I have to admit that when I was asked to write an article about a Korean game called jokgu (족구/足球), I was a bit less than enthused. Vague images of hanbok-clad adolescents playing yutnori (윳노리) against their will on Lunar New Year’s Day (설날) drifting through my thoroughly uninterested brain, I reasoned (badly) that that it was probably just some game with sticks and tiles played by crowds of smoking ajusshi on Sunday afternoons in the park.
“It’s a cross between soccer and tennis,” our videographer informed me, as though that somehow made it exciting. Instead, I was just perplexed. How could hitting soccer balls with tennis rackets be fun?
“It was developed in the military,” a close friend, who goes by the name of Wikipedia, added. Ah, yes. Cue the tobacco-scented ajusshi. I was getting nowhere.
Desperate, I turned to YouTube for some visual prompting. And my world screeched to a halt as I found myself watching clips that looked like a Shaolin Soccer remake directed by Michael Bay on a boxed gift set of Bacchus. A bunch of well-muscled guys leaping around a tennis court, Chuck Norrising the daylights out of a hapless soccer ball at speeds that would give any introductory student of Lorentz transformations a headache. Sending it off the shin as a straight volley into an opponent’s chest. Tearing across the full length of the court to leap valiantly through the air and defend from the forehead. Twisting around last-second to roundhouse from a teammate’s lob. Roundhouse. As I sat there, mouth agape, slouched in my own inadequacy and a little bit of drool, my sobbing mind’s eye slowly focused onto a single question: Why did I not know about this before?
Why did our Korean textbooks at the Yonsei KLI spend chapters brainwashing its students with useless ideas like “traditional Korean cuisine is very complicated to make” instead of “Koreans dreamed up a sport that makes ice hockey look like it was invented by your grandmother”? Why do a large contingent of Seoul’s more active expats spend cozy weekends prancing around old soccer fields with Discrafts instead of kicking each other in the face with a nine-inch plastic ball like real athletes? Why did millions of people gather round their television sets last weekend to get drunk around clips of padded men wrestling clumsily for a giant squishy almond instead of fire-eyed athletic warriors turning speed aerials around a far more reasonably shaped toy?
I don’t know. But I do know that this issue must be rectified. So watch our video and weep with inspiration. Then brush up with our simple starter set of jokgu rules:
Finally, grab some friends and go out to kick some balls. Just make sure they’re the right ones.
桑凯丽 is a graduate student in Seoul researching the relationship between traumatic brain injury and addiction and exploring possible evidence-based applications of traditional Korean medicine to the treatment of affective disorders. She believes that a thorough understanding of the brain requires as much knowledge of culture as a thorough understanding of culture requires of the brain.
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