Thursday, September 18, 2008

Tae Yang Taekwondo

Written as an introduction to my gifted writing class (the example for them so they can write their own introductions):

The room is full of fifth and sixth grade boys in variously colored doboks (the standard taekwondo uniform) with black or black and red belts embroidered with their names. They are kicking balls and running around until they notice me standing in the doorway. They stare for only half a second before the familiar screaming starts.

"Waegukin! Waegukin!"

The word means "foreigner" in Korean. I hear it at least five times in a day, usually more like twenty. In a land of black eyes, silky-smooth stick-straight hair, and toffee to almond colored skin, my blue-green/curly-blond/ivory combination garners attention as would a minor celebrity in a small town. I have lived here already one year, but moving to a new neighborhood on the other side of the city for my job teaching at the Foreign Language High School, means that I have to change studios for taekwondo. And I have to endure another set of eyes examining my foreign-ness.

Already I miss my Sa Beom Nim from my old studio who had taken me under his guidance when I first moved to this strange, crowded, puzzling country with its pepper-hot foods and overly generous people and public expectoration. He was (and is) a guide, a mentor, a friend, and a trainer.

Though I've never been an athletic girl, I have always enjoyed being physically active--hiking, swimming, skiing, dancing, etc. So when I moved to Asia, I pounced upon the opportunity to learn a martial art. And what better than the Korean national sport, taekwondo? Little did I know when I began that this sport was mostly practiced by children or that I would be able to earn a black belt in one year. In the U.S., martial arts have a certain mystical status, promoted by movies like The Karate Kid, Kill Bill, and anything with Bruce Lee. I have spent the last year learning that martial arts, like most other sports, are playful fun. Learning taekwondo was not the serious, focused, philosophical training I expected it to be.

Not that it's been easy. My former Sa Beom Nim spoke about five words in English, and I spoke as much Korean when I began. I've been bruised and injured and pushed more than ever before in my life. I lost weight. I gained muscle strength and flexibility. I sweat a lot (more than your average Korean person, yet another thing that stands out). I got yelled at about my posture and form and inability to run or jump well.

I came to this country to teach English. I love teaching. I was a teacher in the U.S. for three years before coming here. But while I do teach English here, and face the regular and significant challenges of my job, the challenges of life in a foreign land are much more difficult—and have become my focus. Things that were easy and automatic back home, like taking a hot shower or grocery shopping, are made complex by their other-world-ness. Even English is different here, as my best waegukin friends come from countries like England and Australia, where simple words like “pants” and “pepper” have whole other meanings.

But after a year, I’ve grown accustomed to the new language and alphabet, to the bargaining at the open markets, to the smell of smoke in every building, to the initial shyness of the students.

Now I'm in my new studio for the first time and the kids are screaming and pointing. I almost turn around and walk right back out the door again. But then a tall man with a kind face calls out, "Diana?" He sounds just a little bit like my old Sa Beom Nim, speaking Korean with a heavy Daegu accent. Smiling and inviting me in and chiding me for being late (there had been a misunderstanding; there are often misunderstandings speaking over the phone in a foreign tongue). He is my Kwangjangnim, now.

“Mianhamnida.” I’m sorry. And I walk inside.

Hearing Korean from the woman with golden-colored, ramyeon-like hair produces new shocks. One boy asks if I’m really a foreigner. A little girl in uniform comes in the door, notices me sitting off to the side, waiting for practice to begin. She takes my hand and shows me where to stand and what to do. Again, I will adapt, learn, evolve.

Maybe one day, I will belong.

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