Elwood 5566

No Pain no Gain – The Korean Bootcamp

Posted in Comparative, Education, History, Korean children by 노강호 on June 23, 2010

The ebente-tang (야벤트탕). Mugwort (쑥)

As the weather gets hotter I spend increasingly more time in the cold pool than in the e-bente-tang (이벤트탕) which today was scented with mugwort (쑥). In the cold pool  (냉탕) it was so cold I found it difficult swimming underwater but in another few weeks, when we are right into that horrid monsoon, it will be a welcomed sanctuary.

In the cold pool a couple of boys are messing around a little noisily and so some middle-aged man asks them to be quiet. The boys are summoned to attention by the word ‘hakseng’,’ (학생 – student) and simply told to stop mucking about.  A little later they have to be asked again though this time the man raps them on their heads with his knuckles. In pansy Britain that’s assault.

I’m thinking about Daech’eon (대천)  which is on the west coast, not too far from Ch’eonan, and a beautiful stretch of beach. The freshmen boys in my last high school used to visit there in summer just after their end of semester exams. As beautiful as Daech’eon is, I imagine that whenever they are reminded of the place they will tremble and break out in a sweat. For them, Daech’eon was a place where you both met yourself and your limitations, a place from which you returned a different person and  it was feared! In the months leading up to the summer I often heard mention of Daech’eon, always with a mix of  reverence, fear and foreboding.

Kids can learn a lot from a smack around the head and some discomfort and pain. In the west we’ve molly-coddled kids to such an extent they’ve had to invent ‘extreme’ sports in order to make themselves feel alive. Anything potentially dangerous in the playground has been removed and that nasty hard and rough floor replaced with a comforting rubber mat. Of course, there’s nothing ‘extreme’ about their sports other than a scratched knee or bruised shins. ‘Extreme ‘is playing on a playground without the protective rubber floor, getting into the boxing ring or doing some of the more strenuous of martial arts with instructors who take pleasure in grueling sessions. In one taekwondo school I attended in Korea, the instructor put a ‘naughty boy’ in a headlock until the boy’s legs went limp and he flopped to the floor – that’s ‘extreme.’  Back in the UK I’ve trained in schools so strenuous, 200 front rising kicks and 200 hundred sit ups just for a warm up, that membership was limited to less than ten students – that’s ‘extreme.’ My military training was 12 weeks which included  6 weeks at a school of physical training. The day commenced with an eight mile run and the remainder was spent in the gymnasium – that was  ‘extreme.’  Bungee Jumping would freak me out and definitely pump me full of dopamine especially as I’d be terrified the rope would break given my extreme weight. Personally, I see little ‘extreme’ about  such ‘sports’ especially as they are associated with fun and a poncy lemonade, Mountain Dew,  and anyone who aligns their personality with a carbonated corporate  beverage is  gullible and totally un-extreme.

Most kids would think this ‘extreme’

Korean special forces training – ‘extreme’

Facing your own limitations

In order to keep kids in post 16 education Britain, has introduced colleges of football, basketball, dancing, and most likely tiddly-winks. In contemporary teenagers’  jargon, most ‘extreme’ sports as well as the sports offered in sports colleges are ‘gay.’ Most British boys wouldn’t last the day in my last high school and they certainly wouldn’t last if subjected to a real training session. Many of the teenagers in British sports colleges have no idea what it takes to become a professional athlete because the ‘training’ they have been subject to is largely based on making it fun. By sanitizing all unpleasantness and removing all threats, kids are no longer forced to confront their own limitations, let alone attempt to push beyond them and in terms of both sport and academia, most  are still crouched in the starting blocks.

The TV Series ‘Kung Fu’

No Mountain Dew? Brutally Extreme!

Boy crying as he reads letter from home (Link to Rokmccamp.com)

Permeating much of the general life philosophy of Korea, is a belief that through discomfort, even pain, we become stronger. I was aware of this ‘philosophy’ when I first started training in taekwondo in the 1970’s and it is an attitude prevalent throughout the east. In the opening sequences of the 1970’s, Kung Fu, Kwai Chang Caine (David Carradine) is seen taking the final initiation which marks him as a Shaolin monk, lifting a heavy cauldron of glowing coals between his arms. The cauldron bars his way forward and  in moving  it  the symbols of the Shaolin Temple, the tiger and the dragon, are seared onto his forearms. The initiation is one of pain and marks the transition novice to master, from the hermitage of the monastery to life beyond its confines.  Of course, the initiation, symbols and hot-pot are probably historical baloney but it made excellent TV and encapsulated much of the spirit of the time which included an intense interest in eastern mysticism, the orient and martial arts.

Perseverance (인내)

Team work

In the late 1970’s I remember reports and photos about the Japanese Karate team practicing punching solid surfaces while kneeling on broken glass. The glass must have been ground as anything other would be highly foolish. General Choi’s (최홍희) Taekwon-do ‘bible’  (the first book about taekwondo published in English) advocated training in the snow to develop ones resilience, something still undertaken by Korean soldiers and school kids where  the philosophy of discomfort and pain strengthening the human ‘spirit’ is still alive and kicking.  Indeed, the five tenets of both the  ITF (International Taekwon-do Federation) and the WTF (World Taekwondo Federation) include: perseverance (인내), self-control (극기), and indomitable spirit (백절불굴).

A central figure in the history of Taekwon-do,  ignored by the WTF

Korean teenagers often attend trips, organised by schools or private organisations, designed to bond them, develop leadership and strengthen the character and coming from both an ex-military and marital arts background, as much as I dislike macho-militarism, I belief there are some benefits in such pursuits. Without doubt my training in martial arts heightened my mental power and  my ability to ‘tap into’ a superior mental state, now that I no longer train, is severely weakened.  The heightened state of reality, caused by the body being flooded with endorphins, gives rise to a euphoria which can make a lasting impression on the mind and this state, though somewhat perverse to subject ones self to, is rewarding in itself. Confronting ourselves is a revealing experience.

Getting messy hair – ‘extreme’

Part of the economic success of Korea has been attributed to the hard work and discipline of older generations. My closest friend often tells me about his childhood and the constant hunger he faced. His mother used to make dong-dong-ju (a rice wine alcohol) which he carted to the local market to sell. By western standards he is working class and for the ten years I have known him he and his wife have struggled to ensure their son and daughter had a good education and entered a decent university.  For the last five years he has worked in a car factory in Ulsan and lives away from home returning only every second weekend. His wife runs a street pancake stall where she will freeze or sweat, depending on the season. I can think of few individuals back home who work as hard as they do but their experience is one shared by majority of Koreans who were children in the wake of the 1950’s. It is this hardiness which on the one hand is often  attributed to Korean economic success and on the other, to the both the pampering of their children and the occasional desire to provide their children a taste of harshness that might make them better citizens or students.

Korean Kids at a ‘camp’ near Asan

I’ve taught in English schools where you weren’t allowed to shout at children and had to ignore bad language unless aimed at you personally

Knowing your’re alive doesn’t happen very often

Across Korea are various ‘boot’ camps which specialize in providing today’s youth with a taste of hardship. The courses are designed  to  bond, facilitate team work, and develop perseverance and tenacity. Trekking up mountains, standing still for an hour, twice a day, military style discipline and exercises, training in snow, mud, rain or the sea are all common. Some of my middle school students recently went on a trip which involved sleeping on graves in the mountain without any adults – however, how widespread this is I don’t know. Sure, lots of people will see such training as harsh and wicked but for even the most average sports person or averagely talented person, facing your limitations is a common experience.  While many of today’s rich and famous have ascended to stardom by virtue of a mixture of luck and looks, most of us will only achieve great things by guts and determination. As much as I dislike football, Beckham is talented but then he spent many hours hammering balls into goal to hone his skill. Molly-coddling kids and protecting them from facing themselves simply teaches them to be less than mediocre. In addition, discipline subjects children to the will of adults which is no bad thing. I’d rather live in a society where the kids are controlled than in one where they run amok doing exactly as they please.

Link to New York Times article

Indomitable spirit (백절불굴) And it does them good!

It’s only pain!

The British army stopped log  training many years ago and burpees in the mid 1970’s.

All young men are required to undertake 24 months military service and for young boys this kind of training is a taste of things to come. Considering the relationships between North and South Korea, and the fact the war has never officially ending,  conscription is a practical preparation for the unspeakable event. When your country prefers to wage war on distant shores, you can rely on a professional army but when the enemy is on your doorstep such luxuries evaporate.

Circumcision and the freshman summer camp were probably the two most feared events in the lives of  the freshmen in my high school. The morning  the buses rolled up onto the school grounds to cart them off was especially silent, as if an execution were about to be  detailed.  A week later they returned exhausted, sunburnt, bruised and very proud. All the boys were scarred, all had badly friction burned knees  or elbows, there were cuts and bruises and a few  returned with broken legs or arms. Though the boys still had two years of one of the most demanding schools systems in the world to endure, the friction burns, cuts and bruises, like the Shaolin tiger and dragon, were badges of belonging, symbols of esprit de corps. Daech’eon was an intensely private and intimate experience and once recovered, and confined to history, mention of that beach stirred memories and emotions and at such times I felt both an intruder and outsider. In a preface to one of his James Bond novels, Flemming writes: You only live twice; once when you’re born and once when you die. I think the Daech’eon boys, and any other kids who attend such boot camps, have already experienced a second brush with ‘living.’

After the Daech’eon camp

Tired

Post dopamine lull

LINKS TO VIDEO CLIPS OF KOREAN TEEN BOOT CAMPS

ITN News Report

Reuters 1

Reuters 2

Nocommenttv

NTDTV

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LINKS TO WRITTEN ARTICLES ON KOREAN BOOT CAMPS

Jjujund. Translation from the Chicago Tribune Sept 2009

Link to ABC News

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Creative Commons License© 林東哲 2010 Creative Commons Licence.

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2 Responses

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  1. Larry Hook said, on April 3, 2012 at 9:21 am

    I think boot camp for kids are not only great for kids who are addicted to Internet and video games, but also great for kids who are obese and not getting enough outdoor playtime and exercise. Kids who get plenty of exercise reduce the risk of developing a number of diseases that have become more prevalent in children in recent years, such as high cholesterol, high blood pressure and diabetes. There’s a useful article here about boot camp for kids: http://www.troubledteens.com/boot-camps-and-programs/boot-camp-for-kids.html


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