The glitziest sports day in the world.

As so often happens, the event I wasn’t happy about attending actually ended up being a lot of fun.

I decided that since I’d made the choice to hold my tongue and just fit in with the way things are done here, then I had to bring the right attitude along with me and not show up with an “I don’t want to be here” sign flashing above my head. And so we all piled cheerfully(ish) into cars on a sunny autumn Saturday morning to spend the day in a sports hall packed with over-excited children.

Obviously, a Korean sports day is nothing like a Northern Irish sports day. I don’t even know why I’m surprised any more – I mean, I definitely didn’t experience the dizzying confusion of “What sort of parallel universe have I landed in, here?” that I would have if I’d attended the event during my first few months in Korea, but there was still plenty of jaw-gapingly wacky stuff to get my sleep-deprived head around.

But first, a little context. Sports Day at my primary school involved us all walking down to the park at the bottom of the road, each of us carrying our own little chair. Some white lines would have been marked out on the grass for the occasion, and we would place our chairs along the sides and sit down to wait as the parents arrived. There would then be a series of races including sprint, egg and spoon, three-legged, and sack, each run class-by-class from the starting point (a teacher shouting “On your marks… get set… GO!” into a megaphone) to the finish line (two teachers or parents holding a frayed rope). As soon as one race started, the teachers at the start line were already organising the competitors for the next one. It was all very fast and efficient, and although it was a simple affair, we had a great time.

So, flash forward a couple of decades and picture my bemusement as I walk into a large sports hall with my colleagues and find what I can only describe as an entire team of professional children’s sports day organisers setting up an experience not all that unlike a Disneyland parade. There were balloons and flags and banners and streamers, but those almost paled into insignificance next to the huge inflatable fairytale castle that took up most of the specially-constructed stage, and the mountain of prizes that it took 20 of us about an hour to arrange in an attractive shop front style display. I was a little confused by the fact that most of the prizes were not at all the sort of thing you’d imagine any child being excited about winning. Sacks of rice, for example. Kimchi pancake mix. Car wiper liquid.

In the midst of all this, the event organisers (all very attractive men in their 20s, wearing sports uniforms and the thick-framed glasses that are so trendy in Korea) were running around barking orders into their headsets. The leader eventually gathered all the teachers together to instruct us on our parts in the opening ceremony, in the manner of an army drill sergeant. Hang on, our what in the what?! I began to feel a little confused and lost as I tried to follow the insanely detailed and complicated instructions with the help of a couple of hastily whispered translations from my boss, who eventually got told off for talking and just told me to follow what everyone else was doing. I swear, they had us marching – marching! – around the hall in perfect unison, then leading the national anthem (of which I know approximately one line) with hands on hearts, and then performing a cheerleader-type dance involving – I kid you not – scarves. Of course everyone else had rehearsed this dance while the foreigners hadn’t been told a thing about it. I really don’t understand what that’s about (the fact that the Koreans are told about things and given time to practice, while no one thinks to allow the foreign teachers the same time to prepare), and it’s not the first time it’s happened to me. Being forced to perform a dance you’ve never practiced in front of hundreds of people would be grounds for protest in most countries, I would imagine!

But anyway, everyone arrived and spread out their picnic mats and ate their lunch while the hall gradually filled with people. Then we performed our opening dramatics, which went on for almost an hour and ended with loud bangs, a fanfare, and sparkly streamers cascading from the ceiling. Utterly surreal.

The games themselves lasted for about 5 hours, and quite honestly involved parents more often than children. The whole crowd was divided into two huge teams, and so there was no individual competition, just team games, with the scores being kept on large professional scoreboards at the front – not that it mattered, since the whole thing was carefully rigged so that the teams took turns at being in first place throughout the day before finishing with exactly the same scores. ;)

Although it was nothing like my previous experiences of Sports Day, and nothing like anything I could ever have imagined, it was a great day. I liked how it was a real family event, with the parents and grandparents getting into the spirit of things with the children. I liked how it was a really big deal, however bizarre it may have seemed to me at first. And I loved having the chance to just relax and play with ‘my’ children for a change, instead of constantly having to order them around and tell them to sit and be quiet.

By the time the grand finale rolled around, we were all utterly exhausted, but even my extreme tiredness couldn’t prevent my enjoyment of that finale. It was a disco dance-off… between all the grandparents. They all gathered on the stage in their two teams, several of them were fitted with pedometers, and they proceeded to dance to heavy dance tracks played by the DJ (who, incidentally, had been providing musical accompaniment to every game). They were all very earnest about it, and I found myself cheering my team’s grandparents with as much wild hysteria as everyone else, as they bopped like Duracell bunnies on the stage. It’s one of those surreal and hilarious sights that you know will stay with you for the rest of your life.

And while I may still believe that I should have been paid for the state of utter exhaustion I found myself in by the time I finally got home around 8pm (a couple of hours, eh?!), I’m very glad I decided to let it go and do the right thing. It was a cultural experience, and isn’t that what I’m here for? They can’t all be exactly what I’d choose for myself, after all. Plus it’s not like we were treated like slaves – we were given breakfast at school, a lunch of freshly-made kimbap after the rehearsals, and a huge dinner in a samgyeopsal restaurant after the event, where we were thanked for our efforts.

Lesson learned: if you want to adapt to a foreign culture, sometimes you’ve got to do things that you don’t want to do. And maybe, when you do, you’ll be glad you did. They’re still never going to get me to the top of a mountain though… ;)


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