Now that I am saving some money and not worrying about where I will find the won to buy Ramen for dinner, I’m FINALLY getting the chance to adventure around Korea. This weekend I attended what I thought was an International Peace Festival in the Olympic Stadium in Seoul.
My friend Kamir and I heard from a co-worker that a non-profit volunteer organization, Mannam, was providing free transportation and meals for foreigners attending the festival. There was also optional sporting events, so we decided to compete in the 5K. World peace, sports, and free stuff: sounds like a good deal right?
I started to get a little suspicious when other friends turned down the invitation because they heard rumors that Mannam and the WPI (World Peace Initiative) were associated with religious groups. That didn’t phase me though, because although I am not a religious person, I accept and understand others beliefs. I was also a bit confused when the trip organizer messaged me asking that I ignore the rumors and claiming that Mannam was affiliated with any religious organization. In fact, it states on their website that “within Mannam Volunteer Association there must not be any political and religious activities.”
Since we were “athletes,” we had to arrive early before the event to get seated in the athlete section of the stadium. From the bus until we entered the stadium, there was a line of women in costumes that looked similar to a pokemon trainer waving and cheering us on. I was stopped on the way in by a film crew for an interview and when they asked how long I had been training for the “Peace Olympics” I lied and said a week, when really I had only gone running once in preparation. :p
The opening ceremony was extremely elaborate with multiple marching bands, an orchestra, traditional korean dancers and drummers, fireworks. The only thing that was a little off at this point was the twelve “tribes” all wearing different color poke-trainer costumes who marched like nazi soldiers into the stadium BUT I accepted this because things are done a little differently in Korea. The majority of the crowd was also wearing these uniforms and segregated by color. Each tribe was labeled by names: John, Peter, Simon, Andrew etc. That is when I first realized the event was not quite as secular as we were informed.
Things got REALLY weird though when they had a group of 1,000+ children wearing white robes come onto the field to give an interpretation of the bible.
It was really elaborate and I am pretty sure, Koreans could have the best marching band/color guard shows in the world if they weren’t too busy studying all the time! All of the foreigners looked confused as we had all been tricked into attending the largest most elaborate church ceremony of all times. The service was quite entertaining and I was fine with it all until I began to notice that their interpretation of the bible was a bit off. What I got from the show was that their leader “Lee-Man He” was the chosen one that was the only person in the world who had the power to lead the 12 tribes to salvation and anyone who did not follow would be lost in darkness. Sounded a bit cultish to me. I asked my students about Shinchonji and they confirmed my suspicions that the group was indeed viewed nationwide as a group of radical and “bad” christians.
Although this experience was a bit creepy, I dont’ in any way regret attending. I meet and saw people from countries I’d never even heard of before. (I also met a few Southerners((recognized by their country accents))) Each athlete wore their country’s flag on their shirt so it was easy to see what part of the world people were from rather than guessing. I am convinced that Nepalese are the most interesting and attractive looking people out of the lot! I regret not asking how to pronounce Kyrgyzstan though. I really think that is and hope it will continue to be the strangest day of my life. I really don’t think I want to know what is weirder than running a 5K with a bunch of foreigners while 1,000 cult members lined the track to cheer you on.
CHINA IN 1 WEEK!!!!! I’m trying to get my stomach ready for monkey brain, insects, and chinese liquor. Many pictures to come!