Elwood 5566

Moving on to Haidong Gumdo

Posted in Hae Dong Gumdo, Martial Arts, taekwondo by 노강호 on April 18, 2012

I’d love to pick up studying taekwon-do in Korea. Not that crappy WTF style (which I’ve also studied to red belt) which seems to simply churn out an endless succession of spinning kicks which look great but have as much potential as a feather boa. And then there’s the total lack of handwork!

one of my instructor’s swords. I’ve seen plenty of replicas and blunt blades, but in the presence of a genuine, live blade, one is struck by both their beauty and frightening potential.

Yes, WTF, has it strong points, it has its share of superb practitioners and I’m sure there’s a suitable school somewhere near where I live but I’m annoyed that in the birth place of TKD, the only type of TKD taught is sport taekwondo. I’m 56 and don’t want to jump around a gym doing nothing but back kick-turning kick, back kick-turning kick, or some other flashy combination and churning out a pattern a month so I can dan grade in ten months. I’ve done the kicks to head height and smashed my feet into sand bags with quite impressive power and along with an abdominal hernia, it has ruined the backside of a few pair of trousers. Now it’s time for slightly gentler training and in any case, low level kicks which smash a knee joint have always been more effective as a means of self defence.  But in the home of taekwondo – not only is it impossible to find a school which teaches traditional taekwondo – but it is impossible to find anyone who knows anything but the WTF exists.

And how many Koreans adults have you met that study TKD? When you tell  a Korean you’re studying a martial art its like telling a westerner you’re favourite PC game is Barbie Homemaker; it’s simply not taken seriously. Martial arts are for kiddies  and most Korean men are WTF ‘have-beens’ with a third or fourth degree black-belt earned in less time that it took me to grade to first dan (ITF) in Europe.

another ‘live’ gumdo blade

I hate everything about WTF, I hate their stupid uniform, I hate their boring patterns, I hate the boring training methods, all the running around the gym and jumping over obstacles and a plethora of other tactics designed to entertain kiddy classes and which have mutated Korean WTF schools into sporty kindergartens with accompanying infant grand-masters. Of course, this is just my experience of Korean WTF, I’ve never trained in a European WTF school. And I hate the way you can kick someone to the face but you can’t punch it. When I was at my peak, my kicks were all dangerous and far superior to my hand techniques but with WTF it seems the feet, despite being the key note of TKD, are ineffectual. Most of all, I hate the way the WTF has re-written history so that in Korea WTF taekwondo is simply taekwondo! No other form of taekwondo is acknowledged.  And worse, in Korea, WTF is a business; it is simply about making cash – but then many organisations can be accused of this.

S0, I decided to take up  a new martial art and one which has only recently begun to appear in the west – namely Hae Dong Gumdo. It too attracts criticism but I’m not bothered. I want the dan grade as quick as I can get it and in most martial art schools in Korea you can do a dan grade a year. At 56 with 30 years of on and off experience in TKD, I will always feel inferior to the days when I was at my best but with Gumdo, I can be better today than I was yesterday and I’ll be even better tomorrow. After only three lessons I’m already progressing but in TKD (ITF), I’m always a shadow of my former self.

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Every Boy a Black Belt

Posted in Martial Arts, taekwon-do, taekwondo by 노강호 on April 3, 2012

one master to another

Anyone who has lived in Korea will have noticed just how many kids, mostly boys, have black belts in one martial art or another, usually taekwondo, hapkido or komdo. Seeing kids in martial-art uniforms on the street is a daily experience and indeed many of my students come to school in a uniform, because they are either going onto, or coming from a martial-arts lesson, in much the same way as Western kids might wear a track suit. In South Korea, almost every boy and a good many girls are black belts and many are senior dan grades the equivalent of ‘grand master’ (usually 4th and above).

There is a lot of criticism in the west to the promotion of children to dan grades (ie. black belt grades) and it is a topic that, for as long as I can remember, has divided the martial arts community.  The school in which I trained in West Germany, over thirty years ago, and which still teaches today, didn’t promote children to dan grades and there was a strong ethos among the senior grades and instructors that earning a black-belt required both physical and mental maturity.

There is a world of difference between the experience of learning martial-arts in the West and  in Korea. Though there is always variation between schools in any country, I’ve generally found schools in the West to be far stricter in both terms of training and etiquette. Further, general attitudes towards the  ‘black belt’ differs significantly. It is these differences, as well as those concerning the nature of a style or art that shape attitudes towards junior or even infant dan grades.

I’m told by Koreans, that training and etiquette in Korea were much stricter before martial-arts schools became big business and before the development of sport taekwondo as practiced by the dominating style of taekwond0 on the peninsula, namely WTF (World Taekwondo Federation). Indeed, the different ‘spellings’ of taekwondo, namely ‘taekwondo’ and ‘taekwon-do, reflect the division of this art into two factions represented by the WTF and ITF (International Taekwon-do Federation). Currently, most schools in Korea are sport taekwondo schools under the umbrella of the WTF. I’ve yet to meet a Korean martial artist, or instructor, with any knowledge of the historical development of their art and the relationship between traditional taekwon-do (ITF) and sport taekwondo (WTF). And of course, there are other Korean kicking styles including Tangdoo-do and Mooduk-kwan – all closely related to taekwondo historically and aesthetically.

everyone a dan grade

It is difficult to ascertain the extent of change that may have occurred in Korean attitudes and approaches to training partly as we are either dependent on translated articles or first hand-accounts by the few westerners who may have trained here between the 50’s-80’s and who may have glamourised or romanticised their experiences. Discipline and etiquette in the Korean classroom has changed over the last ten years and without doubt changes are mirrored in the taekwondo dojang (training hall). When I trained in a WTF school in Daegu, in 2000-2001, and again in 2003, I remember writing about students being hit on the legs with sticks, and a boy who misbehaved and was put in a headlock until he passed out. However, these were isolated incidents and in general the school was far friendlier and etiquette and training much less regimented than in the  ITF schools back in the UK.

Martial-art schools, and especially WTF taekwondo dojangs, are one of the most common Korean establishments and their presence in terms of buildings, colourful mini-buses which ferry students to their schools and the logos, badges and stripes which personalise WTF uniforms, dominant the landscape. Competition for students is fierce and taekwondo schools are as subject to economic pressures as any other business and like many other businesses, they come and go on a regular basis. My old taekwondo school in Song-so, Daegu, despite being the most popular in the area, closed in 2005. A competitor with a better cartoon character on their fleet of mini-buses, or an additional touch of ‘bling-bling’ by way of a gold embossed lettering on a suit, is enough to cause students to migrate. With the pressures of competition, Korean taekwond0 schools have to be ‘child-friendly.’ ‘Adult friendly’ is rarely a consideration as I’ve never seen Korean adults training or doing anything other than instructing. I know adult classes exist but the predominant market caters for children. Hence, schools personalise the standard WTF dobok (uniform) with an array of piping, badges and designs in a way that is interesting, amusing but at the same time tacky, camp and ‘ballroom’ to the extent that only the sequins are missing. And in cold weather, students often wear long quilted coats, sort of anoraks which carry the schools logo and perhaps a few badges and which are worn not  just to and from the dojang but sometimes worn over the dobok  during training. There is also a custom, not as prevalent today as ten years ago, of wearing a white polar-neck ‘shirt’ under a dobok. Likewise, dojangs are often camped-up with bright colours, manga cartoon characters, stunning logos all of which result in designs more acquainted with kindergartens than gyms.

2nd dan

Like the private academies (hakgwons), taekwondo schools are judged by their results often to the expense of standards. As with English schools, where the ability to pass a test is more important than actually speaking English, the belt is of more importance than the art. Not only must the training be fun and pleasurable, but belts must be passed both with ease and speed. Training in Korea is the quickest way to gain a dan grade and it is easily within the realm of possibility to be wearing a black belt within ten months of putting on a dobok – I’m tempted to say ‘within ten months of first learning how to tie one’s belt’ except that a great number of students, even dan grades, don’t seem to have learnt the correct method. In Germany, where I gained my dan grade in the Chang-hon style of taekwon-do, the journey from white to black took in the region of 4-5 years and above blue belt each belt had to be remained at for 6 months while from red-black to black, the wait was a year.

My school, Song-do Kwan, had originally been owned by a Korean but in the early 1970’s many German dan grades began to break their affiliation with Korean instructors because they were concerned about both the commercialization of the art and the manner in which techniques were often withheld from students in order to maximise potential profits. My school was a two  floor gym, rented by the instructor, Georg Soupidis, and training for five nights a week (and I often trained in two or three sessions an evening),  cost a couple of pounds. It was the cheapest school I ever trained in and as the school had no affiliation and was independent of the ITF, there were neither club nor membership fees. Unlike Korea, most students were adults.

Training for kids in Korea is great with plenty of tumbling, running and jumping and there is no doubt it is energetic and aerobic but from both my training, and classes I’ve observed, there is little explanation of or focus on the intricacies of technique and a total lack of focus on power. And often, towards the end of a class, kids allowed to play ball or tag games.

In most Korean dojangs the instructors aren’t just senior dan grades, they are grand masters, and often senior ones. In my first Korean school, the chief instructor was a seventh dan and his assistants both fifth dans. In the UK, in all but wing-chun kung fu, I’ve only ever trained under 1st-4th dans and most have been 1st or 2nd dans. As a student in a Korean school, and certainly as a foreigner, you can expect your grand-master to give you some personal training. Generally, the relationship between instructors and students is less formal than in the UK and the respect afforded a senior grand-master is really  no different to that afforded a teacher, professor or even an adult in general. This contrasts starkly to my experience of ITF in the UK where senior dan grades, even junior ones, were treated like royalty.

3rd dan

I don’t want to generalise about UK training, because variation always exists but the ITF were particularly strict. Western oriental etiquette seems to over do the significance of bowing to the dojang, instructors and other practitioners maybe because it is not part of our culture and from my experience and observation, you are likely to both bow more reverently and more often in a British taekwondo school than in a Korean one.  The Western dojang seems to be more hallowed a space than it is in Korea perhaps because of the fact it is often a manky church or school hall. The increased deference to the area is meant to elevate its status to the point you forget that the bit of carrot stuck to your trouser leg is a remnant of the pensioners’ lunch meeting held earlier that day. Likewise, the status of ‘black-belt’ is of more significance though I think this has declined since the 1970’s and 80’s. Certainly, in the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s, dan grades were revered and while you might not have humbled yourself before them, you treated them with respect. As for grand-masters, when I was at grading sessions in the presence of Master Rhee Ki Ha (9th dan), head of the  UKTA, you were not allowed to speak to him or approach him.

(1965)the first TKD book to be published in the English, before the ITF, WTF or black piping

The UKTA tightly controlled the design of uniforms and regimented to the centimeter the location of the obligatory badges. ITF taekwon-do, certainly in the UK, has been both thoroughly commercialised and, like many other styles, turned into a sort of medieval guild which at one and the same time protects its own brand, claims superiority over all others, and promotes the importance of its higher ranks. These developments at times conflict from Choi’s original vision which appeared in the first book to be published on taekewon-do, in English, in 1965. Taekwon-do: The Art of Self-Defence,  not only included the  Chang-hon style patterns which form the backbone of the school, but the five Japanese Heian kata (Pinan-平安). Choi suggested that the skills required for yellow belt could be transmitted by a yellow belt to a white belt and there is the general assumption that once equipped with a black belt, one is able to teach.  As both a business and martial-arts organisation, the ITF has been highly successful but the training and membership have never been cheap.

I trained with three ITF schools in the UK and never really felt comfortable in any of them. One had a training regime that was horribly brutal and the 2nd dan instructor would regularly order an assistant-instructor, who happened to be a member of the British ITF team, to kick students from other styles out the gym’s double doors. The preamble to a training session included 200 front leg rising kicks. The school had 8 students, all male, all under 30. Meanwhile, in the same town I was training in a Shotokan school that had 60 members, the eldest of whom was a woman of 67. In another school in London, under a Korean 2nd dan, students were only taught techniques required for belts with all other techniques being ‘banned.’

a 4th dan

When it comes to junior dan grades, your opinion on their credibility is probably going to be based on the values you associate with your particular style. WTF taekwondo is a sport and though it produces some fantastic martial artists, the day-to-day nuts and bolts of a Korean WTF class is churning out a flurry of successive spinning kicks. In the competition arena power and technique are sacrificed to speed. Apart from in the practice of patterns, I don’t think my classes in WTF ever included hand techniques and indeed the WTF fighting rules have turned the hands and arms into vestigial organs which hang limply at the sides. Even styles which are not renowned for kicking ban head kicks because of their potential danger but the WTF allows head kicks, even the largely uncontrollable spinning and axe kicks, while banning hand to head techniques. For an art where the feet should be superior to the hands, this isn’t a very good advertisement for kicking potential. Further, as it is good strategy to ‘box’ a kicker and kick a ‘boxer,’ the WTF style fails to fully develop or raise awareness of both the importance of a good guard (against hand to head attacks) and effective offensive handwork strategy. Every style has limitations but I feel that if ITF taekwon-do were to die out and WTF dominant, much of the essence of taekwon-do would be lost. Naturally, a style is only as good as the person practising it, and there are excellent martial artists in all styles, but I cannot avoid concluding that the emphasis on sport severely weakens taekwondo as a martial art.

fantastic stretch and technique - 4th dan

With the objects of tournament competition as the orgainising features of WTF taekwondo, there is nothing wrong with junior dan grades. The lithe-light, supple bodies of children are able to unleash a blur of fascinating footwork which is equal to, if not better than that of many adults. Some of the grand masters I teach in school, and I teach several a day, are able to kick with as much stretch and beauty as the likes of Bill Wallace but in terms of power, they are totally lacking.

the famous 'Superfoot' Bill Wallace, an incredibly powerful technician. Dan grade? No idea...

And what age is too young to have a black belt or to be a grand master? The youngest 4th dan I’ve met so far has been 7! Does a child or infant grand master deserve the same respect and admiration as an adult senior grade? Does mental maturity have anything to do with black-belt qualities?

If the values of your art or style believe power to be an important facet, then junior dan grades are as incapacitated in this field, by virtue of their physical and mental development, as are prepubescent ballet dancers in the performance of adult ballet. This is no slur on their ability, it is simply that they do not yet have at their disposal, the tools to be powerful.

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©Bathhouse Ballads –  努江虎 – 노강호 2011 Creative Commons Licence.

Doboks Galore – Photo Diary

Posted in Martial Arts, Photo diary, video clips by 노강호 on March 4, 2012

I feel quite at home among taekwondo and martial arts clothing. With twenty years experience of taekwon-do, I got to the stage I could go shopping in a supermarket in the UK or Germany, in a ‘dobok’ and not feel out-of-place. I find something quite ‘homely’ about the various uniforms you see on Korea streets and in schools and again this is probably because I was also fifteen years in the British army. Wherever you go in Korea, uniforms are part of the scenery and one of the most popular is the taekwondo ‘dobok.’

2001: Boys in summer komdo (kendo) uniforms with the baggy pants, playing an arcade game

2001: Two komdo boys in summer dress. One carries a bamboo 'shinai' (don't know the Korean term for this)

2001. Hapkido boys in summer uniform. This school is still training ten years later.

flying side kick

A couple of taekwondo boys resting. WTF 'dobok' are always blinged to the max!

one of my younger students demonstrates his front kick

Jay is a third degree black-belt (WTF). This is a fantastic side kick!

Some older taekwondo boys on a wet morning in the monsoon season

Jay performing a side kick

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©努江虎 – 노강호 2012  Creative Commons Licence.

All Camp in Korea

Posted in Comparative, customs, Gender by 노강호 on February 11, 2012

In your face

I’m always amused at the way some of my friends in the UK assume that because a country doesn’t ram gay issues down your throat and a significant number of the population constantly proclaim themselves out, that it must therefore be rabidly homophobic to the point of executing or imprisoning transgressors. When in Britain, it suddenly became possible, within certain settings, to pronounce your sexuality with pride, we did so with embarrassing drama. As a student teacher, I remember numerous people introducing themselves to working groups and seminars with their name and then, in the same breadth, declaring their sexuality. Usually, it was a simple one liner such as, ‘and I’m gay’ but in the early 90’s, with the growth of ‘queer politics,’ it was more usual to throw down the gauntlet and declare, ‘and I’m a queer.’  Then they’d glare around the room daring anyone to object. It was the spirit of the times but it now seems so ‘old hat’ and I cannot help but stifle a cringe at such honesty.

Back in the UK, being gay has become boring! There was a time when ‘coming out’ was an act with as much destructive capability as an atomic detonation and wielding that potential gave one an immense sense of power. I’ve known people drop to their haunches and seen jaws drop in disbelief. Coming out had the capacity to traumatize friends who often needed a period of acclimatization which in some cases meant not talking to you for several weeks. The whole process made you feel very special which at least went some way to compensating your lack of relationships and access to  physical intimacy. Now, ‘coming out’ rarely creates a stir and those that do have a problem with it are compelled to silence by the dictates of political correctness but in the current climate, where half the population of young people declare themselves bisexual, the prospects of intimacy and relationships are probably greatly enhanced. Today, the atomic bomb you detonate is more likely to fizzle into oblivion as the person being confided in calmly tells you, ‘why, I’ve known all along.’

Yes, it’s still evolving and nothing like London Pride. Susan Morgan describes it as a ‘parade of shame’ rather than pride, but it’s evolving.

However, even with advances in civil rights and changes in legislation, gays in the armed forces, gay marriage, LGBT rights etc, I still feel that while you are guaranteed to keep your job, you are more likely to get your face kicked in. While Korean gays do suffer physical abuse, I think their greatest problem come from employers and family. In the UK, there are still those with rabid homophobic views and who in the right environment will verbally abuse and gay bash. I have a fleeting suspicion that in the street, in my home town, there are a significant number of ‘homophobic sleepers,’ individuals forced to silence their opinions in the current political climate but a potential source of hate should things change. While I’ve met Koreans who are not particularly supportive of gay rights, they are never as outspoken, particularly hateful or  vehemently opposed to such rights as those I’ve met in ‘liberal’ Britain (but this is only my experience). While a number of outed celebrities have committed suicide, I also remember Harisu (이경업), Korea’s first transgender entertainer who in 2001 was a pin-up to many of my male students.

Violence in the UK

Part of this ‘ingrained’ hatred stems from the fact that in Britain (and in the West in general), there are more codes governing what it is to be male and which inform and consolidate practices concerning male emotion, male physicality, body language, interests and other facets of masculinity.  That women aren’t usually the object of gay bashing possibly stems from the fact that lesbianism is quite appealing to many heterosexual men and has not had the same history of legislation levied against it. However, though British women aren’t subject to such rigid gender codes as men, they are still required to behave within certain parameters. Meanwhile, in Korea, I perceive less difference between male and females gender roles.

Shameful – and most perpetrators will be men

I’ve never met a butch Korean male and neither have I met a Korean man who in any way made me feel threatened or intimidated. Does Korea even have any macho, aggressive type men, the type who will shove a glass in your face if you so much as look at their girlfriend or knock into them in a bar?  And when I have seen them fighting it has been quite hilarious. I saw a fight a few months ago and stopped to watch. There were three men, all in their fifties, all drunk and shouting while intermittently smacking each other with their umbrellas. The fight was wonderfully cute, like it was being performed by ducks or rabbits or some other animals incapable of actually causing real damage. And despite their anger they wielded their umbrellas in a manner that might be described as totally pussy. An umbrella can be a particularly nasty weapon especially if the spike is jammed into your eyeball or mouth, or the hooked handle swung upwards into your testicles or used to cause damage to the windpipe. I can think of an entire arsenal of umbrella techniques all the result of  earning a taekwon-do black belt in Europe, which took  a minimum of  four years study with the ITF (International Taekwon-do Federation) as opposed to the taekwondo taught in Korea (WTF), where black-belts and dan grades are handed out like candy, often in less than a year.

S Korean politicians pussying about

Yes, no butch men in Korea, thankfully! And neither are you likely to find examples of the rough and aggressive type of female that seems particularly common in the UK. Maybe they exist on the Mainland of Europe or the USA,  though I don’t remember their type in Germany, but we have women in the UK, and don’t think they are necessarily lesbian, who are more masculine than a significant number of British men and certainly more masculine than the majority of Koreans.  I suppose they are a product of our class society because they are always found in poor areas or on sprawling estates and are typified by their hardened faces, aggressive sneers, tattoos and propensity to physical and verbal violence.

In the UK, the number of social transgressions which would predispose you to being labelled ‘gay’ are far larger than in Korea. In the UK, no matter which way your sexuality swings, you’re a homo and less of a man if you play any musical instrument, like art or classical music and enjoy drama. One reason which can be attributed to why Britain is so dumbed-down is that the dominant ideology concerning male masculinity is largely one determined by the dregs of society. In Britain, all classical music, literature, ballet, art, poetry, drama, books and even the ability to read, or subjects or institutions related to learning and the intellect, are deemed arty-farty, poncy, nancy, boffin, elitist,  or gay – and you will note I use the lexicon of this dominant ideology, a lexicon that is immediately understood by any British person regardless of their status. The movie Billy Elliot is a prime example of the view held by some British people, but understood by all, that arty-farty is poofda!

From the Korean movie, ‘Between Friends'(친구사이). I once saw a complete squad of riot police holding hands in Daegu. as they marched in a double file to a demonstration

Yesterday, I attended a middle school graduation ceremony during which year books were handed out to the graduating students. I had to suppress a smile at the photos of the boys’ classes. In every photos of 6 classes of boys, there are not only boys draped over each other, sometimes sitting in each others laps but a significant number were in ‘girly’ poses and while not ‘girly’ to the point of being knock-kneed, pouting and with their bottoms sticking out, were still ‘girly’ enough within a British context, to question their masculinity and label them ‘gay.’  Don’t forget, in the UK you can be 100% heterosexual but still be homosexual.  And amidst the boys hugging and draping their arms over each other and the significant number of ‘girly’ poses with hand-like paws held on either side of their cheeks, are the boys cuddling little white fluffy dolls.  ‘Affectionately cuddling’ is perhaps a more precise description, sometimes against their chest and at others nestled against their faces and with their heads tilted to one side in a manner which if girls, would be slightly flirtatious, slightly titillating.  As far as I know, the Korean language has no word for ‘camp’, but campness permeates so much of Korea to the point that camp behaviour is quite acceptable and normal without it being any slur on your gender. Most of the boys I teach play musical instruments, I’ve had boys who do ballroom dancing and those girls who have not the least interest in make-up or enjoy playing Sudden Attack, are not deemed less of a girl.

first year high school students with the hanja character for “innocence’ (순소한) emblazoned on the t-shirts

While we have more freedoms and rights in relation to sexuality in the UK, we are crippled and damaged by both anti-intellectual and hyper-masculine ideologies which have help spawn a very unpleasant breed of men and women who are quite uniquely British. While Korea might not be the best place to live if you are gay, it is not the worst place to live as a ‘human’ and I always feel more ‘human’ in Korea as a foreigner than I do in the UK as a citizen with the rights of a gay person and the potential to label myself as I choose. It’s all a matter of how much importance and significance you attribute to different parts of your identity. I might feel very different if I was younger but at 56 years of age my happiness as a ‘person’ is of more importance than one of sexual identity.

For those who think Korea tortures gays and imprisons them for their sins, I provide and interesting and rather cute, short gay movie, Boy Meets Boy (소년 소년을 만나다) which I recently discovered while researching information on the actor Kim Hye-Seong ( 김헤성).

I am no authority on LGBT issues within a Korean context and these are my views based on my limited experiences. For a ‘wart and all’ expose of the gay side of Seoul see Susan Morgan’s blog post, The Evolution of Homosexuality in South Korea. I believe there are several gay clubs in Daegu one of particularly long-standing.

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©努江虎 – 노강호 2012  Creative Commons Licence.

Most Likely Made in China

Posted in Korean Clothes, Sport by 노강호 on June 20, 2011

When looking good means expensive, shite quality. Converse made in China!

When I was a boy of about 10, I would walk to school with a simple draw string PE bag in which you kept your sports clothes, including a pair of black, slip-on plimsolls. They were all made in China and even then we used to joke about Chinese quality but they were cheap and lasted the year. Little were we to know that in years to come the top fashions and brand items would all come from China, and probably from the very same factories that made our simple, black pumps. Today, China is the point of origin, if not for many products, then for their component parts and while the big companies berate the production of imitation, especially of their precious logos, and denounces them as poor quality, think nothing of shifting production to countries which have the lowest production cost, pay the least to workers and use the cheapest materials.

I’ve recently noticed students wearing training shoes which no longer have traditional laces and which I imagine will quickly wipe out that dumb-ass ‘in-the-hood’ habit of wearing sneakers and basketball boots with enormous tongues and the laces left undone. A new piece of shoe technology, the Boa Closure Device, replaces the need to tie laces, or not, as the case may be, to the simple turning of a knob and considerably advances shoe technology.

A leap into the 21st century

In the Moda Outlet, in the Industrial Complex of Song-so, Daegu, a significant number of the walking boots and trainers on sale utilise the Boa device. I noticed that while new lace technology is popular in the USA, it currently seems only available on cycling shoes in the UK. No doubt it will hit British shores at sometime in the future.

Converse quality, made in USA, is now a collector’s item

I can’t help but make a snipe at Converse which is popular in the UK and Korea. I wore them in the late 1970’s and throughout the 80’s when they were produced in the USA. I actually wore them for taekwondo while training outside and a pair would usually last around two years before the soles or heels gave out. Considering I trained most afternoons for several hours at a time, they were severely put to the test especially with spinning type kicks where all the body weight is on one foot.

most likely made in China!

Around 1988, it was difficult to buy a pair in the UK as their production moved to S. Korea. Since then, considerably cheaper labour cost has seen the production shift to China.  Of course, when Converse Korean-made trainers appeared on the shelves in the UK, they were subsequently more expensive and worse, I discovered a marked reduction in quality. In 2001, Converse were bought by Nike and the quality deteriorated further with the traditional 2 ply canvas being replaced by single ply textile. The life expectancy of a pair was around a year and you no longer need to worry about the heels or soles giving out, long before that the cheapo, micro-thin toe-cap will degrade until your big toe bursts out.  Converse! They sure look good but they are expensive shite and like most Nike products produced by a cheap labour force, a rip off.

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© 林東哲 2011 Creative Commons Licence.

Bathhouse Boxers

Posted in Diary notes, Martial Arts, taekwondo by 노강호 on April 25, 2011

Sunday evening and Migwang bathhouse was again packed to watch Samsung Lions (Daegu’s baseball team) from the comfort of either the ‘ebente-tang,’ (today infused with ginseng), the hot pool, or the large jacuzzi. It would have been possible to watch it from the cold pool but it was  full of noisy students. At one point I moved to the small ‘ebente-tang’ during a commercial, when it almost empty and as soon as the game restarted, it suddenly had 9 occupants.

The moment I arrived at the changing rooms I spotted the numerous foreigners. There were 9 of them and they were all very fit and athletic with washboard stomachs and compact physiques. I wasn’t sure whether they were middle eastern or Eurasian but assumed they were probably Islamic as they all wore briefs or even jjimjilbang clothing in the bathhouse complex. I’d heard about the reception people get wearing underwear in the bathhouse and though they attracted much attention, no one seemed to take objection. However, at one point I did see one of the grumpy old attendants trying to explain that they should take their pants off.

Ilkin Schabazov

When one sat next to me I learnt they were the Azerbaijan taekwondo team, here to train at Keimyung University in preparation for the World Championships in Gyeongju, between May 1st and 6th. This morning I googled ‘Azerbaijan taekwondo’ and two of the men I’d seen I was able to research. One was Ilkin Schabazov, two times world champion for his weight division. Another fighter I recognized but couldn’t identify.

unfortunately, I couldn't find his name

Only one spoke English. How do you like Korean food? I asked. He replied, Pizza, McDonald’s and fried chicken!

Arirang video on World Taekwondo Championships in Gyeongju, May 2011

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In the Days When Google was Gobble-dee-gook

You naively expected this

Podcast 72

I often mention that ten only a few years ago there was little information available on most aspects of Korean culture. Looking back just a few years the changes that have taken place are truly incredible. For those of us who are older, it is easy to forget that access to a whole range of information, all at your fingertips, is a luxury that at one time did not exist and that ‘one time’ was only a couple of years ago; for those who are younger, it is worth pondering the Korean experience before the incredible growth in access to, and compilation of, information – a process still in development.

and found this

When I decided to come to Korea in 2000, it certainly wasn’t for a job and the only factor influencing my decision to step on the plane was to discover a country which at the time ranked with exotic and mysterious destinations such as Mongolia and Tibet.  Just ten years ago anyone coming to Korea, perhaps more so from Europe than the USA, which has had both a closer relationship with Korea and attracted a substantial number of Korean immigrants, did so blind. Other than the information supplied by your recruiter and the odd book in libraries, access to information or first hand accounts was scant. Those who decide to come to Korea today are able to furnish themselves from the abundance of information available in a range of formats and I suspect many are now lured here not because of  the mysterious, but in search of employment. I in no way mean to demean or underplay the reasons people currently come to Korea and it certainly provides a culture shock. But I envy  those who arrived here in the early 1990’s or 1980’s at a time when Korea was not the place it was in 2000.

when your PC looked like this (Macintosh PC circa 1999)

I kept a diary from my first day and reading through its pages it is clear how the internet has become a fundamental resource in both deliberating whether to undertake the experience and in influencing and developing your understanding of Korea. It may even influence the experiences you engage in while on the peninsula. Change has been so rapid, and the resources we now access  have become so integral, it is easy not just to take fore-granted its impact,  but to even doubt that it was really that difficult to access information in the first place.

and your mobile phone, if you had one, looked like this (2000)

Writing in hangul was a major obstacle and you simply couldn’t go into your PC, make a few tweaks and then be able to write in Korean or hanja and besides, in 2000, few teachers had air-conditioning let alone a personal computer with an internet connection. Before laptops and net-books, most of the waygukin you met were in PC bangs where you spent a substantial part of your week. And If you bought a PC  you were privileged but still required Microsoft Proofing Tools to enable you to write in Korean or hanja and which cost c£70 a package.

Korean dictionaries, certainly in the UK, were small and difficult to buy. On the eve of my first trip, I went to London’s largest bookshop, Foyles, and discovered the entire range of books on the Korean language amounted to two introductory books, a useless dictionary and the small copy of the NTC Compact Korean English Dictionary. I bought all four depleting them of their entire Korean language collection. The dictionaries used transliterated Korean rather than hangul script. Meanwhile, books devoted to Japanese occupied an entire book case.

and this was what you needed to write Hangul (and it was expensive)

I’ve known a number of westerners who arrived in Korea in the late 80’s  and whose Korean, many years later, is still rudimentary. It’s easy to criticise such apparent laziness until you remember there was no internet to support your learning or provide lessons, few decent language courses or dictionaries and unless you were in Seoul or one of the big cities, few language classes. After a few years enduring such conditions it becomes a case of, ‘you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.’ As for hanja, I’ve met westerners proficient in Korean who didn’t even know what hanja was. While access to information on the internet existed, certainly around 2000, there was very little compiled on Korea or Korean culture and the ability to write in hanja characters was difficult, costly and dependent on Korean based language packages. Today, though limited for the non Korean speaker, information on hanja is available and if you aren’t interested in trying to learning it, you can very easily research what it comprises.

a time when you really did have to 'teach yourself'

Once again, in the UK, other than on the Korean war, there were few books on Korean history and finding information on topics such as the Hwa-Rang-Do or one of the Korean dynasties, was difficult. And when you did find such books, usually in academic libraries rather than public ones, they were specialist and somewhat boring for the reader who wanted general information. It has only been in very recent years, by which I mean the last 6 or 7  that such information has appeared and I can remember trawling Google in 2002 or 2003 and finding very little other than specialist academic references to major, Korean historical periods. Exactly the same conditions applied to Korean culture, prominent figures, cooking or geography.  Back in the UK I have a small collection of books on Korean culture, history, cooking, hanja and language etc, but all of them were printed and bought in Korea, and ferried back to the UK. So, on returning to Britain in 2002 and 2004, I felt I had to take a part of Korea home with me because there was no way to access ‘Korea’ in the UK. In 1997, when TOPIK, the Korean language proficiency test was introduced for non-Korean speakers, it attracted 2274 people; in 2009, 180.000 people took the exam and test centers now exist globally.

TOPIK exam hall

Korean related information on the internet was in its infancy; Google, for example, became a registered domain name in 1997  and certainly before 2000 most lay-people researched information from software such as Encarta. In 2000, I was originally going to teach in Illsan, I can remember using the internet to find information on this location and found very little. I have just this moment keyed ‘Illsan’ into Google search and in 14 seconds have access to 1.800.000 written resources and 1200 images. Learning Korean and hanja meant you compiled your own dictionary because the words or characters your learnt weren’t in dictionaries and there were no translation tools such as Babblefish or Google to provide support. Even with hangul, I still keep my own dictionary because western ones, even on the internet, don’t explain words uniquely Korean. As for idioms? Try searching Korea idioms on the internet or the availability of electronic dictionaries which are designed for the English native speaker learning Korean. All resources still being developed.

Resources in their infancy 10 years ago, blogging, vlogging, podcast, Youtube, Facebook and Twitter etc, have since become a fundamental means of sharing experiences and providing first hand information not just about all aspects of Korean culture, but on more specific topics such as life for the foreigner and whether you are vegetarian, teacher or gay, information is readily available. Blogging now provides an immense wealth of information but it is worth remembering that the term ‘blog’ was only coined by Peter Merholz, in 1999. Major blogging software which has helped give rise to the blogging phenomena are recent developments: Blogger emerged in 1999 and WordPress in only in 2003.

Song So, Daegu, November 2000

Even today, unless you live in London, obtaining Korean foodstuff is still almost an impossibility and online order of Korean foodstuffs is undeveloped. None of this is very surprising given there were very few Korean living in the UK until recently. Between 1998-1992, at a university with one of the most diverse students populations in the UK, there was a total absence of Koreans and Russians. Indeed, I was to meet Mongolian students before I met any from Korea. And, I can recall the very first five Korean I met; the first, a taekwondo instructor in London, in 1979, the second, a taekwondo instructor in Paderborn, Germany, in 1986, the third, a student in a school near New Maldon,  London, in 1998, and finally, two Koreans in a hotel in the Philippines, in 1998. I had a fleeting ‘meeting’ with Rhee Ki-ha (now  9th Degree Black Belt, taekwon-do), in 1988 but as a grading taekwon-do student, I was forbidden to talk to him.

Daegu 2001. When westerners were still a little unique

Korean Culture – the Korean Wave, Korean football players playing for British football teams, LG, Nong Shim, I-River etc, all arrived on British shores in the years following my first visit and indeed, this Christmas, I was treated to the first Korean cookery program I have see on British television. However, I suspect its genuineness as the recipes included beetroot and English pear (you can easily buy Asian pear in the UK). And neither chopsticks or kimchi featured!

and before the advent of the Korean wave

Up until a few years ago, if you arrived in Korea from Britain, you probably knew nothing about Korean society and possibly expected ‘second world’ conditions. Much of what you learnt about Korea occurred through accidentally stumbling across something and you certainly couldn’t learn from a computer screen. Indeed, access to a computer was probably detrimental to your Korean experience, removing you from, rather than immersing you in, Korean culture. Today, a computer can certainly enhance your experience and if you need to know how to: use your Korean washing machine, plan a trip, find a doctor during a holiday or translate a sentence from Korean into Blackfoot, it’s at your fingertips. Day to day life in Korea has been ‘made simple’ by the tomes of information we can now access  and only last week I used the internet to help me adjust my ondol heating control. With hundreds of accounts on topics such as soju, the Boryeonng Mud Festival  and kimchi, done to death, a blogger is forced to use a range of media formats (vlogging, photographs, podcasts, even cartoons), and  driven to be more creative and original in their perspective  especially if posting on what are now common, if not mundane subjects.

Link to TOPIK Guide.

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The Rose of Sharon – 무궁화 – National Flower of Korea

Posted in plants and trees, Quintesentially Korean, seasons by 노강호 on October 21, 2010

Despite the ‘Rose of Sharon’s,‘ grand, popular names, ‘the immortal flower’ and ‘everlasting flower,’ I always have a slight loathing when I see one, which is everyday as one grows right outside my one-room. My loathing is totally unfounded.

Korea’s national flower, ‘the Rose of Sharon‘ (Hibiscus syriacus), comes from a deciduous shrub the flower of which bears a striking resemblance to that of the tree mallow ( Lavatera arborea or Malva dendromorpha) which is native to much of Europe.

flower of the tree mallow

National flower of Korea (무궁화) 'Rose of Sharon.' This was actually the first flower of the year on this plant (July 5th 2010).

Both plants are shrubs and have soft pink flowers of the same size set in a five petal arrangement.  The five petals are significant  in terms of the ‘Rose of Sharon’ as they symbolise Korea and appear in numerous official and unofficial emblems.

 

the five petals of the Rose of Sharon

an important symbol

The Korean name for the flower, mu-gung-hwa (무궁화), combines two words, ‘mu-gung’ (무궁) meaning ‘immortal’ or ‘everlasting,’ and ‘hwa’ (화) meaning ‘flower.’ It really is the case that the flower is long lasting and the same flowers will bloom all summer and into autumn, closing every evening and bursting back into flower as the sun rises. The ‘Rose of Sharon,’ associates the plant with Syria, where it supposedly originated but personally, I prefer the Korean name as it reminds one of the tenacity which is reflected in so many aspects of Korean culture and landcape. ‘Tenacity,’ is both one of the tenets of  ITF (International Taekwon-do Federation) and WTF (World Taekwondo Federation) taekwondo, and a theme in my post on the  wood carvings I photographed in Pal-gong-san National Park, Daegu. Historically, The flower was first cited in Korean text around 1400 years ago and hence has a long standing  historical tradition making it ideal for its reference in the Korean National Anthem.

flower variations

I watched the mu-gung-hwa outside my one-room all year, from the appearance of the first buds until mid-August, when some blight shriveled the leaves and killed the flowers. Given its association with ‘immortality,’ this was a disappointment serving to remind me of the realities of life.

My one-room mugunghwa in May

June 15th

July 5th and the first blooms

in full bloom

And why do I have an irrational loathing for the mu-gung-hwa? Because it so closely resembles the tree mallow which is a prolific shrub especially in coastal regions of Southern England.  Several years ago, a friend gave me a small cutting which I planted in my front garden and within three years it had grown into a  large shrub, blocking the light in my front window and necessitating constant pruning. No matter how vigorously you prune it to the ground, it springs back in mockery and within weeks needs to be re-attacked.

Footnote

The mugunghwa-ho (무궁화호), is the cheapest type of Korean train service and is often  the only service on some lines.

 

 

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A Peaceful City, Feb 28th, 2001 (Korean Accounts 2000-2001)

Posted in Comparative, Korean Accounts Part 1, taekwondo by 노강호 on February 28, 2001

Once a week at the taekwondo school we practice tae kuk kkwon (태국권). During one class Pak Dong-soo performed a set which took several minutes to perform. It was really quite beautiful as he moved slowly from one position to another without and wobbling and with absolute grace. The next day we did a weapons training session. Increasingly, I am beginning to see martial arts training in Korea as the training ground for boys prior to their national service. The lessons on fairly relaxed and there is a lot of banter between students and instructors which of course, I don’t understand. There are a number of girls who train in the school and they don’t take any crap from the boys. Sometimes I seem to detect more aggression between the girls and boys than between the boys themselves.

two fourth dan boys in my local taekwondo school (2012)

One aspect I really like about being in Korea, and something other foreign teachers also mention, is being able to go out in Korea without being on your guard. Although I have lived in Wivenhoe for two years, I have only ever been into Colchester in the evening on two occasions. The atmosphere on the High Street, in the evening is threatening and aggressive, crowds of marauding youths, with slaggy, cheap girls who regardless of weather wear flimsy clothes. Then there are the aggressive men and youths who strut around swearing, usually drunk and looking primarily for sex and if that can’t be found the frustration will be vented by a punch-up.  You daren’t make eye contact with these men or lads as to do so is to challenge their pathetic sexuality. God! So many straight men are disgusting and even many of my straight friends are quick to disassociate themselves from them. We British like to believe we are an educated society but by and large this is a myth. The masses are just as stupid and ignorant as they have been in the past and it is for political reasons they have been kept this way. I am not claiming Koreans are superior, most of the world is full of stupid people but it is wonderful to walk the streets of a busy city without fear of being assaulted or abused by football yobs, drunken louts, lads looking for trouble. Despite the fact I live above two bars, neither of which close until well after midnight, I haven’t witnessed a brawl or argument or even heard drunken revelry.

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Teachers’ Party and Andong – Friday November 17th 2000 (Korean Accounts 2001-2001)

Posted in Korean Accounts Part 1, taekwondo by 노강호 on November 17, 2000

Today, I called into the taekwondo school to give Mr Park, one of the instructors, an English lesson. In classes he often ends up instructing me as he is the only one who can speak a little English. I’ve been beginning to think he might find this task tedious and so I offered to teach him. He’s a very good martial artist, very fast and agile but then he only weighs about two stone. I guess he is aged about 22—24 but it is hard to tell as Korean men have little facial hair and have very boyish looks. His pronunciation is actually very good and he doesn’t have the problems with ‘p’s’ and ‘f’s’ like most Koreans do. They all pronounce ‘sofa’ as ‘sopa’ and find it hard to pronounce the ‘v’ in ‘video’. It also makes me laugh when they say ‘fish’ as they pronounce it ‘pish.’ You can imagine how the pronounce ‘vacuum?’ In one class a boy of about 8 said ‘vacuum’ but pronounced it ‘fak-uum,’ but to make it funnier he held up his middle finger. Obviously he had learnt it from American movies.

Most of the Korean kids all have western names which is confusing as when you talk to a Korean teacher about pupils, and you use the pupils western names, they have no idea about whom you are talking. Lots of the names are outdated and some examples include: Mabel, Ted, and Cindy. However, some are very bizarre and these include: Sonic, Carrot, Purple and Sky.

On Friday, evening Mr Jo organised a party for the teachers of which there are about forty across all subject areas. Nana and I were the only foreign teachers. I wasn’t particularly keen on going as I didn’t finish training until 10pm and knew I would be tired and aching. Nana and I met outside the school which is on the main road through the Song-so district and took one of the school buses to the nearby restaurant. All private schools have their own fleet of minibuses as do the taekwondo schools. Korean restaurants are all restricted in what they serve and special in one or two items. This restaurant served pork which you barbecued at your table. Like most restaurants it was a sit on the ground affair and from there the waiters delivered plates of sliced pork which you barbecued on the grill nearest to you. There were side dishes of dried shrimp, chillies, anchovy, mussels, garlic and the usual kimchies and leaves. My favourite leaf is called gaenip and is a wild sesame leaf unlike any leaf I have eaten in the west. Mr Jo paid for the whole meal and kept us supplied in soju. Jo got pissed very quickly and moved around talking to everybody. The school’s vice principal is Mr Lee who looks like a stereotypical image of a Chinese person with thick-set black rimmed glasses and goofy teeth. At work he is always very serious. He made some speeches and welcomed Nana and I to the school. Apparently, Nana has only recently arrived from a school in Andong. When people began to drift home, Mr Lee positioned himself at the front door and turned those leaving back into the restaurant.

Though soju is only 23%, I got fairly tipsy, enough to impress the Koreans. Mr Jo however, became so pissed Mr Lee and a teacher called Young-seop (영섭)  had to help him up. I was hoping we were all now able to go home but Mr Jo ordered everyone to the nearest noraebang. However, the soju had taken effect.

A noraebang  consist of a series of varying size rooms which you hire and all of which contain a large video screen in front of which is a large table surrounded by a sofas. Several folders sit on the table which contain an alphabetical list of songs and their number which you then fed into the remote control. Also on the table are a number of microphones and some percussion instruments such as tambourines or castanets. Everyone was shouting for Nana to sing but the first song was sung by Mr Lee. Mr Lee suddenly transformed and if you’d seen him you would have thought him a professional singer. Next Nana and I sang ‘My Way’ which I actually enjoyed doing. Everyone took turns to sing and joined in the choruses. I have since discovered there is a noraebang  just a few doors away from my flat (and is still there 16 years later – which in Korea is amazing)

Nana was away again at the weekend as he goes to teach in Andong. Feeling like a bit of lard, I visited KFC, which Koreans pronounce ‘k-peep-shee.’ Here I met a man who wanted English lessons and said he would take me sightseeing to temples in return. Then a boy of about 11 came and talked to me and introduced me to his little brother. Later, yet another stranger came up and asked if I would read stories in his kindergarten and I said I would ring him on Monday (this is interesting because in the last five years I’ve only been asked if I would teach privates on 2 occasions). I spent Sunday in the school writing my e-mails.

Sunday lunchtime Young-seop (영섭), one of the younger teachers, bought me lunch which was bibimbap (비빔밥), this consists of rice and vegetables in a bowl served with red pepper paste. This meal appears in a hot and cold version.

On Tuesday I didn’t have to teach until the afternoon so I accompanied Nana on a visit to Andong. Since I’ve been here all I have really seen is the area immediately around where I live and I still haven’t discovered all this area has to offer. However, Andong would be an interesting excursion. We left at 9 am and took the taxi to one of the city bus terminals – this was a twenty-minute journey which cost a couple of pounds. The buses are very punctual and ours left at exactly 9.30 am and I had more leg room on it than I am accustomed to on any British bus. Within ten minutes I had my first glimpse of Korea beyond city life. The road, a highway didn’t meander through any mountains but simply passed straight through them by a continual series of tunnels. In between the tunnels, in small valleys, were farms and rice fields. The mountains aren’t huge but they are bigger than hills and grander than anything I’ve seen in England. Nana talked incessantly which irritated me as I wanted to look at passing scenery. The forests are loosing their leaves and the view was very colourful.

Andong is a fairly big town but is much smaller than Daegu. There were a couple of beggars around the bus terminal and these were to be almost the only beggars I was ever to see in Korea. This was certainly less beggars than you were likely to see in Colchester at this time. Nana has taught in Andong for three years and was most likely the only black man the town has ever seen and so lots of people knew him.  We visited the principal of a language school and then had lunch with a couple of  Nana’s friends. There is a village on the edge of Andong where the Queen visited to watched masked dancing for which Andong is world-famous.

I missed taekwondo on Monday as my leg was sore but I made myself go on Tuesday. On the Wednesday the class did a Korean form of tai-chi during which floaty Korean pipe music was played. I missed the energetic training but it gave my muscles time to relax. The Thursday class was back to normal with plenty of press-up, sit-ups and leg techniques. Half of this class consisted of sparring during which everyone sat in an enormous circle while two people fought in the middle of it. I thought they were going to leave me out but then Mr Lee asked if I wanted to spar one of the green belts – a broad lad of about 20. I got up and quite impressed myself. Trundling up and down the gym kicking at a break neck speed I look like a lard arse but the moment I was confronted with an opponent all my old skills seemed to drift back. I was all over him and really only toyed with him. I used only basic kicks and didn’t use my hands. I have noticed that while most Korean students look pretty doing their kicks, moving fast and with agility, and even though many can do the splits, they are fairly crap at making a technique connect. And of course, many of them lack power. Even though I’d only been back in training for a  little less than a month. I was able to place gentle kicks on his chest, kidney and stomach. Of course, he was only a green belt and I have many years experience, which is something I sometimes forget. No doubt I would have found it harder fighting a senior belt.  Nonetheless, I felt good about myself and suddenly, when we had finished, I sensed a changed attitude towards me. I felt I would no longer be viewed as a spaker foreigner wanting to learn a bit of their art.

There is the third dan black belt lad of about 15. He is always very serious and so far he is the only person in the school who has failed to bow at me when I enter the dojang – I should add they are not bowing because I am a martial artist but because I am an adult. In the class, I don’t stand alongside other beginners but at the back of the class alongside senior belts. This is partly because I am foreign, a teacher and partly because I am probably the eldest in the class – apart from Master Bae, the ‘Captain.’  To put me anywhere else except with the black belts would probably be an insult. Anyway, this boy ignores me. After my fight with the green belt we were called to the front of the class and presented a stick on gold star each – I think our fight had been the most entertaining of the evening. When I was about to leave the class, after changing, the 3rd degree black belt boy came up to me, pulled himself to attention and proceeded to bow deeply.

On Friday I gave Mr Park, whose first name is Dong-soo, an English lesson. Tonight I am meeting a New Zealander called Roger, whom I met on the street where we talked for a while. Though there are few foreigners here, most talk to you.

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