Wednesday, June 14, 2006

An evening stroll

As many of my loyal readers know — especially those whom I invited to Kushibo 2006 in April — I live not far from Seoul Station in an area just outside where the "downtown area" ends on the map.

So last night, wishing to enjoy the balmy weather, I decided to take my evening constitutional through the central part of the city, as I am wont to do some evenings. There was a light breeze, and others were out and about for a stroll as well.

Much to my surprise, on the strip of boulevard between Namdaemun Gate and City Hall, the roads were blocked off and I began to encounter more and more people: a veritable throng. As I walked along, the throng became a horde, and the horde eventually became a mob. There were tens of thousands of people gathered in the middle of the plaza, chanting, wailing, and sipping 2000-won cans of beer. Nearby, a very attractive and very slim woman was selling sambap and assuring me of its deliciousness.

What on Earth could be the nature of this massive gathering? My thoughts immediately went to the Blue House, which would have been visible were it not for all the smoke from the fireworkers, and the smokers. And if it weren't nighttime.

Holy crap, I thought, President Roh must be shiitting in his pants (that extra i is so Sonagi can read this at work). Surely, this must be payback for three years of the Roh Administration's pandering, bending over to take it, fertilizer-for-guns activities.

A day of reckoning must have arrived: these red-clad firebrands were about to take down the government as their activist forebears had done in 1960 and 1987. Roh was on his way out; no doubt he was calling Pyongyang to arrange asylum (note to Roh: don't take the train).

I went over to the sambap-monger to ask what exactly was the nature of this display of people power. She refused to answer any questions unless I bought some sambap. I had no cash, and she was unwilling to give me her number so I could arrange payment later in the week, so I left.

As it turns out, these people had gathered to watch a football match. Despite frequent shouts of the country's name, this was no political rally, but a very neatly laid out sea of fans watching a soccer game in a very orderly fashion.

Ah, yes, I realized: the World Cup. That's this month, right?

I myself had avoided any and all talk of the World Cup for a number of reasons. First and foremost, I am a jinx when it comes to sports teams I hope will win: if I watch, I make them lose. It worked against the Anaheim Angels when I was younger, and this knowledge helped them win the World Series in 2002. I am also quite certain that by actively avoiding watching Korea's matches, I single-handedly helped the nation's team reach the final-four during the 2002 Korea/Japan World Cup.

I eschewed discussion of the World Cup also because the K-blogosphere is often just so predictably down on the Korean team that it has sapped and/or zapped whatever fun there was in watching the game.

And then there's the fact that I really didn't need to ride the emotional roller-coaster I get on when watching and hoping for a win by the favored home team. Plus my usual sports-spectating partner is in the midst of dental school final exams down in Kwangju.

So instead I people-watched. From the periphery of the crowd, it was quite a sight to see this sea of fans — really orderly fans — sitting down all in red with their glow-in-the-dark "red devils" horns. There's going to be quite a bit of irony when some of them encounter Satan.

Anyhoo, I did manage to videotape quite a few of the people, especially those wearing t'aegŭkki instead of normal tops. Mmm....patriotically sexy.

I ended up talking with quite a few strangers, some of them asking me to take their picture (I have a friendly face; I really ought to consider a career in ripping off unsuspecting tourists), some were just yelling random things at me in their excitement, others I had asked what kind of camera they had or could I take a picture of their temporarily tatooed cheek or breast (always yes for the cheek; always no for the breast). All the while I was hoping that Korea would score and some attractive woman standing near me would grab me and plant a wet one on me in a moment of football-induced ecstasy (to which I would have replied, "score.").

But no such luck. The wildest of the people there were already paired up with people on whom they would likely have planted a smooch in response to a goal. Those who weren't there as couples often looked mean or too intense. There was a truckload — a literal truckload as in a truck full — of girls dancing nearby, but I don't think they would have let me up there.

I did become fascinated by two groups of people nearby. The first was a couple of young women who seemed more obsessed with preening themselves and then taking pictures (of themselves) every fifteen or thirty seconds. I did ask the one girl what kind of camera she had, because it was amazingly thin (it would fit nicely into my North Face man-bag). It was a Sony; she paid 400,000 won for it.

She herself was awfully thin, and I surreptitiously videotaped her and her friend because (a) the preening was becoming comical and (b) she was an example of how a person can be, literally, too thin. As in unattractively so. It's hard to tell whether a given woman in Korea today is naturally thin or anorexic. I didn't see these two girls drinking beer or eating sambap, so I'm guessing they were the latter.

The next group was three young men (about nineteen) who appeared to be in competition to see who looked more like the guy in "The King's Man," the one who makes those commercials for the pomegranate drink that make you want to gag (the commercials, not the drink). These three men were wearing Disney nightshirts for girls (one had Minnie Mouse on it) and they, too, were preening themselves constantly.

Another man walked by on stilts, except the stilts were covered, so he looked like a ten-foot-tall man, although his height would more likely be measured in meters. He deftly walked through the crowd without tripping or stepping on anybody.

Every time Korea scored a goal, and once more when the game was over, someone at the top of the Plaza Hotel lit off a bunch of fireworks and then we were showered in burning paper. It was a lovely evening.

The game ended just about at midnight, and instead of tossing over Buicks and setting buildings on fire, the crowd dispersed and went home. There were people still shouting "Tae~han~min~guk!" (대한민국! 大韓民国!) and clapping, but most were trying to see if they could catch the last bus or train back to their sleepy communities.

I walked home, content that I had made a wise decision in purchasing real estate so close to the city center. Which would not have been the case had this really been a political rally set to overthrow the government. Then the best place to be is Ullŭngdo. Or Taemado.

When I got home, I suddenly felt the urge to relive memories from the 2002 World Cup. Back then, the games were played during normal waking hours (Korean time) and the celebrations and libations lasted for hours, well into the wee hours of the morning. This time the game ended at midnight, and lots of people were calculating how little sleep they would end up getting.

Nevertheless, I decided to get my large-sized Korean national flag, purchased for 2000 won back in 2002, and drive around Yongsan with the flag fluttering in the wind above my moonroof. When I passed groups of three or more people, I let my horn do the special chant. Most of the people responded with their own chant, while others gave me a thumbs-up.

So if I kept you up last night, I apologize. But just bask in the glow of these special memories. They only happen once, or twice. Maybe three times. [UPDATE: a similar report on a later match]

[Above: These American sports fans were not present at the 2006 World Cup viewing events in Seoul. Thank God.]


  1. Great post. You really captured one of the things I love about living here. You can be in a crowd of thousands of people and everyone, with a few exceptions, are unfailingly polite.

    I was *lame* and watched on TV. Now I wish I'd at least gone down to a local bar.

  2. Sorry...that *are* should be an *is*


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