South Korea: Being a Female Athlete

As a college athlete, it’s important to keep in shape and hone your skills over the summer – the length you to go accomplish this will vary depending on how motivated you are.

When looking at Yonsei University for my study abroad program, I realized they had a gym that was open for summer students and at least two different indoor basketball courts. Perfect, I thought I was set for the summer and didn’t think about it again. However, what awaited me were constant stares, whispers, and the prejudice that follows female athletes in Korea.

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On my third day at Yonsei I dressed in my normal workout gear and headed towards the gym. Getting there, I found out that it was “the boy’s day” to sign up and “the girl’s day” was tomorrow. When I asked why there were two different days for sign up, they didn’t answer me, partly because they only understood English to a certain degree and partly because they didn’t know why I would be so confused that girls and boys should have a different day. This separation between men and women bothered me as I walked downstairs to the basketball gym in hope to join a pickup game.

I waited for them to finish the game first. Their game was decent, most boys all over the world have a similar way of playing. It’s a game much more focused on “I” rather than “we”. Showboating and passing up wide open passes to other teammates is fairly common (but I’m biased). These boys had decent ball handling, but weren’t aggressive at all and would call a foul at the slightest touch of a hand.

The game ended and a girl came up to me. She told me that I couldn’t join in the game, but asked if I wanted to join a female league. I agreed, but was hesitant as she told me the skill level wasn’t very high. I needed to play against stronger people if I was to get better for next season. But, after getting my number she pointed me in the directions of the outside courts near the soccer field.

The outside courts were not in great condition. The floor was a strange blue mesh where people’s feet got caught easily and it was hard to cut towards the basket. Walking up I realized that 1) I was the only girl,  2) I seemed to be the only foreigner, 3) I was definitely taller than everyone here.

I waited for one of the games to be done and walked up to ask if I could play. It soon became apparent that nobody knew English other than maybe a few words. This is fine, I shouldn’t expect them too, so I used Google Translate. Once they got what I was trying to ask, I was rejected. No no no, girls no – with the shaking finger and disapproving eyes.

I was pissed.

Stupid sexist meatheads. I couldn’t insist because they wouldn’t understand me, so I sat waited for one more game to think about what I would do. As it happened, one of their teammates turned his ankle and limped off the court to sit out. Seeing my chance, I jumped up and ran to the court and pointed at myself, then motioned towards the team that needed an extra person now. They understood, but they weren’t happy about the fact that they had no other choice.

I know that it’s best to be humble, but I kicked their butts. That being said, I was significantly taller than everyone. I scored every point and blocked at least 9 shots in this one game. Nearing the end of the game, I had three guys guarding me and any time I got the ball they started laughing because they knew it was going in the basket and they could do nothing about it.

At the end of the game a guy who was watching came up to me clapping and said “ohh NBA!” with his thumbs up. His English was good and he asked me to join his team with his other friends. I agreed and stayed at the courts for another two hours, kicking ass and taking names. He asked for my Kakao talk (an app for messaging that all Koreans use) afterwards and told me he would tell me when they would come for pick up again.

It was a good feeling thinking that I might have changed some men’s perspectives on the capabilities of women and their strength. I showed up to play on the outside courts at least two or three times a week and enjoyed showing more people the strength of women. One girl actually joined me in the end! I continued until I got hurt (more about this in a different post) but remained friends with Sun – the guy who asked me to be on his team – even afterwards.

Going back to the gym – for all foreign girls going to the gym in Korea, realize you will be stared at the whole time. If this makes you uncomfortable, try to go with friends or find a gym with more foreign people. I went by myself every time and eventually I stopped lifting weights because every time I went to squat with weights or dead lift, men would literally stop what they were doing to stare at me. It distracted me and I lifted the meager weights we had in our dorm basement instead.

For the girl’s team I was asked to join, I came a week later to practice and only 6 other girls were there. I figured out quickly that they hadn’t ever played before and were learning more basic things like layups and bounce passes. I joined for a little bit to not seem rude, but when they started getting into things that were more “team oriented,” I quietly walked to the basket they weren’t using to shoot a bit.

Afterwards, I asked them about basketball and how much they had played before. They told me that they had never played before outside of shooting sometimes on the school courts for fun. They had never played on a team. I asked them why and they told me that girls aren’t encouraged to play sports during school, they’re supposed to study continuously. When I seemed confused they told me that most parents believe that guys need a physical outlet and girls don’t. They also told me that outside of gymnastics, figure skating, archery, and such “graceful” sports, girls barely pursue an athletic career because of the criticism they face from relatives that believe it’s a waste of time and not dignified.

These more archaic ideals are slowly being challenged, with Kim Yeon-Koung excelling in volleyball and bringing Korea glory as well as through tv, with the show “Weightlifting Fairy Kim Bok-joo” being shown on Korean TV through 2016-2017. The show didn’t do well, and was a commercial failure, however it gained a cult following through younger viewers – hopefully promising for a more equal future.

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Through playing sports and going to the gym in South Korea, I realized that Korea still has a strong sexist foundation – certainty worse than the United States, where I live.

Sexism exists everywhere, but the younger generation is our hope for changing traditional ideals, especially in Korea. Through playing basketball and playing well, I showed them that a girl could beat the boys and be strong. Through the gym, I showed (for admittedly a short while because I couldn’t concentrate) that a girl can lift more than a boy and we aren’t gross and ugly for doing it – it’s a different kind of beauty. With the girl’s team, I hope I showed them what they can achieve through hard work and perseverance. I am in no way this amazing basketball player who is freakishly skilled and I don’t want it to seem that I am projecting myself in this way. I am merely a girl who plays for a college team, works hard, and reaps the benefits from my hard work.

These girls exist in Korea as well, and yet they are constantly battered with criticism. Hopefully, with the younger generation’s influence, this will change and people will realize the strength and capability of women, and that strong is beautiful.

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