Just as William Hongsuk Kim stepped off the airplane platform to enter the passageway to Incheon Airport immigration, he knew immediately this was it. This was him taking a huge leap towards his childhood dream: representing South Korea as a soccer player.
The flawless passageway, with the polished tiles and the clean glass that reflected the vibrant sunlight, seemed to suggest a bright future to him. However, that was soon diminished by fears and worries.
“I tried to think of how I will be able to succeed here but I couldn’t think of an answer. Getting kind of desperate, I tried to think of only the positives,” Kim said.
Kim is a 15-year-old youth soccer player from Torrance, California and a dual citizen of South Korea and the United States. He was born in Korea and immigrated to America at a young age. As an aspiring professional, he played for the LA Galaxy youth team and the FRAM academy and was on his way to playing professionally for Major League Soccer.
He “outwardly” feels American, having attended elementary and secondary school in Torrance, speaking English and being well immersed in American culture. He spoke very little Korean in Torrance, but he has always valued the heritage he held as a Korean.
“Living in the U.S. made me feel how proud I should be for being Korean. It identified me and separated me from others. Being Korean was special to me and I wanted to improve people’s views on Korea,” Kim said.
Kim has the dream to represent the South Korean national team, appreciating the traditions of his relatives in Seoul and taking pride in his origins. To achieve this goal, he and his family thought that a move to Seoul and playing for the Korean League was absolutely necessary.
Kim exhibited many strengths playing for FRAM academy. He is a defensive midfielder, capable of breaking up plays from the opposition and constructing plays from deep with his vision and passing skills. His height of 5 feet 9 makes him a formidable anchorman.
“I think William’s main strength is how he reads the game so well. He always knew what to do in certain situations and was amazing at getting out of tight situations. He was also a very technical player because he worked with the ball so much,” Rohan Choudhuri, Kim’s teammate from FRAM academy, said.
Kim’s family members are the ones who keep him grounded. Back in California he would frequently call his older brother Paul in New York, either having a casual brother talk, ranting about a game that went poorly or celebrating a victory he played a key role in.
Paul often analyzes his brother’s game by watching his game footage, and he would respond objectively, even harshly. Paul, despite his smaller size, is William’s big brother, leader, coach and a mentor.
“I am not an expert, but I tried to teach him and make his training with me as hard as I can to make him better,” said Paul.
Paul trained his brother to endure the hardships of the elite competition, especially as an Asian in the American sports world.
Kim might no longer be a minority in Korea, but in terms of culture and language, he is a total fish out of water.
A Period of Transition
Kim’s first encounters just after landing in Incheon were not pleasant. The COVID-19 outbreak led to a more complex immigration process, and the family had to quarantine two weeks in a hotel.
Having no time to waste, Kim soon joined the Double F and the Just Football Academy, private soccer training institutions, to improve his fitness and resume individual training.
An impressed Double F staff member helped Kim contact the coach of Inchang high school, who then got him in contact with the Cheonho middle school, whose team he eventually joined.
Korean youth soccer is school based, so aspiring professionals join the school team. He was also placed into the middle school team, despite being a freshman back in California, because of the difference in the age placement system between Korean and American education systems. He is now in his final year of middle school and that would be continued with three years of high school.
Learning the Sports Culture
Coming into his new team Kim had already anticipated that the atmospheres of the locker rooms and the training ground would be different from his previous ones.
“What I rate highly about Hongsuk is that he came [to Korea] with a willingness to accept. I think his education at home from his parents played a role in this,” said Dae Kyung Shin, the coach of Cheonho middle school.
Shin is happy with Kim’s relatively smooth transition into a new sports culture and appreciates his unique style. At the same time, he points out the need for him to adjust certain habits that do not adhere to the morale code of the culture.
“Instead of changing things, I leave Hongsuk (Kim) alone to maintain his own style, but adjust what is necessary for him to play in Korea…[such as] warming up carrying his water bottle with him…warming up with his hands in his pocket. But in Korea we prioritize rules of etiquette, so he is in the process of changing (behaviors),” Shin explained.
Age is important in Korean culture, and as a result hierarchy is often formed among social groups. Generally speaking, this age hierarchy even exists among groups with students with an age difference of a year or two.
Being the older player in his middle school team, he has not encountered any obstacles with this, but this is a cultural difference and a potential challenge he will eventually face when he joins his high school team next year. Being the younger personnel, he will be expected to speak and act in a respectful manner.
In terms of the language, he has improved over the past few months and now has less problems in understanding his coach and teammates. He still needs to work on his speaking, but his gregarious personality will help him to break the remaining language barrier and accelerate language development.
“As a person, William is one of the funniest people I have met. He is always making jokes and never fails to make everyone laugh…While he is funny, the best part about him is how willing he is to help others and how caring he is,” Rogan said.
He has already made new friends and started building on a rapport, one that he wishes to carry on to the field.
The gameplay between Korean and American youth soccer is also very different. While the former has more emphasis on skill, the latter shows more prominence in the physical side of the game. In terms of this, Kim has progressed very well, being able to transition his abilities into a new environment.
“Hongsuk (Kim) is physically superior compared to his teammates of his age level. Although the style of the US and Korean is different, I could say he learned his game quite well in America,” Shin remarked.
What is Kim’s ceiling? Will he be able to play for the first division of the K League — the top Korean soccer division — in the future?
“It is quite possible…it depends on how he improves on his current weaknesses and how he builds on his strengths in the remaining three years of high school,” Shin said.
The Right Decision
During the national holiday Chuseok — the Korean equivalent of American Thanksgiving — Kim gathered with his family and relatives to celebrate.
The highlight of the holiday break was savoring his maternal grandmother’s unique cookings, including his grandmother’s version of Bibimbap, Chang Ddeok (paste rice cake) and Kkaman Ggogi (black meat), and the famous traditional dessert Songpyeon.
Eating the traditional dishes he always missed, facing his beloved relatives and catching up on their lives reminded him of his true identity and origins. This was exactly why he decided to embark on this journey, to a place that was rather unfamiliar but where he could discover his true self and eventually happiness.
Even Paul could sense the positive change within his brother’s life, saying that this was the “right decision.”
Kim now has only one thing ahead of him: pursuing his dream of playing for the Korean national team. With his skillset, a supportive family and a coach that trusts in him, whether he can achieve that goal is up to his will and mentality.
“I have my pride as a Korean which is a big part of why I want to play on the national team…I will be working very hard for the next few years and see where I am,” Kim said.