Saturday, July 10, 2010

I'm Not Korean


“Come on, dude, you've got to try it out.” That was me trying to convince my friend to go and watch the Korea – Uruguay match with me. He was in two minds, but I was somewhat determined to bring him along; with the exception of the Spain – Switzerland match, our World Cup-watching experience thus far has been nothing more than four guys and McDonald's McChickens at 2AM. Being the half-Korean that I proclaim myself to be, I caught the match against Nigeria at Hartamas Square after being tipped off by a friend about the presence of other Koreans. “They were very noisy, my friend said,” he relayed the information to me. Pause. “And very red as well.”

Of course! I thought to myself. Hartamas and Koreans fit like...well, like Ampang and Koreans. Glove in hand, hand in hand, I went to check it out at 2:30AM, thinking that nobody's going to stay up that late on a weeknight. I couldn't be more wrong. If Ross was around, he'd say that I could try, but I would not be successful, for the place was so packed I couldn't find a seat. I resolved to bring my friends around the next time, which is where you guys come in at the start of this post.

“You have to experience watching the World Cup with people whose country is actually in the World Cup,” I reasoned further. Let's face it, Malaysia as it stands will probably never qualify for the World Cup for a while yet. We have problems getting out of the qualifiers for the qualifiers. Putting that aside for the moment, it really has been a pleasure watching the World Cup with Koreans. They go all out for it, these crazy bastards (which, of course, I mean in the nicest possible way), and I was hooked on their infectious enthusiasm since the previous World Cup. Even in a city like Jeonju, the whole place went totally crazy it's unbelievable.

“Yeah, I'll see lah,” he finally replied. He's been saving himself for the big matches; Korea vs Uruguay are not exactly England vs Germany, after all. No worries, I thought, I'll still get there by hook or by crook. In the end I did manage to rope in a few others.

****

“Excuse me,” I asked the man arranging the chairs in Korean. “Can I sit here?”

Hartamas Square was almost packed with people. We still had almost 90 minutes to kick off, and we couldn't find a seat to begin with. Thankfully, there was a couple of empty tables on the inside, but damn...the cooking oil splattered and sprinkled all over us. It was an unnecessarily unpleasant experience to go through for a football match, so we decided to look for other spots. However, I'm jumping ahead of myself, for we had the diagnoses, but not cure as yet. I went back to Eric's car to pick something up, and on the way back, wondered whether I should put my Korean to use. It hasn't been a while, but it's more than a little rusty, and I might as well. There were ropes and chairs leaned against tables along a particular perimeter, a kind of metaphorical dog urine if you like, indicating that...well, what, exactly? That only Koreans are allowed to sit here? Surely not.

“Yes, sure...” he replied in Korean, his back facing me. As he was completing the sentence, he turned around, and saw me. “아니, 안돼요.”

“왜요?”

“Err...” his face bunched up, forming what my sisters would call a muka busuk (stinky face). Then, in slightly stuttering English, “only Korean.”

I laughed. I actually laughed. So funny it's not real, but it is. Being discriminated against by Koreans in Korea is one thing; being discriminated against by Koreans outside of Korea is another. I now know how the Malaysian Chinese feels like applying for places in government universities. (Then again, in a straight shootout between Monash and UiTM, I know what most of my friends would pick. “In terms of quality, I'd say you should plump for Sunway,” said my friend when I discussed the various job offers I've received. She's never even set foot in UiTM.) Bumiputera or not, this is Little Korea, and a nice little reminder that no matter my worthwhile experiences, fond memories and deep gratitude of and to the Republic of Korea...I'm not Korean.

“알았어, 알았...” I continued my laughter. “난 한국사람 아니죠? 피부 우더워” Smile. I dropped the honorifics this time, but it's a small victory, if any. I probably should have done more than that, maybe even raise a ruckus, but I didn't. It didn't feel worth it. I've learned to pick my battles, and sweaty Korean men heaving sofas (it was actually a bloody sofa for one; as I left I heard a guy come in and said that his mother is elderly, and wondered whether she can sit there) wouldn't represent my biggest victory. I actually did use that line before, acting in a short film. The light was to be bounced on my face, but it wasn't enough, so the cinematographer asked the guy to bring it closer. “미안해, 난 너무 우더워.” I smiled, and so did he, but his was an uncomfortable one, to his credit. Not everyone can take this.

I can. I did, and walked away.

****

“Congratulation.” “Come on Corea!”

They were messages I received immediately after Lee Chung-yong planted his header beyond the Uruguayan goalkeeper. The first was from my father. He must have been watching at home. I came home late after the Nigerian match, and his immediate reaction was to activate the World Cup package, so that I could watch it at home and not stay out so late. Well, that wasn't explicit, but I know him well. Nevertheless, certain things should be experienced in a different way. Watching the World Cup with people whose country is in the World Cup. It's a different experience, a worthwhile one, and I encourage you to do the same if you next have the opportunity.

The atmosphere as I had predicted, was electric. My friends enjoyed enough the novelty of seeing vast amounts of people stand up simultaneously and sing the national anthem (the ones cordoned in the Korean-only perimeter; I called it mini-DMZ in my heart. Well, it sounded nice at the time) . Every move forward was greeted with roars of encouragement; a throw-in won near the opposition's goal would elicited cheers worthy of a goal in other contexts. So when the Blue Dragon scored, you can imagine the bedlam. We were, by then, seated in the open air area, and had a decent view of everything.

“It's not over yet,” I said to my father. The second message came from Jack Bauer in Australia; he knew I must have been watching at the same time as he did. He actually visited me in Korea, one of only two amongst the plethora of promises to visit me kept. He spent half his time in Insadong, lost his train ticket once, his travel card twice, wanted to test my Korean by encouraging me to hit on bored waitresses and museum hosts (one out of two ain't bad), went across to North Korea, got kicked out by the landlady in the motel, and checked out girls on the subway. “Dude, Naj is waiting for you back home,” I reminded him. “Hey, bro, it's like my father said...there are only two kinds of people who don't look at women: the dead and the blind.” I couldn't argue with such sound logic.

I could, however, argue that I'm not Korean. Because I'm not. I've stayed there for a while, and I love the country, culture and people, but as much as I see the world as a place inhabited by human beings, as much as I'd rather go with 1World rather than 1Malaysia, evidently others don't see it this way. Amongst my friends and family, at least, my association with the country won't die, but messages such as this makes me wonder all the same.

“Yeah, must've been the half-time kimchi,” I replied. “Haha and a bi mim bab[sic] :) Korea looks good!” They did as well, pushing the South Americans all the way immediately after the restart. The players actually played to their potential. Park Ji-sung was roving all over the place, while Park Chu-young made a menace of himself. Lee Chung-yong and Ki Sung-yung also looked dangerous. The young bucks played as I thought they could do, and it's encouraging for the future. The Lion King, Lee Dong-gook, however, proved to be disappointing, reverting back to his Middlesbrough form when presented with a decent chance late on. They would lose to an excellent goal by the excellent Luis Suarez, arguably the best I've seen at this World Cup thus far. There is no shame in that.

The Koreans are silent now. They watched till the end, and then walked away, disappointed but not necessarily deflated. But it's OK. They are Koreans.

I'm not.

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