It was 2008 and the day of the first–grade soccer tryouts for the local travel team. My mother, a Korean woman in her early 30s, watched apprehensively as a crowd of 7–year–olds stampeded after a rolling soccer ball, her daughter among them. She didn’t know if she wanted her to play soccer. Being a soccer mom was a big commitment. Hell, she hardly knew what a soccer mom was—she was new to the United States, and the culture surrounding youth soccer was a mystery to her.
The coach, a white neighborhood dad, noticed her trepidation. He walked over to her.
“You should let her play,” he said. “Someday, you’ll thank me.”
Her daughter tripped over the ball and ate turf. He certainly wasn’t talking about playing at the national levels. There was a glint in his eye, though—a shine that spoke to American insider knowledge that he was inviting her to be privy to. Eunju Hong trusted that glint. She swallowed her doubts and made a decision.
My interest in soccer didn’t last long. It just wasn’t my thing. I never watched a Premier League game, nor the World Cup, and I didn’t particularly know the difference between Messi and Ronaldo. I’d sit through U.S. Women’s Soccer Team games picking at my popcorn and side–eyeing my neighbors to check when I should stand up and cheer.
I stuck to it for thirteen years, though. Starting from kindergarten in the recreation league, then moving up to the local travel team in first grade, then transferring to out–of–town A–flight club soccer teams in fourth grade, and the premier levels in World Class F.C. in middle school and high school. I played varsity for four years on my competitive high school team, too. You could say I was a soccer girl—I certainly had the record for it. Yet, once I got into college, I moved on from my more than decade–long soccer career without a glance back.
You could say that my mom was a soccer mom. During those thirteen years, she drove me to hundreds of games, tournaments, practices, training sessions, and try–outs at breakneck speeds on the highway, armed to the teeth with snacks for me and my teammates. She smeared sunscreen on my face, cheered in the stands, exchanged fighting words with other parents and the coaches, the whole soccer mom shebang. Yet, once I got into college, she moved on as quickly as I did. She never pressured me to play the sport again, a far cry from the vehemence that she urged me with during those thirteen years.
I know why I moved on from that sport so quickly. It held a lot of nasty memories for me, the racist kind. I was never able to truly be a part of any girls soccer team because I wasn’t white, a lesson that was beaten into me for thirteen years by my teammates, their parents, and my coaches. I had no idea why my mom insisted I play this sport when I was fundamentally unsuited to be a soccer player in America. I had no idea why she didn’t allow me to quit, and I had to suffer through playing for teams that never welcomed me.
I had the brief opportunity to sit down with her and talk about it. “For an article,” I said. She agreed to it.
I learned that they never welcomed her, either. That the other soccer parents refused to sit next to her at games for a long time and that she never forged true friendships with them, much like the ephemeral nature of the relationships I had with my teammates. These facts only deepened my confusion. What exactly did she see in soccer for the both of us?
For my mom, what glinted within my soccer coach’s eyes in 2008 were the golden gates of opportunity.
“At first, when you were young, soccer was for fun—it was a team sport,” she said. “But we kept going so you would have a better future.”
“I’m an immigrant. I have a language barrier. I wasn’t educated in the U.S. I had no knowledge or connection to American culture, and couldn’t connect with American people. Your father couldn’t get a job at an American company because he’s an immigrant, and he has to run his own small business. If you didn’t play soccer, and if I wasn’t a soccer mom, we wouldn’t have been able to send you to a good high school. We couldn’t pay the tuition, so soccer was your part–time job, where you could earn the chance to get a better education than the one that you would’ve gotten in your hometown.”
And that I did—I was able to gain a scholarship to a private all–girls high school in New York through a competitive application process in middle school, a process that funded only the cream of the crop to gain a sinfully expensive education.
“Now, you don’t need to play soccer. You never need to play it again or go through what you did before. But I don’t have a single regret about being a soccer mom.”
I can’t say that I think the same—it was an overly pragmatic way of going about things that made us both sacrifice a lot emotionally. But I recognize the opportunities that she recognized and the things she sacrificed on my behalf. We’re not your average soccer mom or soccer girl, but we made do with what we could.