2007 Sejong Writing Competition

Winning Entries :: Essays :: Junior third place

Most influential encounter with Korean culture
Andrew Song

As I perceive the drum beats crashing through the air, I look into my fellow performers’ intense eyes, and I can’t help but grin as my mallets strike my silky jangoo. My instrument, an oak drum shaped like an hourglass and representing rain, sends beats that mingle with the bbuk, a flat bamboo, cylindrical bass drum that represents clouds. As we play, the hollow jangoo and the thundering bass of the bbuk fuse together to create a melody that only Korea has dared to create. As we peer at the Korean dancers prancing on the colossal stage midst the audience staring with engrossed interest, the jing, a giant, brass 26-inch gong which is the instrument of wind, suddenly gongs creating fluctuating tones that serenade through our ears. The colors and hues of our traditional garments, hanbok, harmonize with the aromatic scents of marinated and steaming bulgogi, a traditional Korean dish, coming from the cooks. Suddenly, the gghengahri, the lead instrument of lightning which is a 5-inch gold plate, crashes into our quartet creating an ancient Korean melody that tells the stories of emperors and empresses during deep-rooted eras. The underlying pulse, emotions, and my energy fill me with a strength I had not known before. I feel energized and full of pride at playing my drum to present Korean culture to American society at Navy Pier. However, this glorious Saturday would cause me recollect some fateful memories.

Before my fateful encounter with samulnoree, which means “four instruments playing,” I was ashamed of my Korean heritage. I was only in 4th grade and was subject to lots of teasing. As I timidly sauntered through the congested halls of my school, I had heard a 6th grader yelling cruel remarks about my heritage. Instantly, I felt dreadful as those comments kept echoing in my head. Trying to ignore all memories of those events, I would block out all traces of those remarks and would attempt to get to the library without any more teasing or insults. Although years have passed I still received painful comments about my heritage. It would have been cool if Oprah was Korean or some movies took place in Seoul, the capital of Korea. Sometimes, it seemed there was no Korean culture to look at to be proud of. I felt like all of the Korean culture in America seemed to be tainted by the image of Korean-Americans. Communism in N. Korea and the poverty stimulated others to suspect me. Remarks of nuclear bombs and N. Korea’s cruel dictator would leave an imprint in my head. However, my feelings about all this changed on one fateful Saturday morning.

Almost as soon as I had risen to my clock, I was whisked away to Korean School. I was in 4th grade and was eligible to join the school’s samulnoree group. As my instructor, Hanmo, taught me the basics of playing the jangoo, I began to tap away at the rhythm that had been played by professional players for 7 years. Korean culture has so many hidden aspects that I had never heard about. Samulnoree showed me that it was not just some mallets striking drums, but an elegant art that has been in Korea longer than the USA existed. Several weeks into Korean School, I finally understood the enormity of the culture that was founded in Korea. Soon, I began to enjoy beating away on my jangoo. All of my teachers and instructors helped me to see just how many secrets I had not uncovered before.

On the day of the performance, I was prepared to show the world just how devoted Koreans are to their traditions. I wanted people to take Korean heritage seriously; I would keep playing until I wouldn’t be able to play anymore. To me, showing my nation’s pride and culture was the most significant accomplishment that I could hope for. My heart was soaring at this chance to prove that Koreans were a traditional and proud group of people. Every single step sent a spine-tingling chill through my body as I walked out towards that stage. As the lights shone on our faces, revealing our concentrated expressions, we elevated our arms getting ready to strike the first beat. Bong! That first note harmonized and blended so beautifully, it took an unprecedented turn and echoed and fluctuated throughout the whole room. After a dramatic pause, our hands bounced with the mallets on the perfected skins of our instruments. I just couldn’t help but smile! The rapid drumming tired out my arms but it was worth it.

That performance and others following presented to the world the beautiful culture of Korea. Korea’s culture is an ancient art that has a lot of potential to show the world. Samulnoree has become a part of my soul and has aided me in perceiving not just the obvious aspects like kimchee but the fact that I was not weaker than everybody else and had an important culture to enlighten the world with.