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Rooting on the Global Stage: Identity Through Sports

Kim YunaOn days I drive into work, I routinely tune into NPR to get the latest on weather, traffic, and the daily news. A good portion of yesterday’s segment focused on the 2014 Winter Olympics, specifically the Women’s Short Skate which was starting at 10am EST. I surreptitiously whipped out my phone (in very heavy traffic) and texted my wife to remind her of the event. She was keen on watching Kim Yu Na’s performance, the South Korean phenom dubbed  Queen Yuna, whose 228.56 points at the 2010 Winter Olympics, which shattered the old world record (hers) by a margin of 18 points, was enough to comfortably win the Gold Medal. I was rooting for her too. It’s easy to root for a champion, especially when that champion shares your ethnicity. Yet, she was representing South Korea, the country of my parents, not mine, and I was suppressing a budding guilt that I hardly knew any American skaters. Ashley something? I don’t know. I didn’t really pay much attention to women’s figure skating, but somehow, Kim Yuna made me interested.

south-korea_soccerSee, I’m confused and torn when it comes to rooting for athletes on the world stage. Take soccer for example. In my lifetime, I have owned a ’98 South Korean World Cup jersey, a 2002 South Korean World Cup jersey, a 2010 US Soccer World Cup jersey, and a couple of “Be The Reds” t-shirts (a t-shirt supporting South Korea that made as much sense as phrases on Morning Glory stationery). Yet I can’t think of another time when I cheered as hard, or had more emotional investment than during the height of Dae-Han-Min-Guk frenzy that culminated with a Cinderella semi-final run that left perennial powerhouses Spain and Italy stunned. My entire family was rooting for them, as we got up at 3am to watch the games. But one game that demanded an allegiance was US vs. South Korea, and I have to admit that I found myself rooting for South Korea. Luckily, they tied 1-1, and both advanced to the Round of 16.

AmericaOn the other hand, I love America. I love its history. I love our system of government. I’m grateful for the opportunities that America provided for my family. I have a sense of nationalism that is exacerbated by the defiant-looking bald eagle ‘Murica memes. I loved the Dream Team, Redeem Team, and Team USA. I generally root for all American athletes in major sporting events. As I got older, I think my allegiance started to shift. I had studied abroad in Korea in 2004 and experienced a sort of distance that natives had towards Korean Americans. I witnessed many anti-American protests and used to privately wonder if these students had ever studied America’s involvement in the Korean War. Without General Douglas MacArthur and the American military, we’d all be in gulags. My grandfather had always praised the US military for intervening and allowing for democracy to be planted on the southern half of the Korean peninsula, which set the economic foundation for companies like Samsung, LG, and Hyundai to develop and flourish. Is there a more contrasting image of what democracy does for a nation than North and South Korea?

Then the 2006 World Baseball Classic comes around, and the second round games are being played in Anaheim. By the time I had learned of this, South Korea had already beaten the US 7-3, and the next game was against Japan. I went with my cousin and my brother, bought him his first beer, screamed my lungs out, became a little concerned for the group of Japanese-Americans (?) sitting nearby, screamed some more when South Korea won, and experienced a euphoria similar to, but not as sharp, as the 2002 World Cup run. The 2006 World Cup was a couple months later and I found myself craving for the kind of results that the 2002 team had managed. I certainly was rooting for the US, but not with the same fervor as South Korea. Why?

JLINI think part of the reason is the underdog factor. I’m not used to seeing Asians excel in sports, at least not on the national or global level. That space is usually reserved for blacks, whites, and Latinos, in that order. However, we are seeing some Asians actually break into professional sports and I find myself rooting for them. Baseball was first. Then, basketball. Golf. Premier League. Tennis has Li Na and Kei Nishikori. Boxing has Manny. Eventually, I suspect that Asians will produce a specimen that can throw, or block, or catch, or defend, or kick (?) in the NFL. I’m not sure whether it’s because culturally, we are not encouraged to pursue sports with the same intensity other athletes do, or because our DNA gives us physical characteristics (i.e. average height, wingspan, jumping ability) that puts us at a disadvantage compared to other races. I suspect it’s a combination of both, and also those same stereotypes that are ingrained into the minds of the coaches, staff, scouts, and team executives that influence drafting prospects and giving Asians a chance. Like Jeremy Lin.

US jerseyIt’s easy to root for my country, even if most athletes representing the US don’t look like me. However, there is a certain satisfaction of having Asians breaking through in sports, and if they are Americans, that’s even better. But I experience a sense of guilt when I find myself rooting for a South Korean like Kim Yuna in the Winter Olympics when other Americans are in the competition. And maybe I will continue to. The World Cup is this year and it’s about time I got my jerseys out of the closet. Question is, which one will I wear if my teams face off against each other? Which one will you be wearing?

Paul G. Lee
Paul is a displaced Southern California native who currently resides in Washington D.C.. His post-collegiate experience was highlighted by his move to the East Coast where he worked briefly for Congress. After his stint as a public servant, he jumped into the private sector and currently works as a consultant with a D.C.-based technology firm.

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