Friday, August 29, 2014

Divided Sports Loyalty?

Dear Korean,

I am Chinese American, immigrated at 4 years old. I identify very much as an American and while I want China to do well in competition, I will generally root for the USA over China head to head. A Korean American friend of mine shared this article, which I thought was very interesting. It advocates that Korean immigrants, as immigrants and people assimilating into American culture, have an obligation to not root against their new home country. What do you think?

John L.

Given the recent duel between Team Seoul and Team Chicago in the Little League Word Series, TK figured this would be a good topic to address. As immigrants, where should our sports loyalty lie?

Give it up for the good-lookin' World Champions.
The article that John L. shared outlines a common perspective. An excerpt:
When we as Korean Americans don Korea shirts and wave Korean flags during Korea-USA games, we are not choosing a team, we are choosing a nation. We are very deliberately and purposely choosing to support a foreign nation against the one we call our home and protector. It’s true that issues of identity are more complex – many of us feel just as much at home in Seoul as we do in San Diego or Daegu as in Dallas, but there are times when we cannot conveniently declare that we are “citizens of the world”, or “both Korean and American.” There are hard choices to be made.

It is ironic and inconsistent for us to complain of being seen as “perpetual foreigners” and having to struggle to be accepted as Americans, and then turn and root against America when the choice comes. And we cannot be truthful to ourselves and say that Korea’s games against the US are only sport when we consider Korea’s games against Japan as so much more. Culture plays an enormous role in setting the framework for people’s understanding of the world around them.

During World War II Asian Americans proudly and publicly made efforts to support America, despite the outrageous Executive Order 9066. Many, facing discrimination, wore buttons that read: “I am an American.” Still others, like Colonel Young Oak Kim, wore America’s uniform and served abroad. The Asian American 442nd Infantry continues to be the most highly-decorated military unit in the history of the American armed forces.
Undoubtedly, many people take this view, as many people take sports quite seriously--as does TK. So what does he think about this case of "divided loyalty"?

(More after the jump)

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

First off, let me tell you just how big of a sports fan I am. Here are just some of the stupid things that I have done for the sake of sports.

- In my high school years, I was in a massive car accident that completely destroyed my car. The car was literally towed straight from the site of the accident to the junkyard. I did not have any externally visible injury, but I very well might have had severe internal injury and/or spinal cord damage. But I adamantly insisted that I was not injured at all, and nothing hurt, although I was in a great deal of pain. Why did I lie? Because that was the day when the Los Angeles Lakers played Game 7 of the Western Conference Final against the Portland Trail Blazers, and going to the hospital would have kept me away from the television.

Lakers came back from 13 points down at the start of the fourth quarter to win the game. An alley-oop from Kobe to Shaq, shown below, punctuated the comeback. Watching this lying down on the couch--I was in so much pain I could not sit up--I did a hard fist pump, which sent a searing sensation through my shoulder and arm. But I got to watch one of the greatest moments of Lakers history. I did not regret my decision at the time, and I still do not. (By the way, just in case you are worried: in the end, it turned out that I only had some whiplash and muscle shock.)

- My family and I were traveling in Alaska during a Labor Day weekend, when my dear California Golden Bears would open its football season against the University of Tennessee. We were on a guided tour, and we were scheduled to be in a long bus ride from Anchorage to Fairbanks when the game was on. (This was long before 4G coverage and mobile video, although even today they would not be available in the wilderness between Anchorage and Fairbanks.) 

I was desperate to watch the game. TKFather suggested that I listen the game over the radio. I did not have a radio with me on the trip, and we were staying at a hotel in the outskirts of Anchorage. According to the hotel staff, the nearest place that might sell a radio at 9 p.m. at night is Wal-Mart, which was 20 miles away. Apparently, Anchorage closes early and only Wal-Mart stays open past 9 p.m. 

Did I pay a $70 round trip cab fare to get to that damned Wal-Mart, just to buy a $15 radio that I will never use again for the rest of my life? Of course I did. Listening to the game (which Cal, led by DeSean Jackson, defeated Arian Foster and Tennessee in a 45-31 shootout,) I was alternately giving the play-by-play, singing the Cal fight song, and chanting and screaming incomprehensibly. In a bus full of tourists who couldn't care less.

- I spend so much money on sports that I probably need professional help. I own a jersey and/or a cap of every significant pro sports team from Los Angeles, including David Beckham's LA Galaxy jersey. (Who the hell buys an MLS jersey?) I own two Jeremy Lin jerseys. (It took all my willpower not to buy Lin's Houston one, but how could I not buy Lin's Lakers jersey?) I have so much Cal gear that my friends genuinely wondered whether I owned any piece of clothing that did not have the blue-and-gold logo. I have bought the annual Game Day Shirt for my college every year since I graduated (over ten years ago at this point,) and I plan to buy one again this year. I plan to buy them every year until I die. I don't care if that means I will end up with 50 t-shirts I will wear, at most, once in five years.

When the Lakers make their once-a-year trip to Washington D.C., I always go--although the Wizards bilk fans like me by charging $200 for a crappy seat. (The same seat for, say, a Warriors-Wizards game costs $35.) In fact, I also pay for my friend's ticket because no one else I know is willing to pay that much to watch a basketball game. Same is true when the Dodgers visit the Nationals. Right now, as of this moment TK is writing this post, he is in Chicago to watch the season opener for Cal football against Northwestern University. I did not just use a vacation day at work, pay for the plane ticket and get a rental car (which had to be an SUV, because it is pathetic to have a tailgate on the backside of a Ford Focus--who cares if it costs double?); I paid to overnight sausages from Top Dog, Berkeley's finest hot dog joint, just so I can have the complete Golden Bears tailgate experience. Will I lose my voice around third quarter of the game tomorrow? Absolutely.

*               *               *

All of the foregoing is to make a simple point:  what TK is about to say is not because he believes sports is trivial. This is not going to be a flip dismissal about the importance of sports loyalty, of the kind often given by people who do not understand the value of sports and dismiss it as grown-ups playing with a ball.

For TK understands why sports matter. We sports fans care so much because sports is the most perfect metaphor for life. No novelist, no poet in the history of humankind has created a body of work that even remotely approaches the emotional resonance of a single FIFA World Cup, much less sports in general. Each match is a work of art, reflective of the nuanced highs and lows of the life itself. By watching a game, we experience a birth and a death. We enter the world--the match--with hopes riding high, or perhaps with cynicism and dread. (The latter is a more typical for a Cal Bears fan.) We either achieve glorious immortality by defeating our foe, or experience hell--writ small--by losing in agony. By watching a hundred games, we live a hundred times. 

But it is important to realize that, while sports may be the most perfect metaphor of life, it is not life itself. The endlessly recurring metaphor is possible only because, in sports, we do not actually die in defeat, and we do not actually kill in victory. Sports is so life-like that a significant portion of sports fans substitute their own lives with the sports' representation of life, because often, the latter is much more attractive than the former. This is a mistake. It is one thing to deeply engage in a metaphor, quite another to let it consume reality. When certain lines are crossed, even the most rabid sports fan must be ready to snap out of it. As a Dodgers fan, I am ashamed to see that two Dodgers fans beat a Giants fan after a baseball game in 2011 such that he was brain damaged and permanently disabled. This is what happens when people substitute their lives with a mock-up of a life.

The article that John L. introduced hints that such substitution is starting to happen in the mind of the author of the piece. There is a gaping chasm between an allegiance to the team's name embroidered on the chest of an athlete, and an allegiance to the nation's name embroidered on the chest of your military uniform. Yet the author blithely jumps across that gap by comparing sports loyalty with the Asian American experience during World War II. Even for the most ardent sports fan, such equivocation cannot stand. It does not simply trivialize life by equating a ballgame with a situation in which countless human lives senselessly perish every day for no reason other than their nationality. It also destroys the beauty of sports as a metaphor for life, because sports does not simply represent the current reality, but the reality to which aspire--a world with sportsmanship and fair play. Recall that one of the worst violations of sports fan etiquette is to celebrate the opposing player's injury. But if we should treat our sports opponents as enemies on the battlefield, there is no reason why we should not call for more bean balls to the head, more chop blocks designed to break the knee. 

It is perfectly fine to enjoy sports nationalism, which is a far sight better than an actual war fueled by nationalism. It is also fine to come up with elaborate rules to determine your team, in case there is a possible conflict (as immigrants often do.) TK's personal rules are all over the place: in basketball, he will root for Team USA because basketball matters more in America, but in baseball he will root for Team Korea because he is annoyed that Team USA baseball never fields its best players. The game is not limited to the one unfolding on the pitch; at the end of the day, everyone who is watching sports is participating in a game of a highly elaborate metaphor. Enjoy the game, and don't let it get to your head.

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


  1. Acceptance is a two-way street. The fact is that American society still largely views Asian Americans as "not quite American." This is evident in the fact that Asians are usually kept away from the spotlight and center stage, especially when the public needs a relatable figure that it can identify with. American society can't treat Asians as outsiders, but then expect Asian Americans to completely disown their ethnic identities (which they're forced to hold onto because they're not unconditionally accepted as Americans) and root for a society that doesn't fully accept them.

    So long as Asian Americans are identified by race first by the rest of America, they have a right to cheer for a side that unashamedly represents them.

  2. As a Korean-American, my views on what it means to be "American" has evolved over time but one thing has remained constant: immigrants need to ask themselves what role they want to play in the larger American culture and hold themselves accountable through this shared ethos.

    The recent influx of immigrants over the past 30 years was very different than the immigrants of the 1920s. Immigrants of that time were discriminated heavily and often were forced to be more "American" (i.e. dominant culture) in order to make strides in their lives. Then, as is now, the desire to come to America was to pursue opportunity they couldn't find in their homeland, but to succeed, they needed to hide or downplay their ethnicity and often had to shun their own culture. This practice was not only accepted, but heavily promoted in households, where parents would not allow their children to speak their native tongue and in hopes that their children become more "American" and bring the success the parents had worked so hard to provide.

    In recent years, discrimination (while it still exists) is not necessarily status quo and in fact "multiculturalism" is promoted while American Exceptionalism is consider a faux paus. Yet immigrants now have no need nor benefit to want to become part of the American fabric and culture. Becoming "American" isn't promoted at home. Learning how and why American was the land of opportunity their parents came here for isn't taught in school.

    Sure, forced assimilation through discrimination is not the answer, but neither is what we have today: a free pass to inherit the gains of our forefathers (both immigrants and American forefathers) while making no effort to throw into the proverbial pot.

    The Korean is saying is, "it's just sports, relax. It ain't war, and by you mixing the two makes you crazy" and disregarded original article point about about how the sports we're talking about, nation vs. nation, country vs. country isn't just sports. It isn't Lakers vs. Bulls; local contests amongst those we consider our own "tribe" (i.e. American) fighting for bragging rights.

    The Olympics, FIFA, WBC, whatever... these are not locales vs locales. It's people representing what their nation stands for, the sense of perseverance, grit, and thousands of years history of cultural being represented on a world stage. You CANNOT dismiss it as just a sporting event that celebrates simple competition of a game. Then in that scenario, our fellow countrymen will see us cheering for the other side.

    This isn’t just sports, it's optics, it's perception, it’s marketing segment of society. It's how we view the world around us, and how the world around us views us.

    1. Many immigrants essentially live in their own communities, only have similar immigrant friends, and live totally separate lives with different languages that they've brought from their home countries and make little effort to participate in the overall American experience. Then you go out and cheer for another country. How is the majority culture SUPPOSED to feel?

      Our culture is an experiment. Our state is an experiment. We are not a nation state. We are not homogenous. Whether successful or not, our society strives to celebrate our differences while feeling unified with our shared sense of patriotism and exceptionalism.

      But when we go out and cheer and promote another country that has not educated you, has not protected you, that has not benefited you, and has done nothing other than be a place where the color of the skin is the same, isn't that the ultimate "un-American" thing to do?

      The original article's point still resonates immensely with me. You can't shout and scream for equality while showing you have little to no allegiance to group you want equality from.

      From the original article:
      "In 1919, Theodore Roosevelt spoke to America’s relationship with immigrants. “We should insist that if the immigrant who comes here does in good faith become an American and assimilates himself to us he shall be treated on an exact equality with every one else, for it is an outrage to discriminate against any such man because of creed or birth-place or origin. But this is predicated upon the man’s becoming in very fact an American and nothing but an American. If he tries to keep segregated with men of his own origin and separated from the rest of America, then he isn’t doing his part as an American. There can be no divided allegiance here… we have room for but one soul loyalty, and that is loyalty to the American people.”

    2. Your premise relies on the assumption that the majority is willing to accept Asian Americans as fully equal members. Keep in mind that true acceptance is more than the mere absence of legalized discrimination (e.g. Chinese head tax).

      As I said before, acceptance is a two-way street. If Korean Americans are going to be expected to root for America over Korea, then the majority of Americans have to be willing to accept Korean Americans (and all Asian Americans) as real Americans too. What you're advocating for right is for Asian Americans to completely supplicate themselves for acceptance at the feet of the American majority while the American majority strokes its collective chins on whether to truly accept Asian Americans or not.

      Why do you think Asian immigrants have their own social circles? This is basically a reiteration of the "Why do all the Black kids sit at the same table?" fallacy. Nobody seems to notice that it is perhaps so because all the White (or non-Asian) kids sit at the same table and aren't including the Asian kids in a genuine manner.

    3. ". . . all the White (or non-Asian) kids sit at the same table and aren't including the Asian kids in a genuine manner." This is a two-way street. I have seen often at video game tournaments - and gamers are the most racially inclusive group imaginable; no one cares how old you are or what you look like as long as you can play the game - that the Asian gamers gravitate together rather than mixing with the group. I remember one particular event where the Muslim folks - women in head scarves and men - and the westerners mixed happily while the Asian guys went off and ignored everyone else. You can't cry "exclusion" when in fact you are practicing self-exclusion.

    4. The gaming world is not representative of American society in general. You're talking about a very niche subculture full of its own peculiar rules and customs.

      Exclusion without power is meaningless. That's like claiming that the poor kids are just as exclusionary as the rich kids because the poor kids tend to stick together just as the rich kids do.

      My whole point is that Asian Americans have much less social power than most other groups, so the burden shouldn't be completely on them to practically beg for acceptance while the majority mulls over its decision whether to include Asians as fully American "American" or not.

    5. Koreans in general are self segregating.

  3. I think you should root for whoever the hell you want, whoever moves your soul. I think the freedom to do what you want, as long as you are not hurting anyone else, is the truest celebration of the American spirit. Korean Americans are lucky because in many instances we have x2 the teams we can get behind in international competition. I don't give any credence to that Teddy Roosevelt quote, coming from a man who has known nothing else other than life as a rich white man, fully integrated into American society back in the early 1900s. Besides, our grandkids' grandkids probably won't be rooting for team Korea. I don't feel any less-American when I root for a Korean team, as much as I don't feel any less Philadelphian when I was rooting for Auburn in last years' NCAA football championship game. I think if you really want to exercise your American spirit, you shouldn't impede others from rooting for whatever sports team they want, who they fall in love with, what language they want to speak at home, etc.

  4. By the way, I was in Seoul for two days just days after the Korean kids won, and I didn't see a single mention, shout out, signs of congratulations to the little league team. What's up with that? A few years back I was in LA (near the Staples Center mind you) after the Kings won the Stanley Cup, and same thing… not a single Kings t-shirt, billboard, nothing! Damn shame.

  5. Asian-Americans are still highly discriminated against in American professional sports. Look no further than the experience of Jeremy Lin, for example, in the NBA. Then it should not come as a huge surprise if Asian-Americans choose to root for the mother country's team rather than Team USA. Why not ask why aren't there more Asian-Americans in sports, just like how liberals are forever questioning stuff like why aren't there more women in corporate executive positions or more blacks working in places like Google?

    America cannot rightly call herself the "Land of Freedom" and also insist that immigrants must root only for American sports teams. This freedom implies that as long as you are not breaking the law, you have the freedom to live your life as you please, and this includes rooting for Team Korea if that's what makes you happy. And frankly it is none of anyone else's business. This insistence that immigrants have a duty to show their loyalty by acting in a certain way sounds totalitarian. I wonder if any of the self-appointed Gestapo Police of Sports will also go up to a crowd of Mexican-Americans during World Cup soccer to examine who they are rooting for, or a Italian-American to stop displaying the Italian flag in their place of business, or similarly an Irish on St Patty's Day, or a Puerto-Rican in a "Puerto-Rican Pride Parade" or a Jew who is into Zionism.

    Affinity for one's sports team is the closest thing to tribalism in the modern world. Therefore it is ridiculous to accuse someone of tribalism when the whole affair is about tribalism in the first place. It is also about identity.

    Since I am a Christian, my views are also informed by the bible. Did Apostle Paul (formerly Saul of Tarsus) see himself as a Roman citizen or as a Jew? The NT clearly states he saw himself first and foremost a Pharisee and a Jew. But when he was flogged and thrown into prison without due process, he raised the fact that he was a Roman citizen and appealed to Caesar. My US citizenship is a legal definition of who I am. But outside of the legal domain, as long as I am not breaking any laws, I have liberty to live my life and define my identity as I see fit (including what team I shall root for) and frankly its really none of anyone else's concern.

  6. I haven't adopted a sports team since the Dodgers left Brooklyn, What a betrayal! I was scarred for life. ;)

    But after knee surgery, a visit to my sports medicine surgeon had me by coincidence in the waiting room while the World Cup match played on the giant TV, and I sat there long after my appointment cheering "대한민국!" I don't know what other patients thought of a 70 year old Western woman cheering in Korean was all about, but I had fun and it was the first sports match I'd watched since high school. Cheer for whoever moves your heart.

  7. On Wednesday, September 12, 2001, I was back at work after having my day off on that terrible day(9/11). I was asked to go to the manager's office. Inside was the owner of the business and the general manager. The general manager asked if I was an American (Korean-American). I said yes and at that point had served in the Gulf War in 1991 in Saudi Arabia and Iraq. I asked if he was questioning my loyalty? He didn't answer. Then I went down stairs back to work. A few hours later, a friend of his told me that he had dodged the draft during the Vietnam War. I went back up and asked to have the owner and him in the office. I asked if he, the general manager, dodged the draft during the Vietnam War. His faced changed and got visibly upset. I got angry being challenged of being an American. I tore into him saying he has NO right after he wimped out. On top of it, the foreigner working in my department was a white woman who had retained her Irish Citizenship and never became an American Citizen to her death about 9 years ago. This general manager ASSUMED that the Irish Woman was an American and guy with Asian Features was the foreigner.
    I later served in the U.S. Army in the Iraq War 2004-2005 and worked as a contractor from 2005-2013. At that point, I was never asked if I was an American. The southerners asked where me , the Yankee, came from in the north. That was funny!
    As an immigrant and as an Amerasian, I am going to support the USA over the South Koreans in every turn. If I had stayed in South Korean I would have been uneducated, working dangerous jobs, stateless, and invisible. My heart lies ONLY with the USA!!!

    1. SC Kang,
      Thank you for your service.
      Also thank you for going after the draft dodger. Um, South Koreans died with their American brothers during the Vietnam conflict? It's called "loyalty"? Something your boss lacks? The boomers drive me up the wall as do the Irish (I'm also a fifth Irish, i have an Irish maiden name).

      Some are the most arrogant, racist, complex ridden with no base. And they have the NERVE to cry about discrimination!
      Notre Dame has an Irish mascot,the pretentious in the US flaunt their Irishness even when Notre Dame is in France?

      My dad is part Irish and gave me a foreign name in a racist country, my sister and I were severely punished if we tried to change it in grade school to avoid discrimination? He beat us to "respect your mother's culture".

      Then later on in the future- the FOBs come to the US, speak no English then get American names to avoid discrimination like the backstabbing baby beating b*s that they are.

      Sorry... i have A LOT of resentment. Two faced IDIOTS. Like, excuse me! Asians are picking up the ugly AMerican traits and I have to put up with EVERYTHING, I have to bear EVERYTHING by force-capital punishment by controlling and nasty tiger parents when I was the meal ticket to the Visa Sponsors.

      Americans are no saints themselves. A LOT will punish ME! For the junk pulled by other Asians because I was given an Asian name in a racist shithole.

      I appreciate your character very much, however I cannot agree with nationalism.

  8. Man, you guys need to relax. Root for the team you want. It doesn't/shouldn't have to be that complex.

    One reason I root for Korean teams is because it's very rare for any Korean team to be world's best at anything. In fact there's no, none, zip, zero Korean team that's ever ever ever been the world's best at a major sport. Underdogs are fun to root for. And they're KOREANS, so f+ck the rest of you. LOL.

  9. Why can't you root for both?

  10. "No novelist, no poet in the history of humankind has created a body of work that even remotely approaches the emotional resonance of a single FIFA World Cup, much less sports in general."

    And no poet has ever replicated the flavor of hamburgers.

    "Each match is a work of art"

    Most games are banal like life and only punctuated with excitement like life.

    "By watching a game, we experience a birth and a death."

    Mostly you're just wasting time.

    "We either achieve glorious immortality by defeating our foe, or experience hell--writ small--by losing in agony."

    Immortality is reserved for the warriors who engaged in combat and even that emotion is fleeting. For the rest of us spectators it's victory by creative proxy.

    "By watching a hundred games, we live a hundred times."

    More like wasted hundreds of hours.

    "But it is important to realize that, while sports may be the most perfect metaphor of life, it is not life itself."

    What then is life itself? Your 9-5 job? Your family? Your utility bills? LOL.

    Anyways, we root for the teams that tug at our heartstrings. That might be the underdog. Or the team that best projects our athletic/artistic ethos. Or maybe the team that signifies our alter egos. But if you're a first generation immigrant and you don't (usually) root for your mother country something might be wrong with you.

  11. The best thing about being an "American" is that you don't have care about sports at all, and, if you do like wasting a hell of a lot of your time on meaningless nonsense, there are tons of sports to follow and partake of in the U.S. and just as many teams to waste your hard earned money on.

  12. Hi,
    I stumbled on this post. I'm "Amerasian" and some of the BEST athletes I've seen were half Korean, Half Caucasian or Half Korean and Half black. There's a perfectly great explanation for this, the dominant traits come out when you mix races.
    Nobody heard of Hines on the Steelers?

    I personally know two who were "minor league" athletes who went to the JOs (Junior Olympics) and the other had to turn down an offer to play for the Cincinatti Reds.

    BTW, I don't believe in nationalism, that complex drives me up the wall.

    1. 'the dominant traits come out when you mix races.'

      The early twentieth century called- it wants its eugenics back.

  13. When Kenneth Bae is released in exchange with top Taliban leaders, we can talk about "Divided identity".

    And who claims "When China comes head to head with the US, I want the US to win". Yes when you're young, you think you're American enough. When you travel around the world, the whole World see you as "Chinese". After your expedition, come and talk about "How you support the US hegemony".


Comments are not available on posts older than 60 days.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...