Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

Korea is the home of TaeKwonDo.    It's the national sport here.    No one would put it this way, but basically it's the Korean version of Japanese Karate.    Now I've never given much thought to studying Martial Arts but, why not give it a go?    Plus, I found a gym which foreigners can attend for free!    Well, almost free. (*nods to Milton Friedman*)    In exchange for an hour's TaeKwonDo instruction five days a week, you have to teach English to the Korean TKD students for one hour a month.    Pretty sweet deal if you ask me. :-)

TaeKwonDo was first developed by a patriotic group of Korean youths - I know, I know, patriotic Koreans... say it ain't so?    Who could possibly imagine such a thing?    Anyway this particular group of extra-patriotic Koreans wanted to fight the Chinese oppressors some 2000 years ago.    They were a pretty snazzy group of young lads though.    Here's the HwaRangDo code of honor:

  1. Serve your lord with loyalty.
  2. Serve your parents with filial piety.
  3. Trust your friends.
  4. Never retreat from a battle.
  5. When taking life, be selective.
Pretty nice stuff, just not sure I could live with it.    Fortunately TKD has come a long way from those origins.    I've heard on the foreigner grapevine that it was initially developed so that Korean slaves, with their hands tied behind their backs, could still attack Chinese soldiers up on their horses.    Hence all the emphasis on kicking.    Front kicks, front turning kicks, side kicks, back kicks, turning kicks, jumping kicks etc.    There are a few hand movements - but mostly it seems to be just an exercise in kicking as high and hard as you can.    Fair enough, so let's kick butt and have fun.

The first day down at the gym was a killer.    I couldn't do the warm-up exercises.    I felt like crying.    Surely 40 push-ups wasn't beyond the reach of mortal man?    Fortunately I was the only student there at the time, and my collapse around push-up 15 went unremarked by all but my TaeKwonDo Master - his face seemed twisted into a look I'd describe as half-smile, half-sneer, and maybe a little bemused comtempt thouwn in for good measure.   

At this stage though, I've been going to TKD pretty-much every day, and I'm now a Green Belt! (it's White, Yellow, Green, Blue, Red, Black, by the way).    My teacher still looks disgusted whenever I twist my foot the wrong way on a side kick, but he says I'll learn.    I hope so.    A guy who started a couple of weeks before me broke his foot when he landed badly from a kick - a kick we've both done at least a hundred times.... That sucks.    Not only does it put him out of TKD for three or four months or whatever, but he can't even claim to have been beaten up by a Black Belt Master with a black eyepatch and a bitter grudge, who cheated to win the match!    I'm hoping nothing like that happens to me though.    They reckon that if you go more-or-less every day, and you're of reasonable ability, then you should be able to earn your first Black Belt within a year.    That'd be a nice souvenier to come home from Korea with, wouldn't it?    The belt system has me totally addicted - it feels like you're the Karate Kid when you do a test and move up a belt.    I was going to mention TKD in a much earlier diary entry, but decided to wait until I had a belt or two. (to boast about, y'know?)    Anyway, I'm on Green Belt, and going on to Blue Belt soon enough, and all is well with the TKD world.

But you know sometimes, just one martial art isn't enough. :-)    One of the teachers at my school is taking Wushu lessons.    Wushu?    Bless you! ;-)    Wushu is actually a chinese martial art, derived from Kung Fu.    I thought doing both TaeKwonDo and Wushu would be a bit much, but actually they're totally different.    TKD is about kicking seven kinds of hell out of the opponent, whereas Wushu is much more about grace, balance, style and precision.    Also, there's a much greater emphasis on flexibility.    Although I'm still not able to do the splits by any means, I can see now that I'm getting there, and I really appreciate the thirty minutes or so I spend each day just stretching in Wushu.    At first I totally resented this.    It seemed at the start that we were preparing more for ballet than for fighting.    Bending over, feet together and reaching down to put your palms on the floor is all very well, but as I was trying, and failing, I couldn't help but wonder - "This stretching is great and all, but when do we get to fight Bruce Lee?

One nice thing about Wushu, besides the greatly increased flexibility(!), is that we get to play around with weapons a little bit.    Swords and Sticks for the most part.    I really liked the idea of learning to fight with a stick.    Very handy for when you're out hiking and come across some undesirables.    Not that that's happened very often, but I know when it happened to me in the past, that I'd have felt far more confident being able to do more than lean on my hiking pole...    On the other hand, the first day the instructor showed me how to use the staff weapon, I ended up with a large bump on my head and an angry welt on my calf.    I wouldn't mind if he'd hit me in trainning or something - but actually I just whacked myself a couple of times whilst trying to learn how to do the simplest of swings.    Oh well, I guess nothing is too easy at the beginning.   

Or in the case of Wushu - it's still not easy, even now.    I've been going there almost as long as I've been at TaeKwonDo, but in Wushu, I've yet to move up a belt at all.    Am I totally crap?    Well, maybe, and maybe not.    Certainly it takes longer to get better at Wushu.. your adult body just doesn't stretch that far that fast, or move that well at all.    I think the real reason though is the way that TaeKwonDo is run over here.    The clubs advertise that you get your black belt in a year.    Well, maybe you can, and I've heard of foreigners who indeed have done just that.    But to me it seems more than a little suspicious that you can get your black belt in a year, and by a wacky coincidence that's also exactly how long most foreigners are planning to stay here?    If we were on eleven or thirteen month contracts, would we get our belts after that period instead?    I think that suspicion is why I don't mind being a white belt in Wushu - he's not peddling you the "black belt in a year" line, so I think that when I do get my belt, I'll really deserve it! *fomgers crossed*

One other tiny little niggle is the uniforms we wear.    In TKD we're wearing the standard Karate / Judo / TaeKwonDo clothing.    A white pants made of coarse, heavy, durable cotton, and a matching v-neck top.    The sleeves and legs make a nice crack when you punch or kick out, and it's well suited to the rough and tumble of the sport.    Wushu is a different kettle of fish.    Again the clothing reflects the Art.    My Wushu suit is again a two-piece affair, but the jacket ties up the front, amd the belt is far longer, and held to the side rather than knotted at the front.    Best of all it's made of silky-smooth satin.    The TaeKwonDo suit cracks out when you kick, but the Wushu costume ripples and flows along your body.    I've never worn satin clothes all over before, and it's a lovely feeling on my skin.    Plus they'll make great PJs when I need a set. ;-)    So far I've just been wearing them down to the gym though.    You totally feel like an ancient warrior when you're wearing them.    Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, here I come!    Although at the moment it's more like Charging Ox, Handicapped Dragon... I guess sometimes the clothes do not make the man.

I love learning these things, but Friday was a total killer.    I often return to my apartment feeling tired and sore and bruised, and basically shit, but good shit, y'know?    But this was the first day I came back bitter.    I'd missed a day previously down at Wushu, and on Friday he was continuing to teach them something he'd started the day I'd missed.    So the others were all able to do the first few steps of the sequence very quickly, whereas I had to struggle with the speed at which he was doing it.    He showed them over and over agian, but never at a speed that I could keep track of his hands and feet and see what was going on.    I had enough Korean to ask him to do it again, and more slowly, but he didn't really have time to pay me personal attention in a group session.    When the instructor drove the other students home, I stayed in the gym trying to practice the moves I hadn't understood that morning.    I was the only one there though.    Practice makes perfect, but only if you're practicing the right thing.    I didn't know what I was even supposed to be doing, and just got more and more frustrated.

Then it's off to TKD.    Some of the other students had to take December off, and haven't been coming at all this month.    Two of the studnets went back home for Christmas, and some were out injured.    The upshot of all this is that for several days this week, I'd been the only student attending the "class".    I thought that this was going to be great.    Individual instruction for the price of a group lesson.    It didn't turn out that way.    When the instructor saw that I was the only one there, he just snuck off into his little room, and left me to kick myself up and down the gym.    The first day that was OK, 'cause I did a lot of basic trainning, but after that?    Friday was the final straw.    I was in a bad mood anyway, so I did my warm-up, then my basic stretches, and then stood in my usual place, ready to give the bow of attention, and waited for him to come out.    Eventually he emerged, said "Practice Kicks!", and disappeared again.    Basically I stormed out of there.    Although admittedly it would have been more impressive if he'd stuck around to see me 'storm'. ;-)    Afterwards I was thinking what I would do - complain to the guy who owns the gym?    OK, but it risks offending my instructor, and I don't want him to be a total hardasss.    It's a delicate situation and not one that seemed to present any obvious solution.    Just a lot of frustration.

Frustration at my inability to understand and copy the moves at Wushu, and dejection at my instructor's laziness in TaeKwonDo - I hadn't even started work yet, and already I was feeling lousy.    A bad Korean day.    But that's OK.    Sometimes a day is longer than a week in Korea, and once this long day was over I knew another week would just fly by again.    You have a bad day that seems to last forever, but before you know it, you're having fun in Korea again.

It was in this spirit that I set out to do one of the more fun things in Korea.    Not exactly as energetic and invigorating as TaeKwonDo or Wushu, but if you're stuck for something to entertain you one evening, you could do a lot worse than to head to a nearby DVD Room.    Basically, it's like the local video store, or DVD rental, except that you watch the movie on the premises.    They've got rooms with fold-out couches, you go in, lie down, eat some complimentary candies, bring in your own food and drink if you want, and watch a movie on a wall screen.    I tried this for the first time last night - sinking into the couch, surrounded by stereo sound, watching a film in your own private movie theatre.    Pretty neat stuff.    Especially for courting Korean couples - they live at home with their parents, and traditionally aren't supposed to do anyting more with their beloved than hold hands in public.    I've a feeling the DVD room couches are used for somehting more than just film appreciation.   

Unfortunately the Hollywood execs, through the US Government, are trying to close the DVD Rooms down.    They say that they are unfairly competing with proper cinemas.    They've got a point I guess, so in acquiesence the Korean government has passed some regulations against the DVD Rooms.    In other words they've made a show of doing something, whereas in fact it's just a sop to the US, while nothing has actually changed.    Thankfully.

I'll definately be going to the DVD Rooms again.    What movie did I see last night though?   
"Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon", of course. ;-)   
Gotta keep up the inspiration to head back to Wushu after Christmas!


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