Saturday, August 11, 2012

Olympic Fever

I am, at best, apathetic about the Olympics. All I can see is: wasted resources! Cheating! Glorification of jock pageantry! And so on.

Never mind rooting for America. Why should I root for America? I didn't choose to be an American; there's so much about America I find alienating and antithetical to my very core that it's no wonder I never get homesick.

Yet as an expat in a foreign country, I find that I actually give a shit about the Olympics. I finally get what the appeal is.

Last Friday, my friend/former coworker Jenny (Yeojoo) and I went, as we usually do on Fridays, for a couple of beers and some anju. The hof we were at had the Olympics on, of course, and it was the men's archery gold medal match between South Korea and Japan. Everyone's eyes were glued to the screen. The hof patrons had temporarily coalesced into an amoebic hivemind of patriotism. Despite being only one beer deep, I had to resist the urge to yell, "Dae han min guk!" and pound the table appropriately.

There was no question for me: I wanted South Korea to win. I wanted that smug Japanese bastard with his douchebag sunglasses to eat shit. Not just me; we. An entire nation. Every arrow shot was another blood pressure spike towards a heart attack. We cheered when a Japanese arrow strayed (relatively) far from the mark for a paltry eight points. We let out exasperated sighs when a Korean arrow missed the bull's eye by what looked to be a mere neutrino of displacement. The idea of victory became more than victory: it became almost a cosmic, mystical sign. A mark from the universe or some distant deity that this country was blessed above all nations.

I found myself getting frustrated with the Japanese archer. Why was he so good? Why did he insist on making it so difficult for South Korea to win? Why did he just get another bull's eye?

Every Korean bull's eye netted a loud cheer from the bar. When the last one secured victory, the hof exploded with joy. One particularly drunk individual, too young to be an ajosshi yet, yelled what we were all thinking:

"Dae han min guk!"

Why does South Korea elicit drunken groupthink cheers from me, but not the US? I've come up with a few reasons.

First and foremost, in a lot of respects, South Korea is very much an underdog. I guess you could argue they're not, but the pervasive attitude I've encountered, among adults and students alike, is that South Korea has a reputation for being weak.

"People think South Korea is easy country," one of my students explained. "But in 2018 [Ed note: when the winter games come to South Korea] we will strike back."

And really, what's more American than an underdog story?

There's also great good guy/bad guy drama with the Korea-Japan rivalry. Korean participation in international sports has a built-in compelling narrative. (Maybe I'd be more patriotic if the US were still in the midst of the Cold War?) If America loses, so what? But if South Korea loses to Japan? Oh shit. Wailing. Gnashing of teeth. Rending of garments.

And, finally, South Korea is a place I chose. Everything that happens here is imbued with that choice; it reflects back on me and, ultimately becomes an extension of myself. Likewise I also root for Sweden in the Olympics, because Sweden is yet another choice.

Tonight (KST) is the bronze medal match in men's soccer football between Korea and Japan. This shit just got real. I'm holing up in my apartment tonight and avoiding what will either the celebratory or dejected throngs of people. Either way, they're guaranteed to be three sheets to the wind.

Dae han min guk! South Korea, fighting!

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