“Thud, thud…” The sound of a bouncing basketball fills the air. In the twilight, a student practicing basketball on the HUFS basketball court can be spotted. The way this student dribbles and the successful shoots prove how into the sport he is. Sven Sittler, an exchange student from Germany, practices wheelchair basketball whenever he has time. Sven came from the University of Wurzburg located in Germany last summer and is going to leave Korea this year. Having come to Korea to experience the atmosphere of a divided country and the exciting happenings in Seoul, Sven can tell some special stories about his experiences in Korea and his favorite sport, wheelchair basketball.
Sven’s school life at HUFS is not that different from that of other exchange students. Through activities provided by the International Student Organization (ISO), he could easily follow HUFS system and experience Korea’s culture through trips to historical places. The way ISO cares for international students by organizing intercultural programs, advising them on how to live in the dormitory and giving instructions about taking courses impressed Sven. He did not expect the service from an exchange school to be this good. Besides ISO activities, Sven is taking an extracurricular Korean language course at HUFS for foreigners who plan on living in Korea for a long time; obviously Sven wishes to learn the Korean language. To be specific, along with his interest in linguistics, he wanted to fill in his lack of information about Asian countries which is what had originally pushed him to come to Korea.
On campus, Sven seems to be like any other exchange student we expect to see. However, many students have noticed a foreign student in a wheelchair on campus since last year. His real story starts on the school’s court, where he practiced wheelchair basketball. Actually, Sven started wheelchair basketball a year and a half ago in Germany and got hooked on the sport. Exercising is one of the factors that makes him feel good. Sven, who hoped to continue playing basketball on a team in Korea, is now practicing with the Seoul City Hall wheelchair basketball team after a recommendation from the professor who manages the ISO. Wheelchair basketball gradually became an activity Sven looks forward to doing and the sport he can play with fellow players.
Also, because the team belongs to the Seoul City Hall, the team members are very professional and the training is tough as well. Clanging sounds of the players’ wheelchairs bumping to other wheelchairs in the indoor court, the shouts of players and the whooshing sound of the wheelchairs rushing by can be heard. There are times when a player’s wheelchair tips over by accident, and at these times, the player is always encouraged to get up on his own. Including Sven, every member in the team is serious and enthusiastic about wheelchair basketball. Though they shoot balls from a different height and condition than that of the typical basketball players that people usually think of, the successful goals, skillful tactics and teamwork leave the audience in awe.
It is sad that the public opinion toward disabled people in Korea does not consider this kind of potential. For example, it is only Sven who rides the subway when going to the basketball court. All of the other players ride cabs or their cars because they cannot bear the stares and glances they face when they ride public transportations. This explained a question Sven had about disabled people in Korea. He had always wondered why he never saw wheelchairs occupied by people his own age. Only aged people, using electric wheelchairs, can be spotted in the subways in Korea. There were other cases when Sven could feel how different the view on disabled people in Korea is from that of Germany. Staff members have warned and blocked him when he entered crowded places saying that there is a “safety problem” regarding being bumped by people’s elbows.
Sven says that this would not have happened in Germany because it is not strange or unique for people using wheelchairs to enter any kind of place. “Maybe Koreans don’t trust disabled people to be capable of doing things. I can’t understand why,” said Sven. He did not have the chance to ride the buses in Korea either, because they are not accessible by wheelchairs. The new bus models that have wide entrances are not generally open to the public, which has made it difficult for Sven to use buses. Unlike the narrow and high buses in Korea, the streetcars in Germany have wide and low entrances which make it easy for people using wheelchairs to use them. As a result, Sven has had no choice but to use subways and taxis for transportation. According to Sven’s fellow wheelchair basketball team members, “It is best for the disabled in Korea to buy themselves cars.”
However, these discomforts were not much of a problem in Sven’s life in Korea. Rather, when questioned what was most uncomfortable for him in Korea, he said, “I will say that the absence of trash cans in public areas bothered me the most.” Sven continued to say that if he had the chance, he would like to write an article about how Koreans litter the streets with garbage too easily and that trash cans are only in popular places in Korea. Most people will simply perceive Sven to be a person in a wheelchair, but when seeing how interested he is in sports like basketball and social issues, they will change their perspectives. Afterall, Sven is like any of our friends who is interested in language and sports, with great passion in every activity.