Children’s Day

There is a lovely holiday in South Korea called Children’s Day. Sort
of like Mother’s Day or Father’s Day, but for kids. And everyone gets
the day off. We happened to be in Seoul on Children’s Day so Bremelin
arranged a field trip with her advanced English students to meet us
and to take us around the city to practice their English.

We took the train out to Brem’s neighborhood to meet the kids at the
station, bright and early. We had no idea what to expect – what are
Korean middle schoolers like?? They gathered around us, introduced
themselves in English, giggled a bit, and generally acted shy and
bashful. They constantly checked their cellphones for messages. We
shouted, “No Korean! Only English!” but of course after about ten
minutes they lapsed. We got on the train, and I was trying to think of
a million questions to get some conversations started. “What do you
like to do in your free time with your friends? Do you play sports?
Where do you go on vacation? Is there a place you would like to visit
one day? Where do you recommend to visit in Korea? What do you like to
eat?” They wanted to know about our travels, what we had done, where
we liked best, what we had already seen in Seoul. Their English was
quite good, if I spoke a little more slowly they got the gist of what
I was saying, but they tended to not ask many questions. Perhaps from
shyness, but also perhaps a bit cultural, as asking questions of an
elder is out of the ordinary.

We walked all over the city. They loved window shopping in Insadong,
and bought all kinds of sweets that I thought were going to make them
go on a crazy sugar high. It was funny, one of the girls bought some
candy that were considered retro, and I was like, oh these were
popular candies when I was a kid! Like swizzle sticks and bubble tape.
They people-watched. We watched them people-watching. We slurped down
cold noodles in a creamy sesame based sauce, I barely finished half my
bowl but most of them demolished their portions before I was even
done. They told us a bit about their daily lives – they study a lot,
they don’t have much time for sports. They enjoy being with their
families. We wandered over to the rebuilt river, did some more
people-watching. We asked them about their dreams when they grew up, a
few of them want to be diplomats, a boy wants to be a teacher, another
girl wants to be a car designer. So interesting to hear about their
ideas of what the future holds for them.

We constantly scanned the group and counted to eight, “one, two,
three, four, five…ok where did those three girls wander off to?”
Brem did an expert job at corralling them every time we needed to get
them on and off the subway, and I just tried to keep up. I was
paranoid one of them was going to be left behind. And I forgot how
slow it is to move with a group! “Teacher, can I buy something at the
convenience store?” Stop for ten minutes. “Teacher, I have to use the
bathroom!” Stop for ten minutes. “Teacher, can we buy something at
this store?” Stop for ten minutes. It was amusing more than anything,
I barely got an inkling of what it must’ve been like to chaperone my
high school class to the Met.

I couldn’t help but compare them to American teenagers. Most of my
interactions with teenagers these days doesn’t extend much beyond
seeing gaggles of them on the subway and streets in New York and (very
occasionally) the malls of New Jersey. New York teenagers often seem
to be loud, brash, independent, sometimes aggressively sexual. They
don’t like listening to rules and try to break them more often than
not. They feel like they’re on display and they often take over the
whole space. In contrast, the teenagers we were with seemed so
innocent, demure, sweet. They liked to joke around but didn’t shout,
it was more a lot of giggling. They seemed so respectful of us, and I
was surprised. I guess I’m just so used to the “question authority”
stance that urban American teenagers seem to take with adults. The one
similarity, and perhaps seems to be even more endemic to Korean
teenagers, is that their faces seem to be glued to their
cellphone/TV/video game screens more often than not. I was stunned at
how many people (not just our group) zone out to their little devices
everywhere in Seoul.

We took the group to the highest building in Seoul and got a
far-reaching view of this city of twenty one million people. I
couldn’t believe how big it is, neighborhoods blanket the hills and
mountains for miles in every direction. The kids flitted from window
to window, taking cellphone pics and videos, video calling their
parents to say hi from the top of the building, and downing more
candy. By now, we were all exhausted, so we hopped back on the subway
back out to the suburbs to drop them off. We arrived at the station,
waved good bye to them and they dissolved into the crowd. The day made
me realize how little time I spend with people who aren’t around my
age, especially teenagers, and how refreshing it was to get a glimpse
into their lives. As a designer I kept thinking to myself that to
really put yourself into other people’s shoes, you have to meet them
face-to-face, in person and have a conversation with them. It makes
such a big difference, you make less assumptions about them and
discover what it is they really need.

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2 thoughts on “Children’s Day

  1. Anonymous says:

    I guess part of the reason why you’re traveling is to meet other people you normally wouldn’t hang out with. And it’s nice to know that there are teenagers out there who aren’t necessarily obnoxious and loud. I personally try to avoid them at all costs.

  2. Julie Lee says:

    I think American teenagers get a bad wrap; I think there are just as many American teenagers that are helpful and polite. American teens are more open and free spirited. They do respect their elder in a different way. Each culture has its own good points. I remembered Children Day in Hong Kong; it falls on April 4th. I don’t think we got a day off; matter of fact, I don’t remember there was any special celebration at all.I know how you feel Tracie on being becoming one of the elder; one day you are being treated a child then next thing you know someone calls you grandma. Where did the time go??

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