Thursday, 8 May 2008

Taekwondo in Korea

The alarm woke me into a panic but I couldn’t move to stop it. My mind was racing, unsure of what was happening but my limbs were unresponsive. The alarm clock was making the kind of unbearable noise a baby makes when it cries, the kind of noise that demands attention. But I couldn’t move. My limbs wouldn’t budge. They felt heavy, like the seized up cogs of a long abandoned machine. I creaked and groaned with even the smallest movement toward the now screaming alarm. The pain from my muscles and joints was as unbearable as the din being produced by the alarm clock and I knew if I didn’t get up and stop it now it wouldn’t stop. Every six or nine minutes the racket would begin anew but now I knew it would be coming.

I managed to reach out and grab the clock with the kind of effort that is usually reserved for life or death situations, but the exertion was too much for my battered and bruised body and I collapsed back into the warm indent in the bed where my body had been recovering for the last nine hours. Now I had to get up and go through the ordeal again with my rusted cog like limbs and the solid masses that were my formerly supple but underused muscles.

I have lived in Korea, the land of the morning calm (which seems to be a touch ironic when you first start practicing taekwondo), for just over 13 months and have been studying taekwondo for six of those months. My muscles and joints are slowly learning that, along with the rest of my body and mind, they have to adapt to a new way of life.  They have to unlearn a lifetime of walking, running and jumping in favour of kicking, twisting and stretching and it’s hard work.

The seized up cogs are getting oiled but time and taekwondo wait for no man and so I have been forced to slip in extra stretching on the roof of my apartment (in full view of hundreds of Koreans who live in the towering blocks of apartments that surround my place) in order to not embarrass myself, my teacher or the way of life that taekwondo is for so many Koreans and non-Koreans around the world. 

Taekwondo truly is a way of life in Korea. There seems to be a dojang in every building, kids in their doboks run everywhere and at certain times of the day the roads are jammed with minibuses from taekwondo schools picking up and dropping off students all over the country.

I don’t wear my dobok in public, not for my own self conscious reasons you understand but for the safety of the Korean people. Some are so fascinated with my white face that the merest glimpse of me in a dobok would surely be too much for some of them to process and I fear there would be children and adults alike lying motionless in the road after their brains had just short circuited.

My teacher is an eighth dan master and lives for taekwondo. He is also a devout Christian. He recently asked me and the three other foreigners in our morning class, if we would put on a taekwondo demonstration at his church, to which we said yes. There are regular taekwondo demonstrations and events all over the country and they can often be found in churches as well as the more traditional sports centres. The Korean army and the police force are both trained to 1st and 2nd dan levels respectively and Korean universities have taekwondo departments and professors of taekwondo

Taekwondo has proved vital for me, as a way to keep fit and defend myself and as a sport, but most importantly as a window into Korea and its people and culture. Immersion is often touted as being the key to enjoying, appreciating and understanding a new and different culture and immersion can come in many guises. For some it’s the food, eating new things or taking part in strange ceremonies, for some it’s the language and for others it’s participating in some kind of traditional activity. For me it has been all three but taekwondo in particular seems to have grabbed me around the lapels and after the first hour it demanded I go back for more limb bending and muscle stretching. Taekwondo is much more than just stretching, kicking and punching however. It is more than just the physical; it’s the social, the spiritual and the communal. When you put on a dobok, you enter into a martial arts family and in my experience the family welcomes you with open arms.

When the iron fist of my teacher, Jeon Jeong Sul, Kwang Jang Nim, opened up it invited me into a world seen by few travellers or even lifelong taekwondo practitioners. I was invited to see and participate in the very essence of Korea. The ritualistic and communal eating habits of Koreans may be well documented but they were well and truly transcended when the two guests at an annual meeting of regional taekwondo masters were myself and another young, white, western taekwondo beginner. We were invited to see behind the curtain, to see the internal workings of the machine and to be able to interact with the masters that keep this taekwondo machine moving. 

These meetings are frequently held at restaurants (or at the very least include a sizable lunch break) and that day was a beautiful summer day. The restaurant was next to a flowing river on the out skirts of a city called Jinan. We drove through the countryside and around mountains, past small farms and even smaller dwellings. We turned off a small road onto another road which was more of a track than a road. There was a large house in front of us as we crossed the bridge over the river, which turned out to be a guest house. Next to the house was, what looked like a tennis court; there were men playing a game called ‘cheok-ku’ on it. Cheok-ku literally translates to foot-ball and is like doubles tennis but with feet instead of rackets and a football instead of a tennis ball. The mini bus parked up and the assembled masters disembarked. The seating area was a raised platform under a kind of awning, the river on one side and a wall of trees on the other. The ambience was a combination of Korean chatter, the river swishing by in the background and the main course yapping in an annex.

The steaming bowls of poshintang arrived after a debate amongst the masters, presumably some were saying we shouldn’t have it and others were saying we didn’t understand what we were getting ourselves into; the repetition of ”kwen-channa? (OK?)” was testament to this. As the bowls were laid down, all eyes turned to us, there were jokes made and laughs exchanged but it was all done with the kindness of parents joking with their children. Along with the world famous kimchi, poshintang is said to be very good for your health and is eaten more during hot weather as it is said to have qualities that can help to keep you cool during Korea’s exceptionally hot summers.

Not everyone likes poshintang (the often vilified dog meat soup) and so at lunch a chopped up chicken was offered too. The lure of a cultural experience and the addition of some brownie points from the assembled Kwan Jang Nims was too great an opportunity to pass up. The meat, minus the soup, was also served up with a kind of dipping sauce. I added to my taekwondo street cred again by drinking the obligatory two shots of soju that were offered to me.

As I went to bed that night thinking about how lucky I have been so far during my stay in Korea and how many amazing things I have experienced as a direct result of my practicing taekwondo I could only imagine the amazing things that were in store.  The creaking limbs and aching muscles haven’t gone away yet but as I inch toward my 1st dan the pain becomes more bearable.  I have realised that the path to taekwondo ‘enlightenment’ is a long one and getting from white to black only represents walking to the garden gate from the front door. The real journey can only begin when you’re at the gate but it’s a journey I look forward to.  I have realised that I am participating in a pilgrimage to the land where taekwondo was born and where it is at it’s purest and I can only hope that taekwondo practitioners around the world have found as much kindness and friendship through taekwondo as I all ready have. A journey to the land of the morning calm to see the art practiced in full, glorious technicolour should be on the wish list of every taekwondo practitioner.

Wednesday, 7 May 2008

The year of eating dangerously

Tom Parker-Bowles is the son of Camilla Parker Bowles, the Duchess of Cornwall. His royal highness the Prince of Wales is both his father in Law and godfather and Princes William and Harry are his step Brothers. Tom Parker Bowles spent 10 years in the private education system and so I think it is fair to say he has had a rather privileged upbringing. Tom Parker Bowles happens to be quite a good writer too and it is no surprise that his book ‘The year of eating dangerously’ is a very nice read. But why the family history, why the biography you ask? Surely I am painting him as a spoilt, young cad who has only reached the dizzy heights of literally fame by means of nepotism, aren’t I? Well no actually, I’m making a point about misconceptions and the dangers of playing with stereotypes. The impromptu genealogy lesson was intended to draw away from his skills as a writer and focus on less important things, the kind of things that tabloid hacks might be interested in. This is meant to parallel the chapter on Korea in his book as I think he has done Korea a disservice in his book and didn’t really mean to.

The book is, as the title suggests, about eating dangerously and to this end he travels around the world looking for all kinds of cuisines and events to get his greedy (another admission by the author) jaws around. He travels from Asia to the USA and to Europe, eating all the while and having the kind of gastronomic adventure that many people would relish. The chapter on Korea however, is a little predictable.

The search in Korea focuses on, yes you’ve guessed it, his search for dog meat. The often vilified, yet misunderstood practice of eating man’s best friend is a little predictable a subject. However, his account and research are nothing if not impartial and he delves deep into historical accounts of all sorts of civilizations that considered dog meat to be good eating, among them the Hawaiians and the Aztecs!

The problem in the chapter arises when his search for dangerous eating in Korea starts and ends in Seoul and with poshintang (the aforementioned canine stew). He gives fleeting mentions to other dishes but they are more polite nods rather than critical dissections, this is after he has mentioned his delightful anticipation at being able to sample Korea’s fiery cuisine.   

He talks of his understandable reluctance to try poshintang and even opens the chapter with an account of his childhood canine companions, therefore vindicating his nervousness, but this does little to make me, the reader, feel better about his account of this well trodden path.

Whilst I will agree that moaksal and samgyeopsal are hardly dangerous foods and therefore disqualify themselves from the book there are things in Korea that could, by his rationale, be called dangerous. BBQ’d chicken feet are not for the faint of heart and dak dong jip (chicken poo house – use you imagination) would see off a lot of self confessed gastronomes, as would bool dak, the intentionally mouth blistering chicken dish, created for those of us with less discerning palettes. Sannakji can be a particularly dangerous food at the best of times and is very dangerous when laced with soju. The raw octopus, very recently killed, can wrap its tentacles around your chopsticks and if you are very unlucky it can clamp itself onto your throat and throttle you from the inside, this should surely qualify it as a life threatening food!  These foods would hold their own on a list that includes baby eels (elvers), fugu from Japan and various chillis at a chilli convention in the USA. As for the harvesting of some of the food being dangerous (as is the case with the elvers and the goose neck barnacles), Korea has an entry in this category too. The haenyo are female divers around Korea who free dive for their supper. They dive to catch all sorts of sea creatures to sell as well as trying to avoid the dangers that lurk in the almost tropical waters around Jeju Island, where most of the haenyo now work.

This review is Korea centric for obvious reasons but the chapter on Korea was also the one that left me feeling a bit cheated, but don’t let that detract in anyway from the very descriptive talents of this self aware and self depreciating Englishman. The book is very neatly arranged so that each chapter covers a country and with a very thin narrative it can be picked up and put down at your leisure. The book has what all good food and travel writing needs to have in that it makes me want to go to these places, to eat what he eats and see what he sees, whether it be ribs and brisket in America’s south or bees in Laos (apparently they taste of honey). This book is a success and anyone even remotely interested in travel and/or food should give it a look. 

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