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Megawati 'Megatron' Pertiwi making waves in V-League

March 16, 2024 - 16:01 By Tammy Park

Since the beginning of the 2023-24 season of the Korean Volleyball League, 24-year-old Megawati Hangestri Pertiwi has been making headlines.

Megawati initially garnered public attention for being the first Indonesian volleyball player in Korea and the first-ever player to wear a hijab in the Korean V-League. Six months after her debut with the Jungkwanjang Red Sparks in Daejeon, she is still creating buzz online for so much more.

Game after game, Megawati has proved herself, contributing significantly to the Red Sparks’ entry in the playoffs for the first time in seven years. Her remarkable achievements have earned her the nickname "Megatron" from her fan base, acknowledging her as a steady and formidable force on the court.

Megawati Hangestri Pertiwi reacts during a match against Hillstate on Feb. 4 at Chungmu Gymnasium in Daejeon. Red Sparks defeated Hillstate 3-2. (Hugh Hong/The Korea Herald)

Coming to Korea

Megawati was recruited by the Red Sparks last summer through the Asia Quota draft — a system adopted to allow local teams to add a second foreign player from 10 selected Asian countries. While a foreign player was nothing new to the Korean V-League, domestic fans voiced concerns when they saw Megawati wearing a hijab. They were worried about the garment getting in the way of the sport.

“When I first came, I did not feel a certainty for my success,” Megawati confessed. “In Indonesia, many already wear a hijab while playing. This was very new to me, being the first player wearing a hijab in Korea. ... In the beginning there were doubts like, ‘Can she play with a hijab? Can she play like the others?’”

Before competing, Megawati mentioned needing to answer questions regarding her hijab, but she said she always knew what to say.

“I always say, ‘Yes, I can do it. I can play volleyball … and with God’s blessing, I will be able to show my best during the season,’” she said in a “Life In Korea” interview with The Korea Herald.

Megawati Hangestri Pertiwi serves against Hillstate at Chungmu Gymnasium in Daejeon on Feb. 4. (Hugh Hong/The Korea Herald)

Megawati quickly silenced the doubters through her solid gameplay and a vibrant, positive outlook.

In the first of six rounds of the 2023-24 season of the V-League, in which each team plays each other team once, she scored 138 points, becoming the first foreign Asian player to be named best player of the round. She became the talk of the town for her victory over South Korean volleyball star Kim Yeon-koung, and was selected to play in the All Star Korean V-League Game in January.

Megawati’s influence has stretched far beyond the arena and into the local Indonesian diaspora as well.

The Red Sparks have been seeing an increased number of Indonesian fans wherever they go in Korea, uniting with their shared interest and passion for supporting Megawati. Red Sparks representatives said many of the fans seemed to be coming from Ansan, Gyeonggi Province, which has a sizable international and Indonesian population.

This is not the first time the Indonesian community here has been passionate about a player competing in Korea. In 2021, Indonesian soccer player Asnawi Mangkualam Bahar received a lot of love in his debut for the Ansan Greeners.

“With the Asia Quota being drafted in Korea for the first time, I believe I got lucky with the amount of attention I’ve been receiving,” Megawati said during an interview with the ASEAN-Korea Center conducted at The Korea Herald studio. “I am grateful for the Asia Quota because I think it gave Southeast Asian nations and Korea a chance to become closer.”

On the day of a Red Sparks' match against Hillstate at Chungmu Gymnasium in Daejeon on Feb. 4, Indonesian fans show their support for Megawati Hangestri Pertiwi, shouting, "Go Mega!" (Tammy Park/The Korea Herald)

'Santai, santai' vs. 'Ppalli, ppalli'

There are hurdles to adjusting to a new country, and for Megawati it was the fast-paced culture in Korea that shocked her most.

For Megawati, there was no bigger contrast to the “santai” -- relax or unwind -- culture that she was so used to in Indonesia than the “ppalli, ppalli” -- hurry, hurry -- culture in Korea. “As an Indonesian, we’re very relaxed. ... Everything is a lot more fast-paced (here),” she said.

This cultural difference was also evident in her training with the Red Sparks. With faster and more intense training in Korea, Megawati initially struggled to keep up. However, she soon found that by applying aspects of Korean culture into her Indonesian way of life, she was able to strengthen her gameplay even more.

Despite the struggles of adjusting to a new language and culture, Megawati did not take on the challenge alone.

She credits much of her learning and success to her teammates, who have been with her through thick and thin. Her coach, Ko Hee-jin, and translator, Kim Yoon-sol, have also been instrumental. For a sport like volleyball that relies so heavily on teamwork and communication, there was nothing more precious to Megawati than the love and support she received from those around her.

Megawati Hangestri Pertiwi raises her hands for a double high-five with Red Sparks teammate Ran Noh, at Chungmu Gymnasium in Daejeon on Feb. 4. (Hugh Hong/The Korea Herald)

From East Java to V-League

Megawati’s journey is a story of how one person’s presence and diligence can add up and ripple outward in unexpected ways.

When Megawati enrolled herself for the Asia Quota draft, she did not do so thinking that she would become the first player to wear the hijab in the V-League, nor did she expect that she would inspire young girls in Indonesia to follow her and take up sports.

However, with players like Megawati from the Asia Quota draft seeing success this season, not only will the women’s V-League be receiving a pay raise, but the Korean Volleyball Federation has also decided to significantly expand the league’s international inclusiveness next season by increasing the number of eligible countries from 10 to 65.

“You can exist anywhere and be helpful everywhere,” Megawati said. “So explore the world!”

Megawati Hangestri Pertiwi paints and talks during an interview for the "Life In Korea" series at The Korea Herald studio in Yongsan, Seoul. (The Korea Herald)

To learn more about Megawati Hangestri Pertiwi, watch the "Life In Korea" episode directed by Hugh Hong, produced by Tammy Park and assisted by Ye Ji-hun, Bae Bum-jun, Lee YeNa and Amber Roos on The Korea Herald YouTube channel.