As a child of the ‘80s, I loved the movie The Karate Kid. Like most kids who fell in love with the movie, I wanted to learn how to punch and kick as well as Ralph Macchio. But growing up I was already heavily involved with basketball and softball and I was unwilling to give either one of them up to become the next karate kid. Besides, I knew the difference between Hollywood and reality. As much as I would have loved to vanquish the boys that teased me mercilessly, a part of me realized that karate wouldn’t exactly solve the problem. In a Catholic school, I couldn’t go around beating everyone up, even if I felt they deserved it. However, my childhood infatuation with controlled violence never completely diminished so once I got myself situated in Korea, I decided to enroll in a class to learn taekwondo. It was a different discipline than karate, but as far as I was concerned, it was close enough.
One day at work, I expressed interest in learning martial arts and one of my co-workers, Joff, told me that he really enjoyed his class and he invited me to join him one night to scope out the place. I expected a class full of Koreans, so I was rather thrown back when I walked in and discovered that most of the people in the class were Americans and Canadians. The only Koreans were the two instructors who spoke limited English. One of the Canadians spoke Korean and he was kind enough to act as a translator. After a short exchange in which I expressed my interest to learn and answered some questions regarding my background – where I was from, where I worked and what I thought of Korea thus far – I filled out a form, forked over some money and received a uniform along with my very own white belt.
I would love to say that I became a very dedicated student, that I learned all my forms correctly and that I eventually earned my black belt, but that would just be a fanciful account. At first I enjoyed my lessons – the physical challenge, that fact that my muscles screamed from exertion, and swelled with soreness – but becoming so engrossed in taekwondo left little room for other activities. Wanting to get my money’s worth and not miss anything important, I initially threw myself into the lessons heart and soul, and went every single night after work.
For awhile, taekwondo even served as my main social outlet. Some nights after an intense workout my fellow classmates and I would head over to a local hoff (bar) and order a couple of pitchers of beer. Yuck! I’m not a fan of beer to begin with, and Korean beer was one Korean taste I never did acquire, but at least it was cheap, so I would sit and nurse one glass until it became grossly warm from being cradled in my hands. We always chose to sit outdoors. The end of the summer and early fall evenings provided a wonderful respite from the crushing heat of mid-day. If we were lucky a light breeze would blow, but the air maintained just enough warmth from the day to make the temperature perfect. It was intoxicating, listening to trees rustle their leaves, watching the stars emerge in the sky and feeling the cool breeze on my face. As I took my seat, my legs still rubbery from kicking and jumping, I could think of no other place I wanted to be. Sitting around the table we’d chat for hours exchanging stories about our pasts and sharing our dreams for the future.
Joff, in many ways was an inspiration. He had traveled extensively, backpacking mostly through Asia and engaging in many activities that were of a questionable nature. But he had a great way of making everything sound exotic and fun. It was through him that I first learned of a small country called Nepal. He had gone there several years earlier because he wanted to escape life in United States. He had gone for a week and ended up staying for months, drifting from village to village and hardly spending any money, because everything, he smiled contently just thinking about it, was so damn cheap. I had never heard of the country before, but so intrigued did I become that I was soon obsessed with the idea of going myself, to experiences the richness of the culture. Yes, I had gone to Korea to satisfy my urge to travel, but being their only intensified my craving. If I learned nothing else from those late nights, I learned that I would never be content leading a sedentary life. Getting stuck in one place was the worse possible future I could conceive of.
Joff wasn’t the only one addicted to traveling. One couple in my class had traveled to so many places that they had to apply for extra pages in their passports. Having gotten married they quit their jobs and decided not to return home to Canada until they had circled the globe. They had been gone for nearly five years. They had fallen into a rhythm of traveling until they were low on cash and then they would stop and work for anywhere from three months to a year. With their bank accounts replenished, they would head back out onto the road. I promised myself one night, before I stood up to begin the long walk back to my apartment, that before my passport expired, I too would fill enough pages with stamps and visas to require me to apply for extra pages. If there is one good thing about the teaching profession, it’s the fact that it requires employees to work only ten months out of year. It has now been five years since I last traveled abroad, and I can’t even begin to explain how much I miss it. Oh how I long to return to the world that continues to call me.
Anyway, I stuck with taekwondo long enough to earn my yellow belt. In order to get the belt our instructors told us that we would have to break a board with our hands. The little child still stuck inside of me yelped with excitement. How cool, to learn how to reduce a board to splinters. I could not wait for my turn. Stepping up to the board, envisioning the proper technique in my head, I felt the adrenaline coursing through my body. Taking a deep breath, I closed my eyes and stood in the proper position. With a fierce cry, I let my hand loose and with all the strength I could summon I cracked the board. High on excitement, I eagerly accepted my new belt and it was only later, after my exhilaration had simmered down some, that one of my classmates explained how the boards were made. Much to my dismay, I learned that the boards are designed to break and therefore my feat did not require either an abundance of force or precision. In short, even kids could break them.
Along with being a social outlet, taekwondo also proved to be my first encounter with the inequality of the sexes in Korean culture. And ultimately, it was this which diluted my enthusiasm for the sport. In total there were eight of us in class – four men and four women – but the instructors often acted as though they had only four students. It was infuriating, maddening, to feel invisible. The instructors would demonstrate a new kick, punch or blocking move and we would then be told to practice. And practice we did, but when practicing something you want to be sure you are practicing the correct form before your muscles ingrain a faulty move in their memory – and my muscle memory has always been much better than my brain memory. But no matter how many times I or the other woman tried to get the instructors to pay attention to us, they didn’t. Continuously, they worked individually with the men helping them hold a particular stance or making them change the angle of their kicks. Even when we intentionally screwed things up in order to flag their attention, they simply nodded at us as though it didn’t really matter if we learned correctly. At first, I hoped that things would change, that in time the instructors would realize that I was athletic and could potentially be good if only they took the time to guide me. But the weeks passed and then the months and it became obvious that nothing was going to change. The most exasperating aspect was that the women were paying the same price as the men and were getting an inferior product. I complained continuously to my parents, and my dad encouraged me to stick it out, reminding me that I was there to learn about a different culture not try to change it. But I wanted to change it. I wanted to be treated equally and in time, my pride got the better of me and I quit. Did I make the right decision? It’s hard to say. I certainly regret not learning more but, in quitting, I suddenly had time to make new friends and explore more of the city. I don’t know why, but it never occurred to me to look elsewhere for lessons and if I could go back in time, knowing what I know now, perhaps that is what I’d have done differently.