Watching the Koreans watch soccer is very similar to watching fat, white Americans watch Ohio State Football in Columbus. Everyone is wearing red, drunk, and cheering as a group. Of course there are some glaring differences. First, we say, “Go! Go! Go!” They say, “Ka! Ka! Ka!” We wear buckeyes. They wear devil horns. While the Koreans are more enthusiastic, they are less obnoxious and belligerent. Their cheers are far more well rehearsed. It is much more involved than drunkenly calling back “I-O.” Once they’ve settled down after the cheering, they clap politely, golf style. They are far more invested in their team. They are in this together. They win together and lose together. Last night as the Uruguay game was playing out, the people filling the bars and streets cheered together. As we walked past, Korea scored a goal, and a stranger jumped up and hugged Doug.
Koreans are fiercely proud of their World Cup soccer team, but then again they are fiercely proud of Korea. Americans, on the other hand, have been on top so long that we take for granted our little victories, hell even our major victories don’t seem to make headline news. Each Korean has a team playing in South Africa. Everyone shares that one team. That team is representing every single South Korean. We haven’t had that feeling at home since the Miracle on Ice in 1980, and we needed a Cold War to heat up our interest for that one. Koreans get excited when anyone from Korea succeeds. Famous Korean athletes are referred to as national heroes. People are personally proud of these famous Koreans, as though those athletes trained just for them.
I’ve never felt this sense of unity as an American. The one thing that makes Americans different from the rest of the world (since we are made up of the rest of the world) is our individuality. We never do anything together. We don’t tread on each other. Our national motto is, “You aren’t the boss of me.” This is great in so many ways. Our individuality drives our creativity and ingenuity, but it leaves us each on our own. We are so big and so powerful that we take our success for granted. We don’t even notice when we set metal winning records at the Olympics. We don’t care how our schools are ranked in the world. We aren’t cheering our victories as a group.
Koreans stick together. They even cheer on the North Korean soccer team, because they are Korean. I’ve wondered what drives this fierce patriotism. I knew that smaller nations rout for their teams harder, because they need the routing more than a superpower that can just pay for the finest sports teams around. I knew that as one of the most homogeneous societies in the world, they are proud of their heritage, their unique history and ancestry. I knew that as one of the fastest developed countries of the past one hundred years they are proud of the economy they have built in a single generation.
Then today, I visited Seodaemun Prison History Hall. The Robin Island of Korea, located in the heart of Seoul it is where the Japanese imprisoned, tortured and killed Korean patriots during the imperial occupancy that lasted from 1908 until Korean independence, and division, in 1945. This would turn out to be a short-lived moment of peace as a mere 5 years later, the Korean War would begin (60 years ago this week).
No wonder Koreans are so bound together. Korea is not a country that has gone out and conquered other people, like the U.S., England, Spain, Japan, and China. They are a small nation which has been dealt a lot of hard times to power through, and they have powered through with the best of them. This scrappy country, in the past 100 years, has not only won its independence from Japan and battled to save its self from Communist rule (with a little help from her friends) but it has built one of the fastest growing economies in the world. South Korea is, so far, the only nation that once received aid from foreign nations to now give aid to developing nations. They outrank the U.S. in education hands down. They are investing in and working toward their future. Not their individual futures, but the future of their nation. Each individual success builds a stronger Korea. Every goal that is scored validates the 50 hour work week and the endless hours of study.
You cannot keep Korea down. Like Texas, it’s best not to be messed with.