“So… our Halloween party is coming up soon,” I told my class of ten upper-year Korean university students. “Every class is going to create a Halloween activity, so try and be creative – look for some ideas online.”
My class stared at me with mild confusion. One girl, Bora*, started to ask something and then decided against it.
“Come on, guys,” I encouraged. “It’ll be fun! And we should think of our costume theme, ‘cause we’re all going to get dressed up for the party!”
That’s when the audible groans came out as the students looked around at one another in apparent disbelief.
“Teacher…” another student, Gayeon, began apprehensively. “Do we have to wear a costume?”
Now I was exasperated. Instead of spending three hours studying for the notoriously difficult TOEIC Speaking Test, we were going to have a massive Halloween party, where students could dress up and play games all night with students in the fourteen other English classes at the International Language Center. And they were complaining???
“No,” I almost snapped, “You don’t have to wear a costume. But it will be fun, and all the other classes will be dressed up too.”
This conversation was not going as expected. I had anticipated an hour filled with laughter and group discussion, where we worked together to come up with original activities and fun costume ideas. But trying to convince my class to wear a costume was like trying to convince a recalcitrant child to eat brussel sprouts even though they taste like moldy socks.
After listening to some more woebegone muttering, I finally managed to direct the conversation to the topic of our class costume theme.
Thinking that a funny costume idea would get the girls more enthused about the party, I suggested that we dress in ajumma (middle-aged woman) fashion – floral-patterned button-down shirts, loose leggings, sparkly sun visors, and sandals. It would be easy to put together in a couple of weeks and comfortable to wear. But my students shot me down, horrified.
“Teacher – ajummas are not sexy!” Jiyoung informed me in complete seriousness.
“We don’t have to be sexy,” I countered, thinking about how inappropriate this conversation would be if I were a male teacher. “Halloween isn’t about being sexy…”
I stopped myself there, realizing that if any of my students did a random Google search for women’s Halloween costume ideas, there were likely to be assaulted with images of sexy zombies, sexy cats, sexy Catholic school girls, and other occupations and animals sexified in costume form for the holiday.
“Ok… how about we do a Matrix theme?” I suggested, after a few more ideas were floated around unsuccessfully. “All you need to do is wear black clothing and find long coats, black sunglasses, and black boots.”
The girls looked at each other and there was a flurry of bickering in Korean that went straight over my head.
Bora, the class leader, turned to me. “Ok, let’s do the Matrix.”
“Great!” Finally – consensus.
“But, teacher, can I ask you something?”
Bora paused, as if worried she would offend me. “We are wondering… what is the purpose of a Halloween party?”
I was flabbergasted. The purpose? I had never been questioned on that before. Should I explain the history of Halloween as an ancient Celtic festival, originating from paganism and celebrating the end of the harvest season? Or how the original reason for wearing masks and costumes was to confuse and ward off evil spirits? It was the first time I had really thought about how Halloween seemed from an outsider’s perspective: a bunch of Westerners dressing up like dead people and stereotypes of workers from various professions, parading down the street childishly while begging strangers for candy…
I could think of no good answer for Bora. “It’s – it’s just fun!” I replied unconvincingly.
The night of our Halloween party had arrived. I was just putting the finishing touches on the Trinity costume I was reprising for possibly the ninth time. Back in Canada, when I was feeling particularly uninspired on Halloween, I would raid my closet for the vestiges of my high school days as a ninth-grade fake goth, throw on all my black pleather clothing and my pair of $10 shades from the Shopper’s Drug Mart discount rack, and I’d have a costume ready to go, albeit one that was unoriginal and culturally outdated.
I walked into the classroom, and my heart almost stopped. Oh no. I looked around at my girls, who were waiting expectantly for my arrival. I had forgotten that most of my students are zealously fashionable, and although they had followed my instructions for the creation of their costumes, they didn’t look Matrix-y at all. Most of them had turned up decked out in black stilettos, dark minidresses, cropped leather jackets, sultry make-up, and J-Lo glasses. So instead of looking as if we’d stepped out of The Matrix, we looked like we were attending the funeral of a high-profile diplomat.
“Wow…” Hyeyun said to me, looking my androgynous outfit up and down with unhidden disapproval. “You look… cool.”
“Thanks. You guys look… great!” I responded in kind.
As we entered the party, the nervous discomfort was apparent. Girls were grouped in huddles with their classmates around the large conference room we were using for the night. Few people were mingling, and most of the activities were set up but untouched. Mini-dresses and stilettos abounded, with the occasional bunny ears, devil horns, or tiaras accessorizing the fashionable outfits.
After a few minutes of awkwardness, where students whispered and giggled among themselves and looked at their homeroom teacher for instructions on what to do, some made their way over to the various activities. There was apple bobbing, a cake-eating competition, pumpkin carving, a magic tricks station, and a totally bizarre vampire dance party happening in the corner…
The food arrived, and the mood lightened considerably. Scooping hunks of dak-kang-jung (sweet and crispy chicken wings with spicy sauce) into cups with chopsticks and gulping down copious amounts of Coke, the girls started to relax.
A couple of hours later, I was taking a food break at the side of the room with a co-worker. We watched the hundred or so girls packed into the room, chasing each other like zombies while laughing maniacally, commenting on each other’s outfits, and grabbing different teachers to pose with them in photos.
So my class had the worst costume theme ever, no activity planned for the other students, and some of them left early to eat chicken in the classroom by themselves.
I glanced over at my mini-dress-clad group. Bora lunged over at Gayeon and pretended to bite her in the throat, to the delight of everyone else in my class. Alright, she gets it, I thought. And that’s pretty awesome.
*The names of all students have been changed.