I remember the rush of nationalistic pride four years ago when South Korea made an impressive showing in the the 2002 World Cup. For the historically overrun and raped peoples of the peninsula, it was a sweet feeling to find the Koreans outshining all of their Asian neighbors, especially the co-host Japan, and to see them compete at the highest level of sports competition. Sure they looked really short against the Germans, but the success of Korea’s soccer team imbued a sense of confidence and can-do attitude in this small country.
I may be out of touch with the Korean way of life – my language skills are lacking, my cultural tastes are often at odds, and I haven’t even gone back to visit the motherland since immigrating here some 17 years ago – but I still get a bit upset if people think I’m Chinese or criticize Korean cuisine. And how can I ever forget? I’ll never lose my Korean physical features, the cravings for Spam in ramen noodles, or eating seaweed soup on my birthday. My parents and grandmother, as remote as they’ve been from the country of Korea, are still in step with the latest dramas, celebrity gossip (via Korean websites), and holistic medicines. But I digress; back to sports.
It’s a good time to be someone with Korean ties and a sports fan. The Winter Olympics saw the triumph of Koreans on short track and although Ohno won a gold (at least in a fair way this time), everyone knew which country produced the top short track skaters. The way the Koreans blasted past the Canadians in the men’s relay race for the gold was awe-inspiring. They made it look too easy. And what of this year’s Super Bowl MVP? Hines Ward is not fully Korean, skeptics would say. But he’s half Korean, has the unmistakable Korean face, was raised by a single Korean mother, and spending his vacation time – where else? – in Korea. Let us have our stake in claiming him for our community!
And most recently – the Korean baseball team. Ichiro, the Japanese superstar who plays for the Mariners, wrote off the Korean team early by saying that a crushing Japanese victory would set the Korean team back for at least the next 30 years. So when Japan and Korea met on Japan’s home turf, what just had to happen? A Korean victory, of course. A New York Times article mentions how Korean players are especially motivated to succeed in the World Baseball Classic tournament because waivers for military service will be given to the younger players if the team can make it into the semifinals. Tonight, they did the unthinkable and crushed an incredibly stacked American baseball team. Alex Rodriguez? Derek Jeter? Chipper Jones? How about a lineup full of Lees and Kims?
The reason I tout the success of Koreans in sports is not so much that I am an ultra-nationalistic Korean (I don’t even remember what it’s like there) or that I have some blind notions about an inherent Korean superiority (no “children of the God” complex), but it has to do with this vague feeling of a double consciousness. Yes, it’s a reference to DuBois for those who care, and I mean it in the same sense. As much as I would love to grasp the idea of being American on my own terms, I am always forced to see myself from the eyes of others. Asian before American, immigrant before citizen. I exaggerate for dramatic purposes, but I do feel the “twoness” that DuBois uses to describe the Negro. For me: an American, a Korean – “two warring souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one [yellow] body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.” I seldom find myself cheering for American teams. The stakes are too impersonal when a superpower takes the tracks or the mound. But with a Korean team, I can look at their faces and see myself and my father. And this is why I draw my pride from the success of Korean athletes, because it gives me hope and confidence that it is not about abandoning one side for the other, but ultimately, about merging the double self into something I can truly call my own.