[SPEAK OUT]The making of a co-opted Korean

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[SPEAK OUT]The making of a co-opted Korean

I'm not Korean. But no one seems to care.

Ahn Jung-hwan scored the golden goal that kept Korea in the World Cup and the man next to me draped his burly arms over my shoulders in a big bear hug. "Dae-han-min-guk!" he yelled, shaking me back and forth. "Go Korea!" That's when the show started.

Sparkling green and gold fireworks shot into the sky as performers sang lyrics I didn't know. But the hundreds of thousands of Koreans standing next to me did. They wrapped their arms around each other's waists and mine, and together we swayed to the music. Then the tempo changed and I spun around to a hand grabbing my shoulder. Suddenly I was thrust into a conga line. Too much excited energy crashed the human train, and I wandered off to the side where a painted face asked me where I came from. I told him and suddenly a circle of young men in red engulfed me. They crouched on the ground, chanting as they pointed at my blushing face. Their shouts grew louder until they peaked and everyone jumped up. Screaming, smiling, they left in a haze of yellow lights.

That's when eight boys ran over to dispense hugs and say, "I love you."

"I've never seen anything like this in the world," a South African man muttered to himself. "It's amazing." He was right.

The number of celebrants shrank as the police tried to clear the street, but the intensity grew. Special editions of the daily news magically appeared and screaming students ran down an alleyway throwing copies to the wind while a Mexican man juggled a soccer ball for an audience wearing pants, skirts and shirts made of Korean flags. A stranger handed me a firecracker and laughed as I sent colorful sparks into Seoul's midnight sky. Somehow I had become part of a ritual celebrating a triumph I had not fought for. And I was not the only one.

In the center of a red lined circle, a young French couple swing-danced as the crowd cheered ecstatically and exchanged high fives. To the right, a foreign man became the conductor of a spontaneous marching band. As he waved his dual flags, Mexican and Korean, 15 of my Seoul neighbors followed him up a staircase to nowhere, banging gasoline containers with empty soda bottles and clapping. The Croats posed for pictures and the Irish did a jig. Others who could not understand the chants walked in jumbled patterns, stuck between a state of awe and dazed confusion. Most of their teams had lost. They had cursed and cried and waved good-bye as their boys boarded planes home.

Now these strangers were the guests of honor at Seoul's victory party.

Never has the expression "once in a lifetime" been so true. I came to Seoul alone. I didn't know the language or anyone here. But I was young and invincible, and I could deal with Korea so long as I was in the midst of great soccer. I didn't think that I would watch the sun rise twice in one week while celebrating Korea's glory. My face was not prepared to become part of 100 photo albums. No one told me that I'd share beer and chips with strangers because the city of Seoul was having a party and everyone was invited.

There's no reason for me to be included in this, but I am. And with each game, with each win, I am pulled tighter into the heart of a place on fire. I don't know if it's the spirit of the game or the spirit of the people that made the ground outside City Hall vibrate on Tuesday night, but whatever it is, it's contagious and I want to be a part of it.

Korea defeated Poland and the people at Seoul Station slapped my hand and invited me to dance in their happy circles. The morning after Korea eliminated Portugal, my Korean peers pulled me into their victory trucks and held me up as they darted down the street. Even when Korea took the field against the United States and I became the enemy, Seoul embraced me with its spirit while its cheers followed me home.

I'm not Korean. Or maybe I am. At least a little bit. At least today.


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The writer is an intern with the JoongAng Ilbo English Edition.

by Daniela SantaMaria

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