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Learning What Authentic Actually Means in a Korean Tae Kwon Do Class

19 Oct
Punching out the flame of a candle.  Watch out!

Punching out the flame of a candle. Watch out!

I wanted to expand my experience living in Korea by taking a Tae Kwon Do class while I was here.  Tae Kwon Do is one of the most popular martial arts in the world and it originated in Korea.  It was developed in Korea during mid twentieth century.  It combines self-defense and fighting techniques.

I took Tae Kwon Do classes when I was in Junior High almost 15 years ago (I just realized how long ago it was!) in Canada. I really enjoyed it then, I had never imagined that I would ever go to Korea at that time.  Now that I was here, it was a great opportunity to see what the differences were in a martial arts class in Korea versus Canada.

Cue awesome Rocky-esque Training Montage…

I assumed that a Korean Tae Kwon Do academy would be much more intense and serious than a Canadian class.  I assumed that it would be a lot of rigorous training, stern faces and a lot of sweat and tears.   I imagined that at the end of the year I could reflect back on my training like a montage in a movie, I was clumsy and inexperienced at first, no one believed I could do it but through my hard work, determination and natural skill I would bloom into one of the greatest martial artists of all time.  I was like the karate kid.

Reflecting back, I don’t know why I ever thought that.  I have no coordination, rhythm or balance.  I am literally the worst.  I am pretty strong, but that is all I had going for me.

Anyway, I joined this class with a coworker.  The owners of the academy were the gym teachers at the kindergarten that we worked at.  It was not a foreigner class, it was run entirely in Korean and we did not speak Korean.

I definitely sweat and worked hard but there were a lot more laughs than I had expected.  My instructors were like a performing comedy trio.  They would use props like gigantic drums or anything they might find lying around with a mix of physical humour and a few English words that they knew.  Every once in a while if something was really difficult, or if someone was getting frustrated one of them would scream out, “STRESS!”  My coworker and I spent most classes laughing until we cried.

We took a class that was a mostly High School and Junior High students.  There were two brothers that were 10 and 12 years old, they were the youngest.  They were also the only ones who spoke English so I tried to talk to them a lot.  I often asked for translations during lectures, but the boys were never listening.  I felt like Bill Murray in Lost in Translation when the teacher would go on an epic rant for a good five minutes and one of the boys would sum it up with, “I don’t know, you should stretch, maybe.”

Yeah, maybe I will.  Thanks.

Thankfully, one of my instructors knew a little English.  Well, he could quote all of the Star Wars movies, often in context.  I remember paying my fees for the first month that I was there, I handed him a white envelope with cash in it, and he studied the envelope for a few seconds before quietly saying in his best Darth Vader impression, “Impressive…”

He paused, shifting his eyes, waiting for me to acknowledge his use of English.

“What?” I asked, I was trying to process what I had just heard.

He looked a little disappointed.

“Did you just say ‘impressive’?”

I know the feeling.  You are trying to speak in a foreign language and it flops.  I normally don’t try to quote Science Fictions films from the 80’s but in his defense, it was proper use of the word.

The Difference between Canada and Korean Tae Kwon Do (not really) …

I am comparing two schools in two different countries that have literally thousands of Tae Kwon Do Academies each.  These are my experiences, so keep in mind that I have not been training more than a year in either country and my experiences are about fifteen years apart.

In Canada, it is difficult to get a black belt.  You have to train for a few years and you need to be very talented (I am told).  In my Korean class, it seemed that I could take a belt test every month, if I took the test, regardless of how prepared I was, I would be given a belt.  At first, I was disappointed, it seemed like a sham. But I continued to go to the class and I avoided taking tests.  The instructors managed to get me to do two tests in a matter of seven months, so I had my green belt.

There were a lot of kids with black belts.  In fact, almost everyone had a black belt.  Some of the kids with black belts did not seem very impressive to me.  I felt like I could have taken them in a fight.  A 27 year old woman would probably win in a fight against a 15 year old, especially when she is about a foot taller.

Then I actually thought about why it was so easy to get a black belt.  I would bet money that a lot of these kids were there for exercise; their parents made them go for the physical activity.  It was a sport that was culturally important.  That’s two birds with one stone.

However, there were a lot of very talented fighters in the schools.  They were incredible.  One kid could jump about five feet off the ground with ease.  He could round house a giant.

Sure, anyone could get a black belt but at the end of the day, you take out what you put in.  Some took it more seriously than others.  The ones that took it seriously trained hard and became incredible fighters.

Expectations versus reality…

This class what not what I expected.  I did not get to have the authentic experience that I imagine.  It was not like Uma Thurman in Kill Bill, which is what I really wanted.  I would hate them and they would be too hard on me, but out of my hatred, pain and determination would grow a strong mutual respect.

Instead it was soccer games with balloons, impromptu salsa dances and many gag show impersonations.  There was a lot of training as well.  It was really fun, and usually a great workout, just not what I expected.

The authentic experiences that you plan for rarely ever happen the way you want them to play out.  Instead, I learned that I did not know what authentic Korean culture was.  This was it, this was a real class with real students.  I saw some of the most talented fighters that I will ever see in my life.  I also met some of the laziest students I will ever meet (there was this one yellow belt, they never gave her another belt because she literally made like 3% effort, she was so funny, I used to make her practice patterns with me).

This class was not designed for foreigners.  It was designed for youth.  I was 27 years old; I was actually older than one of the instructors, which made him really uncomfortable (Darth Vader).   I really shouldn’t have been there to begin with now that I think about it.

I learned about stepping out of your comfort zone, overcoming language barriers and that I don’t know what an authentic experience is.

I also have a pretty decent back kick.

Notes on Sharing a Laugh

29 Sep
When I saw this picture in Hongdae, Seoul I giggled like a little girl.  It is so simple.

When I saw this picture in Hongdae, Seoul I giggled like a little girl. It is so simple.

 

When I research a trip or a place I will visit trip advisor, tourism websites and blogs to plan what I am going to do.  I always want to see the big attractions.   I love museums, art galleries and if it says UNESCO somewhere on it, I will probably go.  These are the kinds of things that draw me to visit a place.

There is something special about some places that draws people in from all around the world.  Visiting somewhere as mysterious and Stone Henge, or as vast as the Grand Canyon are the types of experiences that many people in the world have in common.  There are the people who have visited, the ones who will visit and the ones who wish to go, but never will.

There are other experiences that can unite people from all around the world without having to leave home, like enjoying a beer or wine with good company.  Some aspects of culture are so old that they are shared all over the world.  They remind us that somewhere down the line we are all connected.

Laughter is universal but he idea of humour changes.  We are united and divided.

I went to an English comedy show in Seoul last night.  There were people from all around the world.  The comedians were a combination of Canadian, American and Saudi Arabian.  The audience was small and even more diverse than the talent.

We all laughed. We found things in common, we were all travelers.  Many of us had some of the same experiences of integrating into a new culture.  I have become aware that you will be hard pressed to find a traveler that doesn’t have a funny story in a taxi.

Usually it’s not the big attractions that are my fondest memories, but the interactions with the people that I meet that I remember.  I good laugh is always memorable.