Gangneung Winter Performance Festival – 2017

The past week has been a busy one in Gangneung. The city held one of its long planned Olympics Test events, and along with that there was a host of international events that attracted crowds of local Korean people and a mix of foreign visitors.

In downtown Gangneung, there is a village square built after the model of a traditional government administration center. It is a showcase area for the city, having beautiful old style Korean buildings scattered through an open, flat area where the flow of foot traffic can be managed, exposing visitors to well planned rows of exhibits, performances, and booths. We have been watching the area being built up over the last few years, and it is a wonderful community interaction space that gets a lot of meaningful use. The name of the village is “The Myeongju Art Center”. Many activities involving the recent festival were centered there.

One of the great things about Korea is the fact that all the comforts and the accomplishments of our modern developed societies are at work here. But at the same time, there are old world elements still clearly in play too. For example, just behind the very traditional Gangneung Myeongju Art Center looms a large broadcast media building with a giant antennae, reminding us while we are in that traditional setting that we are also in a technologically advanced society. Where ever we go in Korea it is easy to find that kind of contrast. Ancient mud brick houses with traditional Korean roofs are still sprinkled around amid high rise ultra modern apartment buildings. Chic, upwardly mobile professionals walk the same streets with older gentlemen and grandmothers who appear as though they time warped forward from a bygone era.

This same trans-historic effect could be clearly felt at the festival in numerous ways. The musical entertainment was a clever mix of popular modern, classical European, and traditional Korean styles. The food also reflected the tension between past and present. Traditional and contemporary Korean food was on display, but one could not forget there is a McDonalds burger restaurant and a Lotteria just down the street. Again, Korea has a strong connection to its past while at the same time embracing the future, and foreigners from less traditional lands who are attuned to that can find it a powerfully moving experience.

Yet, there are some deeper pleasantries to this mix of traditional and progressive elements in Korea today, and those pleasantries are factors that, if emphasized, could cause visitors to become even more enamored with Korea, even to the point of making it a priority to come back again and again. A concern regarding festivals that display Korean traditional culture is that some of these deeper positives are not really elucidated or teased out to strongly or purposefully impact visitors perceptions in any meaningful way. But that observation could be made about most of the cultural expositions I have seen here. Although very meaningful to Koreans, the simple cultural performances and shows alone might not be so moving to strangers, and that is an important distinction that organizers might be missing.

Probably, Korean people love their culture more than most. It is endearing to see them so engaged in their traditional activities, enjoying their traditional food, and being together in a deeply shared collective way. It might be said that no Koreans are really strangers to each other because they have such a consciousness of their historical and traditional commonality, and it really is a beautiful thing to see. But outsiders don’t have the same response. Obviously, they simply cannot feel the same nostalgia in a Korean cultural experience. Travelers see simply another display of quaint color, unfamiliar sounds, and a flurry of often bewildering pageantry. It is interesting, but for them not so very different from similar bewildering displays in many other cultures they have visited around the globe. What is it that makes the Korean experience any different for them?

To a foreigner, Korea’s real cultural treasures simply cannot be the music and dance, as beautiful and entertaining as it is. It is not the food either, although most who try Korean cuisine are quickly hooked. The most attractive things about this country are its strong social positives, like the safety someone from Los Angeles feels when they walk the streets of Seoul at night. That contrast is smashing the first time one experiences it, and emphasizing the positive starkness of contrasts like that could be a powerful tool toward sustainability goals related to tourism here on the east coast.

The dedication and loyalty to family is another wonderful, comforting, and uplifting characteristic that should be trumpeted during Korean cultural displays. The selfless model of the Korean mother as an ideal is something powerful enough to break hearts. The admirable Korean work ethic and commitment to duty could be included, along with the hospitality and the generosity shown to guests and strangers. These are the kinds of things that would make a traveler want to come back again. Not so much the dance, music, or food. More than that, the finer qualities of Korean society are factors that should make a visitor feel inclined to recommend Korea as a vacation destination for others once they go back home among their family, friends, and workmates. But that is less likely to happen if these qualities are not highlighted to visitors in some very deliberate ways.

It seems reasonable that event organizers might take the time to build an emphasis of these above factors, and others like them, into the more visceral cultural performances. For example, how do the Hasla Singers reflect any one or more of the social qualities mentioned above? What about the Hanbok? Does it represent anything that could be pointed out that would emphasize the beauty of Korean family values, or the hospitality ethic in this land?

In closing this article, it seems advisable that some Korean historical or cultural authorities might sit down and draw out a schema that connects the performance aspects of Korean culture to the inner, deeper qualities that its people so warmly display. These endearing qualities grow out from Korea’s past, and they mix with the modern world in a unique and appealing way that anyone from anywhere would fall in love with if they could get a clearer view of them in a short visit during the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics.


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