This past Sunday I was asked a question by Eric and Patrick that probably every non-Korean wonders in his/her head: why do Korean-Americans rarely show any Korean pride except during the World Cup?
I think that this is a fair question. So I will try my best to answer this question from my own experience (I am not speaking for all Korean-Americans. I am just giving my reasons why I root for Korea during the World Cup). Also, I think that my experience can be applied to anybody whose parents are immigrants from a country that is often ignored by the media (for example, I think an Algerian-American can relate to my experience in light of the history that was made by Algeria this past Sunday).
For full disclosure, I am the last person who should be rooting for Korea during the World Cup. I am horrible in Korean (If you have ever watched a Korean drama you probably know more Korean than I do). I don’t know anything about Korean politics (my knowledge of Korean politics was so pathetic that my college roommate made a deal with me. He would listen to me talk about the Bible for 30 minutes a day if I would listen to him teach me about Korean politics for 30 minutes a day. Even after a year of education, I still don’t know anything about Korean politics. I was too focused on trying to share the gospel with my roommate that I didn’t pay attention to his lectures). And there was a long period I hated being Korean because I resented being a minority at school. Suffice to say, I am the last person who should have any Korean pride. So why do I root for Korea during the World Cup?
For me, I root for Korea because I root for my parents. Being Korean, whether I like it or not, is part of my identity. It is my ethnicity and my parent’s heritage and culture. My parents would tell me stories about how much Korea have developed as a nation. They were born in 1947 and have witnessed Korea go through a war to now becoming 15th in the world by nominal GDP. Also, they would tell me stories about the resiliency Koreans had to have in order to immigrate and to provide the American dream for their children (I think many other children of immigrants can relate to this experience). Even though I heard these stories, I never had a sense of ownership regarding my ethnicity. In fact, I never thought of myself as a Korean growing up. I always thought I was an American until my classmates during elementary school started to point out how “different” I was from them.
I remember one of my close friends in the 3rd grade, Stephan Coleman, pointed out how I was “different.” When I scored higher than him on a vocabulary quiz and I earned a free cookie, he got so mad that he turned to me and said, “Go back to China where you came from!” I was confused because I didn’t even know where China was at that time. Also, I always thought I was an American, just like him. However, I became quickly aware that there were others who saw me as “different” because of my ethnicity. I can’t tell you how many times I received these comments: “Where are you really from?” “How is your English so good?” “I met a Korean guy named Paul Kim, is he your brother?” (I know most of these comments are well intentioned. I’m just pointing out that I cannot escape my ethnicity because there will always be some who will identify me by my ethnicity).
Getting back to the original question, what is it about the World Cup that brings out my Korean pride? The 2002 World Cup symbolized how far South Korea had progressed as a nation for many Koreans. What do I mean? I remember that prior to 2002, there were many times when people would ask me, “Where is Korea? Is it a part of China?” South Korea was often lumped in with “Asia” and was not really recognized as its own nation. But the 2002 World Cup changed everything. This was when South Korea sent shockwaves throughout the world. When South Korea made it to the semi-finals the world could not ignore them any longer. This was the first and only time a team outside of Europe and the Americas ever reached the semi-finals of a World Cup. When Hong Myung-Bo (the current Korean head coach) was given the bronze ball, it was the first and only time an Asian player was named as one of the top 3 players during the World Cup. Even though it’s “just” soccer, for my parents and many Koreans, this symbolized the first time that South Korea was given worldwide props and was finally seen as its own nation (sidenote: I studied abroad in Rome during my junior year of college in 2004. This was the first time where I received positive responses for being a Korean. Instead of receiving the usual “where is Korea? Is it the same as China?” I received responses like, “Korea! They were the ones that made it to the semi-finals, right? You guys are really good at soccer!”) The 2002 World Cup was like a billboard advertisement that told the world, “South Korea is a country you can no longer ignore!”
When I saw how proud and passionate my parents were during the 2002 World Cup, I knew it was more than a bunch of soccer games for them. Winning those soccer games symbolized to millions of Koreans how far South Korea has come as a small nation. It symbolized the progress they had made from being a country demoralized by a war to becoming one of the most educated and economically successful country in the world. Winning those soccer games symbolized to millions of Koreans that the world can no longer say, “Isn’t Korea the same as China?” Winning those soccer games symbolized to millions of Koreans that their nation, which was constantly ignored, was finally being recognized as its own nation. Winning those soccer games symbolized to millions of Koreans that there was something they could be proud of and share with their Korean-American children who might forget their heritage. Winning those soccer games symbolized to millions of Koreans that they were a country that could no longer be ignored. So why do I root for South Korea during the World Cup? Because I root for my parents and the World Cup is a time when my parents’ country can no longer be ignored.
(sidenote: I think the reason why the World Cup brings up so much national pride is because it is one of those few times where the spotlight can shine on a country that is rarely talked about in the American media. It is one of the few times where Americans might actually be interested to find out more about other nations because they play soccer well. This is why I love the World Cup. It creates exposure and interest for countries that rarely get the spotlight.)