InYo: Journal of Alternative Perspectives Nov 2002
EJMAS Tips Jar

Beginning Hapkido in Korea


By Monica Bielke

Copyright © EJMAS 2002. All rights reserved.

I am in Daegu, which is Koreaís third-largest city, in the southeastern part of the country. I am on a one-year contract to teach English at a private English-language school (called hogwan here). As of September 2002, I am 3 months into my contract.

Monica Bielke
Monica Bielke

Many Koreans (usually older men) are often intolerant of "foreigners," although the younger people are better. Therefore, although we Westerners are here at their invitation, teaching their children English, we still encounter a fair amount of prejudice and rude behavior. In Korea, Daegu is known as a very conservative city, so itís probably worse here than Seoul, which has seen a lot more Westerners over the years.

I asked one of the Korean teachers at my school if she could help me find a hapkido dojo. Because Iím in Korea, probably I should have said dojang! Nonetheless, that very day (Monday I think), she got out the local phone book and called around to at least half a dozen places in the area. She found one that seemed a likely choice and asked them if they would accept a 40-year-old Western woman as a student. The "Soon-saeng-nim" (teacher) said he was fine with that, so my co-worker asked if I could come watch a class on Friday.

I walked up there on a Friday after work. Itís an uphill walk, which makes a good warm-up. The dojang is in a reasonably-sized space, on the third floor of an office building. Thereís an office, and a dressing room with lockers and a shower (but no toilet!). The training space has windows all round two walls, mirrors down one side, and is matted wall-to-wall, except for the entrance area where people leave their shoes.

I spent about 30 minutes talking to the teacher. He only spoke a little English, but he has a friend who teaches English, so we ended up calling that person on the phone about four times. Then weíd pass the phone back and forth, asking and getting our questions answered. The instructor wanted to know about my previous experience, and tried to answer as many of my questions as possible.

The cost is 60,000 won per month, which isnít that bad (about US $50). We also agreed that despite my background in aikido, I would start from the beginning, which was fine with me.

At 8 p.m., the class started. There were about nine in the class by the time everyone arrived, including two younger women, although that wasnít everyone. Ages appear to be all the way from about 12 to mid-thirties, with one young black belt.

The class started with various calisthenics. Then everyone did some ukemi drills (falling; sorry, I donít know the Korean name yet) that included the black belt jumping over first one, then two, then eventually 7 students crouching in a line. (I think they were trying to give me an overview.) At the risk of sounding smug, aside from the black belts, I wasnít that impressed with their front rolls, which is almost all they did, ukemi-wise. Saw a lot of Ďlog rollsí from the lower grades, too, even those in higher belt levels. They front roll the way I was taught in judo, with one leg bent and the other straight, slapping one arm as you contact the mat, then using the straight leg (and your momentum) to stand again. This is not something my partially-torn anterior cruciate ligaments are going to put up with. Given my lack of Korean and the instructorís lack of English, that may take some explaining!

One of the other misgivings I have is another ukemi drill where you jump up into the air and land on your forearms and your toes, bum in the air, kind of like Superman, only without the strings. Somehow, I just donít see myself doing that one soon. Weíll see.

Next were various grip-breaking drills (soan beg-ee). These were followed by some very tight/close-in throws from static wrist grabs, with no finish (though that probably had more to do with the level of individual students). Finally, pairs worked on various techniques. Meanwhile, the teacher walked round observing. Rather than touching with his hands, he used a short (15-ish inches), round, tapered stick to make adjustments in posture or position.

I noticed many students made a point of gripping the outside of the jacket sleeve when they grabbed another personís wrists, but Iím not sure of the thought behind that one. Guess Iíll find out eventually.

Class ended with a few more calisthenics. Then they bowed with the fist to palm. You say "hap" as fist meets palm, then "ki" as you bow, exposing the top of your head. And that was it.

I got a ride home in the schoolís van with four other students, which was nice. This is something a lot of places do here.

That was Friday. I had asked if I could take one class to see how I did, and that was ok, so we agreed Iíd return on Monday. I was terrified all day. I guess all the prejudice against foreigners one gets here made me more nervous that I would have been normally.

I walked up there after school finished, and of course was way too early, since Iím still figuring out how long the walk takes. So, I walked up and down the main street for 15 minutes, checking out the various shops, telling myself Iíd feel less nervous once I finally got on the mat. At about 7:35 I figured it was reasonable to show up, so in I went.

The teacher had found a uniform for me to wear. It had elastic-waist zubon (trousers) with a black edge around the bottom of the legs, and a woven but lightweight jacket with black collar edge.

The jacket has all kinds of embroidery on it. The word Daegu is embroidered on one sleeve in red Korean hangul (Korean characters), and I think the gymís name (Dae Wong Gym) is across the back in black. Thereís also a Korean flag patch and a Hapkido Association patch on the front. Sheesh.

At least the white belt was familiar. I came out of the dressing room without the belt on and the teacher held the middle of his belt up to his waist -- ah yes, the old familiar way. He was impressed that I knew immediately how to tie it, though Iíve been using the winding no-overlap method since joining Kokoro Ryu (my former aikido dojo in Indianapolis, with Chuck Gordon Sensei).

I spent the rest of the time before class warming up and stretching. Near the end of that, I did a few flip breakfalls, just to see if my muscles remembered how. Thank goodness, my brain seems to have remembered the times I did it successfully much more clearly than the mistakes. I surprised myself by landing all in one piece (one thump rather than two or three) twice in a row.

At that, the teacher came out and said, "Monica, no jumping, just stretch." I donít know why -- maybe he thought Iíd wear myself out before class. Us old women gotta conserve our strength, you know. So, I did quiet low rolls instead, trying to make myself a little rounder again after two months off the mat.

We started with calisthenics--jumping jacks first, then a squat thrust thing where you stand with hands and feet on the ground, bum in the air, and jump your feet out and back in again. Another where you start from a runnerís stance, then switch/hop your feet in and out (ugh!). Then sit-ups starting from flat, bringing straight legs and straight arms up to the middle. The worst one, though, involved starting from a full squat, jumping up in the air and turning 45 degrees, and then sinking back into a full squat, repeat ad nauseam. I managed about 10 before my thigh muscles said, "Nope, sorry". I kept trying though, until the teacher came over to say sit down.

After warm-ups, I was put with one of the black belts and shown two of the breathing exercises, and the first three hand-grip breaks (soan beg-ee). I was also taught how to count to ten in Korean, using the non-money words!

I must have worked for at least 20 minutes on the soan beg-ee, which are similar (but different) to a lot of things Iíve learned in aikido over the years. Number One starts from shizentai (feet shoulder-width apart in a straight line), left-to-right-hand wrist grab. The attacker takes your wrist, gets himself set, then kiais "Ai!" to start. The one being "attacked" begins to step in, moving the gripped arm in along with their center, feeling for the attackerís wrist to start bending back, working towards a wrist lock. As your weight finally shifts forward, you bring your hand down and your elbow up, so your forearm is horizontal in front of your face (no body turn), as if youíre sticking your elbow into attackerís face. Done correctly, this should lock their wrist and break the grab. Oh yeah, you kiai also, "Ai!" as you break the grab.

Number Two starts in the same stance and grip. You step in and sink your weight, thrusting your hand down, turning the back of the hand inwards to break the grab. Number Three is similar to number one, only the forearm is kept vertical. At my second class I learned 4, 5, and 6. All similar to grip-breaking things Iíve done before, but with subtle differences. For one thing, they place great emphasis on a "live" hand (stiff, wide-open fingers). Hard to remember when youíre used to keeping your hands relaxed. Then thereís the constant shouting. The younger students tend to be rather half-hearted in theirs, which I think makes it even more embarrassing. Therefore, Iím trying to at least put some conviction into mine Ė that is, when I remember to do them!

The soan beg-ee, the calisthenics, and the breathing stuff were about all I did Wednesday night before being told to sit and watch. There is one other white belt who also had to sit a lot. We watched as the three other women learned five self-defense techniques. The one that caused the most giggles was where the attacker "attacked" by putting his arms around the woman, over her arms, from the front. The defense had the woman put her hands on his belt at the hips, step back slightly with one leg, and then raise her knee sharply to the attackerís groin. Next, she puts her near hand under the attackerís armpit (behind his shoulder), reaches over with her other hand to grip the hand behind the shoulder, tenkans 45 degrees (pivots, nearer leg in front) and brings the attacker down face first as she sinks onto the front knee to pin him. I wasnít close enough to see the details of the pin, but in many ways it looked close to some of the things Gordon Sensei taught us.

One interesting (and potentially annoying) thing I noticed was that the women did not take any ukemi (they werenít the ones being thrown) during this part. They were nage (the one responding to the attack) the whole time. I donít know if thatís because the teacher was trying to teach them these things for self-defense specifically and figured the guys wouldnít need them, or if women donít do ukemi for men, or something else. Iím not sure yet, so Iíll just have to keep watching.

On Monday, I started learning kicks. Pretty much the same thing Iíve been taught by Gordon Sensei, except they want a pointed toe (unless itís the one where youíre using your heel/outer edge of the foot as the point of contact). Iíve only learned three kicks so far, and itís a bit of a struggle. Mostly, itís the recovery back to a stable stance thatís giving me trouble, but of course, there are all kinds of other things Iím doing wrong. Ah well, thatís what being a beginner is all about.

So far, Iím enjoying it and Iíve had a pretty good feeling from the class as a whole, though of course some are friendlier than others. I find I talk more to the younger ones, who are attending hogwans and thus know some English. There is also an older black belt who knows a decent amount of English, which is a big help when the teacher needs to explain something complicated. He and the younger black belt are the ones who work with me in class. An unexpected bonus of training is that Iím expanding my Korean vocabulary weekly.

InYo Dec 2002