Dae Han Min Guk! (bum bum, ba bum bum)

Last night, me and 50,000 of my closest Korean friends watched the World Cup from downtown Seoul. No, excuse me: from one location in downtown Seoul. There were several other locations, all with comparable audiences.

For those of you not paying attention, the soccer World Cup is in full swing. The Cup is a process of elimination. 32 teams enter the first round. About a quarter of the first-round games have been played so far. At the end of Round 1, half the teams are eliminated, and 16 remain. Each round, the remaining teams are reduced by half, until at the end you have two teams battling over the championship, the most exciting, thrilling game of the Cup.

Well, that's usually how it goes. But the final's going to have to do a lot to prove that Korea's opening-round game, their first game in this Cup, wasn't the most exciting, thrilling game of the Cup.

I may be biased. I did just watch the game on the streets of Seoul, where four- and six-lane roads in the center of town were shut down in order to make room for wide-screen projection TVs and masses upon masses of fans. I thought the opening game was exciting, but it was nothing compared to this.

In the background, the back of one of the projection screens. Getting to the front of the screen was next to impossible.

We - my friend Saeyun, her cousin and I - decided to get a fairly early start and left our subway stop, Apkujeong, at 5:45 pm. The game didn't start until 8:30, so we figured that was pretty good time. The subway trip would take about 20 minutes to half an hour, all told, getting us there in plenty of time to eat before settling in for the match.

At Apkujeong, there were already a bunch of folks in red t-shirts (the color of the South Korean national team) and various fan accoutrements, including horns, scarves and the ubiquitous (at soccer games, anyway) drums. The train was relatively crowded, but things didn't get really bad until we transferred at Chungmuro. Apparently, everyone else had the same idea about watching the game as we did, which is really not surprising since for the last several days, this location was being advertised on television and radio as "THE place to be" during the game.

From Chungmuro onward, the train was packed, the crowd constantly picking up in size and noise until we arrived at Hyehwa, our final destination. Holding onto each other so as not to lose ourselves in the massive crowd, we moved toward the exit, slowly, at the pace of the crowd. Until, that is, the crowd stopped moving.

We couldn't see anything. Around us, a pretty solid mass of red. Behind us, a similarly solid mass, still moving up from the subway below. Ahead, no movement. For a brief moment, the thought crossed my mind: This is how people get crushed to death. Then I reminded myself that this was Korea during World Cup season; they were going to do everything possible to avoid a scandal like that. Still, we weren't going anywhere. I busied myself doing what I always do when I'm waiting somewhere in Korea: I tried to read signs. Unlike Chinese and traditional Japanese script, the Korean language is written in an alphabet, and there are only 24 symbols you need to learn. The pronunciation isn't always easy, especially because there are all kinds of rules about what letter sounds different when placed next to what other letter, but heck, at least it HAS rules, which is often more than you can say for English pronunciation. So I was almost through deciphering the ad ahead of me (the letters - I still couldn't tell you what it meant) when the crowd suddenly surged forward. The three of us were swept along, surprised but not unhappy to be moving. We got about 15 yards and stopped again, but this time we were close enough to the exit to figure out that what was stopping us was the police.

There is a massive police presence in Seoul these days. There are police and soldiers on what seems like every corner as part of heightened security due to the World Cup. No one wants an incident, and this particular evening was no exception. The police were letting fans through in groups, presumably to ease the press on the streets outside. I'm not sure how great a strategy it was - there's a lot more room out on a public street than inside a subway station, especially with new crowds coming in by train every few minutes, more quickly than the police were letting people out - but well, we were next to get out, so no need to get claustrophobic.

Once out on the street, we tried to jockey for a position in front of one of the large screens. However, 50,000 other people were trying the same thing, and a couple thousand of them were more tenacious. Instead of pushing, we decided to go for some food in one of the remarkably empty restaurants on side streets in the area.

When we came out again, the streets were - if possible - even more crowded. We headed back to the main street, made several attempts at finding a good spot, but once again, several thousand of our closest friends had had the same idea a couple minutes (if not hours) earlier. Eventually we gave up and wandered back into the side streets.

Here, too, crowds. Hundreds, probably thousands of people wandering around trying to find a place to watch the game. Parents with children, teenagers with piercings, old couples, giggly junior high school girls, couples clearly out on a date, men in business attire - everyone was out to see the game.

One of many side streets filled with soccer fans.

These are people who love their football. No doubt about it. Before the Cup, some German newspapers ran articles about the supposedly more reserved fan culture in Asia, pondering whether that would have a negative impact on the Cup. Obviously, those reporters must've sipped drinks and smoked crack in the hotel bar for their entire stay, assuming they were ever here at all. I have no idea where they got their ideas. Sure, the Korean fans at the opening game weren't the most excited ever, but then they didn't have much of an investment in seeing Senegal play France. Korean fans cheering on their own team? I can think of a lot of adjectives - "excited," certainly, "passionate" without a doubt, "incredibly noisy" as well - but "reserved"? Not a chance.

We sat down on the ground outside a karaoke bar that had TV screens outside. We couldn't see too well, and it wasn't exactly comfortable, but who cares? What mattered was that we were here with everyone else, hoping that today was the day Korea would score its second win in World Cup history (the first one was back in 1954).

For the whole game, the crowd chanted and yelled. Guys ran up and down the street waving Korean flags, and each time a flag passed, the crowd would cheer wildly. We chanted: "Dae han min guk!" (bum bum, ba bum bum!) "Dae han min guk!" (bum bum, ba bum bum!) "Dae han min guk!" (bum bum, ba bum bum!) (Repeat until hoarse.) ("Dae han min guk" is essentially a more formal way of saying "Korea," which is "Han guk" in Korean.) Or we sang: "Oh, pil seung Ko-re-a, oh, pil seung Ko-re-a, oh, pil seung Ko-re-a, o- ho-o-ho-o HEY HEY HEY!" (We had a good time trying to figure out the words to that one; it means "certain victory" in Korean, but if you're not sure what it says, it also sounds a lot like "Peace in Korea" - which would, admittedly, be a rather odd soccer chant.) A guy at the front of our particular section of the crowd had a big drum, which he'd beat to start the chants. Or we'd hear the crowd on TV chanting, and we'd chant along with them. Or the folks watching the TVs behind us or to the side of us would start a chant, and we'd chant. Or someone would randomly start singing, and we'd all join in. No excuse necessary - just start cheering, because that's what everyone else is doing.

 
Lanterns inside Pongunsa, one of Seoul's temples. While these do depict both buddhas and important historical figures, I like the notion of soccer-player-as-deity. Photo courtesy of my dad.

And the chaos when Korea scored its first goal? One minute everyone was sitting down, and then suddenly everyone was on their feet, jumping for joy, blowing horns, pounding drums, screaming, waving scarves and flags, and generally going nuts. Behind me someone threw newspaper confetti.

During halftime, we stood up and stretched, but it was right back to our soccer devotions when the whistle blew for the second half. Some of the Korean players are quite attractive, but one in particular - Ahn Jung Hwan - is clearly the heartthrob. I know this because, every single time the camera zoomed in on him, the adolescent girls in front of us would start squealing uncontrollably, giggling and poking each other in the ribs.

We watched the game with rapt attention, which didn't necessarily help in recognizing what was going on, because the TV screens were not that large, and I was watching at a 45-degree angle. To make matters worse, the Korean team was in red shirts, the Polish team in red shorts, and with bad visibility, they all looked kinda reddish-pink. Still, it hardly mattered - keeping up with the action was no problem, because you could just watch the crowd and know what was happening onscreen. When the Koreans shot a second goal, we all jumped up, yelling and screaming, and the noise and movement were so intense that Saeyun had to lean over and tell me it had been called offsides and didn't count - I had no idea.

This was my vantagepoint during the game. See the four small screens? That's why I was watching the crowd!

But then it happened, for real: Korea scored a second goal, one that counted, and the crowd went wilder than it had before. Because with the second goal, the 2:0 lead, it was pretty clear that Korea was probably going to win the game, its first World Cup win in 48 years, which also put it one step closer to qualifying for the next round.

Poland had a couple of chances at scoring after that, each accompanied by appropriate sounds of dismay from the crowd, but they didn't manage to turn any of them into goals. Korea had a couple of chances as well, some of which involved the abovementioned heartthrob and were thus accompanied not only by shouts but by squeals, but none of those turned into further goals either. When the game ended, the score was 2:0, and people were, to put it mildly, thrilled. They jumped up and down, hugged each other, flags were waved so madly I thought they'd rip, and the cheers were loud and long. My guess is that fully 95% of Seoul was hoarse and exhausted the next day, if they made it in to work or school at all.

The party continued all the way home. The police guard in front of the subway station made a lot more sense in this direction, and we were lucky enough to be through early. And everyone was happy. Korea had won in the World Cup; the world was a fabulous place to be. I mean, the subway train got rousing cheers simply for driving into the station.


The excitement continued the whole way home. We were tired after a day of sightseeing, or we'd have stayed out longer. Cars honked (beep beep, ba beep beep!) and passersby would yell "Dae han min guk!" in response, flags waved, and soccer games were replayed in their entirety long after we'd gone to sleep.

Dae Han Min Guk! This is what your hands do when you chant those words.

June 4, 2002

 

 

Impressions of Seoul

First of all, this city is pretty enormous. Its population is 12 million people, and it seems very spread out. It takes ages to get here from there, whether by subway or cab. I've noticed I'm not really used to big cities these days - in spite of its traffic problems, Austin doesn't compare - and even Berlin, where I spent four years, isn't the same kind of big city. There aren't that many tall buildings in Berlin, at least not in the neighborhoods where I lived and hung out; much of the city is still very turn-of-the-century, and the parts that aren't are still often subject to the turn-of-the-century building codes which allow no more than five stories. Much of Seoul has a far more modern, larger city feel to it.

People tend to be quite helpful (a marked contrast to Berlin, to be sure!). The family we're staying with has been gracious and generous, and beyond that, even random people on the street have been kind. I was trying to use a pay phone the other day and it had swallowed up my second 100-Won coin. I was shaking it in an effort to persuade it to acknowledge I'd put money in (it was the only pay phone on the street). An older gentleman who was walking by saw this, tapped my shoulder, and handed me his cell phone to use. Needless to say, I was floored.

If there are 12 million people in this city, it seems like at least half of them are on the road at any given time. There are cars everywhere - in the street, in the alleyways, on the sidewalk. It requires constant vigilance on everyone's part not to get run over or collide in any way. Big city life is, I think, characterized by a great deal more awareness of the world around you - purely for the sake of survival - than life in less densely populated places.

This is also the case because unlike what I'm used to, sidewalks are not reserved for pedestrian use. All those cars - and apparently, cars outnumber people in Seoul - need places to park, and where better than the wide sidewalks? The cars on the sidewalks, at least, drive slowly, giving you plenty of time to notice them and get out of the way. Not so the moterbikes, which zip down the sidewalk fast enough to startle, especially if you're not expecting them. They're safe enough so long as no one changes the direction they're walking in quickly; I'm learning to look both ways not only before crossing the street, but before turning any which way on a sidewalk, too.

Of the 12 million people in Seoul, my guess is that fully half of them are also on their cell phones at any given time. Everyone and their mother seem to have cell phones here. Schoolgirls holding hands and talking into the cell phone in their free hand. Punk-looking guys on the subway, businessmen on the street, our cab driver as he was driving us across town - everyone's on cell phones. It's actually hard to conduct an uninterrupted conversation during the day, because someone's phone will ring. What astonishes me - as someone who often screens her calls - is that pretty much every call is picked up. I imagine that there are still few telemarketers here, because people are still really willing to heed the ringing of the phone.

It's also more polluted than I'm used to. My asthma's acting up a little, although judging by the still-white FIFA WORLD CUP flags hanging from nearly every lamppost, it can't be that bad. Saeyun says that it's gotten a lot better since she was here five years ago. Still, I feel the need to wash my hands, face and feet when I get back from a day out in the town.

And then, of course, there's me sticking out like a sore thumb. Obviously, I'm not Korean. I'm white (not quite glow-in-the-dark pale, but not quite not, either...), blue eyes, brown hair. These days, a lot of Koreans are dyeing their hair, so it's often hard to tell from the back who's Korean and who's not, which I appreciate. And certainly in some areas of town, there are a lot of foreigners. But not everywhere. So I'm pretty obvious, and while there are men who are taller than me, I feel pretty damn large for a woman here. My chest feels enormous, as do my hips, my feet, and me generally.

Aside from feeling just generally big, though, there's also the fact of racial difference. When I first encountered it in Japan 13 years ago, the physical reality of being a visible racial minority was a shock for me, because as a white kid from the Midwest, I'd never really been in that situation before. I'd been involved in anti-racist activism, but my teenage self suddenly realized that there's a whole physical aspect, the impact of walking into a room and realizing, not on an intellectual but on a gut level, "Wow, no one else here looks like me." This,. of course, is not exactly news to most people of color in the States, but it was to me at the time, and it had a serious impact on how I viewed the world. In the 13 years since then, I've been in that situation many times, not only abroad but also at home. It's not a surprise or a shock anymore, but it's still a valuable experience and reminder. And - on a slight tangent - I think it's an experience anyone used to being in the majority should be required to have.

So on the one hand, I can't fit in at all. On the other hand, I need to try, frustrating though the attempt might be, because respect for local culture is a key element of travel. It's one of those constant negotiations of travel: I don't belong here, but I don't want to offend; how much can I fit in, how much should I try, and how much can I just be myself, alien though I may be here?

 

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