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.

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