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Girls’ High school reunions: Friendships lasting through the Golden Years

It has been more than 130 years since Korean girls and women started to acquire formal education with the introduction of the Western school system in the country. Women have since made their way into the public sphere, but for many a high school reunion still remains a rare opportunity after school and marriage to get in touch with the world outside of family and in-laws.

The high school years are recalled by many as their most memorable time in school. For women who went to school at a time when girls and boys were strictly segregated, the connection with their friends from that period is very special and continues long after graduation, kept ever fresh by regular reunions. Between these gatherings, sweet memories of youthful friendships are kept alive by the songs of their youth like “The jeweled wings of dreams,” or the bittersweet refrain at graduation time, “The time of farewell has come, good-bye, wish you good luck, good-bye, friends....”

Address Book Five Years in the Making
Son Hei-young, a graduate of Ewha Girls’ High School, the oldest school for women in Korea, recalled the time when her schoolmates started having reunions. “In the 1960s, when we graduated from high school, we had a new world unfolding before each of us, so the alumnae did not stick together much. After about 20 years, we had established our lives to certain degrees and wanted to see old friends, so about ten of us, [who were] easy to contact, started to meet once a month. It took us five years to complete the address book of about 400 alumnae. We then published a newsletter, held events for the 30th, 40th, and 50th anniversaries of our graduation, and organized small hobby groups for sports, choir singing, painting, and other leisure activities.”
Activities at reunions are generally similar no matter what school the women attended.

Small groups meet regularly in each local area, and sometimes, a bigger official event is organized for a reunion of the entire class. Regardless of the size of the get-together, the participants enjoy themselves talking and eating together, taking in a lecture, playing sports, dancing and singing, traveling, or doing something for the alma mater. For the special events, mostly held in rented hotel ballrooms, they practice dancing and singing in advance. Everyone says they don’t feel awkward doing these things together, even though they might not have seen each other for a long time; surely this is due to the welltended memory of their old friendships.

Azalea pancakes, an earlyspring delicacy made with sticky rice dough mixed with pink azalea petals and fried in oil, have become a special treat identified with the annual reunion of graduates of Tongyeong Girls’ High School in Tongyeong, South Gyeongsang Province, where the spring flowers blossom earlier than anywhere in Korea. The school’s alumnae from various parts of the country gather at the school grounds to share the delicacy they made together and to renew their friendship.

Friendship Contained in Hometown Delicacies
Graduates of Tongyeong Girls’ High School, located in Tongyeong, a port city in South Gyeongsang Province, maintain a special tradition for their reunions. Every year on April 9, the school’s founding anniversary, they gather to cook azalea pancakes and mugwort rice cakes to be served and given as gifts.
Alumna Lee Jeong-yeon explained, “Around that time, the Tongyeong Market becomes a flower market. Before the reunion, hometown alumnae make the preparations as hosts of the gathering. They are joined by other alumnae who arrange to arrive ahead of the event. Together, they go to the market, buy azalea blossoms and glutinous rice for the dough and make the pancakes; they also make crescent-shaped mugwort rice cakes from a mixture of fresh mugwort and rice flour. We are grateful to the reunion committee, which prepares these delicacies every year.”
Village people living in nearby mountains pick the azalea flowers, take out the poisonous stamens, carry the remainder by the basketful, and sell them in the market. The alumnae buy them and mix so many of them with sticky rice dough that the dough is hardly visible. The small pancakes, baked shortly before eating, resemble pink flowers in bloom. In Tongyeong, every family prepares and enjoys this specialty in the spring.
Bae Do-su, president of the alumnae association of Tongyeong Girls’ High School, said, “Preparing this delicacy requires a lot of work, and the expense incurred in serving several hundred people is not low, but we gladly do it every time because they come, some from far away, with the expectation of enjoying these hometown delicacies. We want to relive the memory of enjoying them together as we did in the past.” She added, “We also give out some flower dough as a gift.”
In Kaesong, now in North Korea, people would make soup for the Lunar New Year’s Day with joraeng-i tteok, small pieces of rice cake pressed in the middle with a bamboo stick to form a figure 8 or the shape of an unshelled peanut. The soup is prepared for ancestral rites and is shared with family members afterward. Kaesong natives have kept their traditional cuisine even after leaving their hometown and settling in the South. Graduates of Kaesong’s Holston Girls’ High School gather together the day before the Lunar New Year and make these rice cakes to send to friends and kin as a gift. This tradition has been passed on to younger generations, including their daughters-in-law.
Some alumnae living in Seoul meet together more often, sustaining their friendships through different personal traditions. For Lee He-suk, who lives in a house with a big yard, making soy sauce using fermented soybeans together with friends from her elementary, middle, and high school years, is an annual event full of meaning. About two months later, they can all take home a pot of their very own soy sauce. Cheon Yi-hyang, president of the alumnae association of Pungmun Girls’ High School, and her fellow alumnae, her friends of 40 years, make mandu [dumplings] at home for those who have difficulty going out for the year-end party. Everyone brings one of the ingredients; they exchange gifts and enjoy chatting and sharing jokes like the young girls they were long ago. The gifts range from rice cakes, pretty dishware, or fine soaps, thoughtfully planned to avoid clutter at home. Those who take phone calls during the gathering have to pay a penalty.
Lee Sun and her school friends of 30 years meet once a month at the Sindorim subway station in southwestern Seoul. The meeting place was chosen for the convenience of those coming from other provinces. From there, they move to a nearby shopping mall for lunch. Chatting and discussing issues before them, and sometimes watching a movie, they spend an entire day together.

Using Social Media for Reunions
There are always some who are very good at housekeeping. From know-how on its trivial aspects to the secrets of smart investing, they exchange information on various topics. There also are always a couple of people expressing strong political opinions, which sometimes leads to awkward moments, but eventually, the moments pass and the discussions move on. One benefit of reunions is that they provide a chance to do some voluntary work. Members take on chores in turns, such as planning a trip or meeting, preparing necessary materials, sending out letters and messages, or keeping the accounts. As alumnae get older, they collect just enough money from members for occasional expenses. Usually, a monthly contribution of 30,000 won (approximately 30 dollars) will cover lunch and other costs, such as helping out on family events of the members.

In group photographs of 30-year reunions, alumnae often sit or stand straight in formal poses. The poses on photos of 40-year reunions are somewhat freer, with some half-reclining and relaxed, all smiling brightly. The parties often taking place for 50-year reunions represent the peak of this tradition.

The smartphone has also changed how reunions get organized. The current trend is to contact each other through group chat rooms. The old method of sending out newsletters by snail mail is now passé. About 10 years ago, internet cafés were dominant, but for a few years now, instant messaging apps are the main means of communication.
Through the smartphone, distances between friends from around Korea and overseas disappear as messages are exchanged instantly and 24/7. The downside of those apps is that engaging in too many chat rooms at a time can feel like swimming in a sea of spam, forcing one to decide what to do with the flood of messages. What’s more, by participating in numerous chat rooms, people sometimes become confused and send messages to the wrong one, thus unintentionally revealing private matters to the wrong person. Therefore, one needs a fair amount of social media skills when using alumnae chat rooms. Due to their convenience, as well as the curiosity of the members, social media were more actively used at first, but now more and more alumnae leave chat rooms to keep their daily lives more relaxed.

The Sunset of a Sweet Tradition
Inevitably, alumnae reunions also mark the passage of time. In group photographs of 30-year reunions, alumnae often sit or stand straight in formal poses. The poses on photos of 40-year reunions are somewhat freer, with some half-reclining and relaxed, all smiling brightly. The parties often taking place for 50-year reunions represent the peak of this tradition. Alumnae join from all over the world, dressed up for the special occasion. Contributions to their alma mater, such as scholarships, become bigger, and many boast their previously hidden talents in various performances during the gathering.

Friends since their youthful years, the women, now in middle age, revisit Gyeongju, the capital of the ancient Silla Kingdom and a memorable destination of their high school field trips. With memories of such a trip ever fresh, they play a “drop the handkerchief” game in the grass lawn near a royal tomb. Attired in their school uniform, their faces reflect the joy of reliving a memory from their school years.

Fifty years of friendship are celebrated in other ways, too. Some alumnae groups have published books recording their activities and time spent together. The 1965 graduates of Ewha Girls’ High School, for example, collected 300 photos of alumnae from 1946 to 2015 and published a photo essay book titled “Fashion History of Modern Korean Women 1946–2015.” It traces modern Korean women’s aesthetic sense during the country’s rapid industrial and social development, not through fashionable dresses worn by models and professional women but through the daily clothing of housewives, featuring some memories about famous fashion designers as backdrops.
There are certainly 60-year reunions, too, but as people get older, fewer of them can muster the energy required to organize them. By the age of 80, people often have trouble getting around due to arthritis, while others are bedridden, rendering reunions nearly impossible. And so, girls’ high school reunions draw to their close and the joys of friendships formed in youthful days slowly fade into distant memories.

Kim Yoo-kyung Journalist
Choi Jung-sun Photographer


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