I was (Somehow) Part of a Korean Game Show
I was staying in a cult centre, so it’s probably no surprise that my experience in South Korea was more random than the video clip for Gangnam Style.
To give some context, my parents raised me in the Unification Church – a Korean religion founded in the ‘50s by a man called Rev. Sun Myung Moon. As a “Moonie” kid, it’s pretty standard to go to the main centre in Cheongpyeong (an hour north of Seoul) to attend a workshop or get an arranged marriage.
I chose to go to Cheongpyeong straight out of high school to take part in a month-long workshop. My time there was extremely difficult, strange and transformative, and I ended up in some pretty wacky situations.
Although hitting my body for three hours a day and showering with hundreds of naked ladies was unusual, nothing I encountered was more out there than somehow becoming a contestant in a Korean game show (or at least that’s what I think it was).
I ended up at the game show (let’s just call it that for lack of a better definition) the same way I got everywhere in Korea – ignorantly following the herd of people walking or getting on a bus. On this occasion, about a hundred of the people I was staying with started heading out the driveway and walking along the snowy footpath, and, like a mindless consumer, I followed the crowd.
After seeing only pine trees and tiny houses for about 20 minutes, a behemoth grey stadium appeared over the crest of a hill. This building seemed to be as out of place as I felt, as it towered over the neighboring huts and farms.
When I walked into the building I was bombarded with K-pop, colour and cackling hosts on a stage. The 400-deep crowd was standing in rows and doing what looked like terrible 80s aerobics. They were all laughing at the presumably hilarious banter between the hosts. My brain immediately connected what I was seeing with a Korean game show, but since there were no cameras documenting the craziness, I had absolutely no idea what the fuck was going on.
Left with few options, I decided to join a line and pretend I knew the dance moves. The people around me laughed and whispered as I spun the wrong way, used the opposite hand, and just generally looked like an ignorant noob.
After 15 minutes of jolty dance moves and haphazard laughter, the crowd started getting louder. They cheered and heckled and begged, then out of nowhere (or at least that’s what it seemed like to me), everyone started moving to the bleachers with glee.
Once everyone was seated, the hosts immediately started pointing at audience members. Every person selected would bury their head in their hands and then happily skip to the front. I quickly busied myself with the hem of my t-shirt, but my subtle attempt to hide was no match for my outlandishly different appearance. I was singled out almost immediately.
Five pairs of hands touched my back to make sure I knew it was definitely me they wanted – thanks guys. I stood up, hesitantly walked down the aisle and tried my best to pretend no one was looking at me. When I got to the front and faced the hundreds of excited people, I tried to find a place to rest my arms – crossed over my chest, dangling by my side, folded behind my back – but every position I tried felt heavy and out of place.
After about a dozen people were selected, the drug-free acid trip began. A hoard of staff members rapidly set up the once empty stage behind me with bright cones and other nondescript items. I was then shoved into a contraption that slightly resembled the plastic webbing that holds a six-pack of beer together, except five strangers and I were the beers. We ran around and competed with the other six-pack, awkwardly fumbling through colourful pop-up tunnels and sliding around cones. I’m not sure who won, as the whole competition seemed to be more about making noise than actually completing any sort of course, but the crowd seemed to be having a blast.
The next activity was like an unusual blend of Wipe Out and Adventure Time, as audience members were selected and then dressed in giant suits of varying degrees of randomness. The contestants then rolled around and bounced and wrestled as well as overweight, animal-fruit-things could be expected to, which made the crowd wild. They roared and screamed and thrived off embarrassment. The competition seemed to be growing more intense, even though it appeared no one was keeping score of any of the madness.
It was hectic.
After an hour of discomfort, I finally let go of my extreme humiliation and got fully involved. It was more of a survival mechanism than anything else; resisting the overpowering swarm of craziness was more tiring than just letting it devour me. I dressed up in the funny costumes, mimicked the words of those around me, and danced along like an epileptic chicken. I’m pretty sure I did everything wrong, as I couldn’t understand a single instruction, but trying hard and screwing up seemed to be something the audience lapped up. In a weird way, I started to enjoy myself.
I still have no idea what went down on that trippy afternoon. Why were all these people in a large stadium in the remote countryside of Cheongpyeong? Who won the competition? Why were there no cameras?
Part of me wishes I knew the answers, but at the same time, I don’t think you need to fully understand something to appreciate it.