Monday, April 14, 2014


Before I came to Korea, I disliked playing soccer; I was no good, and games felt like running laps on muddy grass while everyone else took care of the fancy goal-scoring business. After two years in Korea, I can honestly say that I now actively hate playing soccer. Of course, "hate" is a very strong word which I don't use lightly, so before all my students gasp in horror at my admission sans context, let me explain.

Specifically, I hate the weekly games of indoor soccer that we play at my taekgyeon gym. I have been training in taekgyeon for a little over one year now, and I go five times a week. My goal is to obtain my black belt before I leave Korea, and my only chance to pass the test is in June. So, time is precious, and I want to spend every minute bettering my forms and roundhouse kicks. Instead, however, we section off one day each week, usually Friday, for casual games of indoor soccer with a small purple rubber ball and cushions stood up on end as goalposts. Our gym is small, only about twenty by forty feet, so with four to six grown men running around in this space trying to score goals on each other, the possibility of injury is high.

Yes, they're supposed to be casual games, and they always start out that way, but we're a competitive bunch. After half an hour, things can get nasty. We get tired, lose our balance, kick each other accidentally, then kick each other not-so-accidentally... A stubbed toe here, a mat burn there; the outside of my right foot is constantly sore because of soccer. My newest pair of glasses is sitting on my desk bent completely out of shape because of soccer. I have allowed outbursts of anger, pain, and every negative emotion in my arsenal because of soccer.

And tonight I was finally called out on it. Thank goodness, but also: aaargh.

I've asked my trainers several times why we play soccer when, every week, someone is injured. 관장님 (gwanjangnim, my gym director) replies that it's for building up endurance and stamina, which are required in taekgyeon matches but aren't easy to develop without holding constant scrimmages. So, I have silently endured injuring my feet in a different way every week for an entire year, but it's finally come to a point where I can't hide my frustration and anger.

관장님 and 사범님 know that I don't like playing soccer. I've complained to them several times about how I always get hurt -- 맨발로 축구를 하면 다치는 편이에요 -- but they insist on playing every week. Two weeks ago, I stubbed my toe pretty badly and yelled, "I quit!" before storming out of the gym. When I returned from my short tantrum, I played like a zombie and my team lost. Last Thursday, we played again, even though I was hoping they'd wait until Friday since I'd be out of town then and I could miss soccer with a legitimate excuse. That was not to be; I strained the outside of my right foot, which throbbed the entire weekend.

And today was the final straw -- in more ways than one. It's Monday. We never play soccer on Monday. But 관장님 cheerfully announced that today would be our very last day of soccer for a while. When I smiled and asked why, he said that we were getting a new trainee tomorrow, a woman. Since women can't really keep up with soccer the way we play, he explained, we were only going to play whenever this new trainee didn't come to the gym. Ignoring that bit of sexism, I silently prayed that our new member would come every single day.

But then we had to play soccer again. Our last game. And it started off fine -- my team quickly found itself losing 8-0, but we made up the difference eventually and held off 관장님 and the kind-of-violent ahjussi for a while. And then I just started screwing up. I kicked a sharp corner. I fell and got a mat burn on my foot. I accidentally scored on my own goal a few times. I began to get frustrated again and felt really fed up with this whole thing, even crying out, "아 축구를 싫어해요!" (Ah, I hate soccer!) once. And my demeanor changed, as it usually does near the end of the hour: I went completely silent and became more aggressive.

The good thing is that my heightened focus helped me score four or five goals in the span of ten minutes, and I brought our team to a tie. The bad thing is that I was obviously unhappy and not being a good sport. I kicked an opposing player and halfheartedly apologized. I made absolutely no eye contact, and my face probably looked like I was ready to bite someone's head off. My team lost the game.

I immediately sat down and began stretching; no high-fives, no bows, just me being letting my bitter aura fester. The thoughts continually running through my mind: "My feet hurt. I don't come to taekgyeon for this. My feet hurt."

관장님 came up to me after I had changed and gave me some straight talk. "When we play soccer," he said, "everyone gets hurt. And in taekgyeon there are some things that people like and some things that people don't like. But the rest of us know how to 참다." -- I didn't know what 참다 meant, but I assumed it meant to hide one's feelings. I was about to brush this off, but 관장님 clearly had his serious face on, so I got out my phone and looked up the word he'd used. 참다 means "to tolerate".

He went on: "Here in this gym, we understand that you don't really like soccer. But we like soccer. You need to control your feelings, otherwise other people will misunderstand you. Again, we understand you, but others might not."

I was speechless. I wanted to reply, to argue back. "But I'm in effing pain!" Obviously, I didn't say that. I wanted to explain the frustration I felt, but I realized that I didn't have the language skill to do so. And then it occured to me that I actually didn't completely understand why I felt the way I did -- even if 관장님 could understand English, I wouldn't have been able to articulate myself well enough for him to comprehend.

So I said nothing but, "I'm sorry." I was forced to admit that 관장님 was completely right. I was being a dick, and I knew it. In essence, he told me off for spoiling everyone's fun and being immature about my own inconveniences. Want to know how not to piss off your friends? Don't yuck their yum: don't be openly antagonistic toward the things you know that they enjoy. And want to know how to build character and grow despite a difficult situation? 참다. Tolerate the things that hurt you and build up a thick skin. The pain is temporary, but the extremely negative impression I've been leaving on my fellow trainees is going to last quite some time.

Yeah. I literally hung my head in shame after 관장님 talked to me. I apologized and couldn't think of anything else to say. Language barrier and acute embarrassment united to rid me of all pretension, so I tried simply to look as worn-out as possible. Everyone knows I've been busy and stressed lately... but deep down, I knew I needed to learn that lesson.

Well done, Andrew: you've done a horrendous job of representing America, as well as Christianity. Now, although I want to repair my image, I still really hate soccer! In the future, if our new trainee doesn't show up on a Friday and I walk in to find the goal posts set up, it'll take all I've got not to apologize and walk right back out. I don't want to risk blowing up again for the possibility of actually playing a decent, friendly game. But how can I prove to my teacher that I've learned and matured if I don't give myself another chance?

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