Culture or Cult?

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 Green Tribe

These were the people who cheered us on as we entered the stadium and during the race, although there were many more during the race. I’ve never felt like such a celebrity before.

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.

The 12 Tribes of ShinChonJi. These poor people had to stand there for what seemed like a few hours while the leaders of the group gave speeches. PS: the ladies in the front remind me of Princess Peach from Mario!

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.

The robed performers (all children) waiting to enter the stadium.

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.

Wait…this looks a bit religious to me. The pictures were made from people in the crowd holding up various colored signs. They changed them in a coordinated manner to create a moving Bible storybook. There are around 7,000 people in this picture alone.

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.

Unfortunately, I was racing when these princess Leia people went on. I really can’t even imagine what kind of performance they were involved in…..

CHINA IN 1 WEEK!!!!! I’m trying to get my stomach ready for monkey brain, insects, and chinese liquor. Many pictures to come!


4 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Stacey
    Sep 20, 2012 @ 14:58:21

    HAHAHAHA! I have seriously been laughing out loud in class while reading this. This is extremely strange, but I love all their costumes! I can’t decide which ones are my favorite but the white robed children are definitely the scariest! Did you finish your 5k? Also you should have bought a pokemon trainer outfit! I love you!!


    • angelainkorea
      Sep 20, 2012 @ 15:15:49

      I finished the 5K! I met this guy from Nepal who was running for the first time too (I picked him out because he was wearing jeans and a long sleeve shirt for a race…?) and we stopped for a bit to walk. The robed children were creepy, but not the creepiest. There were these people with star wars looking robes and alien masks, but I didn’t get a picture. I think the only way you can buy a poke trainer costume is if you join shinchonji and you must first complete a year of brainwashing school and then pass the entrance exams to get accepted. Not sure if its worth it….

      You should show this to your korean teacher and ask if he’s heard of them.

      Love you too!!!


  2. Aunt Frannie
    Sep 20, 2012 @ 23:00:42

    What a trip Angie…………..small word, TRIP ……and that was a trip! .I laughed through all of this. I can’t wait to see you again, of course, living vicariously through you! Hang in there, the rest of us will never see what you are seeing! Love you much, think of you often, stay safe and use that great head you have!. xoxoxoxoxoxo Aunt Frannie


  3. Jill
    Sep 21, 2012 @ 14:01:11

    Oh my gosh, what a crazy experience! I’m so glad you’re taking the opportunity to check out new things – even if they turn out to be super strange. That’s what traveling the world is all about!! Keep looking for adventures and have a wonderful time. Love the posts, can’t wait for the next update. XOXOXO


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