Open-Heart Taekwondo

The Korean Embassy hosted an essay contest about taekwondo. I entered and didn’t place (I got the “thanks for entering, loser” letter today). Long-time readers mnight recognize this story, which took place in December 2006.

Open-Heart Taekwondo
I rushed to the studio, weaving around the Korean street vendors. Tonight I would be tested on the entire tae guek series. In eight weeks I would test for my black belt in Korean, a language I barely spoke. And this would be my last class at my studio for one month; I would have to train on my own. I was nervous and didn’t want to be late.

As I reached the top of the steps, someone called my name. I waved through the window and put my shoes on the shelf. I faced the studio and looked around in surprise. Master, his daughter, and sixteen students sat in a circle on the floor. In front of them I saw a chocolate cake, pizza boxes, soda, and chopsticks.

“Sit down,” Master said, grinning and pointing to the empty spot next to him.

“I need to change.” Everyone else was in their doboks.

“No, not now, last day of the year. Sit down. Then test.” He handed me chopsticks and said, “We have party, Amanda.” He pointed to a pizza, “American pijja?”

“Yes, pizza,” I emphasized the z-sound.

He tried again, “PIZ-JA. This,” he pointed to a dish of pajeon, “Korean pijja.” He pointed to another student. “His mother do.”

I nodded and reached for some pajeon. Why didn’t anyone tell me about this party? I always knew about the activities. No matter how long it took, in our blend of simple English and Korean, Master always made me understand. I would have recognized “party.” And why was everyone from our class? During tests, people from all of the classes came together. The very young students always stared at me.

I looked around at the people I’d come to know over my six months of studying taekwondo in Korea, where I was an English teacher. The younger boys were roughhousing. Master’s daughter waved at me, “Annyeong hasaeyo!” One student quietly greeted me in English. I said something slowly in Korean, using a grammar structure I’d recently learned and Master gave me a high five. Someone started joking around in English, “Korean pijja! Yes, yes, Korean pijja!”

I breathed deeply, waiting to test. Was I ready to do eight forms? I had studied my forms book on the long subway ride across Seoul. I had mentally practiced each form—especially the problematic yuk jang—several times.

Master had us do pal jang together. “Back stance!” he yelled in Korean. That was directed at me.

When we finished, Master spoke to each of us individually. “Slow down” and “more power.” He nodded at me. “Amanda! Fighting!”

“Nae!” Yes.

Master addressed the entire class. I didn’t understand most of it, so I assumed he was talking about philosophical aspects of taekwondo. Finally, Master called me to the front.

I stood, ready to test, and sensed movement behind me. I glanced to the sides, hoping to see my classmates seated against the walls. Instead, they were tearing down the testing materials. Master told me to remember back stance and use double knife-hand strike on one of the moves.

“Test? Test today? What are we doing?” I asked in Korean.

He grinned. “No test today. Your test yesterday. Today. Tomorrow. Every day.”

I punched him on the arm and cried in Korean, “Yesterday I practiced at home!” He hadn’t told me to, and I hadn’t said I would. But I had.

“I know. Good. Every day is a test. You come here with cold, test. You train alone, test. You call me when you’re late. Good. Test. Every day. Yesterday, today, tomorrow, here, home. Korean. All.”

I blinked at him incredulously. Nobody else was testing. Nobody else was surprised. Master had set up the entire studio to fake my test, and my studiomates were in on it!

Tears rushed to my eyes as a wave of understanding passed over me.

In the time I’d been training at Tong-Il, I had come to depend on “my little brothers and sisters,” Master, and his family. They taught me about Korea’s culture and language. They took care of me, and I needed them.

I had always thought I was a burden. I was the foreigner who couldn’t communicate, who was only a color-belt, who asked for numerous demonstrations of the same techniques, and who stayed late asking Korean language questions.

But I wasn’t only a burden. If I said “thank you” in English when offered Pepero sticks, my studiomates said “thank you,” too. When I left the studio, I said goodbye in Korean, but my studiomates replied in both Korean and English. One day a teenager greeted me excitedly, “Amanda! I—get university! I—am so happy!” I’d taken the high school boys out to dinner after class.

I realized that outside of their English classes, I was the only foreigner my classmates had regularly interacted with. I was also Master’s first foreign student. Just as I thought of my studiomates as my “little brothers and sisters,” they thought of me as their “big foreign sister.”

Master knew I was homesick. He knew I was worried about my black belt test and about having to train alone. Master knew that my spirit had needed some strengthening. So he planned this trick, and my studiomates had kept it a secret. For me.

Now I could learn the philosophical aspects of taekwondo from Master. I had thought the language barrier would hinder us, but I was wrong. It had never been about not speaking English or Korean fluently. Master had always been willing to teach me; I had not been ready to learn. The heart had to be open, not the ear.

Finally, I understood what jeong meant.

I told Master I’d study hard for my black belt test. Master simply nodded and smiled.

Spirits lifted, I walked back to the subway station. I was ready for my black belt test. My body was ready, and my heart finally was too.