Last Friday was elementary school Sports Day all across Mokpo city. I’m not sure how often the schools have sports day, and I don’t remember anything exactly like it growing up in America. I remember physical fitness test days, which were afternoons on the playground and gym, feeling miserable about being able to do only three or four pullups before falling to the ground in a sobbing mess, but what happens here is nothing like that. The point of sports day isn’t really to find out who’s the fastest, or the strongest – to the best of my deductive ability, the point is to match two arbitrary groups of students against each other in the name of school unity. My (Mike’s) school did it this way:
In the morning, all the kindergartners, 1st, 3rd, and 5th graders went out to the field and lined up for a half day of physical activity and healthy competition. They were divided into two teams, the white and the blue, and marched out to the field for opening ceremonies. The national anthem was played over the loudspeakers, then the school song, then a song of memorial. After this, they were led in a pledge I can only assume was for sportsmanship and school spirit. Then, calishtenics. Semi-marshall music was played as the students marched in place, swung their arms, then went through stretches until they were ready for the competition.
I watched most of this from the stands. Seohae’s field has a great astroturf field and seating for a few hundred people, but we’re pretty lucky. Akasha’s school has a dirt field, and she tells me by the time lunch came, they’d eaten too much dirt to be very hungry for food. The stands were mostly empty at nine am, but as the morning went on, parents and other spectators began to fill the stands. A small cart selling ice cream stood not far from the entrance to the cafeteria. The school photographer, also the school’s “computer girl” as my co-teacher calls her, strolled around taking pictures.
First up was the forty meter dash. Easy enough. Then the strangeness and fun began. Students were lined up around the edge of the field, and as I watched, one student was lifted onto the back of each group, and as the other students bent over, she walked on their backs around the edge of the field. It’s something you wouldn’t see in the States due to safety reasons, and this is one of the things I love about Korea – the amount of things that happen that are just plain unsafe.
For the next game, teachers scattered bean bags around the field, then carried out a basket on a pole for each team. At the whistle, a crowd of second graders swarmed the field and started chucking the bean bags at the basket for about 30 seconds; then the whistle blew. The teachers counted back the number of bean bags in each basket, and one team was announced as the winner. Games went on like this all morning – students crawled through tubes, did jumps in hula hoops, and turned somersaults on mattresses. One favorite was the students coming in to a circle four at a time and kicking their shoes into big plastic baskets. Then it all ended with a tug of war. First, the fifth graders.
I was standing next to the school nurse, who speaks some English. I said, Oh, it’s a tug of war. She said Yes it is, then informed me that tug of war was a traditional Korean sport. I nodded politely. The tug of war ended with the parents who had come down to support their children having their own tug of war. This was another thing you wouldn’t see in America – I don’t want to spread malicious stereotypes, but most American parents are either too obese or too competitive for a tug of war to end without a lawsuit and/or death.
2nd, 4th and 6th graders came out for the afternoon session, which had a different set of wacky sports. Somewhere along the line, my students pressured me to join the tug of war. I resisted at first, but being human, I succumbed to peer pressure and ran out to the field and took my position at the end of the rope. I gave all I had, and my team was triumphant! Hurrah! I felt a rush of joy as I returned to my students and gave them all high fives.
A few minutes later, my co-teacher asked me to get my picture with the students, and I agreed. Everyone was happy as I moved down the classes till I got to the white team, where I was met with unhappy frowns. It was then I realized my mistake: I’d gone to pull for the blue team, and my victory for them was seen as a crushing betrayal of the other side. I sat down for pictures with some unhappy fifth graders, which I imagine are of me in a sea of stink-eyes, then went back to class. One other real lesson of Sports day: It’s all in fun, until it isn’t.