City of Lights

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October 12, 2012 by travelinggrits

At Christmastime in South Carolina, I’ve been a frequent visitor to the Lights Before Christmas at Riverbanks Zoo ever since I was a child. During this special presentation, staged in the pitch darkness of December nights, it is hard to catch a glimpse of more than a few of the zoo’s inhabitants, but for this event one isn’t intending to view the birds and the beasts anyway. The zoo is transformed in a multicolored luminescent fantasyland, complete with swinging monkeys and elephants playfully spewing water from their trunks. Families wander the paved pathways and couples hold hands; cheerful music floats from speakers hidden in the trees. Concerns fall away, and spirits are high with thoughts of the holiday season.

At the Jinju Lantern Festival, I was transported to those December nights. The lanterns, staged on the Nam River, were a sight to see in the daytime, but when the sun went down and their electric bulbs began to burn, the magic began. My friend Hemma and I literally walked around for about five hours, going up and over the bridge, through a small fortress, beside the water’s edge and back again. Instead of wrapping my hands around a mug of hot cocoa, I noshed on a cob of corn speared on a stick. The chatter around me was in a foreign language, and the songs weren’t familiar holiday tunes. But I still felt transported to that fantasyland I knew from half a world away. The lights were even bigger this time: replicas of Disney characters, animals, scenes of traditional Korean life. I felt like a child again, marveling at those lanterns, and you could have easily convinced me that the holiday season was just around the corner.

Some of the festival’s visitors paid to construct miniature lanterns, make wishes and set them free on the river. I watched a couple accompany their lantern as far as they could, stumbling over rocks by the waterside as they ushered it safely to the bridge and beyond.

Buoyed up by the pleasant evening, I made a wish of my own and sent it out to the vast waters of the future. The current of life in Korea ebbs and flows, but as long as my hopes and dreams stay afloat, I can be a light to my students, to host family, to my community, to everyone I meet.

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