The kids and I have been doing tae kwon do for more than a month now. Tomorrow we’re all taking the gold belt test; if we pass, we won’t be white-belted tae kwon do virgins anymore. We’ll be GOLD BELTS, and then we just have to get through about 9 more belts and maybe 4 to 5 years of effort to be black belts. I’m in. It’s been a strange delight so far. The workouts are good, the instructors are terrific, my kids seem to really enjoy it. There’s a heavy focus in the kid classes on self-respect and self-control, which I really like.
The only major down side so far is the Korean-speaking that goes on. I’m not sure I can survive 5 years of it. They count in Korean, over and over again. They use Korean commands and directions. All the instructors appear to have been taught the words by the same person, and all the students have been taught in turn. They all sound the same.
Whoever the source is, he or she has the worst Korean ever. If I counted to 10 in English with the same level of disfunction, my numbers would sound like this: wan, toot, threat, fur, five, sex, sef-heh, oat, neen, teen. Jesse was very anxious about learning the numbers so she could comply with orders to count. I begged her and Nick not to count with the class for a while. “Learn the numbers from me, not the studio,” I ordered. “They don’t know how to say them right.”
I started to wonder if the instructors weren’t speaking Korean at all. The teacher kept saying “chariot” over and over, and also “COON-yay!” What could these words mean?
I called my mom. “Mom, what does “coon-yay” mean?”
“Whaaat? I don’t know.” I couldn’t blame her stroke for her confused reaction this time.
“The teacher keeps saying it right before everyone bows.”
“Oh. Kyong-nyeh. That’s how we say bow.”
Huh. Right. Not even close.
I tried “chariot” on mom, but we couldn’t figure that one out together. Eventually I noodled in my head and remembered something my uncles used to yell at us in Korea when we were screwing up. “Jong-sheen cha-ryo!” I understood it to mean something along the lines of “get your head out of your a^%!” Or maybe, “Get your act together.” In tae kwon do, “Chariot” seemed to mean something like “pay attention.” Aha. “Cha-ryot.” Mmm. Almost.
I also noticed class leaders and instructors kept saying Dora. It couldn’t be. What did she have to do with martial arts? More thinking. Korean for “turn” is something like “To-rha.” I guess that’s what they mean.
It’s all so confusing. I grew up with my Korean family speaking English with a strong accent and bearing up to the mockery. But I’ve never been in a position to look down on white people speaking Korean with a bad accent. Really bad. It’s just awful to hear.
It didn’t take me long to see the up side of the situation. I started to passive-aggressively assert my better accent at every opportunity, working hard to embrace an unfamiliar feeling of ethnic and cultural superiority.
I would stand in the back of the class and yell the numbers loud enough that I didn’t have to hear anyone else’s pidgin Korean. I swear, for a couple weeks people would look back at me like I was an idiot. After all, I was the ONLY PERSON in the room saying the numbers the way I did. Moron white belt, I imagined them thinking. I should keep my mouth quiet until I learn to say Korean numbers real good, like everyone else.
Or maybe I was just annoyingly loud. Whatever.
When we entered the studio and bowed to the instructors, I would greet them in formal Korean. “An-yong-ha-shum-nee-ka, sah-bum-nim.” Startled eyes. I would say good bye and thank you in proper formal Korean. I would make my kids do it too.
Students and instructors eventually figured out I’m Korean, at least by half. And, despite my shitty, unkind attitude about their crappy accents, they were really warm and nice about my ethnicity. Respectful even, and sheepish. Then I felt bad. It’s not like I speak perfect Korean anymore; my tongue is lazy with lack of use, and I have the fluent vocabulary of a toddler. These students are doing their best in an alien setting with an alien language and an alien cultural model. I was acting just like all the people over the years who made fun of my family’s accents, who put them down and tried to make them feel small for talking and looking funny, who pissed me off a million ways with their stupid American superiority.
What a jerk. Me, that is.
Last week a green belt led the class in stretches and warm ups. He announced, “We’ll finish up with 40 jumping jacks.”
Then he looked over at another green belt. “Oh, maybe not. I can’t count to forty.”
The other man replied, “How about two sets of 20?” They hesitated in mild confusion, with no instructor around to help them decide what to do.
I yelled from the back of the class. “I can count to 40 for you, sir!” (I know. Weird. That’s how we talk to each other in tae kwon do.)
He didn’t look anything but relieved. “You can count to 40?? Thank you ma’am! Please lead us!”
I barked the count through 40 jumping jacks. Everyone was happy. And just because I counted to 40 in one of my native languages — the language of my birthplace, the first language I spoke as an infant, the language I’ve almost forgotten for lack of use — 20 near-strangers bowed to me and applauded.
I noticed Jesse looking over at me from the kid side of the classroom with her mouth hanging open. Yeah, that’s right baby girl. Mama’s got game. I can count to 40. BAM.