‘What happens if the boat sinks?’Representing virtues of vitality, integrity, courage and patriotism, scouting is considered by many as honorable and glorious as King Arthur’s Knights of the Round Table.
Compared to the 93-year-old Boy Scouts of America, Korea’s Aramdan (literally “beautiful group”) is quite young, having been founded in 1981. But its members partake in the same rigorous group activities like mountain hiking, camping and even assisting farmers with the planting ― all in the spirit of camaraderie, cooperation and adventure.
On a sunny, breezy Labor Day, about 70 Aramdan kids from Shindaerim Elementary school in Daerim-dong, southwestern Seoul, have amassed along the banks of the Han River at 10:30 a.m.
Girls and boys, school faculty and some parents form a noisy, vibrant group this morning, excited by the prospect of rowing down the invitingly wide but greenish-brown Han.
But the kids sit up and listen attentively when a boating instructor from the Korea Youth Association, Aramdan’s parent group, motions to begin discussing proper rowing technique and safety.
All students are wearing standard issue Aramdan attire. A green and yellow-striped shirt is de rigueur for the older grades, while the younger ones sport blue tops and navy blue bottoms.
“Our uniform has changed into blue so the older grades just wear what they have, and the new members put on the new one,” explains Jo Seong-han, Aramdan’s coordinator at Shindaerim. Despite the preponderance of colored bands on the shirt sleeves and rings on the shoulders, the blue uniforms and matching hats make the children look like miniature cops from afar. But on closer inspection, the Aramdan logo, a budding tree and a Korean flag stitched to their shirt breasts distinguish the bunch.
Before the boating lessons get underway, the troops warm up with some jumping jacks and rabbit hops. Then instructor Sim Sang-su points to one student, asking him to come out and serve as an example.
He directs the boy to a black rubber boat lying before them, and with the boy as model, shows how to fasten a life jacket, hold the oars and paddle properly. As the shy boy fumbles when trying to fasten the life jacket alone, the group erupts in laughter, turning the boy red to the roots of his hair.
After about 40 minutes of ponderous explanations on how to position yourself in the boat, how to change directions when rowing and more, the group finally moves to the dock in packs of sevens and eights.
Although most children here cannot swim and tend to fear the water, Gang Deuk-in for one is not intimidated. A pudgy bloke of 10, he boasts, “I can swim so I’m not scared.” The most outspoken in the group, he insists his group enter the boat first and shouts to the instructor, “Sir, you look like Won Bin,” referring to a handsome 20-something TV actor. “Now please let us go first!”
No one wears cotton training suits, and their uniforms appear a bit uncomfortable. But Mr. Jo justifies their usage, saying “It’s still kind of windy to be wearing shorts and T-shirts.” As the children step into the boats one by one, Mr. Jo yells out, jokingly: “Kids, I hope you return alive,” provoking some girls to giggle.
Overshadowing the escapades on the water, Aramdan’s membership has plummeted in recent years. From 500,000 members of all ages in 1997 ― that includes middle schools’ Nuridan, high schools’ Hanbyoldan and college-age Hanwool ― just 340,000 now don the uniform, according to the Korea Youth Association.
The association attributes the 30 percent shrinkage to three factors: a smaller school-age population, parents’ “all work and no play” mindset, and the 1997-98 financial crisis which induced families to spend less on extracurricular activities.
“I think nowadays, kids are avoiding outdoor activity-related clubs,” says Mr. Jo. “Only half of Aramdan moves up to Nuridan when they go to middle school.”
As the boats float away from the dock, a funny thing occurs: The rafts begin twirling around because the children are paddling at the same time, making it impossible to direct the boat in a single direction. Some rafts even go in reverse, and the kids squabble, yelling at one another to paddle this way or that.
As one mother points her camera, her son manages to flash a V-sign despite the confusion of the moment. Soon, Mr. Sim yells instructions such as “Only those on the left paddle!” or “Do as I told you, aim for the Hangang bridge.” Surely enough, the boats eventually straighten out.
When a boys-only raft bumps into one manned by girls, a water fight ensues. The Aramdam splash each other’s boats, and one boy jumps into a girls’ boat to scare them. The girls push him in the water, but he is soon rescued by his crew.
Observing this, Mr. Jo yells out from the dock, “Hey, stop fooling around!” But to the kids, it’s nothing so much as a thrilling joy ride.
Only when Mr. Sim, the instructor, approaches on a one-man boat does the ruckus die down. He brings the mischievous bunch to the riverbank and makes them stand and hold their arms up as punishment, a move that inspires the remaining boats to scatter apart and paddle west.
A boy wearing Coke-bottle eyeglasses inquires of his teacher, “If a boat is leaking, what happens if the boat sinks?” Mr. Jo replies nonchalantly, “I’ll rescue you,” and the boy’s face displays a look of horror. “You mean it might actually sink? Oh no!”
By now, most scouts are soaked, from having fallen into the river or being splashed on. One boy finds a dead fish floating on the river’s surface, and throws it at a girls’ boat. A great deal of screaming, yelling and laughter ensue.
After reaching the Hangang bridge, the rookie boaters do an about-face and paddle back east toward the dock. After stepping on dry land, fourth-grader Lee Chung-hee says, “It feels so icky to be in the water; thank goodness I brought extra clothes.”
Besides outdoor adventures, the Daerim-dong kids and 150,000 other Aramdan (third to sixth graders) across Korea also go on trips to historic sites like Buddhist temples or Panmunjeom, and carry out community service like visiting elderly at nursing homes. They also learn traditional customs like kite-making, study science and nature and engage in exchange programs.
“Aramdan is special because we train students about solidarity, cooperation, a sense of order and responsibility to our members,” says Mr. Jo. “We’re a purely Korean group that is not affiliated with a foreign or religious one. But the activities we engage in are quite similar to the Scouts.”
After 1 1/2 hours of rollicking river fun, the kids gather around the post eating homemade sandwiches, gimbap, and lunch boxes of rice, kimchi and other side dishes.
Lee Mi-rae, a fifth grade girl, professes to have enjoyed the river excursion. “I don’t find it physically hard but rather fun,” she says, adding that volunteer work as part of Aramdan is also fulfilling.
For Shindaerim Elementary School’s Aramdan, the day’s activity and others throughout the year is enough for them to say, “proud to be an Aramdan.”
by Choi Jie-ho