Uiseong, South Korea- September 2015
My host dad told me early about his love of baseball, and demonstrated it one night as he inhaled dinner and bounded back to the television to watch Korea beat the United States. The first week into my homestay, he also told me that his nephew had recently signed a contract with one of Korea’s professional teams, the LG Twins. Prior to joining this team, he had also played for the national team, and before that, Yonsei University.
I’ve never cared much for baseball, my heart lies on the volleyball court and in the hammer-throwing circle, but even so I could tell that my host dad’s nephew had a pretty impressive resume. So, as the Chuseok holiday approached, I couldn’t help but wonder if I would be able to meet the all-star.
I turned from watching my host dad chase down a missed baseball behind me to see his nephew waiting to send the next one my way.
He had not learned my name yet. In fact, he really had not said much at all to me since we met the day before. I thought maybe he was just shy and intimidated by English. Or was it that a big time athlete couldn’t care less that I existed? Regardless, I refocused my attention and watched through the blinding afternoon sun as he tossed the ball and connected with a loud “CRACK!”
The ball zipped and bounced across the ground like all of the other balls he hit towards me. It was meant to be a softer hit, a “manner” hit as a Korean might call it, and a hit that paled in comparison to what he was truly capable of. To me, though, every hit of his was challenging for my awkward baseball skills. Prior to that weekend, I had not touched a baseball since the sixth grade, when a poorly calculated swing left me with a purple knuckle. Nevertheless, I played on, thankful that I had been included in the family fun rather than sitting in the house.
“Becky, what do you think of my nephew?”
My host dad broke through the silence after breakfast as we all sat together on the floor. He was waving Vanna-White-style in the direction of the baseball player, who sat at his side, looking quietly down at his hands out of shy embarrassment. Undeterred by the silence of his nephew, my host dad moved on in an attempt to sling arrows like cupid: “He is one year younger!”
Hoeun had come just the day before, flanked by his equally tall, handsome, and athletically built brother who was just one year younger than him; there was no doubt they had caught my attention. Both brothers loved sports, were sons of a farmer, single, and about the same age as I was…
As my host dad looked on with eager eyes, I could feel my face burning red while I tried to think fast. Hoeun seemed nice, but I didn’t think I was interested in dating him. Still, I needed an answer. A quick answer. An answer that wouldn’t hurt feelings. An honest answer? What was the answer he was hoping for?
“He’s…handsome” I finally replied.
Thankfully, my awkward answer was quickly forgotten in a sudden commotion, as the wives hurried to move everyone out the door for grave visits.
While Hoeun remained shy most of the morning, not muttering much more to me than “be careful” as I stumbled over a fallen tree, his brother, Hogang, chatted excitedly with me as we made our way up a mountain to clean the grave of their great-grandmother.
“Do you like sports?” Hogang was smiling cheerfully as he walked, unfazed by the weight of the weedwacker engine and gas tank strapped to his back, even as we ascended upward. Like his brother, he loved baseball, and took an interest in other sports as well. He also told me that he would be starting his two year military service in February; he was currently in the ROTC and so would later serve as an officer.
After clearing the area around the grave, we all sat together resting under the shade of a tree while passing around a large Sam-da-soo water bottle. My host dad’s older brother decided to use the break to ask me about my relationship status.
After answering that I did not have one, he proceeded to gauge my interest in his son; this time the younger one, who now sat resting just a foot or so in front of me.
“How about Hogang? He is strong. He is farm-boy. Hogang you like? Hogang you want!?”
Before I could answer, his younger son whipped around and grinned in amusement as he offered up a flexed bicep: “Touch!”
He then extended a fist to bump in approval of my response to his father’s question, with which I had answered simply: “He’s a nice guy.”
Uiseong, South Korea- February 2016
Hoeun gave a thumbs-up in approval as my friend, Margaret, and I stuffed newspapers into a foam board. We were working much faster than my homestay parents, which kept Hoeun busy as he carried them to the other side of the greenhouse. It was the Seollal holiday weekend, and my homestay uncles were taking full advantage of additional labor to help with work on their farm.
My host dad had noticed his nephew’s sudden friendliness, and as my friend shook her head “no” I could see him gearing up for his usual cupid routine. I suppose he had given up on me after he and his brother failed at their second attempt in December, and was ready to pursue a fresh, new target.
“How about my nephew? No girlfriend!”
Hoeun, who usually feigned ignorance whenever my host dad started the conversation, retorted this time with “있어요”1 and a clever smirk as he exited the greenhouse in search of something to keep him busy.
His brother had been busy with other obligations since December, so Hoeun had been the only target for his uncle’s antics during the past two family holidays. However, when my host dad wasn’t paying attention, his shyness faded a little at a time, and I thought maybe he didn’t completely dislike me after all.
Seoul, South Korea- February 2016
“선물 있어요. Present.”2
I looked up from the meat on the grill in between the two of us to see Hoeun reaching into his jacket. He pulled out a KBO baseball–the official kind like what his team used.
It was only a few weeks after Seollal, and he had accepted my invitation to meet in Seoul, where he lived and where I visited frequently. Although conversation was slow, he was much friendlier now without his uncles and father around, and even tried to talk more in English. In addition, he was becoming more accustomed to matching my level of Korean when he really felt uncomfortable with English.
“You should sign it!” I told him, as I admired the ball I had just received.
He flagged down a waiter for a sharpie, and returned my present a minute later with “To: 레베카” written on one side, and his signature neatly scribbled on the other. To me, the ball felt like an unspoken confirmation that, after six months, a friendship had finally formed between the two of us.
Daegu, South Korea- June 2016
“Do you remember when we played baseball?!”
Hogang sat smiling at the end of my hospital bed while I finished the kimbap he had brought me. He had come with his mom to visit me while home on a short leave from the army. It was the first time I had seen him since Chuseok, and the topic of sports had come up while discussing the limitations caused by my newly crippled condition. I nodded and smiled in response to his question, recalling the afternoon from months ago.
I remember well the day that he invited me to play baseball with his brother and uncles–I remember it every time my host dad has a game on TV, or when I see the signed baseball on the shelf in my room. I will never forget chasing baseballs in the autumn sunshine, and the amazing year I’ve had since then with my baseball-loving homestay family.
Rebecca Brower is a 2015-2016 ETA at Uiseong Elementary School in Uiseong, Gyeongsangbuk-do.