The Thrill of Asking a Question on a Korean Game Show


“William, I cannot do Winter Camp with you,” my coteacher Hye Jeong told me one day before winter camp started.  “The school will be on show, and I must learn to dance for show.”

I nodded, although I had no idea what she was talking about.  Being in Korea had taught me to just go along with things and not ask, so that’s what I did.  Fine.  The school will be on a show.  And she’s going to dance.  Of course.  Who couldn’t predict something like this would happen?

That was two weeks ago.  Just two days ago, Hye Jeong told me, “You must go to Dong-bu Student Gym tomorrow, for show taping.”  Again, I nodded.  I’m not sure what I anticipated.  Maybe that there would be some guy with a video camera and we’d all get on public access tv.  I might’ve even been unhappy about this break from the routine, if not for the fact that Hye Jeong had spent the last two weeks in dance practice, and I found it humorous that the school would make her get on tv and shake what her uhm-ma gave her.

All this is background, established in an attempt to convey why I was completely blown away when I stepped into the Dong-bu Student Gym.  The place (huge and, of course, unheated) was filled with a wonderful set – a giant golden bell placed in the middle of what looked like a quaint Dutch city.  I felt like I was in Amsterdam or something.  There were enormous lights all over the place, and a camera crew setting up.  A gigantic crane was erected and a camera was hung from it.  Peter Teacher came to me with a smile on his face, “This is popular game show on Channel 9.  That is the government channel.  The show will broadcast all over Korea next month.  They will all see you.”

“They’ll see me?”

“Yes,” he said, beaming.  “You will read question.”

“I’ll read questions?” I asked, unprepared.  “How many?”

“No,” he said.  “Question.  One English question.  You will read it.  The camera will zoom in on your face.”

For the next three hours, I sat in the live studio audience as “The Golden Bell Challenge” was recorded.  The whole time, I kept wondering when I would be called up to read my one question (and how I could try to stop the camera from zooming up on my f**king face).  The game consisted of 100 students being asked questions and writing their answers down on dry erase boards.  After the host would ask a question, my school’s teachers – sitting to my left and right – would aggressively whisper the answers to the students.  I would later learn that this was ordered by the principal.  It makes sense.  No school wants all of its students ousted from “The Golden Bell Challenge” after five or six questions.  It is much better to cheat, obviously, than to be humiliated publicly.

During the lunch break, I asked Peter Teacher if I could see my English question, and also what the winner of the game gets.

“It is impossible for you to see the question,” he said, cryptically, following that with the equally mystifying, “If a boy rings the Golden Bell, great opportunities will come.”

Finally, six hours into taping, when all of the students sitting away from the teachers had gotten a question wrong and been dismissed, the producer called me to the front and I was handed an envelope with a question in it.  I read it to myself.  “What painting…no eyebrows…Leonardo da Vinci…”  I was relieved that there were no difficult words in it.  I lifted a small flap and looked at the answer.

Mona Risa.

Suddenly, I went into panic mode.  What would happen if a deserving student was told he was wrong because of this letter slip up?  I ran to the producer, “Wait!  It’s NOT Mona RISA!  It’s LISA!  Mona LISA!  I swear!”

She didn’t argue, just wrote an “L” over the “R” and gave it to the host who looked at the change without any interest.  Eventually I read the question, bashfully looking away from the camera, and my moment of fame was over.

Sadly, no one got to ring the Gold Bell.  The winning student could not get the Bell Questions right and the show ended without tolling.  The country will watch him fall narrowly short of glory when the seven hours of footage are edited down to one and the program is broadcast.  I wonder what won’t make it in?  Hye Jeong dancing to Girls Generation?  My English question?  I’m sure a lot of us in that gym yesterday will have stories like this – about how we were there, and on camera, in a moment that just wasn’t quite good enough.