Friday, October 12, 2007

Korea Update 6/25/02

5000 years of history couldn't do it. Nor did having a landscape of rolling mountains and rivers, or a country full of beautiful and generous people (outside of Seoul, that is). Kim Dae-jung winning a Nobel Peace Prize or Im Kwon-taek winning the best director prize at the Cannes Film Festival for his film Chiwhasun didn't do it.

It took an international football(or soccer, as we say in the states) tournament for Koreans to achieve national pride and unity.

I'm not saying that there weren't proud Koreans before World Cup 2002, but it was usually limited to nationalist activists, military and government personnel, and tiny minority who strove to remember the good(and sometimes bad) parts of traditional culture. And even amongst them there was often a note of insecurity, a feeling that Korea didn't have much to be proud of but hey, it's all we've got so let's be patriotic anyways.

Now it's different. Or at least for the last two weeks it's been different. Red has become the national color, and EVERYONE is wearing it, especially on tournament days. When Korea played Portugal, 2 million people hit the streets and watched the game in major plazas, parks, or local beer halls. When Korea played Italy, it jumped to 5 million. Today, when Korea lost against Germany, the number was estimated at 6.5 million. Schools and offices closed early to 'prepare' for the game. They are thinking of naming Tuesday a national holiday, to honor the first time a team in Asia has made it to the World Cup semi-finals. People are singing Arirang at football games(this is an old song, and no young people sing it anymore).

Some people I know who were ashamed or highly critical of Korea even went to the streets to rally the team, draped Korean flags over their bodies and wore the ubiquitous 'Be the Reds' t-shirts(I find this slogan hilarious given the severe anti-communist stance of this country).

Suddenly, Korea has something to be proud about it's not the great food, the great people, the beautiful landscape, history, culture, language, or anything of importance!! This is all about football! And the team itself isn't given much credit it's all about the coach, a Dutchman! It has been recently announced that Hiddink will get honorary citizenship. Polls are saying that if he ran for president this fall, he would have a good chance, and at the very least, he should be prime minister. There are t-shirts with his face on them, banners saying 'Hiddink for President' and talk of 'Hiddink-style leadership' for the new global era(this means that everyone in this country is going to be studying his style of leadership in the next year or so).

Along with this rise in national pride, is a rise in anti-American sentiment(actually, this started with the gold skating medalist Ohno). Taxi drivers talk about how we have to do better than the US, fruit vendors talk about it. Suddenly, Korea has been the puppet government of the US, a fact long-ignored by the masses until very recently(whether you agree with this or not, I don't want to argue the point is that it is now an acceptable opinion, whereas 2 weeks ago, you could get into a lot of fights about it). The US has become the 'bad' big brother, pushing their way around economics(think steel tariffs) and government(think approving all presidents), and using valuable land in Seoul for their bases(true).

In addition, I got into my first violent confrontation with Korean people over what was supposedly a 'language problem' or a 'cultural difference.' For the first time, I feel physically afraid in this country of low crime and bans on guns and drugs. I am afraid to speak English on the streets to my friends who don't speak Korean because it might offend someone(actually, this was a problem before but not something I was ever afraid of doing).

And I feel sad that these people on the streets, waving the flag and cheering all night when the Korean team won, couldn't feel pride in their country before this. That they measure this country by American or western standards and never bother to learn or feel proud of some of the really amazing parts of this country like ondol(the heating system where the hot water pipes run under the floor) for example. Or other facets of traditional architecture, like the beautiful kiwa houses. Or food, food, food!

I wonder how long it will last(as I write this, a drunken man outside is cursing because Korea lost). I wonder if Koreans will stop being ashamed that they can��t speak English, that politics are a joke(aren't they in every country?), that businesses here are corrupt(Enron, need I say more?). I wonder if they will stop kicking themselves in the ass because they aren't #1 in everything.

I wonder, does all nationalism have to be blind? Or based on insecurities? Does all nationalism mean excluding or being violent to those who are not included in the nation? Is it possible to be a nationalist in the true sense, and still be able to appreciate other countries and people? If it is, then maybe I will one day be able to say I am a Korean nationalist, in all the best senses.

Disclaimer: I'm not saying that I don't see all the bad things about Korea, I could write a book - but there are a lot of good things too.

BTW, I have to take back what I said about the World Cup. It took over the entire country so I did end up watching and even cheering (really!) for a few games :)

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