Ceremonial Lights and Local Conflagrations
The hectic Korean lifestyle is an odd one to adjust to for a weygook. The sparing 10 days’ holiday offered by most hagwons seems a pittance to anyone from Europe (although I’m told it’s generous enough by American standards), and woe betide if you actually use any of your sick days – ie. you’d better be comatose or dead.
That’s not to say that 10 days are your lot: as with all countries, there are National Holidays to lust after during the more arduous weeks, and Korea traditionally celebrates about 15 of them a year.
However, if the holiday happens to fall on either a Saturday or a Sunday, tough. It’s fairly common in the West for employers to throw in an extra day either side of the holiday for goodwill, but in Korea you have to hope that the weekend doesn’t eat up too much of your precious midday-wake-up-bacon-breakfast-back-to-bed days.
The most recent holiday, Buddha’s Birthday (seokga tansinil, 석가탄신일) luckily occupied a Monday, allowing us to get away with our previously-mentioned camping trip. While we were away, Gwangju dolled up for the occasion.
A popular form of cultural celebration in Korea is via the medium of lantern displays – illuminated, paper-framed models lining the city’s roads and rivers. This Buddha’s Birthday, historic and traditional figures hover above the rushing water, not to mention such antiquities as Pikachu (despite him/her/it being Japanese) and Korea’s favourite infant’s TV show Pororo. The riverside is especially spectacular towards midnight; while it’s not 100% that the lights will stay on (they indecisively flicked on and off as the hours went on for us), you’ll have the river to yourself.
On this particularly scenic night, however, a less peaceful, slightly more alarming light display lit the sky; as we walked through the city, we were immediately walled off by a number of fire-engines and police cordons battling with a towering inferno of a building.
The strangest part for me: in the West, social media-ites would be climbing over each other, eager to be the first heroic photographer to earn him/herself an award for capturing this dynamic event, tweeting and posting about the fire as it progressed (and losing interest when it went out). Try as I might, however, I can’t find a single mention of the fire online, despite a significant portion of downtown Gwangju being blocked off to fight it as smoke and embers drifted high above the tallest buildings.
Maybe they’re just less dramatic here.