When you're an expat, you deliberately surrender the traditions that make home, home. But if you're lucky, you'll have experiences that remind you that although you're a stranger in a strange land, things aren't so different after all.
In late October the Gwangalli beachfront hosted the 7th annual Busan International Fireworks Festival. Like the Fourth of July, but on steroids, and in October.
Thursday night’s warm-up act featured many-a-Korean-superstar musical acts like BoA, Super Junior, and SHINee. Friday showcased short fireworks shows representing China, Italy, and Portugal. Shane and I opted out, saving ourselves for the headliner Saturday night.
Weeks before, we were advised by those in the know to get to Gwangalli hours early to get a spot. Organizers expected 1.5 million spectators crammed on rooftops, in streets, and on the 1.4 kilometer-long stretch of sand-- standing room only if you got there anytime after 6:00.
Our cohort arrived around 3:30. Camping out with other expats, we drank pitchers, ate pizza and street food, and chatted with new friends, comparing notes on our Busan experiences. As the show approached, we found ourselves gridlocked on the beach, defending our blanket territory amidst a sea of Koreans. A simple trip to the bathroom, a mere 50 feet away, turned into a 45 minute debacle including stepping over bodies, finding an officer to stamp your hand as proof that you in fact had a prized spot on the sand, wrestling your way though the crowd, and waiting in line for 20 minutes. Then you had to make it back.
When the sky darkened enough, the Diamond Bridge lit up, outlined by colored lights and spotlights. We were entertained by enthusiastic dancers, giant beach balls, and Korean music blaring over the loudspeakers. As soon as the first of the 100,000 fireworks was shot off, the crowd cheered and then fell into a trance.
It was magnificent. The fireworks lasted an hour, and were timed perfectly to a multimedia presentation that took us around the world. Giant screens perched atop barges played videos of the chosen countries, while music representing those nations played on the loudspeakers. So what songs represented the U.S, you ask? “Under the Sea,” “New York, New York,” and the “Sex and the City” movie theme song. Of course.
After this show I'll probably be spoiled for life. No fireworks show will live up to the BIFF's variety, beauty, and brightness. Except maybe the next time I see Fourth of July fireworks back home.
If you watch the video, watch all the way through- the finale is the best.