There is a phenomenon in Korean schools that, to my knowledge, has yet to make it to the United States. That phenomenon is known as sports day.
Sports day is such a big deal that the whole school practices their routines for at least a month prior to the event. Two days before, classes were cancelled in lieu of a scheduled rehearsal day.
On sports day, the town turned out in force. Parents, politicians and suited VIPs of Yeongwol mingled behind the bleachers, snacking on sauce-covered tubular rice cakes and fortified vitality tea. The students wore special sports day uniforms of blue-trimmed white t-shirts and navy shorts. Each grade carried props in preparation for their class dance performances: red capes, white gloves, silver tinsel, or yellow umbrellas.
Behind the sports day field, people sold snacks, water, ice cream and pets. I noticed excited students carrying around plastic cups filled with water and tiny turtles, or wood shavings and miniature hamsters. When I stopped to inquire about these little animals, the students proudly held up their prizes.
“I have three,” one girl shouted, showing me a pint glass crawling with three balled-up hamsters.”
I asked one of the other teachers about it. “Yes,” she said. “Every sports day they sell hamsters and turtles.”
Oh. So this was perfectly normal. Of course.
As teachers without a homeroom class, our responsibilities were minor. We basically had to be present and smile. This was not hard to do, especially when the fourth graders turned up dressed like this:
This was serious business, because at the end of the day, a male and female representative from each class (approx. 7 classes per grade) competed in a school-wide relay race. From what I could gather, this is what the whole day leads up to – it is a prestigious event, watched with interest by the entire crowd.
Just before lunchtime, the school held another, less respected relay. Sixth graders vs. parents vs. teachers. Jared and I were asked (told) to compete in the relay a few days prior, so we had a vague understanding that we’d be running.
I haven’t competed in a race since high school, and was unprepared for the fluttering/clenching feeling in my stomach during the minutes leading up to my baton handoff. I was also visited by the pre-race voice of insecurity: Aaah, the whole school is watching! What if I fall? What if I lose? Why am I doing this?
Since I couldn’t speak Korean and defend myself, I was given the position of anchor for the women’s side. The men and women were divided, each person running half a lap and handing off to a teammate of the opposite sex.
“How fast do you run 100 meters?” The parent next to me asked. She was small and taut, with no-nonsense, closely-cropped hair and muscular calves. I wasn’t sure if her question was intended to be conversational or intimidating.
“I don’t know,” I admitted.
Once the race started, I saw how unfair it was that the sixth graders had been included. The adults were totally smoking them. Jared was the second male runner for the teacher’s team. I knew he was on the track by the surge in cheers from the crowd. Look at the waygook (foreigner) go! His legspan far outstripped that of the father he was racing, and he easily handed off in front.
The baton came to me before anyone else, so I didn’t have to do anything except not screw up. Instant flashbacks to eighth grade track, when Coach Hampton waited for me at the final turn for the 4x400m relay, screaming, “She’s right behind you! She’s right on your tail! Faster! Faster!”
I ran with fear that day at Craig Middle School, and I did the same sixteen years later in Korea. Luckily, I completed my handoff first, and the final teacher was off. Unfortunately, I did instigate a minor collision when the new parent runner smashed into me from behind as he started his race. I maintain that I stayed in my imaginary lane, so it wasn’t my fault. (though it probably was).
For the rest of the afternoon, we were applauded for our running by students and strangers alike. It seems that Koreans are all familiar with the phrase, “You are very fast,” or some version of it. I felt like Marion Jones, before the whole drug scandal.
All in all, sports day was a rousing success, and I look forward to the next one in March.
I should probably start practicing now.