Thor's Korea Diary

The Sports Festival

@4 October 2000
go to end / go to Korea Index

The Korean professor had said that everyone should attend the opening ceremony of the sports festival. We were being paid for it after all, even though classes were cancelled for three days to celebrate the body beautiful. This two-year tertiary college was not famous for its academic excellence, but the students were part of the community, and our job was to help them to find a useful life role. There seemed to be many ceremonies for openings and closings, for presentations and awards. In a way they were validations of the college's function, a reassurance to parents and students that they had invested in something valuable, so we were supposed to take them seriously. The substance behind the fanfare hardly mattered.

I reflected that this emphasis on form over substance was true in most of life's encounters. Of the many personnel officers and interview panels who had briefly touched my wayward career, it seemed unlikely that any had actually dipped into my thesis. I had often been surprised and dismayed by the palpable ignorance of such characters in interviews, though they had been offered detailed access to my writing. The imprimatur of a stamp, the "reputation" of an institution, the careless remark of some referee, were the measures by which these lazy minds, and the unwitting populace beyond, measured one's worth. Years of patient research, the quality of insights, the clarity of scientific explanation -- these were matters of no genuine interest at all to employers (academic or otherwise), to friends, family, or the man in the street. So what loss would our friendly, uncomplicated students sense by skipping the arcane struggle to understand a complex world through learning and research? Probably none. It was almost a kindness to keep them innocent.

The sports ground was a dusty tableau of dried clay, barely the size of a soccer field, and hemmed on each side by steep access roads dug into the sides of a valley. The institution's buildings rose in tiers behind the sports ground, in an ever narrowing pyramid, so that the last one, hacked into the mountainside itself, was crowned on three sides by a dense alpine pine forest. Looking down to the left, the access road had been retained by a concrete embankment, stepped to form rough benches. By mid morning a straggle of maybe two hundred students were sprawled across these benches, from a college population of around four thousand (plus a thousand part-timers). In front of them several standard bearers waved large flags, one the blood red ensign with a yellow star of North Korea, another inexplicably in the national colours of Indonesia. The brick teaching block adjacent to the sports ground had a roofed concrete portico that served as a viewing stand and forum for speeches from the dignitaries. I made my way unobtrusively to a folding chair at the rear of this group. A small crowd of Korean teachers sat there stoically. I was surprised to find myself the only foreigner, except for Zhang Wen*, the Chinese teacher.

Zhang Wen explained that the college had only about fifty full-time Korean academic staff, plus maybe a hundred part-timers, and other sessionals who came to work by the hour. The twenty or so foreign teachers formed a distinct group, interacting very little with Korean colleagues (what a pity), and as the morning's events were showing, doing their best to avoid rituals like the present one. Well, if we were to review the performance, there had to be someone to review. In the centre of the field about fifty students stood in ragged rows. You sensed that these were the unlucky ones who didn't get away. The deputy director of student affairs barked at them from the podium. He was an exceptionally well built man, square of shoulders with a military bearing, patrician silver hair, an expensive grey suit. But he was only the warm up crew. Soon the acting director of the college stepped forward, appropriately dressed in a track suit and runners, with a spray of some mountain bush pinned to his lapel. He stooped slightly, and peered through rimless glasses at his notes on the lectern. Then he began to speak in a flat and querulous voice; the atmospherics immediately dipped to indifference. On queue, some fireworks briefly went bang, two squad leaders trotted up with house banners to present to the leader, and we sat back to await the opening performers.

As a survivor of the Chinese passion for mass display on occasions like this, I looked around for the sudden appearance of three hundred costumed dancing girls to form a floral pattern, or columns of marchers waving a banners explaining their work unit and a glorious slogan like "striving for takeoff in the new millennium". The air was filled with thunderous music, well actually the jarring screech of hard rock. Two bony youths in unbuttoned shirts and stovepipe jeans detached themselves from the scattered crowd by the roadside, and ambled across in front of the podium. They were followed by a clutch of girls, maybe eighteen or nineteen years old, also in jeans. Six of the girls formed into an inert bunch at the rear, while two joined the boys in a kind of disco shuffle. For drama they punched their fists into the air, without any visible coordination (was this revolution?), then the boys turned around and girls pulled off the boy's shirts in an unconscious parody of a strip tease dive. Was there some wicked wit going on here? No, the poor kids were acting out exactly what television had taught them to do when they escaped from their tower block housing units on Saturday night and headed for a teen disco. Well, this was the age of equality. The thinly muscled youths moved behind their girls and symbolically removed the feminine clothing too, jerking to the rock beat. I wondered if another ten years, or five, would overcome the residual inhibition of keeping the women clothed in public. The VIPs looked on, past the tiny group of teenagers, to the empty claypan of the sports ground. Some of the Korean female teachers tittered, not mirthfully I thought. The men sat there motionless in their houndstooth sports coats and neat ties. Did they feel that this "grand opening" was, in a sense, a profound humiliation of the society they had come from? Had the foreign teachers stayed away as an act of pity? Who could tell? It was all new to me ... I was projecting guesses. But I knew that I couldn't take another hour of this stuff with a straight face. As quietly as possible I slipped back out the rear door.

As I walked back down the road a new group had moved to centre stage. Two boys waved large banners of blood red, lit by the yellow star of communist North Korea. Some girls in black mini skirts and black stockings, red T-shirts with a yellow star, were doing yet another disco shuffle. We were in the mood for reconciliation. The president had said so. Chairman Kim Il Sung was hip, a cuddly and sentimental fellow like those furry animals in big perspex boxes that you played for in the game parlours around town... These poor children seemed to have no concept of the starvation, the filthy deprivation and fear that represented survival a few hundred kilometers to the north. Or maybe they preferred not to know. But the leadership of this college was certainly aware of the symbolism in these gestures towards an old adversary.

Everyone has something to offer. Scholar, merchant, beggar, slave .. I had wondered if some of our students had directed their energy into excelling in sport. Many of the boys had told me they had already done two years of compulsory military service. That sort of stuff stiffens a few, and gives others a lifelong aversion to discipline of any kind. Perhaps these three days could be an opening to show some drive and achievement. In fifty years, South Koreans had lifted themselves by the bootstraps, from a barren Third World land of peasants into one of the tigers of Asia. But no, this particular bunch of guys and gals just weren't into the work-is-glorious scene. As I passed by on the second morning of the Sports Festival, the big clay patch was empty, except for the usual desultory collection of fellows kicking a ball around. That's life.

* Note on personal names: all names in this Diary have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals, unless stated otherwise.

"The Sports Festival" copyrighted to Thor May 2000; all rights reserved
go to top