‘When it came to sports, my mum picked up how to do ten things before she was taught a single one’: Han Yujoo reports on growing up with an athlete mother, translated by Janet Hong
Mum was an athlete. I’ve written this statement in the past tense, but she still shows great athletic prowess today. As a child there was no sport she couldn’t play, but she hasn’t been able to engage in vigorous physical activity after her knee surgery. She mostly golfs now. In Korea golfing is considered an expensive sport, but she golfs practically for free, because she easily wins every wager and tournament.
When I was young, I didn’t think soap and toothpaste were items that were purchased with money, because we never had a shortage of them in our home. A cuckoo clock and an audio system were other prizes she took home from bowling tournaments. As a young woman she was an amateur bowler, and to this day her old trophies and plaques cover an entire wall at my parents’ home.
When it came to sports, my mum picked up how to do ten things before she was taught a single one. The problem was, it wasn’t easy for someone like that to understand ordinary people. Mum didn’t understand me.
Mum and I were very different. We shared a body at one time (though it would be more accurate to say I invaded her), but she didn’t think we had much in common. From what she saw, I was slow and uncoordinated. In other words, there was nothing nimble about me, and I, who have always taken people’s words at face value, believed what Mum said about me without bothering to put my body to the test. Anyhow, I preferred to sit in the shade and read, rather than work up a sweat on the field.
But gradually I began to notice something strange. At the Fall Sports Day when I was in the third grade, I achieved a pathetic time in the 100-metre sprint, but in the middle of running a longer race (it was either the 400- or 800-metre event), I found myself in the lead. A similar thing happened during a dodgeball match. Whenever I threw the ball, the players on the other team were eliminated. How was this possible when my mum said I was a sluggish and uncoordinated child? According to her, that’s why I was always reading. Then another strange thing happened when my class went on a field trip to a nearby mountain. The friend I had been chatting with on the way up was no longer by my side. What? She left me behind? But no, that wasn’t the case. I reached the deserted mountain top on my own, the first one up, and was catching my breath when the teacher arrived a short while later, panting, followed by several other students.
As these sorts of experiences accumulated, I began to think my mum was wrong. She must have found me unbearable at times, when I—the child who had damaged her body as it came into the world—couldn’t live up to her expectations, when I used words she hadn’t taught me, when she couldn’t gauge the thoughts that were flourishing in my head.
A child seemed more like a monster, rather than an angel.
Mum had to get four of her upper front teeth replaced after she gave birth to . I suspected her knee surgery also had to do with childbirth as well, but I didn’t mention this to her.
Around that time, I became a kind of tomboy. During the lunch break, I would go out onto the field and hang upside down from the bar, studying the contours of shadows, or sit at the top of a jungle gym and gaze at the magnolia trees. But a ball, at least, belonged to the boys. They laid claim to it, fiercely guarding it from the hands of girls, as if they never intended to part with it. One day, their ball rolled toward me. Hurry! Pass it here! I didn’t want to kick a ball around with them, because it wasn’t possible. Mixing with them, playing ball—none of it was possible.
In the early nineties when I was in elementary school, I’d heard countless times that girls could do whatever they wanted and become whoever they wanted, but those were lies. It wasn’t ‘I’, but the nameless ‘they’, who were the subject of this statement.
So I placed my foot on the soccer ball and thought for a moment. With each passing second, the boys’ patience ran out. When their anger wasn’t enough to rouse any action, they started charging toward me. I calmly kicked the ball in the opposite direction, that is, I kicked it toward the stone wall. I didn’t intend to kick it over the wall, but I underestimated my shooting power, and the ball easily cleared the wall. Because my elementary school was situated on a hill, the boys hurled curses at me and dashed out of the school gate onto the road to retrieve their precious ball. I went back to the classroom, snickering. Since I wasn’t sorry then and I’m not sorry now, I must conclude that perhaps Mum did give birth to a kind of monster.
Even after that I still didn’t take up a sport. I somehow learned how to swim and ride a bike on my own. Then in my mid-twenties on one artificial turf football pitch on the outskirts of Seoul, I began to play football every Sunday morning with a group of high school boys. Around the same time, I was watching every Arsenal match. I had no idea how I came to root for this team, since I didn’t know a single soul in North London, but I believed that if I tried playing football myself, I would discover why. But that experience lasted only four matches. The boys constantly taunted me, barely awake at this early hour: had I had too much to drink the night before? One winter morning after a cold snap had swept across the country I pulled my hamstring from not having stretched properly. Thus, I was forced to retire. I barely managed to learn that my right foot was my dominant foot.
My father, at least, gladly welcomed my interest in football. Because all my family members were female, including our dog, my father, the sole male representative, has always appeared somewhat lonely. By this time, about ten years after I’d left home, I was seeing my parents only once or twice a year. One day during the Chuseok holiday, my father and I were drinking beer while watching a FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup match. The midfielder Ji So-yun, nicknamed the ‘Korean Messi’, was charging down the pitch. Lying half-sprawled on the couch, I said to my father, who also lay half-sprawled in the opposite direction, ‘If only I were ten years younger, I’d be on that pitch right now.’ As if he found it a nuisance to respond, my father said, ‘You mean if you were about twenty years younger.’ I burst into laughter. Looking exasperated, Mum asked if we had finished peeling the chestnuts that would go on the ceremonial table. I sat up right away and started peeling. Though I was no longer a child who needed her approval, peeling chestnuts was one of the few things I had mastered on my own.
Han Yujoo is the author of The Impossible Fairytale. She was born in Seoul in 1982, studied German literature at Hongik University, obtained a master’s degree in aesthetics from the prestigious Seoul National University, and is currently working toward another master’s degree in comparative literature from Seoul National University. She is also a noted translator, whose works include translations of Michael Ondaatje’s The Cat’s Table, and Geoff Dyer’s But Beautiful and The Ongoing Moment, among others, into Korean. In addition, she runs her own micro-press, Oulipo Press, focusing on experimental fiction.
Janet Hong is a writer and translator based in Vancouver, Canada. Her translation of Han Yujoo’s The Impossible Fairy Tale was a finalist for the 2018 PEN Translation Prize and is also currently shortlisted for the National Translation Award. She has translated Ancco’s Bad Friends, Ha Seong-nan’s The Woman Next Door, and Keum Suk Gendry-Kim’s Grass.
Photo credit: Won Jaeyeon