Drama Queen

People often talk about how flexible you need to be to work in Korea. It's totally true, but a year and a half in, I'm starting to notice all the consistency in my school life. I know that every Monday and Thursday I need to wear an extra layer, and that Tuesdays require a spare water bottle. I know my 4th period students will always arrive late regardless of school or grade level. I can say with certainty that whichever classroom I set up in, class will be switched to the other one. And I know that for one afternoon a week, from roughly 2:00 to 4:20, I will listen to grown men cry. It's not my fault. It's the administration. I spend one afternoon a week doing prep work on a computer in the teacher's room. Unlike in US schools, this is more an office than a lounge. The vice principal and head teacher's desks are in there, so generally silence is non-negotiable. But in this particular school there's also a big screen TV, and our VP's a K-drama addict.

K-dramas are the Korean version of soap operas. There are about a zillion of them, but they usually fit one of two molds: modern day romance of the "will John marry Mary?" variety; or historical drama set in the horse and spear era of Korea's past. Our VP likes the historical variety.

I didn't mind at first. They're visually pretty, if interchangeable. The plots center around the aristocracy (picture a pious Game of Thrones with weird hats and you've got it). The costuming is fantastic, and all the men have (gasp) facial hair. Many of these dramas are shot in nearby Danyang, in an enormous faux-palace complex. I went there once on a field trip, so I like spotting familiar scenery over the king's shoulder. Unfortunately, said king will probably spend the entire scene crying.

And we're not talking brave tears sliding silently down his face when departing from his lady love for the battle that may end his life. We're talking full on bawling. Garbled, sob-choked speech, shaking shoulders, the works. And if he's not crying, chances are he's making someone else cry. Because he's king, and apparently he can do that.

Of course, our VP's a busy guy, and sometimes he's out of the office on school business, in which case it's the head teacher's right to choose the channel. He  prefers to play shows on his computer, so he can watch and work simultaneously. Instead of historical dramas, he has a sweet tooth for romances set in modern day. Modern K-dramas have the same amount of tears, but with one key difference--they cry during the love scenes. Men crying is apparently the epitome of romance. From the sound of things, the head teacher favors "Best of" reels from K-drama's most romantic moments. Only he can see the screen, but the rest of us get a soundtrack of some guy crying, followed by the hushed tones of an emotive woman and a swell of violin music, which I take to be the kiss. Then it loops through the same scenario again with different voices. This can go on for hours. It's disconcerting to sit in a room full of adults working silently at their computers while an invisible man weeps for love.

K-dramas were on my list of Things I Won't Miss on Vacation, but while in the States we discovered a whole cache of Korean soaps on Hulu, complete with English subtitles. It turns out knowing what the actors are saying actually makes a difference. Sure, there's the crying thing, and most of the characters are built along very familiar stereotypes. But some of the modern dramas have quirks that kept me, the befuddled outsider, hooked. In fact, I will go so far as to make some specific recommendations to anyone who wants to try one out themselves:

Level Seven Civil Servant This is Korea’s version of a TV super spy show, interlaced with a little bit of rom-com. In episode one, the male lead’s mother sends him on a blind date with a girl born in the year of the tiger. The don't hit it off (in that way where they're clearly destined to fall in love). Unbeknownst to them, they are both studying for the same civil servant exam. A passing grade is the first step toward getting into the Korean James Bondian Spy Network. Then, they must face the interview!

Vampire Prosecutor Min Tae Yeon isn’t just a vampire—he’s also a prosecuting attorney! With his chubby cop friend by his side, he solves murders by drinking blood samples of the victims, allowing him to relive their last moments. It's a gripping police procedural, with a supernatural element thrown in for zest.

What can I say? I'm a sucker for a plot. Yup, any plot.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve gotta go watch my stories.


P.S. I will add that we also tried one of the historical dramas, something called Iron Empress. It was like a Korean Lord of the Rings. There were lots of horses, lots of extras, lots of people running around shooting arrows at each other. The plot was pretty labyrinthine, however, so we never got as into this one.

P.P.S. Those civil servant exams? Totally real. You have to pass one to get any governmental job, including teacher or policeman. I know because people gripe to me about the English language component.