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'Round Gangneung

If there’s a positive side to growing up in a stifling town, it’s appreciating the place where you live as an adult. I’ve become one of those cheery staycationers who wakes up on a Saturday and asks herself where she wants to go in her own city. There’s been a lot happening around Gangneung this month.

From June 5th to 12th, we saw the triumphant return of the Dano Festival. One of my co-teachers, who grew up in Gangneung, explained that the festival is held every year in summer as a ceremony to invite a good harvest in the fall. It’s like one big prayer for prosperity, which was considered important enough to be held even during the Korean War. Last year it was canceled due to Middle East Respiratory Syndrome


On the first night of the festival, some friends and I went to watch the opening fireworks. Because I lived in town for the festival this time around, I could avoid the insane crowds that swarm the streets with their cars and tour buses. This didn’t stop the vendors from treating me like a tourist, though.

Foreign Tent

Above: “Interpretation: English, Chinese, Japanese.”

That said, they’re taking big steps to make the festival more internationally inviting.

On the last Sunday of the festival, I went to watch the ssireum tournament. A lot of foreigners gathered to cheer for the expats who were wrestling.

It would be simplistic to compare ssireum to sumo wrestling, but it’s probably the most common comparison. Like sumo, ssireum takes place in a circular, sandy wrestling ring. Unlike sumo, the purpose of ssireum isn’t to push your opponent out of the ring, but to knock them over. Both ssireum fighters wear a belt—one red, and one blue—and you hold the other person’s belt as you try to trip them over. You can’t otherwise push or pull your opponent, but you can kick at their legs. The first person to hit the ground loses. The matches were decided by the best two out of three rounds, and most of them went quickly. Although it sounds violent, this was mostly amateur-level wrestling. No one sustained injuries. 


None of the foreigners had much experience wrestling and were competing for fun. Because the pool of contestants was so small, our lone female contestant was set against a bunch of guys. She was matched against someone who had some experience wrestling, and it didn’t take long for him to knock her down in the first round. Then the announcer suggested, in Korean and in front of the whole audience, that perhaps he might like to let the lady win one.

Not understanding the announcer’s instructions, and expecting resistance in the second round, my friend slammed into the other wrestler and knocked him over. He looked pretty peeved. (Hey, buddy—if you thought that hurt, you should try experiencing sexism for a little while.) My friend lost the match in round three, but she plans to practice ssireum so that she can return to the festival next year and kick some shins.

On the next weekend, the expat group in Gangneung hosted a photo scavenger hunt. That Friday night, the two hunt organizers posted a list of 100 photo prompts, such as: “Take a picture with a foreigner who has lived in Korea for more than eight years.” In a 24-hour period, the contestants travel around Gangneung and search for opportunities to fill all the prompts. Extra prizes are given for categories such as most creative interpretation of a prompt, most artistic photo, or best prank played on another team.

While it’s a lot of fun, I didn’t much feel like racing around Gangneung like a headless chicken for a weekend. Instead, I sat with the scavenger hunt organizers on the beach and drank iced coffee.


This picture is actually from a trip I took to the beach the weekend after the scavenger hunt. Ho-hum. I love living on the coast. 

That night, there was a market held in downtown Gangneung at the historic Imgyeonggwan Guesthouse, a 19th century complex (rebuilt around 2006) that was used to host visiting diplomats. The market was a small community-oriented affair with lots of crafts and food items. Most of the scavengers met up to look around the market once they were finished with their hunt.

Market 1

There wasn’t anything monumental about the market, but it was nice to go there with friends and spend an evening out. There will be another market next month, so I would imagine this one was pretty successful for all those involved. 

Market 2

Then, this past weekend, we had our monthly open mic at Café Sopoong downtown. Open mic is a pretty mixed bag, and we ran most of the gamut in our lineup that night, with people playing guitar, starting group sing-alongs, and reading poetry. Sometimes people tell jokes or play clarinet. I’ve only gone to open mic a couple times in the past, and then only to listen, but this time I read an excerpt from my current writing project. It seemed appropriate, given that it was my last chance to partake in open mic.

You read that right. I’m leaving Korea in a month. Right now I’m in the midst of cleaning out my apartment, getting my departure organized, and spending time with friends before our paths split for the foreseeable future. 

The day after open mic, I took the scenic route home while running some errands and stopped at Seongyojang, one of Gangneung’s historic houses. I’d been there as an out-of-town tourist two years ago during a trip to the windy cherry blossom festival. Unlike my previous visit, the weather was sunny, and with so many people at the beach, the area was fairly quiet. As I strolled around the complex, I reflected on my experience in Gangneung and Korea. 




I might be leaving soon, but this isn’t quite the end of the blog. Stay tuned!

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