BUSAN, South Korea – First, no one was fired or deported due to the police investigation. However, several participants who were due to start new teaching jobs the following March, found that their schools were unable to process their visa applications due to the investigation, and therefore the schools had to withdraw the job offers.
Unable to start a new job, some of these people had no choice but to leave the country when their old visas expired (I believe there were three such cases). Strangely, those of us who were renewing or extending contracts and visas at our current schools had no problem, and could stay in Korea. Of the people who were forced to leave, all eventually returned to Korea after a few months when the investigation was completed, and found just as good, or better jobs.
As for the investigation, Chris Tharp (the other co-producer/writer/actor/director) and I appeared before the prosecutor, who asserted that the investigation was IN NO WAY about the show’s content. “We have freedom of speech here in Korea, even for foreigners,” he said through an interpreter. He said the only legal issues were the violation of our teaching visas by charging money for the show (and selling beer), and also about performing without a proper license.
Chris and I had to write letters of apology and understanding, and the case was closed, with no additional punishment. Well, I had my doubts about the prosecutor’s statement about the content of our show, but at least we thought we were off the hook.
However, even though the POLICE matter was closed, we soon learned that Korean Immigration still had carte blanche to deny visas, and some of us had to write further letters of apology and have employers plead on our behalves down at the Immigration Office. Immigration officials obviously had problems with the CONTENT of our show, as some of them directly told us, “You did a bad thing—you made fun of Immigration.” (More on that in a bit.)
As recently as the summer of 2008, when I was applying for a new visa at my current job, the Daejeon Immigration Office turned down my school’s visa request due to the black mark from Babo-palooza. Luckily, my school is basically sponsored by the mighty Hanhwa Corporation, which basically rammed my paperwork through.
Erica Shaw (at bar), Chris Tharp, Annabelle Murphy (seated)
As far as the show itself, and Jeffery’s take on it. I’m fine with him, or anyone, finding the show “a bit offensive, vulgar, and often portray[ing] Korean stereotypes in an unflattering light.” Yet he quickly goes from “a bit offensive” to, in the next line, saying that Korean culture “was roasted, chargrilled and then put in the microwave for good measure,” which to me is cheap hyperbole. The “babo” (fools) in Babo-palooza were meant to be ourselves, not Koreans.
The show was conceived as a piss-take on our strange, disorienting, at times surreal expat lives and jobs here in South Korea. Chris and I were keenly aware of the potential for this show to offend and anger Koreans, and there was a lot of debate on what to keep and what to cut.
Chris and I wanted to draw the line at the Immigration sketch (not written by Chris or me), where several of our actors portrayed grim, hyper-nationalistic Immigration officials “quizzing” a newly arrived foreign English teacher on Korean culture. I thought the sketch, complete with us waygooks speaking in stilted, awkward Konglish, was tantamount to acting in blackface. However, the sketch’s writer vociferously objected, and we reluctantly kept the sketch in the show. As this was the sketch that Immigration officials directly alluded to when they explained why our visas were being denied, it’s clear that we should have gone with our instincts.
If we had cut this sketch, would there have been no police or immigration hassle at all? Hard to say—but it’s clear that directly mocking Korean Immigration was like handing them a very big club and inviting them to beat us with it, which they did.
Remco Dalmaijer, Annabelle Murphy, Gus Swanda, Erica Shaw and Lorcan Kitching
While the whole police/immigration affair was a gigantic headache, it was oddly fascinating to watch as the story blew up on the blogosphere, the newspapers, Korean TV, and even in some papers back home.
It was like watching a train wreck in slow-motion. While we all felt some anger and resentment at our treatment, I also remember the many, many Korean friends who not only came to the show and loved it, but who also provided invaluable support and advice as the whole shit-storm threatened to actually ruin people’s lives.
The saddest part of the whole affair was the hugely chilling effect it had on the expat performance scene in Busan, as Jeffery noted in his article. In 2005-2006, there was a lot of creative energy in town, and after the roaring success of Babo-palooza (before the police hammer fell) it seemed anything was possible. But after the crackdown, people were literally afraid to strum a Beatles tune at a coffee shop open-mic.
I am still very proud of the show we put on, but I still regret the “atmosphere of suspicion and retribution,” as Jeffrey put it, that it engendered. It has taken awhile, but I think the scene has fully revived. I hope BUSAN NIGHT LIVE becomes a regular event, and that nobody in Busan will ever again be afraid to put their creative dreams into action.