Friday, November 06, 2009

Mediocre Sports Heroes?

Dear Korean,

Why is my father (a first generation immigrant) completely obsessed with any Korean athlete, even the ones that are mediocre at best, simply for being Korean? I do not understand this at all! Chan Ho Park and Hee Seop Choi have done absolutely nothing to warrant the demigod status they've attained in his eyes. Is it simply enough that they are Koreans who are "good enough" just to compete in traditionally non-Asian/Korean endeavors (i.e. sports excluding table tennis, badminton, or short track speed skating)? At least Hines Ward won a Super Bowl, and he's certainly no Jerry Rice, or even Randy Moss.

Confused Twinkie

Dear Confused Twinkie,

While your question waited in line for more than a year, right now Chan Ho (and his wife, apparently) is improbably making news again as a key setup man for the Phillies. (By the way, the Korean had to endure the triple commute time because of these stupid parading Yankee fans. Both Phils and Yanks can go die.) So this is a great time to answer your question.

You can go die too, Chan Ho.

Your father is being a good old-fashioned Korean nationalist. The Korean previously explained nationalism thusly:

At the foundation of nationalism, there is a very simple premise: a person is nothing without his country, and his country is in constant danger of disappearance. Therefore, a citizen of a nation must absolutely devote himself to his nation to prevent such disappearance. Every member of the nation must contribute what he can for the country – soldiers must guard their country, businessmen must earn money for their country, artists must display the country’s creativity, and athletes must display the country’s physical prowess.

The corollary to this premise comes from the obvious truth that the world is made up of many nations. For nationalists, every citizen of every country in the world strives to strengthen their country. Essentially, each and every person in the world operates as a member of a team called "United States of America", "Brazil", "Thailand", "South Africa", "France", etc. And each team is striving to outdo one another in a giant world race for power, be it economic, political, social, cultural, or any other type one can think of. …

[Koreans] have lost their whole country twice in the last century – for 36 years to Japan, and briefly to communist North Korea during the Korean War. At each occasion of losing their country, many Koreans lost everything –their history, tradition, language, their property, family, children, and their own lives. Set against this historical experience, any objection to nationalism rings hollow. For Koreans, it is obviously true that without Korea, Koreans are nothing.
(That’s right, the Korean just quoted himself. Big whoop. Wanna fight about it?)

At this point, it should be fairly clear why nationalists love sports. Nationalists have this vision of the world in which there is a giant world race, in which different nations compete. Well, what is a better representation of that worldview than an actual giant world race, i.e. sporting events?

If they did not win, no one in Korea would care about this.

Accordingly, although Korea often has amazing displays of fan support for their athletes, it is fair to say that Koreans are bigger fans of their country rather than being fans of a particular sport. Short track speed skating is an excellent example. One might think, based on Korean fans’ enthusiasm during Winter Olympics, that there is a huge fandom of short track speed skating in Korea during non-Olympic times. Not so – Korean fans love short track skating because they win gold medals in Olympics. Same goes for nearly all sports in Korea – baseball and perhaps soccer might be the only sports in Korea that are popular for their own sake.

This means that the athlete’s individual skills necessarily take a back seat to the fact that they are Korean. Of course, Koreans love winners – short track skating and Kim Yu-Na are popular among Koreans because they win. But when a Korean athlete reaches a big stage like the Major Leagues, Koreans will root like hell for him and overplay every little good thing about that player, while swallowing down the knocks against him or remain intentionally blind to them. This phenomenon is much more intense for first generation Korean Americans, who often are more nationalistic than Koreans in Korea and also seek a validation for the idea that Koreans can succeed in America in those athletes. That’s what is going on with your father.

To close, here is a revealing dialogue between the Korean and the Korean Father a few years back, when Chan Ho Park was playing for the Mets and Hee Seop Choi was playing for the Dodgers.

Korean Father – Are you watching TV? Chan Ho is pitching.
The Korean – I’m watching, but how could you root for the Mets? I’m living in New York but I still root for the Dodgers.
KF – I don’t care about the Mets. I’m watching Chan Ho.
TK – Dodgers have Hee Seop batting fourth. If there are Korean players on both teams, shouldn’t you at least root for your home team?
KF – There is a difference between a pitcher and a batter. Watching a pitcher standing by himself on that mound in the middle of the stadium like he owns the place… it’s just better.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at


  1. this is ridiculously insightful for why my boyfriend watched the world series this week up until the very end of the last inning because they pulled the korean pitcher. and, basically, any other time he only watches a sport because there's a korean in it. thank you!

  2. In addition to the obvious nationalism factor, I would like to point out that the nature of sports/entertainemnt reporting in Korean media amplifies this phenomenon to a great extent.

    It should be noted that most Koreans (and in this case, first-generation immigrants like Confused Twinkie's father) depend on Korean media as their sole source of news.

    Just imagine what the sport section would look like, now you have the background knowledge described in this blog post by the Korean. Perhaps something like this?

    Topic: Yankees wins the World Series

    -Headline 1: Yankees Win the World Series - Park Pitches for an Inning During Game Six

    -Headline 2: An Interview with Chan Ho Park

    -Headline 3: 2009 World Series and the Revival of Chan Ho Park's Career

    -Headline 4: Hideki Matsui Shows the Power of Asian Baseball as WS MVP

    Dude, where's the article about Pettitte? A-Rod? Pedro? Well there isn't any becuase (it seems as) Chan Ho was supposedly the only participating player for the 2009 WS. Oh, and may be that Hideki kid as well, but let's just write an half-arsed article about it b/c he's Japanese and we're jealous inside. =)

    So there you have it, it's pretty much the same deal with Park Ji Sung, Park Chu Young, Shin Soo Choo, etc. Say one of them gets featured in an obscure local news based in Manchester (UK), Cleveland, or whatever... Hours after, it becomes a headline news on the sports section of a Korean web portal.

    The whole process has an effect of making the aforementioned players appear as key members of their respective teams. I would assume more objective reporting would give an equal importance to say... Darren Fletcher for example, when talking about Manchester United's performance after a game. However, it's all about whether Park has had some game time.

    Apply same ethos to news about entertainment, academics, and other areas as well. Wonder Girls ranking no. 76 on Billboard Hot 100 is a big deal... but where's the article about song ranked no. 42? You get the idea...

    I'd assume things are pretty much the same in other countries where there is a great deal of nationalism. No need to mention those in Far East obviously. Would love to know what things are like in Turkey, India, Finland, etc.

  3. In Canada, we don't really make a big deal about Canadians succeeding on the world stage and/or in America, though I haven't read the sports pages of a Canadian newspaper in a long time (it's too depressing if you're from Toronto).

    I kind of wish we had the weird cultish following of our athletes that Korea seems to have. Then again, that would probably defeat the point of being Canadian in the first place.

  4. Your dad's last quote: pure comedy.
    This whole entry is too true...

  5. This is actually quite funny as the vast majority of the 300+ million Americans could have cared less about the series, and that's one of the best things about the U.S. Yeah, the NFL may be the "big daddy" of sports in the U.S., but it's only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the plethora of activities one is able to see and do. My brother will be in the stands hoping that Jimmy can win four titles in a row on Sunday, while my sisters will have spent Saturday watching UT close in a on a Championship in Austin, my mother will be out on the lake tossing spinner baits on both days, and I'm getting into cricket of all things.

    I wonder if George is back to tossing horseshoes back in Crawford and if jai alai might see a resurgence thanks to the shout out on "Mad Men?"

  6. You are underselling Chan Ho Park by just saying he is some pitcher. Statistically he was one of the best pitchers at getting right-handed batters out this year.

    Derek Jeter actually bunted with two strikes against Park (runners on 1st and 2nd) which is very unusual, especially for a hitter as good as Jeter.

    This is from someone who is Korean but has never read a Korean sports section in his life.

  7. The Korean said "baseball and perhaps soccer might be the only sports in Korea that are popular for their own sake."

    But even Baseball... it was somewhat popular but not to the extent to which it is now, after Korea made it to the finals of the World Baseball Classic this past spring.

    2 years ago when I came to Korea I went to see game 4 of the Korean league finals and pretty much had my pick of seats in a half full (or half empty depending on how you want ot look at it) Stadium. In the wake of the World Baseball Classic, this season regular season games sold out. Playoff games sold out in a matter of minutes.

    If Korea were to win a gold medal in Curling I'm sure you would have gaggles of Koreans huddles around a TV in the local Fried Chicken and Hof watching the newly establish Korean Curling League.

    Love Korea - Love the blog

  8. David - you pretty much prove the Korean's point.
    For one thing, for someone that has never read the sports section, you know a little too much about Chan Ho Park's ability to get right-handed batters out.

    And then you proved that you know a lot more about Koreans than about baseball by implying that Jeter bunted with 2 strikes because he didn't think he could get a hit off of Park, when in reality it was just a dumb play and more likely a sneaky attempt at moving the runners over.

    Johnny - funny you mention curling, did you know that the World Curling Championships were held in Korea last year? It wasn't exactly big news. I think I read somewhere that less than 100 people attended some of the draws.

    I may be stretching here, but I think David and other Koreans' "sports nationalism" is bred out of a lack of proper physical education. In my PE classes we learned the rules and intricacies of all sports, and were taught to appreciate sports for their own sake.. As a result, I can tell you what a triple flip is or a triple salchow is, but I couldn't tell you anything about our country's top figure skaters. I can also tell you what it takes to get a right-handed hitter out, but I couldn't tell you how often our country's MLBers do so.

    In Korean public schools it seems like there is no effective PE, just recess.

    Also, our entire student body had a shot at playing competitive sport (for fun primarily), and learning the difference between healthy and unhealthy competition. At my school in Korea, there was 1 team, soccer, and only for elite players. They didn't even feel like a part of the school (until they won the city championship and got in the newspaper, that got people talking about them).

  9. Stray,

    The Korean thinks that a stretch on two levels: (1) The Korean went to 2.5 years of high school in America, and he was never once taught about how to properly watch any sport. It might be just your school. (2) The Korean believes formal education has very little to do with sports appreciation. The Korean's experience has been that both in Korea and in the U.S., it usually comes through parents and peer groups, like the way the Koren learned to watch baseball from the Korean Father.

  10. If all this is true, then how come Koreans don't seem to know, or care, about Richard Park. The only current Korean born NHL player, and only the second in the history of the league?

    Have Koreans even heard of this guy? "The Korean" is in New York, so you must have heard of him, right?

  11. The Korean knows of Richard Park, and there is a very simple explanation as to why Koreans do not know him generally -- Koreans have ZERO knowledge/interest in hockey. Hines Ward was widely known in Korea only after he became the Super Bowl MVP. If Stanley Cup becomes as big as the Super Bowl, and Park were the MVP, maybe Koreans will know more about him.

  12. @strayblog

    Typical comment(judgement) made from arrogant Westerner who has only seen Korea for "mere" 2 years, but then I can sit here and compare and complain why some aspects in America are "crappy" compared to Korea where I had grew up most of my life.

  13. Staryblog -

    I want to know what school you went to because it sounds like a great place. Not the norm for most American schools. I doubt that most people know the difference between a triple salchow or triple flip.

    Man-boy, and the Korean- When I was 10 or so, I remember watching 1991 stanly cup finals featuring the Pitsburgh Penguins and the Minisota North Stars (Now Dallas Stars.) I grew up in Kalamazoo, Michigan, which at that time had an International Hockey League team called the Kalamazoo Wings, which was the farm club for the North Stars.

    The farm club for the Penguins, was called the Muskegon Lumberjacks. One of the members of the lumberjacks was a Korean guy named Jim Paek who went on to score one of the goals against the North Stars in the Stanley cup playoffs. In 1991, I simply recognized the name from seeing him play in K-wings/Lumberjacks games, but I wonder if Korean people know about him.

  14. Whatever. I just hope 추신수 gets picked up by the Sox this year so I can finally watch some of my team in Korea. Other than that, I understand. Would America watch other country's sports? Shoot, America doesn't even (I am in this group) watch the Olympics.

  15. It just seems so silly to me when people question examples of nationalism. You can be critical of it, and why the ignorance for why it happens? Obviously people are going to root for their country; they love their country. If they want to take interest in their countrymen but not the sport they participate in, let them do it. Who cares? I'll never understand why people get worked up about things that don't affect them in any way.


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