Saturday, February 28, 2009

Theatre, Tae Kwon Do

Hi all,

My apologies for the lengthy delay in between my last post and today's. I've been busy, and sick, and while having a cough and working on report card's is no excuse, I hope, as an explanation, it will suffice.

We spent yesterday in Seoul--camera-less, for which I apologize--after Kindergarten class in the morning at school. I'm up to 8 munchkins, now, and I've got them hopping around happily all class. It's a ton of fun, and they remain incredibly cute--it's tiring, but totally worth it. And if it helps give our campus a shot in the arm, which it looks to be doing, more power to 'em. I hope this project succeeds--if it does, we could start getting more kids to learn English at a younger age. For fiscal reasons, this is incredibly important--they stay longer, after all, but more importantly, it will help give them the phonemes necessary to learn English from an early age. Phonemes is a fancy linguistic term meaning the sounds used by a given language. I can hear, for example,t he phonemes in Korean, but I miss the ones in Chinese by a mile, having never been exposed to it. I'm very good at hearing Japanese, French, and Spanish sounds, having spoken or been around speakers of those languages regularly in the past. 

That said, while it's entirely possible (and, indeed, some argue, easier) to learn a foreign language as an adult, it can't hurt to get 'em hooked on English young. I agree with this website's assessment of language learning--we can learn as adults, too, if we work at it, but getting used to language when young makes it incredibly easy to develop one's skills in it as one gets older (I can still, for example, speak reasonably good French, thanks to my mom and dad exposing me to it early, and living in France for a year when I was young).

Anyway, I digress. We went into Seoul with Jessica, one of our new teachers. We're going to be losing Sarah and Amber, both of whom have been here for nearly two-and-a-half years. The loss in teaching experience, in addition to the transfer of another teacher, Oliver, who came when we did, means that our school is going to be changing a lot in the next few weeks, between that and the new books and new term we're starting (Korean schools begin their new grades on March 2nd this year). It's sad to see those two go--they helped ease us into Korea, and they're a great pair of people. 

So, we went into Seoul to show Jessica how to get into Gangnam (pronounced Kang-nahm), Kyobo books, and a few other things. We got a few cheap movies while we there, including John Woo's Red Cliffs, which, frankly, is made of pure awesomeness

We then went further North, leaving Jessica with Sarah and Ashley, our coworkers, while we went downtown to meet up with another friend for some Korean performing arts. We saw a traditional dance (very different, it was all men doing the dancing), zither performances, and some really amazing folk drumming. Just when you thought they couldn't go faster, they did. Ditto with the volume--my ears are still ringing a bit.

We then went off to Myeong-Dong with Sumi, our coworker, and her friends Janice and Andrew. Why Myeong-Dong, you ask? Well, that's where Seoul Tower is. We had planned to get back to Gangnam for 9 PM to meet up with Ashley and Jessica again, but by this time it was 8, and I was pretty sure we weren't going to make it, with the 30 minute wait for the cable car, and another 30 minute wait for the elevator to the top of the tower.

The view was awesome--dark, yes, but worthwhile to see the lights of the Sprawl below stretching out like trees across the mountains. It was like looking at a William Gibson cyberpunk novel, a city that has become so large that it integrates the surrounding, formerly independent cities, into it, and claims the title Megapolis or Megacity with ease. Tokyo, I hear, is the same, and I look forward to seeing that colossus in time--it reminded me of looking at Beijing by night--massive, and unapologetic about it. But Seoul has a unique feeling to it. Smaller in terms of population (if only slightly), but cramped into tighter space, the city grew up instead of out--apartments rise and stack on top of each other like cardboard boxes, or plants reaching towards the sun, while 10 million people happily swarm around each other, hive-like, but each an individual.

Humanity has always fascinated me--we are capable of producing some real wonders, and cities are one example of this.


Tae Kwon Do

Why a digression on my favorite Korean martial art? Well, because, after nearly fourteen years of studying it, I am coming to the conclusion that I either have to look for a new form of training, or a new art. I love Tae Kwon Do--its eminently practical at times, utilizing the power of the fighter's legs to give one the ability to do massive damage to an attacker, fast, and then get out of the fight once you've made sure that you can't get hurt.

Tae Kwon Do is not a new martial art--it's about fifty or sixty years old, and was explicitly designed after World War Two to combine the various divergent Korean martial arts into one that could be universalized across the country, and, eventually, around the world. I recall reading somewhere--don't remember where exactly--that it's become one of the most popular martial arts in the world, partly due to its usefulness, but, sadly, also because it becomes exceptionally easy to turn into a McDojang (you go in, pay your money, and get a black belt in a year, which is, pardon the phrase, bullcrap in my mind).

It evolved from Tang Soo Do, Takkyeon, and older forms of Korean fighting, which date back to the original fighting arts of the old Three Kingdoms period. The Hwarang, a group of young men picked by the Ssilla (Shilla) Kingdom's rulers, which eventually evolved into an elite, aristocratic fighting force, helped develop some of these arts, which may well be the origins of the style I've practiced for over half of my life.

In its best forms, Tae Kwon Do mixes speed training, kicks, punches, 'harder' strikes (elbows and knees, in my mental classification), throws, and self-defense training (close in combat techniques for when someone grabs you or comes at you with a knife). My first dojang (training hall) in Dallas, was an exemplar of this. Our instructor borrowed liberally from Hapkido (a Korean variant on Aikido), weapons training, and Ju-Jitsu  (Japanese grappling) to produce a martial art that was flexible and focused on developing the art of fighting and self-defense. 

There, we studied dozens of kick variants, arm techniques, weapons forms, poomseh (katas in Japanese, or choreographed forms in English), and sparring techniques, all designed to emphasize the training of the body to react instinctively to threat. In short, Tae Kwon Do can be an extremely effective martial art, especially if it leads the practitioner to realize that it can be supplemented with, or used to supplement, other arts and thus combined to make a better whole. Tae Kwon Do is not without flaws, even then--the emphasis on jumps, spin kicks, and high kicks can leave one exposed in a real fight, which, I think, is the real reason one studies martial arts. In its purest forms (whatever that means), it lacks strong hand and arm techniques, and often, emphasizes the legs to the exclusion of all else. That's fine, except if your opponent knows how to fight up close and can grapple.

In its worst forms, I've seen Tae Kwon Do dojangs where the student goes in, pays their money, and gets their black belt in such a short matter of time that they could not possibly hope to fight a real opponent and win, or, worse, where they lack the self-discipline and enlightenment necessary to realize that the most valuable fighting technique is the ability to avoid a fight in the first place. I hold a second-degree (2nd or Ii Dan) black belt in Tae Kwon Do, and have held it for almost 8 years--I've not levelled up higher than that because I've had to move often in the last eight years, and went to a few dojangs that basically told me I'd have to start over, again, in their style (annoying, but when they're the only dojang around and one doesn't have a car, you smile, nod, and swallow your complaints, and take from the school what you can). I have not fought another person in that entire time, nor will I, if I can avoid it, for the remainder of my life. I know I could cause the other person harm, and that entering the fight in the first place is a failure on my part, as a martial artist, to find a more appropriate way out of the situation. 

Some dojangs, like one I went to, here, are exceptionally good--but focus on sparring, training for the Olympics and competition, or demonstration. The problem I had with the local dojang is that they were trying to get me to do the same. I'm not interested in sparring much anymore--I have significant knee injuries that I have acquired over fourteen years of heavy training (most of which are my own fault, or came through sparring!). I also recently discovered I have a problem with one my vertebrae, so, while I'm also simply getting older, I'm not so stupid as to willingly throw myself into sparring with the Korean National Demonstration Team, nor try their tricks. I don't see any practical use in throwing a 720 degree kick in mid air, upside down, in a fight. 

I emphasize practicality in my own training, and when I teach others. If you can't use it in a fight (if you can't get out of the fight, I should add), then what good is it? Unfortunately, I lack the Korean language skills to explain my concerns to the instructors at the dojang, and I've had one too many injuries while there. Part of this is the language barrier... but the other part is a sense in some Tae Kwon Do dojangs, and especially, it seems, here in Korea, to wave off pain as part of the learning experience. Sure, pain, sparring, and the occasional bruises are normal in martial arts training. 

However, and I must say this is a large however, one should not put a student in a position where one is liable to get hurt, simply for the sake of doing so, or for teaching techniques which are only to be used in demonstration. There are some wonderful demo teams out there--the group at this dojang included, they're simply brilliant. I'm not that good. Sure, I'm a good fighter, and I can hold my own in a sparring contest, and I know I could break bones if I got into a real fight. But I'm not interested in demonstrations--I'm pragmatic in my training, and maybe a bit old, and I know when I need to stop, back away, and think about things.

I hurt when I get up in the morning--another sign, sadly, that I need to take a break. I continue to keep up my exercise, privately, at the gym, and in the park near our apartment. I will continue my training, but I will do it my way. I'm not a master--I never earned that privilege. However, I am entirely capable of practicing on my own, and teaching others.

While this blog is dedicated to my travels here in Korea, I may, as time goes on, begin to discuss martial arts in more depth, and my thoughts on them. I begin to suspect that I will endeavor to begin blending, as my old master in Dallas did, various martial arts to find a more perfect union of them. Tae Kwon Do is incredibly valid, and I have no trouble at all with people who want to train for the Olympics and for demonstrations. I simply have no interest in that route. And while sparring is a necessary part of training, it should not be done in such a way that it is unsafe. One of my favorite lessons from my old teacher was that, in a dojang, one studies with the other students--one should not go out of one's way to hurt one's training partners!

I love the martial arts, and will continue to train in them--but I will do so in my own way, and with care and concern for myself, and those who train with me. The goal is to learn self-defense, and self-discipline, not self-injury. It is so much a part of my identity, that I have no intention whatsoever of stopping completely, but I sense a time has come for a pause to reflect on my progress, my capabilities, and what I want to do in the future with my studies. If I should continue in Tae Kwon Do, I will be happy. If I choose, instead, to begin branching out and to study other forms of martial arts, I will be equally happy. I continue to study, and in so doing, to discover more about myself as I grow older and, hopefully, somewhat wiser.

Anyway, rant over--I've meant to talk about this for a while.

Best regards,

Monday, February 16, 2009

Happy Valentines Day

Hi all,

A brief post, as I'm a bit rushed for time this week--between a sore throat and running around for work, parent-teacher meetings, and the like, I'm in vegetable mode when I come back home.

We went to Changdeokgung, a palace in Seoul. Once the secondary palace of the Joseon Dynasty, which ruled Korea for several hundred years, the palace became the primary one after the Japanese destroyed the main palace by fire during the invasions in the late 1500s. It's gorgeous, set into the hills and forests of a garden complex in the north end of Seoul. Tucked into the foothills, it's designed to be as natural as possible. 

It has a bit of a sad history, despite the beauty and its role as the former seat of power in Korea. It was there that the last Korean scion of the Joseon died in the late 1900s. It was there that the Japanese annexed Korea. 

It's a beautiful and sad reminder of how lovely this country is, and how much history is here, both good and bad. I love teaching here, and learning about Korean culture and tradition--it's just a wild turn to see the differences between, say, Canada and Korea, since we don't have the history of a war as catastrophic (within Canadian borders... World War One and Two were devastating to Canada in their own way) as what happened to Korea during the Occupation.

Anyway, enough of the tragedy. It was beautiful, and we had a laugh walking past the National Ddeok (Teok) museum... basically, a rice cake museum. Oh, bother.

We celebrated Valentine's Day by watching JCVD without subtitles and laughing ourselves silly.

All the best, folks,


Sunday, February 8, 2009


Hi all,

Started teaching, on a voluntary basis, Kindergartners on Saturday morning. The tykes are exceptionally cute, and I've got a trio of little geniuses in the class. All three speak very well in English, so it's almost like teaching English Kindergarten back home. 

We started out by playing Sit Down, Stand Up. Basically, the idea is to have the kids learn basic English words, most of which they already know, and to warm them up. It's also important, since it keeps the kids happy. Jen's mother said, and I think she's right, that teaching kids that age requires almost twice as much work as other classes: its like having 20 mini-two-minute lessons, so that you can keep their attention. 

We then went to finish the book, do some drawing, and at one point, I had them hopping around the room (saying the word 'hop' as they did so), to teach them the word, and because we were reading about a frog. The little ones were exceptionally cute.

I noticed that as well: we're using a basic readers book, which, while good, is a bit dry--it's lots of reading.

That said, it's a great idea: it's a pilot program to see if we can start teaching younger children at the Hagwon. This'd be a great strategy if it can work: the younger ones are more interested, and are exceptionally fun to teach. Plus, while it's great to have older kids, the younger ones, if they stay, are a more lucrative source of revenue--they stay longer.

I admit, I've come to enjoy teaching my young classes a great deal. They often get me laughing along with them, and I really and truly genuinely like my students. It's good to know that I can handle kids, especially if Jen and I ever decide to have children of our own.

I don't talk much about teaching on this website, if only because, well, there are a dozen other blogs and websites out there that already do--one of the best is Dave's ESL Cafe, which is expat central online in Korea. That said, if you're going to do this, it's worth trying. It's not easy--there are a host of things that can go wrong, Korean and North American work habits and organizational styles are different, and sometimes, no matter how good your school might be, you might have a bad day or have trouble connecting with a student. All that said, if you go in to a school with an open-mind, and a bit of determination, it can turn out brilliantly.

Like with my little kids, for example.

If I can, I'll try to take a picture with some of them, and post them online. I'm a bit no-nonsense in my class, and forgetful to boot, so I might not have time or might forget, but I will endeavor to do so and have some pictures online by the time I leave this country, since my kids are either: A) very cute; B) fun; C)funny as all get out; or D) just plain neat to be around.

We can probably all tell stories, those of us doing this mad tour in Asia. Some of 'em good, some of 'em bad. I consider myself very fortunate to be able to say that, so far, at least, things are going well.


Went in to Yongsan in Seoul. The electronics capital of this tech-crazy country, Yongsan has anything and everything of a tech nature a geek like me could want. The only problem is money, and that some hardware (say, a Wii, or PS3), is wired for Hangeul, and I don't trust my computing skills to reconfigure it/care to pay the kind of money it costs to buy one. They're cheaper, here, but that doesn't change the fact that they're still pricey.

Or that I have a ton of stuff to do, as is!

Also, if you want to find cheap films, Yongsan is also the place to go. Holy smokes.


On a sad note, we're trying to find someone to babysit poor Amy, our cat. She's a sweetheart, but the trouble is she A) needs attention, and B) needs to be the only cat in the house. Pete, a friend of mine from back home, has been able to take care of her up 'till now, but, well, she's started having dominance issues with his own cat, Penny. Not the cats' fault, really, and I'm sorry that Pete's gotten stuck having to clean up after Amy since she's upset.

I'm hopeful we can find a solution, since we don't want to lose our cat.