Last week I had the treat of two class-free days. Instead, every teacher and student convened at a mountain sports complex. Perched above East Mokpo, the complex boasted a green-striped soccer turf along with foot volleyball courts and grandstands. The Sports Festival was underway.
I showed up with a foggy mind and sluggish movements. I slowly awoke from a roisterous night of volleyball, pig’s feet, blood sausage, squid, beer, soju, an acapella singing room, an actual singing room, and snacks aplenty. My male (and some female) coworkers go hard. I was understandably (though not ebulliently) thrilled when my co-teacher said I had no work responsibilities aside from fighting boredom.
Each grade set up camp in different parts of the complex. The third grade posted up on one grandstand while the first-graders occupied the opposite seats. The second-graders occupied a high-lying ridge above the stadium with pop-up tents. Music blared as excited students bustled from place to place.
The first surprise of the day was the copious quantity of cuisine. For a day dedicated to burning calories, the breakfast on offer was substantial. I was in the teacher’s area for no more than five minutes before I was offered coffee, grapes, bananas, sandwiches, crackers, and cookies in that order. I politely insisted that I would wait until lunch and stuffed the sandwich and fruit into my knapsack. I nursed the coffee to the tired applause of my zombified brain.
The second shock was the students’ uniforms. Each homeroom class assumed a matching school uniform. Many dressed in soccer kits – Real Madrid, Liverpool, and PSG being the most popular. Others wore KIA Tigers baseball jerseys. Some classes took a more creative approach, dressing in traditional robes or anime costumes.
“The students – they are so cute,” remarked the native Chinese teacher. I seconded this.
I whiled away the morning chatting with my co-teachers, mingling with students, and watching sporting events (some of my favorite work-related activities).
My favorite event to watch is called “pi-gu” – a girls-only version of dodgeball. The most significant difference is the movement involved. Each team faced each other on opposite sides of the playing field – like traditional American dodgeball. However, balls were also thrown from outside the field of play. The result requires players to keep their heads on a swivel. And they threw it hard. Throw it like a girl? No. Fling it like a female. Balls audibly thudded on backs like maligned MLB fastballs. Thank goodness they were neoprene-coated.
Another entertaining boys game was “jok-gu” – a form of foot volleyball. I have finally gotten the hang of regular volleyball (as I showed my fellow teachers the night before). However, I could not imagine playing volleyball with only my feet. Played with four players on each side, the back players often used their head to block a ball of exiting the field of play while the frontline players used what I consider excellent leg mobility to high-kick the ball over the net.
Students played all kinds of sports. Girls played a variety of kickball (which many referred to as “foot baseball”), boys played full-field soccer games, and students of all genders hopped on pogo sticks. I tried to pogo stick a few times, mostly failing miserably. Fortunately, the students were entertained (mission accomplished).
The relay race proved entertaining. Some students jokingly unzipped and stripped off jackets mid-stride in a dead sprint. I was weak with laughter.
1:00 arrived sooner than expected. Both days I descended the mountain with my co-workers for a large traditional Korean lunch. The first day consisted of roasted and boiled chicken while we stir-fried duck on the second. Both days involved a decadent banchan spread (I was weak). My knees hurt from sitting on the floor and my stomach hurt from overeating.”
“Kwa-sheek-heh-soy-yo,” (I hate too much) I said in bellyaching fashion.
I even had time to join some teachers on a hike through the local mountain. It was a blessing to spend time with my coworkers outside of a drunken staff dinner. I spoke tiny bits of Korean, they spoke tiny bits of English, and we shared rapport-building micro-moments that always brighten my day.
Some other students ran booths. Some painted faces while others sold snacks for UNESCO. Students sported cat whiskers, neck tattoos, cartoon characters, and Kakao friends while sipping what I can only describe as a hybrid between a juice box and an ice cream carton. While Health-Brain coaxed me into refusing the mysterious frozen bag, I added it to my to-eat list. When my willpower fades someday I will suck one down for curiosity’s sake.
And I posed for countless pictures. I threw up a peace sign, smiled with my hands under my chin, or just smiled and said: “Kimchi” (Americans typically say “cheese”). The height difference (most of these photo requests were girls) forced me to assume a quarter-squat stance.
While my ego leaped with joy at this surprise popularity, I also lamented that I wouldn’t see any of these pictures. However, the alternative of asking high school girls for their phone numbers so they could send me photos is far more unappealing.
While many students played many sports, less athletically-inclined students whiled away the afternoon with their friends in the shade, messed around on ubiquitous exercise machines, or read for pleasure. While this day was clearly not their cup of tea, everyone seemed to appreciate the absence of textbooks and worksheets.
My heart welled up with joy seeing so many happy students. Studies tend to indicate that Korean students have some of the highest workloads, stress levels, and general unhappiness among students in the developed world. This stress intensifies in high school, as the life-determining Suneung looms ever closer. The rate I see students sleep in class, get sick, or generally shuffle through the halls like overtaxed mummies makes these findings incredibly believable.
To see students enjoy two days of fun completion, facial artwork, and free time made me unexpectedly happy. Their laughs and smiles were the perfect salves for my hangover-induced malaise.
The relay race showed off some serious burners. It made me miss running 40-yard sprints during football practice.
“Foot baseball” was basically kickball with a stationary ball. It’s like kickball and tee ball had a baby.
One popular activity was team jump rope. I recall doing this at the Winter Festival (and failing miserably).
The tug-of-war proved especially entertaining…
Especially watching the losing side.
One of the soccer finals ended on penalty kicks – so intense.
On our hike, one teacher was kind enough to point out pretty flowers. I felt obliged to photograph them and say things like “ye-peun-koht” (pretty flowers).
A foot volleyball court. I sincerely regret not taking an action shot of the high-kick. It was impressive.
In “pi-gu”, girls play a form of multidimensional dodgeball. The girl in black catches the ball just in time to peg another girl two meters away. She didn’t throw it gently either.
A look at two class uniforms – soccer jerseys on the left and more traditional clothing on the right. Pogo sticks were exceedingly popular activity.
It was fun to watch these soccer games. The competitiveness was palpable. Each team really wanted to win.