It is 5:50 AM on a very early Thursday morning. I’ve just returned from the gym, have put the coffee on, turned on my television fish tank, and instead of birds chirping when for ‘New Age’ music to start the day.
Yesterday was an exciting day for me and made me feel in a way I haven’t felt for a very long time. It is the feeling one gets when you start something completely new and have made a commitment already to continue doing it for a very long time. I had my first karate class and in doing so finally fulfilled a wish that has been thirty years in coming.
I was seven years old when the movie Karate Kid came out. That movie reinvigorated more young people to start karate in this country then had been seen since the kung fu craze (Everybody was kung fu fighting) of the early ’70s. I also remember watching the T.V. show Kung Fu in the early ’80s but it was the Karate Kid movie which really made me want to try martial arts myself.
I was swept up in karate euphoria and eventually convinced my mom to let me start and we found a Tae Kwon Do dojo she said I could join. I remember meeting Master Choon Mo Yang and how excited I was. He handed me a copy of Black Belt magazine (April 1986) where inside there was an article about him and a picture of him meditating in the snow with only pants on. I was extremely impressed! Writing this paragraph I have to smile given my knowledge of Asia now versus the knowledge my Mom and I had about the ‘Far East’ at that time. Karate Kid was karate (Japan), not Tae Kwon Do (Korea!). But it didn’t matter in the least to a young white kid from the Midwest, it all seemed the same to me.
I did Tae Kwon Do for what I think was a little over six months as I did receive my yellow belt. I even remember the test because I almost didn’t pass! We had to sit on the floor cross legged while others did their tests first. I was not used to sitting like that for extended periods but was terrified of sitting any other way. My legs fell completely asleep and when it was my turn they were completely asleep! I was too afraid to tell the master this so just went ahead with the test. The only thing I remember having to do was a kick where you turn around and kick – a back kick maybe? Since I couldn’t feel my legs I had a hard time keeping my balance and the master asked why. I don’t remember my answer exactly but I passed anyway.
I remember the other members one of which was a stout lady. One time the exercise was to extend the leg as in a kick with the foot against your partners palms and hold. I had a hard time holding/pressing back against her leg and in a raised voice she said ‘hold it!’ I thought ‘Hey, I’m just a kid and you have a heavy leg!’ The others I remember are:
- A kid a little older than me who had a blue belt. He got hurt outside of class and had to stay home and rest. He wrote the class a letter saying he was doing his meditations everyday and would be back soon.
- Two teenagers who seemed to be from rough neighborhoods. Even at my young age I realized the value of Tae Kwon Do in keeping these guys from getting into trouble by giving them confidence through martial arts.
- A slightly older teenager who I remember doing a flying kick through the air and breaking a board. That was one of the most impressive things I had seen in martial arts thus far.
- The Master – I’ll have to see if I can find his name somewhere among my archives, or better yet that original Black Belt magazine which I’m sure is lost. I remember seeing him pass by in his car and learning he lived in Arlington Pointe apartments which is where my friend Terry lived and we would skateboard. The last thing I remember about Master is learning that three guys had tried to mug him at night. They had knives, two went behind him while one stayed out front. The Master would only say “I handled it well.”
*Update – Master Choon Mo Yang – Columbus, Ohio’s longest Tae Kwon Do master. He has come a very long way from that small studio I briefly trained in back in 1986, now with a dozen locations and the most famous Master in Columbus!
I think my Tae Kwon Do experience plays a small part in the build up in my love for Asia and my eventual reason for moving there.
It wasn’t long after I received my yellow belt that basketball season was starting. I was in the fourth or fifth grade in a class of about 24 people, roughly half were boys. The alpha male of the class Jason C. asked if I was playing and I mentioned that I had Tae Kwon Do. His reply was “Curtin – you’re playing!” The reason was I was pretty athletic and the team did need me but it unfortunately spelled the end of my brief martial art experience.
The next time the desire to start martial arts really rose up again for me was with the release of the movie Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon. The night fight in this movie was absolutely awesome and I was made speechless at the beauty of that female ninja! This movie (and my appreciation for Asia females) also played a role in my fascination with Asia and got me thinking about possibly moving there.
My second and third – again brief – experiences with martial arts was in Tokyo, Japan. Let’s start with the first at Waseda University. I had just begun Japanese language class and we were informed we could join university clubs just like regular Japanese students do. I knew right away that I wanted to join the karate club which I did. The thing that stood out to me right away was how militant this club was. There was no walking, every word was in a large voice and they were strict!! I remember in one of my first lessons we went outside to their practice area where wooden poles with pads on them were set up. We had to punch these repeatedly and my fists started to bleed. I let them know but to my surprise they told me to keep going even though I was staining the pad with blood.
The second thing I remember is having to run a long distance in uniform. We got to our destination and one member had an upset stomach and had to use the bathroom for half an hour while we all waited for him. I also remember how tight this group was and one of the girls even slept in the dojo from time to time. I’m not sure exactly why but am guessing it is because the trek back home must have taken a very long time.
The last thing I remember is getting kicked out. There were only two foreigners, me and Mathias (French) and we both were kicked out. The reason is because when spring break arrived Mathias went traveling and I had to teach English class to get some extra money. I got a text from one of the guys in karate class saying there was a ‘special practice’ at some remote location. I couldn’t make it because I already had English classes set up for that day. He said ‘muridesuka’ which roughly means ‘is it impossible?’ I said yes, ‘muridesu,’ and that was my mistake which I did not understand at the time.
Normally it is ok to refuse something given proper politeness and considerations in Japan but apparently not to the karate group. When school resumed both Mathias and I went back to karate and nobody was speaking to us. We both noticed it right away and he asked me in French something like ‘porquoi est-ce tout le monde froid?’ or soemthing like that which is ‘Why is everyone being so cold to us?’ Then the Sensei who was also a student called us in and let us know. We pleaded our case and that the group would have to forgive us; we were foreigners after all, had already made plans and didn’t realize how absolutely imperative ‘special practice’ was! He did speak with the group but forgiveness was not granted and we were out. Murideshita.
I really thought it was extremely cool to do martial arts in Tokyo so I didn’t give up. I found that the Aikido headquarters wasn’t terribly far away and so I joined. The only class I could really do was the super early one at 5:00 AM. I had to take the Yamanote line for three or four stops, get out and walk about 25 minutes. After class I took a shower then had to walk another 30 minutes to Japanese class at Waseda. After Japanese class I had to go home, change and then go make my English classes which were an hour away. Needless to say this was a rough routine and although I kept it up it ended when I moved to Vietnam. I couldn’t even get a good Aikido roll down, so that venture didn’t work.
All of this brings me to yesterday. All the pieces are in place and I finally will be able to accomplish something that has been so elusive for so many years. I would have liked to start sooner but with two boys, time away from them is time away from them and something I don’t want to do. But now, Kai is five and started karate with friends at another dojo. I knew eventually that he would have to switch to a Japanese place and one that was closer. Oyama Karate is full contact and I was very worried that Kai might not adapt to the change well. Luckily the Japanese mothers network here is tight and it turns out we know kids in that class already! So, Kai did the first lesson by himself – without a dogi and did great!
We let the sensei know that we had already made our decision and were ready to sign up. She was surprised when I let her know we would need two forms as I would join as well. She surprised me back when she said it would be ok for me to join the kids class! Most days the adult class isn’t right after the kid’s class which would be highly inconvenient for me to make two trips many times a week.
Yesterday was our first official class. Although I wasn’t nervous about the class in general I was a little nervous about being in a kids class (I kept thinking about a particular Seinfeld episode where Kramer does karate). Also, this is a stricter dojo that does things in a very Japanese way so it seems one just doesn’t start chatting with the master. I wasn’t sure if the sensei I had spoken with had let the master know, asked if it really was ok to join the kids class. I changed into my gi and asked the kohai if it really was ok, he asked the master, and things turned out great!
I love that this is something I can do with my son and later on with my other son! I also love that it is something that will instill discipline, confidence and is part of their heritage. The instructions in class are in Japanese with the master mixing in English to make things clear. During that class I sweat more than I have in a while – even more-so then my usual workouts or even going into the sauna!
At the end of each class there is sparring (thus the full contact and using what you learned) and the master pared me up with Kai. Kai came at me and even almost kicked me the balls once or twice which made the master laugh. I also felt glad because the kohai asked me if I had experience as my roundhouse kicks were pretty good for a beginner.
Yesterday was the beginning of a lifelong journey and one that I’m very glad I finally get to embark upon. My main goal ever since I discovered languages, Europe and the world, was to become a “Renaissance Man.” My image of this is one who is: sophisticated, loves learning, appreciates the arts, kind to and cares for people, confident, worldly, spiritual and finally, one who can defend himself and others. Karate is the final piece, the martial art, to this puzzle which is finally coming into place.
1. Yang Tae Kwon Do – http://yangtaekwondo.com/
2. Taekwondo Times – http://www.taekwondotimes.com/magazine/magazine_bonus_detail.php?bns_seq_i=19
3. Black Belt Magazine (April 1986) – https://books.google.com/books?id=k9sDAAAAMBAJ&pg=PA38&lpg=PA38&dq=Choon+Mo+Yang&source=bl&ots=sEGcrklxl3&sig=tp1RSgfsMxC8Ue3hUJDi_E9Gy3o&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjertGYuPbOAhUGwGMKHdH_DxQQ6AEIQzAI#v=onepage&q=Choon%20Mo%20Yang&f=false