“He Is Not My Master!”

Good Man visits a taekwondo studio two miles down the street from our house with me. We walk into an adult class, greet the instructor in Korean. He shows me the office with the Kwanjangnim. I introduce myself. He looks a bit surprised but hides it well. He is with someone else, he asks us to wait.

We wait.

And wait.

This man is an eighth degree black belt. He coached the US National Team in 2003. In 1982, he was the world welterweight division champion.

I watched the advanced adult class. I train with children and teenagers. I do not physically deserve the belt I possess. Not by American standards. I sit there, unsure of myself. Unsure if I want to be there. Wishing myself back in Korea. Back in Tongil.

Kwanjangnim finishes with the people ahead of us, and we sit down, speaking Korean. He asks how I learned Korean, where I lived in Korea, how I met Good Man, about my training. “I have my second degree black belt,” I answer when asked, “But I’m not good. I don’t know much.”

“It’s OK.”

“Taekwondo in Korea is a child’s sport. It’s easier than here. But…you know.”

“I know,” he says, kindly.

Eventually we switch to English. I tell him I’m not interested in competition. I tell him I do taekwondo for myself, for my spirit. I tell him I need to do taekwondo because I promised Master I would do it. I tell him I am stressed out and taking it out on Good Man. Good Man shakes his head, smiles, says nothing.

He tells me about his championship win in 1982. He tells me about how he lost direction after that. How he and his friends would go to Myeong-Dong and drink soju and pick fights with people. I know Myeong-Dong and it makes me happy. He tells me about how he quit taekwondo for a while, how he came back to it, how it opened up his heart again.

I begin to tell him about Master. How my first two jobs were terrible, how I commuted from Bangi-dong to Gwangmyeong for my studio. Halfway through my story I realize I made a mistake because I’m going to start crying. And I do.

I miss Master terribly. I miss my boys. I miss Master’s Family.

I apologize for crying, but he says not to worry, and he thanks me for sharing my story.

I am nervous about training in America, but I like this man.

Later, discussing doboks, he says I must have one. “I do, but it says Tong-il.”

“Ah, but this is not Tong-il. I am your Kwanjangnim now,” he says.

He doesn’t mean it unkindly, but my brain screeches to a halt. “No, you’re not,” I think, “You may be my Kwanjangnim here, but my Master is in Korea.” I say nothing, though.

On the way out the door, the instructor looks like he wants to talk to me. I’m sure it’s because I spoke Korean. We greet each other, and a Korean woman is sitting next to him. “Oh!” she says, “You will start taekwondo!”

“Here. I did it in Korea.” The tone and timing and meaning don’t come out right, but before I can un-jumble my thoughts, my words, she asks, “What belt are you?”

I sort of laugh, “Not as high as the belt I earned in Korea, I think.” I smile.

She smiles and the four of us say goodbye to each other.

Good Man and I stop at a Korean market on the way home. We get sheets of seaweed, we get ramyeon, we get mandu. Everyone is speaking Korean, but as soon as they bump into me, they switch to English. I am screaming inside, “You don’t need to say ‘excuse me! I know the Korean way!'”

In the car on the way home I burst into tears, “He is not my Master! My Master is in Korea!”

Good Man drops his voice, “He doesn’t mean it in a bad way. He seems like a very good man. I think you will get along.”

At home Good Man pours us some wine, nukes some mandu. “I am nervous. The lower belts will be better than me. He wants me to wear my black belt. Why?”

Good Man looks at me. “Who cares? You are doing this for you, not some competition. Don’t think like a Korean.”

I frown.

“You are not Korean. Don’t think like one. Who cares what they think. Nobody will pay attention.”

“I know how taekwondo in America works, yes they will.”

“In any way, one thing is true. You earned your 2 dan in Korea. You can’t change it. So just go.”