Tuesday, December 23, 2008


The Black Belt of Courage

There are a few things the male ego needs in order to thrive. For his own self-image, he needs to know that there's something he can do very well. For his self-esteem, he needs those he works with to know it too. Life probably won’t be complete, either, unless there's a woman who can see that special gift and appreciate it.

There are a few things the male ego considers optional, but how his ego would thrive if they were true of him. Chief among these options would be making the other men he interacts with aware that he could, using little more than his ring finger, put them in the hospital. It's not actually necessary for him to put such an ability to use, just for them to know he could.

Master Hong at the taekwondo institute where I used to train has such skills. Over lunch one Friday afternoon, he told me that he has a fifth-degree black belt in taekwondo, a third degree black belt in hapkido, another in judo and special certification in self-defense and bodyguarding. When I recounted this to my wife later that day, she said, "I think you should be careful around him."

One of the surest signs that he is capable of doing great damage with his hands and feet is his personality: He enjoys listening to Korean pop songs sung by teenage girls, and every time he calls me on the phone he says, "Hello, sir!" and then starts giggling. It takes a man seriously secure in his ability to inflict pain to act this goofy in public.

Despite several years of study in the United States (when I gave him my business card, he gave me one of the ones Arnold Schwarzenegger uses in his capacity as California's head of state; apparently he not only knew the Governator, but knew him well enough to have a collection of his business cards), one thing he had not mastered was English.

That's why he came to me. He sought a niche in the Korea's saturated market for martial arts studies (Let’s put the stereotype to rest right now: Not that every Korean is a master of the martial arts, but judging by the number of taekwondo institutes one sees on practically every block of every municipality in Korea, I'd say the ratio of martial arts masters to the total populace is about one in five).

His institute's name, "Han-Mi," may be translated into "Korea-America," and in his school he sought to impart English along with his martial art, so that not only would his students be able to say "I can put you in the hospital with just my ring finger," they'd be able to back it up. I was to assist him with teaching at his institute in Chuncheon every Friday, one of only two days I don't have to work in Seoul.

There was only one problem with my participation: I'd never studied a hint of martial arts in my life. Sure, as long as I can remember I have wanted the males in my vicinity to know that I could, if necessary, do them great physical damage. I never found the time, however, to study a means of causing them such harm, as I've been too busy with more literary or journalistic endeavors.

Happily, though, I am of greater than average height, and these endeavors have put me in contact with special classes of males, such as middle-aged journalists and graduate English majors, who have tended to make me feel pretty good about own physical capabilities. I might have some trouble if I ventured out of those circles, though.

Master Hong's solution to my inexperience was to toss in free taekwondo lessons every Friday before his students arrived. I spent one hour every week learning complex maneuvers (and fearing for my life for brief moments of time whenever he demonstrated how do these maneuvers in too-close a proximity to my face) which I was then supposed to be able to teach his students only hours later.

He even provided me with my own taekwondo outfit, plus a black belt with my name on it. If anyone asked about credentials, he usually told them that I was a first-degree black belt and then tried to change the subject.

All the while, he assured me that with private lessons I could actually be a black belt within a year. Then, he said, I could have my own institute in Korea where students would come to me and I could put them on the road to both English fluency and the ability to hospitalize their peers. There was only one problem with the plan; there’s no limit to what the human mind can forget in one week.

It might have worked out had I a place to practice, but neither a newspaper office or a subway are ideal places to practice punching and kicking routines, and these days those are the two places I tend to be when I’m awake. Eventually I had to find a way to tell Master Hong that we were going to have to postpone my participation in the taekwondo institute until I had more time to spare.

The question then becomes: How do you tell a man who can severely injure you with one of his smaller digits that you can no longer assist him? After all, maybe he only acted goofy in my presence because he never had a reason to be disappointed.

My advice is a) Do it over the phone, and b) have someone else relay the message, someone like your wife. Hey, she’s the one who told me I should be careful with him. Until I have enough time to become a living weapon, I plan to take her advice.

Americans just don't have those kind of skills at such a high ratio. Perhaps if guns were made illegal things might be different. Ha ha.

Merry Christmas, sir.

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