The legacy of Japanese rule in Korea, a 35-year period of colonial occupation that lasted until the end of World War II, remains controversial but indelible in the Northeast Asian peninsula. Industry was modernized, and hundreds of thousands were dislocated. Access to education flowered, and Korean culture withered. Today, even high school history textbooks come under government scrutiny, so fraught is the past.
The greatest casualty under imperial rule, though, might have been Korean architecture. When Thomas Hong, a Seoul-born, Laurel-raised, Olympics-bound short-track speedskater, visited his homeland with family two years ago, he was taken with the antiquities that remained. There aren’t many: One conservation advocate estimates that 97 percent of historic traditional buildings and 99 percent of the palaces in South Korea were lost during Japanese occupation and the Korean War.
Their durability surprised him just the same. Here were centuries-old structures, some made from little more than wood and paper. Their sliding doors still moved for him, as they had for his forebears. The bright colors had not faded. Hong had come back to South Korea in part to learn more about its history, its heritage, but he left stirred by how much of it had persisted.
“I think it's tremendous they were able to preserve that,” he said last month.
When Hong takes the ice in Pyeongchang this month, draped in the stars and stripes of the United States, it will be with a prominence largely unfamiliar to the 20-year-old. Across South Korea, which churns out champion speedskaters the way it does K-pop stars, he will be known and studied and, as one family friend joked, maybe even ogled. How many Olympians can say they’ve faced more scrutiny by the host country than the nation they represent and call home?
Hong has said he is “a Korean person as much as I am an American person,” and it is a useful dichotomy. He was practically born to skate in Seoul, but he learned to love it in Maryland. His Korean grandmother raised him to work hard, but it was stateside where his talents were nurtured. He is a Korean-American competing for the United States in South Korea, a young man astride two cultures, one parent on either side of the world, trying to decide what it means to hear the national anthem of a country you once called home.
“For him,” said Simon Cho, a former Korean-American Olympic speedskater and current head coach of the Potomac Speedskating Club, “it'll be a feeling of everything in his life coming full circle in that one singular moment.”
Off to a flying start
Hong’s origin story is so convenient, it sounds contrived. But what could pass for urban legend about his birth is wholly accurate: Yes, his mother really went into labor while watching her then-6-year-old daughter, Stephanie, learn to speedskate at a Seoul rink.
As a toddler, Thomas would stagger around his family’s house in Stephanie’s oversize skates. When the Hongs immigrated to Howard County in 2001, it wasn’t long before he joined her out on the ice. Like most kids, Hong just wanted to go fast. He loved the feel of speed — the splash of wind across his face, the burn in his legs.
Cho remembers seeing Hong during his early days at Cabin John Ice Rink and Wheaton Ice Arena. “He was tiny,” Cho recalled. But as Hong grew and his skills sharpened, the boy’s career began to take on a familiar shape.
Like Hong, Cho had left South Korea for the United States at age 4, and like Hong, Cho and his family had settled in Laurel, where there was access to better training. While his parents devoted long hours to running a seafood takeout shop in Upper Marlboro, Cho spent his free time speedskating, dominating age-group competitions; he was only 18 when he earned bronze for Team USA at the 2010 Winter Games.
For a native of Seoul, it was an unconventional path to Olympic glory. In South Korea, whose 21 gold medals in short-track speedskating since 1992 are more than double the total of runner-up China (nine) and more than five times as many as the United States (four), skaters aren’t so much coached up as they are extracted and processed, like raw materials.
Hong, who made regular summer visits to Seoul starting around age 10, recalled seeing coaches at crowded public rinks searching for undiscovered talent. “There’s just an incredibly deep talent pool,” he said. Some youngsters, like Hong’s sister, Stephanie, “hated” the training. Others became only more committed to it.
“Starting with the elementary schoolers,” Cho said, “they're just running like machines.”
Only Hong’s regimen with the U.S. national team, he said, compares to the workload some children as young as 6 undertake in South Korea: 6 a.m. wake-up calls for a morning skate and dryland workout. Then school. Then another late-day skate, and more conditioning. Then homework and bedtime, only to wake up and do it all over again, week after week, month after month.
Hong’s speedskating ambitions were no different, but his life was. Other than a slew of national championships, his teenage years were indistinguishable from those of the Howard County strivers around him. Pickup hoops with friends. After-school activities at Atholton. Admission to the University of Maryland’s business school. Prom with his girlfriend.
“The athletes in Korea, even at a young age, all they're doing is skating,” said John Kim, a Korean-American team doctor for U.S. Speedskating and the father of Brandon Kim, a U.S. junior champion. ”In some ways, that is troublesome, because you're one injury away from having nothing. When you're done with skating, for those guys, there's nothing else. There's nothing else. It's somewhat scary. Whereas, here in the States, you can have some balance. That's the good thing about being Korean-American.”
Coming to America
Some things, though, get lost in translation. The Hongs have relatives in Los Angeles, but when they were preparing to immigrate stateside, the company helping with their relocation didn’t tell them exactly where in the Mid-Atlantic they’d end up.
“We thought we were in D.C.,” Stephanie Hong recalled of their arrival. “But when we actually arrived, we found that we were living in Maryland.”
Not that it mattered much. Of the nearly 40,000 South Koreans living in Maryland, according to 2000 U.S. Census data, the Hongs knew no one. They were practicing Catholics, but for a short time they attended a church of another Christian denomination. All that mattered was that they were around other Korean-Americans.
Most of them had left home with a familiar American dream: securing a better life for their children. South Korea is one of the best-educated countries in the world, but also among the most competitive for students. In 2013, The Economist reported that of the three-quarters of Korean high school students entering universities, just 2 percent are admitted into the country’s prestigious trio of Seoul-based schools. Among students from developed countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, South Korea’s routinely rank among the least happy.
Hong, despite his precociousness on the ice, said his father “wanted the education route for me.” They were tough words to hear at times, not least because they were coming from nearly 7,000 miles away. After helping his family settle in Maryland, DooPyeo Hong had returned to Seoul and his job at the Munhwa Broadcasting Corp., a South Korean media outlet.
But he was determined to provide for his family, and to remain close to it. Three times a day, DooPyeo would phone the Hongs’ home number with an international calling card to check in on Thomas, Stephanie, wife Hang Jung and the kids’ grandmother, Okja Moon.
“My family definitely was unorthodox,” Thomas said. “I honestly can't remember how I thought of it as a kid, but it's something I just came to know as what it was. … I think my family did a really good job to instill that notion of, like, we're still a family. It doesn't matter which country you're in. We'll be a family in Korea. We'll be a family in the U.S.”
For a while, life in the Hong household went on as if they were still in Seoul. At public school, Korean-American friends helped Stephanie with tough translations, and Thomas briefly received English for Speakers of Other Languages instruction. But back home, they ate Korean food and they spoke Korean, and only Korean.
“My mother was worried that we would lose our native language,” Stephanie said, but that never happened. Indeed, Thomas, who arrived in Maryland unable to read or write in Korean, is now fluent.
The no-English policy, though, did not stand for long. Despite their grandmother’s protests, Thomas and Stephanie would chat in English around the house. That was useful practice for their mother, who over time began to comprehend their all-English conversations, even if she preferred to respond in Korean.
Their cultural cross-pollination carried on like this. Okja Moon learned to love shopping along “Korean Way,” a 5-mile stretch along U.S. 40 teeming with Korean restaurants and markets. Hang Jung would catch Stephanie watching a Korean TV show and innocently wonder why it wasn’t American.
But never did they stop working, Hang Jung as a provider and Okja Moon as a caretaker. Thomas said his grandmother is “the reason I am the person I am today.”
“She would go on a hike for, like, two hours a day,” he said. “She would clean the house every single day. She would make food for us every single day. She would drive us and take us to the places we needed to be every single day. She would wake up before all of us, probably go to sleep [after]. ... She did all these things, and it was almost like it would be very easy to take for granted. But at the same time, my grandmother was a very clear example of: ‘Things just need to be done.’ ”
Almost as if he never left
After his freshman year at Maryland, Hong spoke with his family about his future. Two years earlier, in January 2014, he had been the youngest competitor at the U.S. Olympic team trials, finishing 11th. Now the trials for the 2018 Games were nearing. With the blessing of Hong’s father — “This is what you're doing,” Hong recalled him saying. “You have to put in 100 percent all the time” — he relocated in 2016 to Salt Lake City to train full time with U.S. Speedskating.
In mid-December, Hong finished fourth in the U.S. trials, clinching his spot as the youngest of the Americans’ five-man Olympic team. He’s expected to contend in the 500-meter race, in which he earned silver at the 2016-17 world junior championships, and the 5,000 relay, in which he and Team USA set a world record last year.
The Hongs’ latest family vacation will take them to Pyeongchang, a small province about 80 miles east of Seoul and 50 miles from the border with North Korea in the Taebaek Mountains.
“As a whole, we don't get to stay together for more than maybe a week because of everyone's schedules,” Stephanie said. “So I'm very excited.”
Thomas’ feelings are less pronounced, she acknowledged. He has spent so much time in South Korea since he was a kid, “it almost instantly feels normal when I'm back,” he said. During a wide-ranging interview last month, few topics seemed to animate him like a follow-up question about his three favorite Korean dishes to buy in downtown Seoul. “So much cheaper there,” he explained.
His relationship to his two homes is ever evolving. Thomas has remained outwardly confident around family and friends, Stephanie said, but she can sense some nervousness over the looming stakes. Because of his Korean roots, because of his American idols, “to go back and compete in his birthplace,” Cho said, “I think it carries a lot of weight for him.”
The pressure can let out in the oddest ways. Sometimes, Stephanie said, her brother will send her a message in Korean. “From now on, we’re only texting in Korean,” he’ll write, and she’ll ask why.
“I don’t want to forget Korean,” she recalled him saying. “You’re not allowed to respond to me in English.”
And then, Stephanie said, laughing, he’ll go back to responding to her in English.