by Hannah Shannon
Boredom never suited me well. When bored, I tend to become irrational and prone to poor decisions. The sort that leave me with broken phones, terrible exes or expensive bills to the mechanic. The problem is that I grow bored easily. Patterns are nice for a while, but eventually they become tedious.
At first Korea cured my boredom. Everyday experiences seemed adventurous for a while, but a pattern emerged once again. Each day consisted of school, students, classes and dodging cars on my walk home. I needed something to do.
I suppressed the urge to jump into the first thing I could find, ignoring advertisements for dancing clubs and suggestions from my co-teacher to try swimming. After a few days I found my answer. Every day I saw a large banner that read “오천 태권도” in Korean and “Ocheon Taekwondo!” underneath it. It seemed to me that the answer to my boredom was literally staring me in the face.
In the U.S. I had studied a myriad of martial arts. I had never acquired a black belt, but I had always felt that if you added the three belts I did have—one from yeunyendo in middle school, one from two years of tangsoodo in high school, and one from my six-month taekwondo stint in college—together it would have equaled one black belt. After all, black is just a conglomerate of all the colors of the rainbow.
When I walked into class on the first day and surveyed my fellow students, I immediately felt a surge of confidence. I would probably outdo all of them. Most everyone else in the class was half my height and probably a quarter of my weight. I grinned with the secret knowledge that I would soon outshine my classmates and, in time, gain their trust and secure my leadership over them.
In all my self-congratulating, I had forgotten to take into consideration two very important factors. First, I was an outsider. Blonde hair and blue eyes in a country of blacks and browns stands out. Second, I had failed to consider that I may be attending taekwondo with my own students. These guys knew me as teacher but I did not have that role here. This placed me in the awkward position of “not friend” but “not teacher” either.
On that first day, it became obvious that the other students had a system, a caste. At the top stood the team players, mostly sixth graders who practiced in the back room. We plebeians could not compare to them. Sure, I could kick above my head and do a split. But could I do that in midair while aiming for a target the size of my coach’s curled fist? I could not. These gods ranked far beyond me and likely beyond what I hoped to achieve. When their coach closed the door, separating them and their skill rather clearly, I knew that I didn’t need to worry about them. They no longer counted in the caste.
Next came the older kids who stood in the back of the classroom, practicing alone. Some threw spinning kicks to the bag, while others practiced hooking their feet behind each other’s heads, hoping to send their friends to the ground. They spent a few minutes gawking at me before the teacher sent them back to the bags with a sharp command in Korean. I felt solidly the separation between me and them, but surely a grown adult could do better.
Young ones straggled below the experienced students. Most of them were too young for elementary school English, and too young to be taught to kick in a straight line. Here, at the bottom of the pyramid, I had found my unlikely brethren. Together we would work our way up the ranks until we too stood at the top, looking at those below with equal parts scorn and sympathy.
After a few brief moments of stretching the teacher barked something at us. I watched as my brethren lined up at the back and the teacher placed cones around the room for laps. Excellent. Once upon a time, I had run a mile or two on a daily basis. I was ready. Before I could prove my superiority, I had to prove that I deserved my place here at all. This became particularly clear when, confused by my lower belt, but obvious status as “elder,” the students tussled for a moment, trying to decide where I should stand. To save them the anguish of having to tell a teacher what to do, I kindly took my place in the back, between the red and green belts.
At the coach’s whistle, we ran. And we ran hard. The moment of confidence over my ability to run well quickly dwindled as I began to feel a sharp stabbing kick in my ribs. This made it difficult to overtake the kids as they raced around the room, pushing each other, trying to jump in front. It annoyed me. How was I to prove to them that my physical skill was worthy of attention if they wouldn’t look? Still, I knew better than to try and push them away or yell at them. You don’t gain popularity by shoving down a seven-year-old.
The running ended and I turned my attention to the coach, assuming that we were about to start practicing kicks. In all my classes in America, after warming up, students practice kicks and forms in straight lines spread out across the room. The teacher takes time and care demonstrating each kick, correcting positioning and technique among the students. Not once during kicking drills does one consider that their target may be moving. Apparently, in America, one assumes that their opponent will likely be staked to the ground during a fight.
In Korea, however, it seems that people expect their opponent to move, causing them to move too. Also, the teacher expects that you already know everything about kicking. No sooner had we lined up than the coach shouted out the name of a kick. I watched anxiously, desperately trying to understand the technique.
I began to panic. Soon my turn would come and most likely, I would shuffle forward awkwardly between static kicks instead of executing beautiful ones like the others. All the feelings of grandeur and confidence left over from the running began to vanish. The sound of massive praise I had imagined moments before faded in my mind. In its place, I imagined the teacher yelling at me for my incompetence, or worse, sighing sympathetically at my obvious inferiority to her little assassins.
When my turn came, I lined up with my partners at the front of the line. At the coach’s shout I kicked my leg out, executing what I still believe to be an excellent roundhouse kick. To my right, Na Mu, the second grader who would eventually become one of my best friends in Korea, leapt into his second, third and fourth kick, leaving me shattered in my mediocrity. This was no good. I continued my awkward steps until I made it to the end of the line. My height did not give me the immediate physical prowess I had hoped for, but it did allow me to make it across the room in half as many kicks as my partners. This, at least, prevented me from appearing too out of place.
As I had predicted, the teacher gave me a sympathetic smile, but offered no real advice. The older kids who had stopped for a moment to watch simply returned to performing triple kicks in the air. I could feel my position in the caste sinking again.
The kicking continued for the rest of the class. Slowly, bit by bit, I pieced together how my students moved swiftly and fluidly across the room. The well-meaning second grade boys standing beside me showed me the way with their repeated demonstrations. All the while, they talked in Korean, no doubt asking how I didn’t already know this. Whenever I didn’t answer, they simply smiled and looked at each other as though to say “Well, she’s not one of us, so what did we really expect?” I was surprised to find that I was reassured by their attitude toward me.
I had done nothing in class to demonstrate to them that I was a teacher. In fact I had subconsciously made a decision to be “one of them” as best I could. True, I wanted to prove that I was better than them, but only in the sense of physical skill and prowess. Not in a way that would make me seem aloof or above their friendship. As their hands patted my arms sympathetically, I realized that I had made a very good decision. Surely I could be better than them without being above them, I thought. As we returned to the front of the line to once again leap, or perhaps hop, across the room, I wasn’t even sure I would be able to prove that I was better.
Eventually, this drill in humiliation ended and we moved to stand along the back wall while the teacher took out mats and stacked them in the center of the room. No doubt our teacher meant to train us for the many walls we would have to fly over in our lives. Even the tiniest students cleared these mats easily. I hopped over them, but my new companions sprang themselves up like gymnasts.
After this initial jump, our teacher stacked the mats again, adding new mats until they reached as high as my shoulders. This was beyond most of the students’ skill level. Even the older, taller students barely skimmed the top of the mats. The youngest students ran at full speed and launched themselves with a fury found only in the smallest of humans. Few managed to get higher than they had planned on, and after their feet left the floor their faces did most of work. Many of the attempts ended with a resounding smack as the face of a six-year-old sent the tower tumbling over.
The boy in front of me, a measly blue belt like myself, went running at the mat, but stopped just short of touching it before skipping to the side of the room. The teacher looked up, shaking her head and called for me to come forward. I eyed the mat warily, having the sudden realization that this could be my chance. I may have failed to kick in a manner expected of my perceived status, but no doubt I could clear this mat with ease. Not even all of the highest ranking members of the students had managed that.
My moment had come. The sounds of cheers and praise revved up again in my mind. I recalled briefly lessons learned during my circus training years in college. I had never really needed to vault myself over something like this. But, I had watched closely, observing what my fellow comrades had done or had failed to do. The method seemed to involve running as fast as one could, jumping as high as one could and landing as gracefully and soundlessly as possible. Missing the mat, or landing too hard, caused laughter from the peanut gallery rather than admiration.
I looked my new teacher in the eye, set my jaw and ran. When I was close enough to reach out and touch the mat, I launched over the mats, narrowly avoiding kicking someone in the face. My hands never touched the mat below me. Instead, I reached out in front of me, bracing myself for the very likely chance that I would hit the floor or the ceiling, face first. Neither happened. I landed upright and the floor shook beneath us all. Behind me, some of my new comrades gasped while others cheered and laughed. A fourth grader of mine shouted out “Teacher! It’s good!”
I had done it. Perhaps, I had done it accidentally, and not with nearly as much grace as I had intended, but nonetheless I had done it: I had proven to them all that I was someone worthy of attention, and a healthy dose of awe. Even the coach gave me a congratulatory pat on the back before leaning forward to tell me “천천히[1. Cheoncheonhi]” — slowly. She demonstrated that I should have used the top of the stack to aid me in gaining height while also keeping me steady as I came down the other side.
This piece of advice didn’t dampen my mood. The teacher had noticed what I had done, had praised me and had considered me worthy enough to try and help. The students had cheered for me as they had for each other, showing me that they accepted me among them, already forgetting their uncertainty. I felt accomplished, I felt fulfilled and I felt like a student. A student who would, over time perhaps, still prove that I was a more capable athlete than any of them.
Hannah Shannon is a 2014-2016 ETA at Ocheon Elementary School in Pohang, Gyeongsangbuk-do.