I was on a Sunday afternoon hike when Blythe sent me a text inviting me to play basketball. Having always sucked at shooting hoops, and being in the middle of my morning exercise, I sent her a text politely declining.
She was persistent. She called. Voice to voice, I had a harder time saying no. “You don’t understand, I really suck at basketball,” I said.
“So? Willey is the only person who knows how to play basketball. Tasmin, Claire and I don’t have a clue. We don’t play basketball in the U.K.”
She had a point. Playing alongside basketball virgins seemed okay. I went downtown to meet up with my friends. Claire was wearing leggings and slipper-like shoes, making me feel more athletic right away just for wearing tennis shoes.
We walked to a park with two hoops set up on a gravel court. We warmed up with a few shots, most of which missed the rim and net completely. “It’s the ground,” I complained. “We’d totally be making these shots if I was on a real court…”
Meanwhile, Willey gave the other girls a brief overview of basketball, stressing the importance of dribbling while moving. We split into teams, Willey and Blythe against Claire, Tasmin and me. We ran back and forth, sweating. Willey blocked me and Blythe blocked Tasmin, and Claire stood mid court pivoting in circles whenever she caught the ball.
“Claire, RUN!” I’d yell.
“Quit pivoting, you netballer!” Tasmin yelled.
We took a break at “halftime.” We had two points (scored by yours truly!) and they had about 14. “What the hell is this netball you speak of,” I asked the Brits.
They took turns explaining it to me… It’s a girl’s sport, but if a woman likes soccer (like Tasmin), netball is a lame excuse for a sport, it involves pivoting and throwing the ball to your teammates rather than running with the ball.
Second half drained us even more. Claire made a few key shots from under the net, but the final score was 20 (them) to 6 (us). We ended our basketball day with a game of horse. A Korean man on a scooter saw us from the road and sped over to join us. He didn’t speak English, nor did he fully grasp the concept of taking turns, and he never made a basket, but we let him play with us anyway. The entire time, he giggled in a way that let us know we’d made his day. Just shootin’ hoops with white chicks.
I was at a wedding during the first foreigner baseball game. Blythe and Tasmin went though, and told me about it later. “I never hit one ball,” Tasmin said. “That’s my goal next time. I want to hit a ball.”
“I can’t believe everyone wears a glove!” Said Blythe, giggling. “I mean, just picture a field full of people with really big hands.”
“Oh, and at the end of the game, everyone all started singin’ this song…” Tasmin started.
“Was it, ‘Take me out to the Baaaall Gaaaame,” I sang.
“Yes! That’s it! And EVERYONE knew this song except us. So we turned to see what Claire was doing, and she was sitting there moving her mouth like she was singing, except it wasn’t the same words as everybody else.” Tasmin started laughing. “She was just goin’ like this,” Tasmin began opening and closing her mouth like a fish drowning on land.
“I guess they don’t sing the baseball song in Scotland, huh?” I said.
Chris organized the baseball games. At home, I was more a fan of tailgaiting than I was of baseball itself, but since Chris’ version of baseball involved beer, I was in. I had to prepare before the next game. I bought a child’s sized blue Mickey Mouse glove, small enough to fit my hand, and picked up a huge bottle of beer, large enough to please my liver. I was set to play.
There were about 12 people who showed up on time. Half were from America or Canada and grasped the concept of baseball. The rest were South African or British and knew nothing about the sport. We split into teams based on birthdays, and wound up with a North American team against everyone else.
“This is uneven. We have to re-divide,” said Chris. “We need team captains.” I stood with my friends watching everyone get picked before me. It was down to me and a Brit. “Tasmin,” said Chris.
“Wow, just like fourth grade all over again,” I told Chris. “Thank God I have beer to get through this.”
“Sorry! I just didn’t want her to get picked last!”
A few people practiced swinging at the ball before we hit the outfield. Marius, holding a baseball bat for the first time asked, “What do I do?”
“I’ll throw it to you, and just swing at it,” said Leigh. He gently tossed an underhand pitch, and Marius slammed the ball across the park. “Damn! Are you sure you don’t play baseball in South Africa?” Leigh asked laughing.
Chris laid out the general rules to all the first timers, and we began to play. It was a series of missing the ball and running after it with a beer in hand for me. No wonder I was picked last. Shortstop was far too busy a position for me.
More and more people began showing up and distributing themselves between teams. I liked having bigger teams. It took off some of the pressure and gave everyone in the outfield more time to drink. I was holding my beer in my blue Mickey mitt when Marius got up to bat. He swung hard again, and the ball went flying. Now, with a full outfield, the ball was retrieved and thrown back to the pitcher pretty quickly. But he had made it to first base, still holding the bat in one hand. Once there he said, “What do I do with this?”
Tasmin got up to bat and Blythe pitched to her. She swung and hit it. She smiled, happy to have achieved her goal for the day. She continued to stand there smiling as her team screamed, “Tasmin, RUN!” Before she could move, someone from my team caught the ball and threw it back to Blythe.
When Marius’ sister Nadia went up to bat, she behaved like Tasmin. She hit the ball and stood there while her team screamed. “Oh, I can’t pick which balls to run for?” She asked.
“That’s what I thought too!” said Tasmin. This mentality was absurd to all the North Americans, but apparently they were subbing cricket rules in for baseball.
After a few innings, I found myself half a beer down. I had discovered this lovely little turf between first and second base where the ball rarely went, and I was more than happy to stand there with my beer in my mitt, occasionally chasing foul balls. Ah, baseball, you lovely sport, you.
I was in this non-stressful location when Jana, another South African went up to bat. Now, we were far from professionals, uniform-less and drinking and all, so of course our bases were pretty half-assed too. First base was an empty bottle of beer, Second was a water bottle, Third was my cardigan, and Home was a little scuff mark in the dirt. When Jana got up to bat, her ball went flying and she was off. She turned the corner by first base, ran past me (I cheered her on, more supportive of my individual friends than of my team as a whole), ran to second base, and then continued running into the outfield. She hadn’t been made aware that the baseball field was a diamond, and so she tapped her toe against all the outfielders’ beer bottles, making a baseball hexagon before being tagged out upon reaching the real third base. It was both hilarious and cute.
By the time the game wrapped up, we were in an unknown inning with an unknown score. I’m pretty sure my team was winning though. How could we not, what with my mad baseball skills. Either way, we were all low on beer and ready to hit up a bar.
William gathered us around to sing the baseball song. “This time I’m ready,” said Claire she had studied the lyrics in advance. She stood by William, and shouted, “Ready! One, two, three! Take, me out to the baaaalll gaaaame…” Everyone chimed in, arms around each other’s shoulders and swaying. Bottles with a few swishes left of flat beer bumped against other bottles. Swigs were swug. And then we were off to the bars, certain to have a future full of afternoon beer-ball games.
Blythe, Tasmin and I decided to make a habit of swimming one morning each week. We’d heard the local pool would fill up quickly, so to avoid major crowds, we tried to arrive around 8 a.m.
Most of the pool lanes were filled with swim teams up for their morning practice, or adults learning how to swim. Each lane was overcrowded, including the one lane that was open to the public for swimming laps. The first time I went there, I forced myself to suck it up. I pulled down my goggles and hopped in the water.
I swam one length of the pool and found myself in a cluster of older Korean women who had gathered at wall to talk. I wasn’t sure if they were all in line to continue swimming, and so I stood amongst them, debating if I should wait or skip them. The woman in front of me spun around and saw that I was a foreigner. She smiled, put her goggles on, and then dipped her head underwater. While only arms length away from me, she slowly nodded her head down and back up, very obviously scanning my body. Feeling slightly violated, I crossed my arms and skipped her and her friends.
After 20 frustrating minutes of lapping the Koreans, I was closing in on the man in front of me. He was the only person who seemed to be swimming remotely fast. I neared him and then slowed my pace. I would have to wait until we reached the end of the pool to pass him. I looked through my goggles at him underwater, and saw that he was wearing flippers. Not once in my life had I ever swam faster than someone who had flippers on. I officially felt like Michael Phelps. Such was the experience of swimming in a public pool in Korea.
The lovely thing about living in Pohang, was that it’s a coastal city. Most of my summer was spent at the beach. One Sunday in August I met up at the beach with a big crew of foreigners, as usual. Tasmin had just received a package of water toys mailed to her from England. We opened up the sponge-like soaker balls and water guns in the shade by the bathrooms. Then we sprinted across the hot sand to the relief of the cool ocean water.
Everyone squirted each other and threw balls at each other’s heads. I inherited an air mattress as a couple left the ocean and abandoned it on the shore by me. Blythe tried to surf on the mattress, and then I climbed on and we rocked the boat until Dan flipped us off of it.
Though there were many families and couples floating along in tubes, few people came close enough to interfere with our wild water games. And then a grandfather carried his six year old grandchild over between us. I had one arm on the mattress as he plopped her right on top of it. As she giggled and splashed water, I realized I’d have to forfeit the mattress. I released it, but they continued floating beside us.
When I threw a water ball at Dan’s head, he overreacted as though getting whiplashed. The little girl on the mattress exploded in laughter, slapping her hand on her knee. ‘Do that again,’ I mouthed to Dan. We repeated our act, and she rolled onto her back, roaring. Pretty soon all of the foreigners became a private slapstick show for this little girl.
“No, what’s your name?” I was surprised at her perfect pronunciation.
“Elizabeth. Do you know where I live?”
“Do you live in Pohang?”
“No. I live in Hong Kong. But I am Korean.”
“Can you speak Chinese?”
“Um, a little. Well actually I speak Korean. And I go to an English school.” And as I sat there, in total awe of the young bilingual genius, she floated off to laugh at the water-ball hits to the head.
It wasn’t long before I realized that the girl’s grandfather had left the ocean. We all took turns throwing her around and letting her spray us all with the water gun. And though most adults in America would perhaps be nervous to have a group of strange adults throwing around their descendant, this man must have been happy to have free babysitters.
We gradually started leaving the water and heading back to our towels. Elizabeth followed us out, carrying the squirt gun with her. “Here,” she said handing it over.
“You can keep it,” I said. She looked at the gun and then back at me. “Really, it’s yours.”
She smiled and thanked me, and then walked back to her family. Two foreign men I’d been swimming with were walking out with me. “Man, she was cute,” one said.
“No kidding! She had perfect English and was completely content hanging out with a bunch of foreigners,” I said.
“You know, I really like this about Korea,” the other one chimed in. “In America I’d be afraid to touch a little kid because people are so paranoid of perverts and pedophiles. But here there is such total trust. And I like that because I like kids.”
It was true. When I’d first arrived in Korea I never touched my students except for the occasional high five. After so many months in Korea, I really appreciated being able to hoist up a child and receive hugs from my students. Heck, we played like kids, might as well be able to play with kids too.
Pohang winters were mostly snowless, but still cold. By March, we’d all be desperate for summer. So as soon as it was warm enough for bare feet, everyone made a habit of heading to the sand. And there were volleyball nets set up at the beach, so we always had something to do.
I was about as good at volleyball as I was at baseball and basketball. That is to say, I sucked. However, we adapted our volleyball game so as to make it relaxed. Our rules included “one bounce,” meaning that the ball could touch the sand and bounce back up one time on each side, and still count. We also allowed for one practice serve for each person anytime they rotated into serving position. Knocking over a beer on the sidelines was highly frowned upon, though. As we played, everyone screamed out “ONE BOUNCE!” and “RE-DO!”
Whenever a group of foreigners gathered, we were sure to draw a crowd. Whether it was playing baseball in a park, or playing volleyball on the beach, Koreans came to be spectators. At first it was unnerving, but after months of being a spectacle, what with my white skin and western-sized thighs, I stopped noticing. In fact, I often wondered how I’d feel in America when people stopped staring at me or walking up to me just to say the word ‘hi.’
I sometimes wondered if Korean families thought to themselves, ‘hey, let’s go to the beach and see if the foreigners are doing anything weird there today,’ or if it was more of an impulsive, ‘hey, let’s watch this game,’ kind of thing. Either way, the wooden stairs leading from the boardwalk to the sand would be lined with Koreans 30 minutes into our volleyball games.
One day, Jon brought his Korean girlfriend-of-the-month with him to the beach. She could understand the running commentary that the Koreans made as we sloppily bumped the ball over the net. She translated. “Why aren’t they trying harder?” The Koreans wondered aloud. “Why are they drinking?”
Well why the hell not. In my experience, most sports are more fun when played with a bottle nearby.
(written in 2010)