I haven’t been following the Olympics very closely this year. It’s the first time I haven’t stayed up to watch at least a few hours of the broadcasts.
My very first memory of the Olympics is the 1988 Seoul Games. Ironically, I wasn’t even in Seoul at the time. My family and I were living in Los Angeles and my grandparents were visiting. I remember watching television with them, my younger sister, and my cousin at dawn, brimming with pride at the first ever Olympic Games to be hosted in our country.
I remember my grandfather clapping loudly, beaming, when a Korean athlete performed well. Even as a child, I knew this was a proud moment in all of our lives. We all rooted for Koreans, of course, unless there were none. In that case, my grandparents rooted for the Japanese, which I thought was odd, and we kids rooted for Team USA.
As I grew older, I always rooted for Korea. There was something moving about watching the athletes perform in the games of their lives. If they won a medal, the fact that our national anthem was blasted for all to hear, with our athlete standing under our flag often in joyous tears, was wondrous. I also loved to hear the human interest stories behind their success. When newspapers and sportscasters tallied the number of medals and compared us with Japan, I would feel an intense need for us to beat them.
I also rooted for Canada if there were no Korean athletes, since we lived in Canada for a while. As a last resort, I rooted for America, but eventually I picked a random underdog to root for. This happened more and more as I grew older; for various reasons, masses waving American flags and chanting ``USA! USA!” didn’t make me proud; it made me cringe and feel threatened. I always assumed it was because of America’s political and athletic power.
During the 2002 World Cup, I realized that my unease was not specific to America; it had to do with mass displays of patriotism. That summer I was living in Paris. I watched every single soccer game, setting my alarm for 5:30 a.m. so as to be fully caffeinated in time to watch three back-to-back games.
Even though I don’t know a single rule about the game of football and was frankly bored most of the time as the men kicked the ball back and forth, I passionately cheered as the Korean team advanced. In games where Korea was not playing, I rooted for the underdog. When Senegal beat France, I leaned out my window and cheered along with the explosive cries of joy coming from the bars below me and gleefully watched the Parisians of Senegalese descent dancing in the streets.
When Korea played Germany, I went to City Hall to watch it on the big screen with thousands of other fans. I arrived and saw the frightening scene of huge German flags and Germans chanting ``Deutschland! Deutschland!” I couldn’t help but think of bone-chilling Nazi rallies. Completely terrified, I inched closer to my people. Everyone was wearing Red Devils shirts, had red paint on their faces, and was holding those large plastic clapper things. They sat in neat rows, pounding on drums and banging those clappers in unison.
Instead of feeling gladdened by this display of patriotism, I felt ill at ease. I guess I just don’t feel as passionate about these things as many people do; the fact that everyone was acting in unison, like robots, was just creepy to watch. Why would you do something just because everyone’s doing it? I couldn’t wrap my mind around it. It goes without saying that even though I felt uncomfortable, I stayed among the Koreans. (The Germans were really quite scary, especially when they won.)
Turns out my discomfort isn’t just about displays of patriotism. When I go to a baseball game, I don’t understand why everyone does the same exact thing; order a beer, eat peanuts, do the wave, sing during the seventh inning stretch. I feel like I’m about to jump out of my skin. I am leery of being expected to do something just because it’s ``tradition” or because it’s what you do; I was especially disturbed when, after 9/11, stadiums refused to allow people to leave their seats during the anthem or God Bless America. For whatever reason, my discomfort extends to anything done in huge groups. (It should be no surprise that people don’t like to go to sporting events with me.)
I wasn’t always like this. When I was a kid living in Toronto, I was obsessed with the Blue Jays, especially when they won back-to-back World Series in 1992 and ’93. I begged to be allowed to stay up to watch the games on television, and I bought World Series hats and T-shirts; my dad even took my sister and me to the victory parade. I bought all the newspapers and magazines that mentioned the Jays and clipped the articles and pictures into a scrapbook.
Now, team spirit makes me break out into hives. I just counted down the days till the end of the Olympics.
Chi-Young Kim is a literary translator based in Los Angeles. She has translated works by Shin Kyung-sook, Kim Young-ha, and Jo Kyung-ran. Contact her at email@example.com or via her website, chiyoungkim.com.