Getting your kicks - and moreWhen my brother announced he wanted to learn taekwondo, my father looked up slowly from his newspaper and said, "Only if the master meets my standard."
My brother, my sister, me, even my mother had heard my father's stories before - how he had broken the thin ice covering a pond and waded into freezing water to learn patience; how he had been buried in sand near an anthill to learn to endure pain; and how he had smashed bricks and glass with bare fists or flying kicks to learn to focus. The training gave him, he always said, the ability to face any foe, smile and then walk away. My father learned martial arts from a politician's bodyguard until his father smiled at him and said, "Let us be a peace-loving family."
As a young teenager, I viewed these stories with skepticism but also, admittedly, with some awe. So when my father and brother drove off in a silver Toyota minivan to search of a respectable taekwondo teacher, I had to wonder. We lived then in suburban New Jersey, where the only cold water deep enough to wade in was the pond at a local nature center.
None of the prospective teachers passed my father's inspection; thus, my brother temporarily shelved his dream of becoming a martial arts master. Years later, I still looked at taekwondo as being tinged with mysticism. So when I inquired at the Korean Taekwondo Association about famous dojang, or schools, I did so with a mix of anticipation and just of fear.
Haedong Taekwondo is the training ground for past champions of the World Taekwondo Competition. Surrounded by embassies, Haedong Taekwondo has about 150 students from 20 countries. I found out that the grand master, Lee Hae-dong, is a seventh degree black belt who was once on the national demonstration team. I heard he used to parachute out of airplanes for the Korean Army. In winters past, he used to sit in icy cold streams with his father, also a martial arts master. His background information sounded like a bio straight out of the 1989 taekwondo movie "Best of the Best."
With movie scenes running through my mind, I burst through the glass doors of Haedong Taekwondo, duffel bag slung over my shoulders. I rolled my shoulders, stretched my neck and hopped from foot to foot. "Teacher, I am here and I am ready," I announce to Mr. Lee. He slowly raised his eyes from a book with black and white photos of taekwondo postures, slowly gestured to the leather seats in front of his wide desk and slowly walked over. For a moment of deja vu, I thought of father.
"My students must have a clear mind and clean heart, and then they can start training," he said gruffly. At 46, he had the physique of a bear. He pointed to his head and his heart, then stood to pull up the zipper of his windbreaker. "The mind and the body have to match, like the teeth of a zipper. Otherwise, the zipper won't zip up. Taekwondo is not for the arrogant, but for the humble. Lesson No. 1 - think of others first." And then he gave me a friendly, but I-can-snap-you-in-half smile of a bear.
So began a litany of analogies as vivid as Aesop's fables. Mr. Lee, it turned out, speaks in parables. He talked, then demonstrated, then talked some more ?sometimes fiercely, sometimes jokingly, but each session is somehow refreshing.
I humbly shuffled out of the trophy-laden office to the studio. All the students - barefoot, wearing dobok, or belted white uniform - were stretching in two even lines on the dark wood floor. On the far wall was a huge mural of blue skies with an athlete demonstrating a flying kick. Mr. Lee announced, "Everyone, meet the new student."
I stood alone, in a new red Nike T-shirt and navy jogging pants. The only white I was wearing was my socks. Already sweating from embarrassment, I grabbed a mat and found a place among the students. We stretched some more, did 30 sit-ups, then flipped to our stomachs with our hands behind our backs to rock up and down to limber our backs. The whole time, Lee called out numbers in a deep announcer's voice, "Hanna, dul" ("one, two").
Most of my classmates this day were ROTC students from nearby Kyung Hee University, Mr. Lee's alma mater. Also attending was a 39-year-old mother and a graduate student. We piled the mats in a corner and found a place against the walls. Holding a railing, we practiced kicks - front, back, 45 degree and rotating.
Then half the students grabbed hand pads before lining up. I watched while Lee called out advice: "Use gi (energy) like a bank. Sometimes you have to spend money, sometimes you must conserve." The students practiced punch-and-block routines. At the end of class, I bowed and left, noting with relief, the lack of ant hills and ponds.
The mother, her two young children, a 66-year-old pediatrician, an English teacher and a college student attended my next class. We first stretched then practiced kicks while holding the railing. The physician, a second-degree black belt, was the best student. Lee had her demonstrate the proper stance for a yeop chagi, or side kick: raised foot flat, toes pointed down, shoulders pulled back, hip rotated. The body looked like a "Y," which I found hard to move into, hold and move out of.
We took a water break before lining up to kick hand pads. Opposite me, the mother immediately knocked the pad from my hand. I gripped the pad again, and moved a couple steps away. Nearby, the pediatrician, a woman, yelled, "Yah!" with each kick.
We went into a three-step chagi. "Do not face your body towards your opponent, that will only create more surface space. Be at thin as possible," Lee said.
"I am a stealthy winter warrior," I thought to myself as I showed the mother my side. Step, step, step, turn, kick.
Afterwards, Lee asked one of the students to don body padding. The student kicked and the physician lunged in with a punch. They moved apart. She gauged the distance and did a two-step kick. Adrenaline flowing, she said, "I feel like I can do anything," then did a little dance.
There may be no wading in cold waters, but this just might be the place for my brother to practice taekwondo.
by Joe Yong-hee