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June 2002

Extreme Seesawing

Sport of the Past. Sport of the Future. Sport for People Think Those Little Athletic Undies Shouldn't Just Be for Cheerleading Anymore.

by Deborah Solomon

Last summer, I got offered a scholarship to study Korean for the summer at a university in Seoul. According to the acceptance letter, the scholarship covered tuition and dorm costs, but I would have to pay the additional fee to join the pre-program three-day field trip to historical Korea on my own. Of course, I immediately imagined a bunch of exchange students cramming themselves into a Delorean and leaving flaming tiretracks on the pavement of downtown Seoul as they headed back in time to historical Korea, so I couldn't wait to sign up.

I started looking on the website for more information, though, and when I clicked on their fieldtrip link, all I found was a lone, enigmatic photograph of two jeans-wearin' college student types seesawing in front of a big ol' bale of hay. I left the computer lab and was wandering home, baffled, when I ran into someone I know. She's one of those grad school students who likes to start sentences with "of course" "obviously" and/or "well, everybody knows that..." followed by a piece of information that I've never heard before. 1 When I told her about the seesawing picture, I think I detected a slight eyeroll when she said, "Of course. Obviously, everybody knows that extreme seesawing is a traditional Korean sport. They try to knock each other off or something."

So I ran back into the computer lab and signed up then and there. A few weeks later, I found myself in the middle of a steamingly hot summer on a bus full of 18-year-old Korean-American kids in the middle of rural Korea. Most of them, needless to say, were far more excited about the possibility of underage drinking at the hotel disco than about the chance of catching some live and uncut extreme seesawing action.

Our tour guide had a very creative interpretation of basic English grammar and the unsettling habit of replacing all consonants with the single letter w, ultimately creating a perfect impersonation of Elmer Fudd communicating in some kind of uncrackable spy code.2 I'm convinced he was mainly chosen for his saintly ability to ignore students as they dissed his accent, gestures, and fashion sense, made out in the back of the bus, and disrupted his lectures at key moments with the loud x-rated versions of Disney songs that they'd made up themselves.

My roommate for the trip (and the rest of the program), one of the only other program participants not of Korean decent, turned out to be a white-blond 20-year-old from rural Michigan. Inside my head, I started secretly calling her TVRC, or The Very Christian Roommate, after about day two. TVCR had come to historical Korea, it turned out, "to witness the wonderful variety of God's creations", and to periodically remind me that I was damned to hell for all eternity. She had not, like me, come for the extreme seesawing.

History of the seesawing

It turned out due to bad weather the plans for extreme seesawing had to be scratched from the agenda after all. Our jolly and indefatigable guide did show us from a distance where it sometimes took place, though. According to what I could glean from his explanation, it was popular among elite women before the late 1800s, who were sequestered at home and not allowed to go anywhere. To compensate, they would set up these big seesaws in the garden, and jump higher and higher until they could see over the garden walls.

The seesaws were longer and wider than the ones at the park near my mom's house, and don't have the kind of handle things that I once saw a two-year-old get her head stuck in on "America's Funniest Home Videos." The guide didn't say anything about the elite women trying to knock each other off, but if it had been my sister and me, that part of the sport would only have been a matter of time.

Over the next six weeks, I saw a thousand and one representations of extreme seesawing, the sport of historical Korea. There were scrolls of it for sale, along with postcards of photographic, watercolor, and claymation seesawing reenactments.3 The one thing I didn't see, though, was the extreme seesawing itself, and it would have been a lost cause if it weren't for some latter-day intervention by The Very Christian Roommate.

On one of our very last days, in an unprecedented gesture, TVCR suggested we cut class and go to the Traditional Korean Folk Village, two hours outside of Seoul. After she left a very long confessional note for our teacher explaining that we were ditching school to go sightseeing, we got on the subway and then on a regular train and then on a bus and then walked really far and finally ended up at the Traditional Korean Folk Village.

The Folk Village reminded me a lot of the Renaissance Pleasure Fair, with a few important differences: none of the visitors seemed to feel compelled to themselves dress up in traditional Korean outfits, my Korean isn't good enough to tell if any of the people working there were faking the equivalent of bad cockney accents, but I kind of suspect they weren't, and according to my calculations, a full third or so of the staff seemed to be paid just to sit around and smoke cigarettes. There was a lovely little brook running between recreations of farmers' houses, a museum using an ill-advised amount of automation in its displays of people harvesting things, and a gift shop that sold, among other things, Traditional Korean Folk Village towels.

The low-down (and high-up) on the seesawing...

The seesawing display was starting right when we got there, so we rushed over to the dirt arena, where two giant seesaws were set up. Some music started up, and four very bored-looking teenage girls wandered out from a side door. It seemed that someone had decided to give the extreme seesawing outfit a makeover for the twenty-first century. The seesawers were wearing hanbok, or traditional Korean robes, which are usually floorlength. Instead, though, theirs had been hemmed just below the butt so the seesawers kind of looked like they were wearing babydoll dresses. This same costume designer had thought little cheerleading undies that came into full view when the seesawing started up were also a good idea, along cheerleader-esque white sneakers with neon green trim. I know realistically you can't be jumping in the air in floorlength robes and underwear that's not meant to be seen, but it still looked pretty funny to me.

The seesawers paired up into twos, picked up different props like big hoola hoop-type rings, giant fans, and tambourines (which, you know, I personally always associate with seesawing — don't you?) and started jumping on the seesaws in time to the music being loudly broadcast through the speakers. When they reached about 15 feet or so, one half of each pair started in on the most spectacular series of acrobatic maneuvers.

I found myself wishing I'd paid more attention at my cousins' gymnastics meets so I could even begin to describe the moves that were going on there. And all 15 feet above a seesaw over hard-packed dirt with no net swinging hoola hoops and shaking tambourines and dressed in cut-off Korean robes and cheerleader undies. I could see why stage presence hadn't been a huge factor in the extreme seesawing tryouts, because so many other talents were clearly necessary. I kept trying to madly take pictures, but the seesawers were too quick for me. I have a few pictures of the beginning warm up jumps, and then basically a roll of pictures of a giant seesaw, feet and feet of empty space, and the blurry tip of a neon-green and white sneaker in the top of the frame, right as the seesawers seemed prepared to gymnastize themselves into the stratosphere.

Then, there was the "tight" rope guy...

After that was over, TVRC and I wandered to the adjoining arena to watch what was billed as traditional Korean tightrope walking, but which I quickly retitled "Come and Watch the Man with the Worst Job in the Entire World." This sport managed to make the extreme seesawers look like they'd drawn the long straw in terms of safe and gainful employment at the Traditional Korean Folk Village.

Two poles and a so-called tightrope were set up in an arena, again over hard packed earth with no net. The rope part was definitely undeniable — it was a thick woven thing the width of my arm. It was the "tight" part that seemed to have been neglected — the rope hung limply between the two poles swaying in the breeze, and was about as slack as one of those chains across a closed parking lot. The guy who came out was wearing white robes, an old-style Korean top hat, and a look of complete and abject terror. I kind of got the sense he wasn't very well trained — in fact, I quickly began to suspect that the regular tightrope walker had called in sick, and one of the random cigarette smokers had been recruited at the last minute to take his place.

After one dramatic and painful-looking fall just mounting the rope in the first place, which elicited a collective gasp from the crowd, the guy finally found himself atop one of the perches. The first half of the show consisted of him taking a deep breath and running as fast as possible from one side of the rope to the other, and then heaving a massive and visible sigh of relief when he made it to the other side. He would stand there for a minute, realize the packed arena was still watching him, take a deep breath, and do it again.

When I say he ran across the rope, I don't mean the usual outward-pointed-toes-type of lilting along befitting a seasoned tightrope walking pro — I'm talking a full gallop. If there's an international rule about circus performers making the impossible look easy, this guy clearly didn't get the memo. It was hot, granted, but he was sweating buckets. I began to see why.

When he started the second half of the show, the part with tricks, all of which far too flailing and painful-looking to actually have been planned that way. After one particularly hard landing, I became pretty sure he wasn't ever having children. He looked so relieved when the show was over, though, that I don't really think he cares.

So I left Korea at the end of the summer, and here I am, still damned to hell for all eternity. Whenever graduate school starts to really get to me, and I realize I will indeed be here for ever and ever, buried in a thousand more hours of homework then I'll ever be able to finish and surrounded by people who know lots more than me or are at least a lot better at pretending, I think about the Man with the Worst Job in the World. I think of his seemingly repeated revelation that an entire arena of people were watching him and waiting for him to find his way across a slack rope with no net, and that they weren't going to go away until he did it, not once, but multiple times, for a full forty-five minutes straight. I think of his terrified expression, his sweat-drenched face, and the children he'll never have, and I think, hey, things could be a whole lot worse.


1. Like "Well, everyone knows who won the Franco-Prussian War" or "Obviously, there's only one man can be called the father of bebop," but don't get me started.

2. I say this with the full knowledge that you could say the same, or much much worse, about my Korean. The hilarious adventures I had trying to speak Korean all summer could be a whole other article, but let me just say this: the one phrase I was told the most often by shopkeepers, busdrivers, and other randoms I tried to talk to was "keep on tryin' there, sister"; I regularly bargained up instead of down by accident for things I was trying to buy; and at one point in a conversation where I thought I was rockin' along, the taxi driver suddenly had to pull over to the side of the road because he was laughing too hard to drive.

3. The claymation dolls extreme seesawing gave me nightmares, I swear.

copyright © 2002 Deborah Solomon

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