At 6:30 a.m., Gun Fitness was on fire. Armed with fond memories of last year’s Sports Festival, I smoked my workout with renewed vigor, throwing weight around like it was my job.
The festival moved venues this year. In lieu of the picturesque Buju Mountain Sports Complex, an old municipal soccer stadium at the edge of Old Mokpo hosted our school. Fortunately, it was no hardship as I simply boarded one oft-running local bus to get there. Sure, the ride was 30 minutes, but being early to work is my specialty.
We packed into the bus like chopped tuna in a can. I shifted and shuffled multiple times to accommodate new passengers. Just when I thought the bus driver would cut capacity and skip stops, he barked at us in Korean to move backward.
Minutes later, I disembarked and found a new challenge. With all the breathing room in the world, I had to circle the stadium to find the entrance. I even passed several first-grade students who sighed in exasperation. We shared the same goal. Of course, the entrance abutted at the opposite end of the parking lot, which pushed my step count higher and higher.
After helping hoist a few pop-up tents and moving several desks into a makeshift teacher’s office, a brief opening ceremony commenced. These opening ceremonies often precede all official business meetings or school-sanctioned events and consist of the Korean national anthem as well as a moment-of-silence song for fallen heroes. Which one is which? I’ll let you know when I find out.
I always feel a strange discomfort during these patriotic events. All of my co-workers and students put their hand over their heart during the anthems. Am I supposed to join them? Is it disrespectful for a foreigner salutes the flag? Is it disrespectful not to? I often just lock my hands behind my back and radiate as much respect as possible.
With no classes and no enumerated responsibilities, I often oscillate between enjoyment, boredom, and existential uselessness as I meander around the complex, high-fiving students, dancing (briefly and badly) to booming music, and spectating events. Sometimes I found myself walking the track like a convict maximizing my time on the yard. At the very least, I got a high dose of low-grade cardio.
However, my heart rate never got going because students often interrupted my exercise efforts.
“Teacher! Take a picture with us!”
What was I going to say? No? My ego forbade me. So I crouched down to bridge vast height gaps and adopted standard Korean photo poses – V for Victory, 2-Finger Heart, Rest-My-Chin-On-My-Hands-And-Smile-Cutely, Half-Heart Team Pose, or Pretending-To-Kick-A-Student-On-The-Ground. That last one was new to me. I still don’t fully understand it.
I don’t mean to sound boring. Watching events was exciting and heartwarming. Students love when teachers take the time to cheer and appreciate their athletic prowess. I especially enjoyed watching girls play a modified dodgeball game. Some ladies have cannons. More guys should throw like girls. I am grateful for the soft, neoprene ball. The rubber dodgeballs of yore might have left bruises.
As for the boys, soccer was the game of choice. While I tire quickly watching soccer (not enough scoring = boring), I did find a worthwhile existential purpose. I prowled the opposite sidelines and chased down soccer balls kicked out of bounds. The extra exercise and contribution kept me going as the sun did its damndest to tire me out.
For lunch, teachers ate grilled fish and pork stir-fry with various side dishes at a local restaurant while students indulged in burgers, pizza, noodles, or whatever else their class chose to have delivered that day. I still struggle to pick up a quail egg with chopsticks. My chopsticks skills earn a grade of “approaching”. I wonder if teachers think I eat like a toddler.
It took an inordinate amount of time to become bored. By day two I still rode an ego high as students asked for selfies. I felt like a B-list celebrity. Later that morning I Facetimed my sister and gave her a real-time broadcast of a dodgeball game. Students frequently came up to say hi, and I welcomed the interruptions with open arms.
“This is my younger sister.”
“She’s in California. Say hello.”
“Hello! You are so pretty!”
It made my day and I think it made hers as well as she was just wrapping up her lunch break during a long workday.
The sun beat down with ferocity on Day Two. I shouldn’t complain. I had just endured a winter of layered jackets, sweatshirts, scarves, and beanies. Now I’m griping about the sun being too warm? My whining knows no end.
But sunny days do take a lot out of me, even if I’m not physically active. By 2:00, I began to zombie-shuffle around the stadium.
“Is it over yet?”
“I don’t know how much more I can take.”
“Would anyone notice if I took a nap in the bleachers?”
Honestly, no. I don’t think anyone would have noticed or cared. Still, I thought better of it.
Team sports wrapped up around 2:00 and more eccentric games commenced. In one event, whole classes continuously suspended a giant rubber exercise ball by running in front of each other like an instantly-constructed road. Many collapsed in laughter as the ball struck the ground, stalled, or seeped into reverse.
After that, the tug-of-war tournament pitted class against class. It was great fun watching students chant their homeroom teacher’s name like a primal battle cry as they dug in their heels and mustered the cumulative strength of 30 Korean teenagers. It was even funnier when one class capitulated and several students fell forward to the ground in defeat. One student wildly trotted in a unicorn onesie to celebrate his class’ victory. The Sports Festival curiously combines genuine athletic effort with light-hearted teasing and pageantry.
A game students simply called “Catching Tail” soon followed. In this event, 9 students formed a line with the rear student sporting a flag attached to their backside. With hands on waists, lines of students raced in a circle in an attempt to “steal” the other team’s flag. Elements of judo and duck-duck-goose combined to produce an entertaining spectacle. Losing teams either broke their chain or lost their flag.
Finally came relay races – the one event I remember signing up for.
Several days prior, a student approached me as I filled my bottle with 1.4 liters of filtered crystal-clear water.
“Teacher, can you do the event?”
She proceeded to use hand gestures and words to pantomime a relay race.
“Sure, no problem. I’d love to.”
“Thank you! Thank you! Remember. You race for the first grade. If other students ask you to race you must say ‘no.’”
Naturally, I expected some kind of instruction or cue for when to be ready. I even held off on snacking to make sure I could run faster.
Students demonstrated the relay race as a P.E. teacher relayed instructions in Korean. The race incorporated obstacles like sliding across a soapy surface, drinking mystery liquids, and running through a gauntlet of water guns armed with nothing but an umbrella. I had no idea where I fit in, but like always I assumed someone would point me in the right direction soon enough. Unfortunately, the pointing was more frantic than I thought.
“Ian Teacher! Let’s go! Let’s go!”
A student grabbed me by the wrist and yanked me from the crowd towards the umbrella station. I briskly jogged. She was kindly leading me to my station.
“Ian! Run faster,” another student yelled.
Nope. This was the race. This was my part. And I was dawdling like a toddling jogger. The student handed me a paper with my name and grabbed an umbrella. We gripped the fortunately intact shield and ran forward like riot police as students did their darndest to douse us with pitchers and water guns.
“Is this what protestors have to deal with? Because this is awful!”
50 meters later, she handed off the baton and collapsed. I helped her to her feet and then stumbled off, struggling to interpret what the hell just happened.
During the Grade-Two race, I finally understood.
Each student received a random paper with a teacher’s name. They had to run into the crowd, find that teacher, and bring them back to the umbrella stand. Together, the teacher and student had to brave the water gauntlet with umbrellas of varying quality (Many had holes. One was a handle attached to a green onion.)
I felt a bit foolish, to say the least. But as I watched other races progress, I realized I had nothing to regret.
The relay race was not an athletic competition. The relay race was a performance.
For example, the last leg of the race involved stepping into a rice bag and bunny-hopping to the finish. But some Grade-Two boys shuffled along like great-great-great-great grandmothers on their way to the Sunday morning farmer’s market.
The Grade-Three girls play-acted a fashion show. One girl ran ahead and crouched like a photographer searching for the perfect shot as two other ladies strutted down the runway. They all took a bow and finished at the exact same time.
The Grade-Three boys busted out shenanigans like bicycles (likely against the rules) as well as swimming. One student stripped down to a swimsuit and “dove” onto the track while other students showered water on his head. Another student donned a swim cap and goggles and raced the final leg in flippers. By the end, I realized the relay races were entertainment, not strict athletics.
As the festival concluded, I was absolutely wrecked. The early kiss of sun devolved into bites as sunburns shortened my lifespan and sapped my energy. Humans are reverse solar panels.
But seeing students laughing, playing sports, and taking endless photos energized my heart. Even the unathletic and sports-averse students seemed happy just walking the track, exploring the bleachers with friends, or napping.
Midterms are close at hand. I can smell fresh test paper rolling off the press. I see stress building as students shuffle from class to after-school class to academy and back again, skipping sleep in the process. Seeing teenagers just being teenagers, one step removed from the consistent pressure feel makes the Sports Festival one of the highlights of the school year.
I also enjoy wearing sweatpants to work.