Monday, June 28, 2010


My trip to California was, despite its rewards, horribly timed for me in the sports category. First, the only specific thing I wanted as far as sightseeing went was to go to a game at Dodger Stadium, and the Dodgers left town on a road trip while I was in the air to the States and came back the day after I returned to Korea. Also, I'd really been looking forward to joining a big Korean crowd for a World Cup match on a big screen; the first Korean game of the first round happened while I was flying east and the last the day before I flew west.

Fortunately, the Taeguk Warriors (that's the official name of the team, "Taeguk" being the yin/yang symbol on the flag, but everybody just calls them the Reds) made it through to the second round. On Saturday, then (having returned on Thursday evening Korea time), I looked into where to join a frenzied mob of Red Devils (fans) for their second-round game.

The big public viewing spots were at City Hall and Hangang Park by the river (coincidentally the spot where my recent 5K and 10K runs were held). Each of these venues had hosted over 10,000 fans for each of the first-round games, and that's exactly what I was looking for: screaming, singing, partying among a host of crazier-than-usual locals.

But the game would be over about 1 a.m., the forecast was for 90 percent rain, and the prospect of walking home five miles-plus, assuming I didn't get lost (which was a big assumption) in the rain, in the dark, after the subway stopped running...

I settled for the CGV theater in the ritzy shopping area of Gangnam, which set aside three screens for the Korean tv broadcast. The room I was in held about 125 screaming, chanting, red-clad fans. We chanted "Republic of Korea" ("DAE-han-min-guk!" clap-clap-clapclapclap) and shouted at the screen and pounded the inflatable plastic sticks that the theater gave us and just had a wonderful time. The moment when Korea tied the game halfway through the second half was a moment of pure joy that... well, you usually can't get that feeling in public.

But finally the Reds were edged out and we all filed out quietly to join the subdued but orderly Red Devils (many with still-glowing plastic devil horns on their heads), milling about the main drag. There was a large number of cops deployed to keep order, but they weren't needed.

I walked home in an intermittent drizzle. On the way, I passed three young people who responded to my scarlet "Korea Fighting: shirt by chanting "DAE-han-min-guk" and cracked up when I joined them in the rhythmic clap. I got home, oozed into bed, couldn't sleep (damn jet lag), and got up to blearily stare at the US losing their game, going back to bed again at 5:30, about an hour later than I've been waking up each day (damn jet lag). But I'd like to end this post with a couple of more positive thoughts.

First, I was the only non-Korean I saw inside the theater building and I was older than anyone else there by about thirty years. I've gotten used to seeing very few Westerners and, whether walking around downtown Daegu or in Gangnam, I generally stand out in the crowd as much for my white hair as my ashen skin and funny eyes. The positive thought? That's fine. Somewhere along the line, I stopped caring about being different. For a long, long time in my life I never wanted to stick out. Now I just don't care; wherever I am is where I belong. I'll write more about this if I ever get my thoughts together enough to blog about my California trip.

Also, during the game's first half, the two twenty-something women sitting to my left at the theater saw that I didn't have a pair of the plastic cheering sticks. Each of them gave one of theirs to me and spent the rest of the first half holding one each, beating them together awkwardly but endearingly. At halftime I went out to the lobby, got my own sticks, and gave theirs back with thanks. This is a small thing, but it's a reminder to me that, however xenophobic or closed Koreans may seem as a group, individually they often show real kindness and consideration to a waegook far from home.

Or am I far from home? Wherever I am really is where I belong. DAE-han-min-guk.

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