Nine months after arriving in the US from South Korea, I watched my first college game.
I was 12 years old and living in a suburban house with a host family I barely knew.
On a small TV in my bedroom, I watched Rutgers rattle Louisville. Coach Greg Chiano drowned in Gatorade. Thousands of people stormed the square, dressed in scarlet and white uniforms.
The joy I experienced that night was like nothing I had ever seen in my life. From that moment on, I was hooked.
When I was moving to a new country without my parents, forced to relocate three times in three years through suburban Southern California, college football in the fall was the only constant in my life.
My day started at 9am, with late Pac-10/Pac-12 games and sometimes Hawaii games ending after midnight. On my morning bike rides to school, I listened to podcasts rehashing weekend games.
College football became my gateway to understanding my new home. College football was, to me, America at its best, wildest and funniest.
In February 2006, I landed at Los Angeles International Airport for what I thought was a short flight to Disneyland.
My mom, to this day, insists I want to move here.
I was bullied at school in Seoul. Only one kid attended my eleventh birthday party at Pizza Hut. I knew nothing of America, except for a few words of homage and Britney Spears. My mother thought I needed to learn English and I could change the scene.
I probably did. But whatever desire to live in America evaporated on my first day. A friend of mine picked us up from LAX and drove us to Koreatown.
“This place is like a Seoul from the ’70s,” I remember driving around in the car.
After some forgotten trips to Disneyland, Universal Studios, and other attractions, my mom went back to Korea, where she didn’t have the resources or paperwork to stay here with me. I became an “umbrella kid,” studying in the US on my own without any immediate family—a practice uncommon in some parts of Asia among parents eager to teach their children an American education.
I tried listening to rap music. But my classmates laughed when I announced my admiration for 2Pac, telling me I was “new on the boat.”
– Jeong Park
I spent the next few months confused and crying alone in the dorm room of the Van Nuys boarding school that catered to children with parachutes.
The six months I spent in Korea listening to tapes of English language instruction proved surprisingly useless. The other kids laughed at me. Interactions with my roommates mostly took the form of them yelling at me to keep quiet.
The bland chicken burger and stale rice with imitation Panda Express was barely edible. Chili cheese fries in the cafeteria were my salvation.
Persuasive storytelling presentation from the Los Angeles Times.
The only mentions came home on weekend bus rides to a nearby 99 Ranch Market grocery store and short phone calls with my dad.
Soon after, I was sent to live with a host family in Oak Park, near Thousand Oaks. The few contacts I had at Van Nuys were gone in a jiffy. I had to start over. Here I watched my first college game.
Every immigrant has stories of trying to adapt, often clumsily and unsuccessfully.
I tried listening to rap music. But my classmates laughed when I announced my admiration for 2Pac, telling me I was “new to the boat” and would never really understand his songs. I tried listening to Iron Maiden. This didn’t work either.
I didn’t start watching college football as a way to fit in. Even as USC reached its heyday during the mid- to late-2000s, my colleagues in suburban Southern California were more likely to talk about Kobe Bryant and the Lakers.
I just loved the passion and the madness – the weekly turmoil and the students breaking into the fields and knocking down the goals, the loved ones Lee Corso with his rotating crew of mascot heads.
After a Korean American student killed 32 people at Virginia Tech in 2007, my classmates gave me weird looks and made jokes about how the shooter looked like me. I found healing and comfort in watching thousands of fans cheering on hockey To the tunes of “Enter Sandman” by Metallica.
I learned about Cajun cuisine, which is now probably my second favorite after Korean, by watching LSU games and seeing dishes like gumbo.
For me, the South wasn’t the cultural wasteland that some of my classmates thought. After all, it was the home of the 12th man (Texas A&M), the swamp (Florida) and Tomer Corner (Auburn).
I found myself cheering for Kellen Moore and the Boys State Broncos, the perennial underdog who for years fought a failed battle to win a national championship as a team outside of the so-called power conferences.
Looking back, I think I saw myself in the Broncos – someone outside the system trying to prove himself to the system. In 2010, when I found out I was an illegal immigrant, the Broncos became a legitimate contender for the national title. I held on to my fan more.
When I was hopping from one host family to the next, from Oak Park to La Mirada to Diamond Bar, the sport was there for me every fall Saturday. When my host family got tired of using the TV and sent me to my room, I used my computer to check the results for updated boxes and listen to the radio broadcast.
I was still struggling to fit in with school, but I found my sanctuary in college football blogs and message boards.
Every comment and meme I posted helped me connect with fans all over the country. They didn’t care that I came from Korea. They just wanted me to love this sport.
Eventually I found friends, hang out with them in the mall and arcades, just like any kid in the suburbs. I became the captain of the Cross Country team. I entered the University of California.
But I continued to ignore and swerve. I was often the first to joke about my accent, my Korean heritage, or even dog eating, just to outsmart others. (For the record, I’ve never consumed dog meat.) I often referred to myself as “FOB,” or “fresh off the boat,” even though I’ve been in the US for seven years.
Meanwhile, my hope to legitimize my status as an immigrant was fading. Congress has repeatedly failed to create a path to citizenship for people like me. One Possible Way – Working as a Korean Translator for the US Army – closed when the government downgraded the program.
when i got Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals The situation in 2016, which gave me a two-year renewable work permit and protection against deportation, was a reminder that I belong here.
It was also a reminder of how little I belonged. Soon, the Trump administration threatened to shut down DACA, and it remains the subject of litigation today.
Even as my career progressed, even as I started enjoying some rights and privileges—I almost cried at the DMV to get my first driver’s license at age 22—I thought about moving back to Seoul.
I’m tired of being in legal limbo, my future tied to a document that expires every two years.
Meanwhile, the sport that taught me about America was receding into the background.
This driver’s license, made available by DACA, gave me freedom of movement – to head across town for dinner or take a quick road trip. Saturdays at the TV are no longer attractive.
The flaws of college football became apparent to me too – stark financial differentials, mistreatment of players, and an add-on system against weaker teams. I no longer need college football, and I was increasingly disgusted with it.
With the recent news that my alma mater, University of California, Abandon the Pac-12 And moving with USC to the Big Ten, I thought I’d call it quits.
With the Pac-12 weak, we’ll likely have two Power Conferences – the Big Ten and the SEC – with other teams having less chance of a national championship.
Cutting regional connections and long-running rivalries will kill one of the things I love most about the game. Why would I want to watch UCLA play the Rutgers game in New Jersey?
But I haven’t given up on America yet. Earlier this year, I started my dream job covering Asian American communities for The Times.
And sometimes, I remember a college football game I attended late last year.
My ticket cost $10. The game between the Sacramento State Hornets and the South Dakota State Hornets has not been broadcasted. I don’t recognize any of the players. Sacramento State coach Troy Taylor was earning $240,000 a season — 2% of what Lincoln Riley is said to be making this year at USC.
I didn’t know anything about the two teams, but the moment I sat on the stands, I felt like I belonged. My feet rumbled with the crowd as the Hornets took off. I experienced a handful of strangers when they scored, and came back strong before losing.
I remembered why I still love the game. I will watch this year as UCLA kicks off its season Against Bowling Green at the Rose Bowl on Saturday.