There was a (much more glamorous) time of my life when I was a “pageant queen” and little girls flocked to get my autograph and a photo with me. Akin to being a princess at Disneyland, it was a novelty I relished as a once in a lifetime opportunity; for, surely, never again in my life would I enjoy the status of being a mini celebrity and have to constantly pose for photos with strangers, right?
Well, perhaps not… until I moved to Korea.
Sometimes it happens when you’re sitting on the subway, and you catch the Korean sitting across from you slyly aiming their phone in your direction to snap a sneaky shot. This only fails to go unnoticed because a) you can see the camera through the subway window reflection behind them, b) pointing a camera at you actually isn’t all that discreet, and c) you can usually hear the shutter click. Zero stealth points earned.
Other times you are posing while your friend takes your photo and suddenly a flock of strangers are aiming their oversized lenses at you. Occasionally they will even rush into the photo, put their arm around you, and casually throw up the kimchi sign while their friend laughs and happily snaps away. Every now and then a person will actually approach you and shyly ask you to pose for a photo with them. I prefer these interactions the most because at least I don’t feel like some B-list celebrity being tailed by paperazzi and it can potentially even lead to a nice conversation.
No matter what the circumstances, though, the question begs to be asked: what on earth are they doing with all these photos of foreigners? Are they posting them to facebook and acting as if we’re their new best friend? Or are they uploaded more with same intent you might for a picture you took at the zoo with an elephant? Are they printing and framing them on their walls, or is there some mass archival collection titled “pictures with foreigners”?
Some mysteries may never be solved, but my most bizarre photo experience in Korea to date took place recently at Haeinsa temple. On our way out of the temple a man in an official looking tent booth approached us and said they needed people for photos for something or other (the purpose was lost in translation). We shrugged and agreed to smile for a quick photo.
When he ushered the four of us into the tent, however, a woman immediately began shoving prison-orange colored Korean hanbok dresses over our heads without exactly giving us a choice in the matter. Next, a white padded ring resembling a halo was placed on our heads and while we gaped at each other in confusion, several people brought out large, rectangular wooden blocks. They were replicas of the Tripitaka Koreana, wooden printing blocks engraved with the Buddhist scriptures.
But instead of asking as to hold them, as we anticipated, they were set on our heads and secured with a bow tied under our chins. We were instructed to balance them while we posed with a group of high-school aged boys dressed up in an array of traditional Korean clothing and costumes; meanwhile, two people took photos of us with our camera and theirs.
Perhaps the strangest thing of all was that throughout the entire experience, we struggled to suppress our laughter but no one else even cracked a smile. The boys posing with us, the woman clothing us, the man taking our photos–not a single one found the situation even remotely amusing.
After a few pictures they took back their costumes and sent us on our way without the slightest explanation of why we’d just played dress up in a tent with high schoolers outside of a temple. I can only imagine where those photos are going to end up…
This article first appeared in Platform, Daegu’s newest magazine aimed at reconnecting the city’s residents with the everyday highlights Daegu has to offer. Read the December issue HERE.