last person you will find making a peace sign in a picture for these reasons: 1.) I do not love my picture being taken (unless I am drunk, apparently), 2.) it looks stupid, 3.) “posing” is a little too close to acting, and I don’t do acting, and 4.) I take myself too seriously to take myself that seriously*.
You Can’t Fool Me
For the past two months or so Gwangju has hosted a Trick Art Exhibition. It’s over now, but Erin and I managed to make it there last week before they shut the doors. Some of my students had been and I’d seen some photos of my fellow English teachers who also cured their vacation boredom with a visit. Still, I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect besides some ‘interactive’ paintings.
Familiar works (Van Gogh, Da Vinci, etc) were painted directly onto the drywall and were tweaked to include an element with which the audience could “interact” (translation: ‘be photographed with’ so as to appear a part of the piece). Erin was excited because she was allowed to take Asshole Pictures, her favorite kind (haha, do yourself a favor and don’t Google that, it means she likes to stand in front of statues and pick their nose or appear to ponder deeply the merits of a particular Grecian vase). I was apprehensive because interacting with a photo is too close to acting (THE WORD IS IN THE OTHER WORD).
The further we ventured in Trick Art though, the more convinced I was that it was the Koreanest thing I’d ever seen. It was paradise for photo-loving, hammy yet determined Koreans. Left and right they were throwing their bodies down on the ground of three-paneled pictures that made them look like they were sitting in a shark’s mouth or climbing the side of a cliff. Children (and Erin) were running from dinosaurs and climbing out of toilets, and everyone was doing it with such seriousness! The only people I saw laughing in a “Gee I really feel like a douche!” sort of way (besides Erin, because even she can’t be that serious), were a couple of teenagers who were groping the 2-D penis of a life-sized cherub (which Erin also covertly did before them). Everyone else, save the small children, was quite determined to study the instructions posted next to each painting and make sure their poses conformed to those prescribed.
One ajumma was so concerned about the composition of my photo, she started barking Korean instructions at Erin as she sprawled on a pretend ceiling trying to escape another dinosaur. She waved and chattered in Korean at dear Erin, evidently trying to tell her she was not posing like the directions said. We tried to laugh it off, “Oh haha! This is just for fun! No worries here! Thanks Ajumma!” but the ajumma still dragged Erin over to the poster to show her what she was doing wrong. So. Serious.
Anyway, I leave you with the highlights of the most Koreany place in Korea.
*I am aware of how uptight I sound/maybe am. I am also aware that the Koreans and other folks who are less like me and enjoy ‘hand-posing’ are possibly freer souls, happier and more well-adjusted humans. So don’t call Freud just yet, I’m working on it. (Unless you see me posing with a peace sign. Then you know somethings gone terribly wrong).