As dusk slowly descended over Seoul in the evening of April 26, about 100 foreign teachers gathered before a historic Joseon Dynasty-era palace, posing for pictures with the Royal Guards as they waited for a private moonlit tour.
Hosted by the Korean Culture and Information Service (KOCIS), the event was April’s “Culture Event of the Month,” a program KOCIS began in March for foreign residents that continues throughout the year. The April 26 event, titled “Taste of K-Culture for Native English Teachers in Korea: Moonlight Tour of Changdeok Palace,” took advantage of the full moon for the visitors to experience the palace, designated a World Cultural Heritage site by UNESCO in 1997.
Assistants dressed in traditional garb handed out passes and hot pack hand warmers to combat the slight spring chill, then entered groups. A Royal Guard sounded out long, low notes on a conch shell, the main Donhwamun Gate was opened and the visitors entered the best-preserved of the five remaining palaces built by the Joseon Dynasty (1392 ~1910) kings. Taking up lanterns, they followed their guides through the still night air, pausing at points of interest to learn the histories of buildings, gardens and Korea’s past kings, excitedly snapping photos as they roamed areas often not open to the public.
Well-lit examples of traditional architecture, lantern-lit stone-walled pathways and delicate pavilions competed with the natural beauty of the gardens and ponds. As the groups walked down a path to Buyongji Pond, the sounds of a gayageum could be heard on the air and the solo player seated in a pavilion beside the pond gave an ethereal air to the evening, with the reflection of the pavilion in the pond a favored picture subject.
KOCIS began in 1971 as the Overseas Information Center under the Ministry of Culture and Information with the goal of introducing Korean culture to the world and raise the country’s national image. Using “soft power” the core of which is culture the service seeks to share Korea’s art, culture, history and lifestyles with the rest of the world. It particularly takes advantage of the Korean wave of popular culture, known as Hallyu, which is spreading throughout the world as Korean singers, actors and other cultural performers are embraced far beyond the country’s borders.
KOCIS Director Woo Jin-yung has said, “We expect Korean culture to have an opportunity to further upgrade Hallyu by harmonizing with foreigners in Korea and overseas, as the Hallyu fever has evolved into a new arena in which people around the world can rejoice when Korean culture encounters foreign culture.”
A woman narrates pansori to traditional Korean tunes.
[Photo on courtesy of KOCIS ]
The service is now turning to promoting Korean culture to foreign residents here, as 1.5 million foreigners live in the nation and more than 10 million more visit yearly.
One mother and daughter pair enjoying the tour were representative of both groups. Florida native Sara Rose has lived in Korea for five years, where she teaches English, and her mother Karen was on a week-long visit, which fortunately coincided with the KOCIS tour. As they sat on cushions in the courtyard of Yeongyeongdang Hall, where blankets and traditional teas were provided as the guests watched traditional orchestra, dance and pansori (Korean opera) performances, they expressed their pleasure at the event. Asked her favorite part of the tour thus far, Karen said it was definitely the secret garden. “And the fact it was the pink eclipse,” she said, referring to the large rose moon that appeared over the Seoul skyline midway through the tour.
Tomi Idowu, a native English teacher from Alberta, Canada, said the evening was her third visit to Changdeok palace, but her first night tour. “Oh goodness me,” she enthused, “it’s so amazing!” Asked her favorite parts of the palace, she identified Buyongji Pond and the royal pavilion beyond. “The gold, the glitter kings lived quite nicely, I would say.” She recommended others take the chance to join the KOCIS program. “Definitely!” she said, “It’s a great experience.”
Shellie Hermes, a former private school teacher in Ohai, California, has been teaching in Korea for almost a year and joined the tour with a Korean friend who was a former student in the United States. Hermes said she had visited Changdeok Palace before but the experience was totally different at night, with fewer people. “Because the nighttime and the darkness masks so much, and you only see what’s lit up right in front of you, you feel that you’ve just stepped back in time like you’ve gone back in time. My friend and I, we just feel like we’ve been transported to another time and another era,” she said.
A Korean troupe play traditional Korean instruments.
[Photo on courtesy of KOCIS ]
She also enjoyed the still, calm atmosphere of being with a smaller group, in an environment far removed from the bustling metropolis beyond the palace walls. “We’re lucky too because there are so few people,” she said. “When you come in the daytime, you’re in these ginormous groups and you’re bumping up against each other, but these smaller, intimate groups, and at nighttime, you feel even that much more individual.”
After two hours transported to another place and time, the foreign guests were given bags containing souvenirs of their visit and stepped back through Donhwamun Gate to the hustle and bustle of modern-day Seoul. They took with them not just souvenirs, snapshots and memories but a deeper understanding of Korea’s culture and traditions and expressing appreciation for the KOCIS program.
Canadian teacher Idowu was excited to learn KOCIS has further such events planned. “Please let me know,” she told others on the tour. “I’d love to go!”
The inaugural March event hosted by KOCIS featured performances of “TAL,” a non-verbal production that combines the Korean martial art of Taekwondo with percussion accompaniment, Korea’s traditional mask dance and modern street dance. About 100 foreign teachers were also invited to that event.
May’s event was a tour of the National Museum of Korean Contemporary History, to experience the nation’s proud modern history of rapid and remarkable growth. The June event will take foreign residents to the “MISO” performance at the Chongdong Theater. The July event will feature Korean movies.