Everyone knows college students have the most fun, right? It’s mid-May. The sky is blue, the grass is green, flowers are blooming, the whole world seems to start anew with fresh hope and promise, and with mid-terms over and the finals a bit away, it’s the perfect time for colleges and universities to throw a fun-filled festival.
Especially called “Daedongje” (대동제, “great united festival”), university festivals take place twice a year: once in the spring and once in the fall. The spring festivals generally take place in May with schedules differing by university, so the whole month is usually packed with festivities from start to finish. Most universities opt for the middle of the month when the weather is usually the most reliable.
University festivals are not just simple parties of a large scale. The objective of the festival is to bring students together and create a sense of unity by their cooperating on various events, projects, and festivities. There would be exhibits of every discipline and field, not only the arts, and many sports events are held with departments competing with one another, which usually come along with cheering competitions, complete with a “best cheering outfit” prize. (Which, if I remember correctly, either went to the really outstandingly dressed or the most hilarious.)
Chorus competition between departments can get pretty heated; various singing and dancing contests are also held for talented individuals who usually come with the whole department as their cheering section. There are also somewhat funny and ridiculous competitions to alleviate the mood as well, usually held on stage with a student MC presenting.
These days “couple contests” are hugely popular. For example: the guy would have to crouch and stand up while carrying his girlfriend, the one who lasts the longest wins; or there would be “couple quizzes” asking personal questions about each other, the couple who answers the most questions correctly wins, that sort of thing.
Besides the presented programs, there are also carnival stands to enjoy. The water-drop and water balloon throw are absolutely essential; choosing the volunteer who would eventually get wet is in itself a contest, either decided by several rounds of rock-scissors-paper or random draw. Usually in a co-ed university the guys usually take on the job, while most of the time at a women’s university, unless it’s a very hot day, the process of selecting a volunteer can challenge the unity of your department. (I know this from experience.)
One of the first things that come to mind of Koreans when university festivals are mentioned are jujeoms (주점, bar/pub). Normally set up in makeshift booths or tents, somewhat like the familiar pojangmacha (포장마차), these pop-up drinking spots are set up by students to make some extra money for their department. They are usually called il-il jujeom (일일주점), since they are only up for one day. You can literally drink on campus!
Departments try hard to lure customers into their jujeoms by cooking better than the other departments or interesting marketing tactics, but it’s usually the students or alumni of the same department who feed upon the cooking efforts of the other students. Professors are invited, err, begged to come over and spend much money, to which most oblige quite willingly, although the students’ cooking might not be up to par.
The most common dish sold at jujeoms are jeon (전), mainly pajeon (파전), the thin savory scallion pancake which is easy to make in a short period of time. There’s a famous urban legend about university jujeom pajeon where students run out of scallions and substitute the scallions with grass hastily pulled from the university grounds, unbeknownst to the customers, but this legend has been around for so long (decades, even), that some people just jokingly order jandee jeon (잔디전, grass jeon) from the start.
These days the menus are quite diversified and with some booths being sponsored by food companies, the choices and quality of the food have been improved immensely. Although I still think that the charm of university jujeoms is eating the not quite perfect food students make.
Another recent development in university festivals is the invitation of big stars. Many K-pop stars show up to rock the stage and close the festival among a huge crowd. Since university festivals are open to everyone, it’s not only the students who are able to see their favorite stars up close, but many other people also attend the final concerts.
Seeing your favorite stars without having to pay for tickets? Whereas some think it’s a great chance, there is criticism of this practice as well, since the stars attendance fee is paid by the university. Disapproval mostly saying the university festival has lost its true meaning of being something “for the students by the students”. Some universities opt not to invite stars to their festivals, while others still think it’s a nice touch to boost the students’ morale and enthusiasm.
It’s not only about the stars, though. There will be music everywhere. Student bands and singers will be able to showcase their talents on stage. Not necessarily performing, students will also casually sit in groups and sing along with the always existent acoustic guitar player in their midst. (Lighting campfires is not allowed, though.)
There will be dancing in the streets and no one would blink an eye. Actually, they might join you. People will be freely expressing themselves; some might go around in bizarre and funny costumes, some might be trying to convey their artistic spirit. Anything goes. (Within decency limits, of course. After all, it’s still a university.)
There are other things that are permissible during festivals which usually are not at other times. Women’s universities, the “no men land”, are open to men; some facilities normally not open at regular times would be open, historic objects and documents might be on display. Also, there would be booths set up for charities and non-profit organizations, and some departments would be making profit for a worthy cause.
All in all, university festivals are a fun experience, even if you’re not a student. Since universities are open to all, check out the schedule for the nearest university in your neighborhood and saunter over during the festivities. Take in the atmosphere, throw some water balloons, donate to a charity, drink some makkeolli and join in a conversation with students at a jujeom, see some K-pop stars strut their stuff on stage, enjoy the bursts of color the fireworks create in the sky.
And don’t fret if you’ve missed it; there are many universities, and university festivals last until the end of the month. Plus, there are also festivals in the fall and of course, next year.