My third favorite World Cup team
While the world cup is going on, I’m actually fortunate to have three teams to follow. Being an American, I like the U.S. Being a Korean-American, I like Korea. Some might assume that my experience living in Japan would make me partial to the Japanese team. Well you’re right, I’m partial to it, but not in the same way. You see, just as nobody can like both the Yankees and the Red Sox in baseball, or Manchester United and Liverpool in soccer, with Japan and Korea as arch rivals, I can’t bring myself to support them, but ironically the fact that they are the arch rival team makes me have a passing interest in information about the team itself, indirectly making me a supporter by some definitions.
So what is this third team that I am supporting in the cup? Brazil? No, I don’t like the strong teams stepping all over the weak ones, I actually prefer the underdogs. England? Hmm, I’ll admit they are probably my favorite European team, but I don’t want the cup winner this year to be from Europe or South America. It’s time for North America, Africa, or Asia to win. Aha, South Africa? Well, I suppose I should cheer them on as they are the hosts, not from Europe or South America, and underdogs. I am happy if they win, but I’m not sure I would really call myself a South Africa fan as I know nothing of the team.
The third team I’m probably going to follow with a lot of enthusiasm is the “other” Korean team. Yes, the other Korean team. DPR Korea, also known as North Korea. (And on a side note, this is the first time my blog has even mentioned the north at all. I sense the blog traveling in new and impressive directions from here on out.)
I know there will be a lot of people who might react with “NORTH KOREA?!?!?!?! ARE YOU CRAZY?!??!?!?! They make nuclear bombs and they torpedo ships! They defy international law! How dare you support their soccer team!” But, soccer is a sport, not political engagements between opposing governments. In addition, there’s definitely a story here on this team that kind of draws me to them and makes me wish for their success.First of all, many of you are probably wondering how in my right mind I can support the North Korean team if I love South Korea so much. And here’s my answer… though it might be difficult to understand. I don’t like the North Korean government. The government is responsible for nearly all of the problems that anyone can think of about North Korea. At the end of the day, North Korea is full of people. These people love their families. They are humans.
People in North Korea are Koreans just as much as people in South Korea are Koreans. This is why even though there are government documents that list North Korea as Enemy No.1, and even though the North continues to threaten regional security with nuclear weapons, and even though recently the North Korean navy torpedoed a South Korean ship in South Korean waters, South Koreans are in favor of the North’s soccer team. It’s a general love for the people, regardless of the actions of their government. Writing this reminds me of supporters holding up signs in the 2002 World Cup, reading “Again 1966” when South Korea faced Italy, referring to the time that the North Korean soccer team defeated Italy in the 1966 World Cup in England. Even though there hasn’t yet been a reunification of Korea, in some sense it can be said that Korea is one country, and some sense is better than no sense at all. I’m not sure, but I’d bet that the North Korean people were thrilled about South Korea’s success in the 2002 World Cup.
Anyway, although I do feel an affinity for the North Koreans because they are also Korean, I really am drawn to the story of one particular player. His name is Jong Tae-Se.
Leading up to the World Cup, I liked to watch on TV this one show that gave a rundown of each team and then had interviews with some of the players. Sometimes when I watch TV, it’s really just background noise and I am busy reading a book or something else. Well, I noticed that they were talking about the North Korean team, but continued to read. Suddenly I heard Japanese coming out of the TV.
I’ve lived in Japan for quite a while and I understand Japanese, and it really surprised me that a Korean player was doing his interview in Japanese. So, I did an internet search and found some information about Jong Tae-Se.
He was born to residents in Japan of Korean descent and raised in Japan. His parents were both citizens of South Korea, but his mother’s family’s hometown is in North Korea so she sent him to a Korean school in Japan that is supported by a community of Overseas North Koreans. He then changed his citizenship to North Korea when he became playing age and has been playing for North Korea in international matches since. Technically he’s still a South Korean citizen because the only way you can give up your South Korean citizenship is if you declare to have naturalized in another country that South Korea recognizes, which North Korea is not a part of. So, this South Korean-North Korean-Japanese resident plays for North Korea and Kawasaki Frontale in the J-League in Japan.
Confusing isn’t it? I’ll try to explain more about this later.
Jong has also been called the Asian Wayne Rooney, and Wayne Rooney is an amazing English player, so surely Jong is brilliant himself.
The media has been falling all over him crying so much during North Korea’s national anthem before their match with Brazil. Check out the video.
“Wow, that guy has dedication to his country!” “A true patriot” These are some of the comments that people have said after seeing the video. They may be right, but if I am allowed to make some assumptions about the conditions of Jong’s childhood, then I think he’s crying for a very very different reason, and you’ll probably get to know a bit more about me when I write this.
Okay.. first of all he’s a Zainichi
(Note in Japanese, the term for overseas Koreans living in Japan is Zainichi Chosenjin 在日朝鮮人. Technically Zainiti itself means “those residing in Japan” but because after World War II, the largest group of non-Japanese residing in Japan was Koreans, simply the term Zainichi by itself implies that it’s an overseas Korean. In Korean, the term is Jae-il gyopo, which means “brethren residing in Japan” but for the puroses of this article, the term Zainichi will be used from here on out. Among Zainichi there are two groups, those loyal to the South Korean government, and those loyal to the North Korean one. The pro-North Korean group was once more numerous but recently its numbers have been dwindling. The pro-South Korean group is now more dominant, but both groups are shrinking as many Zainichi have repatriated, Naturalized, or intermarried with Japanese. )
Zainichi are in a very unique position in that they are minorities in Japan, and face discrimination, but if you didn’t know they were Koreans in the first place, you would simply assume that they were Japanese, as they speak perfect Japanese and look similar enough to Japanese that it becomes almost impossible to distinguish. In this light, many Zainichi children in schools try to hide their heritage so as to not stand out and be victims of bullying by their Japanese peers. In minority populations, there is a feeling of comfort amongst your own, and Jong may have had that outlet amongst the North Korean Zainichis, but remember, he was a South Korean citizen attending a North Korean Zainichi school, so there were probably some bullies in the school that became aware of this and pegged him as an outsider. Amongst the group of Zainichis that are loyal to the South Korean government, he was probably also seen as an outsider because he was going to the North Korean-loyal school. I don’t know if he’s ever been to South Korea during his childhood, but there are definitely cultural differences that would have probably made him an outsider in South Korea as well.
Why am I bringing any of this up? Well, I’m pretty sympathetic to the Zainichi situation because I feel like I’ve grown up in similar circumstances. I’ve been writing this blog for quite a while, and I haven’t really said anything about myself or my background. Some of you might have guessed from hints in previous posts that I am ethnically Korean. I’ve never mentioned it before, but at the moment, I consider myself to be Korean, but since my mother is a white American, I don’t look like the typical Korean. In fact to some, I don’t look like I am Korean at all. Just the other day someone in my company told me that they thought I was from Iran.
Anyway when I was growing up, my circumstance was like Zainichi in the sense that I was a minority that didn’t really look like one. Of course things in America are different from in Japan, but around White Americans, I’d always had a sense that I was somewhat different, but I’d better hide those differences. So, does that mean I’ve got Korean-Americans to comfort me in this case? No, the Korean-Americans were too busy comforting each other, and because I didn’t look the same as they did, they didn’t accept me as a Korean. I can totally understand that though, when the majority stuffs a minority group into a box, they become very defensive of the box and when some members of the majority want in, they are promptly dismissed. I guess I was perceived as a member of the majority. How about amongst Koreans in South Korea? It’s really hard to describe and isn’t relevant to my childhood because I came to Korea in 2006. Basically upon first meeting with the average Korean, I’m a foreigner. For some, I’ll always be a foreigner. For others, after they get to know me for a while, they realize that there’s some kind of connection. I’ve even had Koreans tell me that they think I’m Korean, but because of the initial reaction I still feel like an outsider sometimes.
Apologies to Mr. Jong if I am wrong, but, if my assumptions are correct, Jong Tae-Se may have felt that he was rejected by Japanese, North Korean Zainichi, South Korean Zainichi, and South Koreans. He may have felt that he didn’t belong anywhere. I grew up feeling like I didn’t belong anywhere because I was rejected by Korean Americans and accepted by white Americans only if I hid who I truly was.
What’s the point?
I think Jong Tae-Se is not crying because he’s overwhelmed by love for his country or an overbearing sense of patriotism. He’s crying because people have told him he doesn’t belong here or there his entire life yet he’s a member of a team that represents the society that he himself identifies with. He’s crying for all the sad memories his countrymen gave to him for being different, and arguably now he’s more representative of Korea than his childhood enemies will ever be.
In a similar sense, when I traveled to China for the Shanghai Expo, and got issued an employee access pass that read “KOR” on it (signifying that I worked in the Republic of Korea Pavilion), I didn’t cry, but I too got a bit emotional. I mean, all my life people have been telling me I’m not Korean, and there I was working in a building that has the sole purpose of representing Korea to the world.
That there is such great disparity between South Korea, a robust economy that leads the world in advanced technology and North Korea, a failed economy and isolated state, saddens me, but I at least (think) I understand how Mr. Jong truly feels.
Addendum: I found this article that actually contains an interview with Jong and also shows that as far as soccer is concerned, North and South Koreans support each other. They talk of Park Ji Sung (the most famous South Korean footballer) as a national hero in North Korea for getting the winning goal over Iran, which allowed North Korea to qualify for the world cup. The idea of North Koreans jumping up and down in excitement for South Korean success is quite moving.