Students from the South Korea-based To The World Taekwondo and Master Ji’s school spent 10 days together in July and August for a cross-cultural experience.
Students from the South Korea-based To The World Taekwondo and Master Ji’s school spent 10 days together in July and August for a cross-cultural experience.

Before Taekwondo, Seong Hyeon Park said he was scrawny and attracted bullies. He gestured toward himself to point out his small stature. The South Korean martial arts student said he also used to get sick frequently.

Park’s fitness developed as his skills improved, and now he says he knows how to defend himself, which deters the wrong crowd; he is also sick less often. Techniques learned through the sport have been transformative, he said.

Park spoke about his experiences in front of peers from the To The World Taekwondo school and Master Il Hwan Ji’s American students in Monroe last Tuesday. He was far from the only one to report practice had brought about major changes in his daily life.

One by one, the students raised their hands to speak.

Jun Ryed Kim can now call himself brave. Before, sparring brought him to tears. Hye Ri Choi was always tripping or falling down, but now she has balance and control over her body. Tae Hui Kim didn’t have the strength to run, and Hyeon Jae Lee did not know how to show respect to his elders.

Masters Hyunchul Park and Howon La brought a group of youth from their program based in Ulsan, South Korea to the U.S. for 10 days, so they could see how Taekwondo is practiced in a different country, and what role it plays in different communities. 

La and Ji met and became friends 10 years ago. Both masters went on to start their own schools, Ji said. It took years to evolve the companies into well-established studios. When both had gained enough membership, it was time to start the process of acquainting students with the international Taekwondo community, he said.

“We can be a family even though we grew up in different cultures,” La said.

She said her hopes for the visit this summer were twofold. While in Washington, La wanted to promote the importance of having a cross-cultural experience. All of her students were placed in homes with Ji’s students. She wanted them to see the real U.S.  — how families interact, and maybe tweak the image that becomes familiar from watching movies.

La also wanted her students to spend some time learning more appreciation for their own parents. By having dinner with another family, they can miss and feel lucky for the good food they are fed at home.

Ji translated for Park, La and the rest of their team from South Korea. It is the second time he has received South Korean visitors to his school; the first was in 2015.

He said he plans on sending a few of his own students overseas, hopefully within the next year. Funding the trek will be tricky, but costs such as housing are decreased through this kind of exchange because students can choose home-stays, he said.

South Korea has about 10,000 different Taekwondo schools, and 41 colleges where students can major in the sport, Ji said. It is sort of like football for the country. While there are different forms of martial arts all over Asia, Taekwondo places an emphasis on kicking. The main difference to know is that Taekwondo evolved and developed in Korea, he said.

Ji said for Park, La and himself that world travel was usually in conjunction with competitive tournaments when they were young. Occasionally, time on those trips was allotted to stop by local schools. He said the three masters wanted their own students to get the opportunity to spend more of their trip working with one another in the studio.

Hoil Choi said he was able to find new motivation for his practice while in Monroe last week. He said he is used to only training with people with whom he can communicate. Having class with others who speak a different language ended up adding new excitement to the work.

Emanuel Rodriguez, one of Ji’s captains, said he was surprised by how patient the South Korean students were with him and his peers. The language turned out to be a minor barrier between everyone, he said.

Park had designed a demonstration for members of both teams before coming to the U.S. The 10 days of practice culminated in a performance at the start of the National Night Out Against Crime event held at Lake Tye in Monroe last Tuesday.

During the presentation, a South Korean student showed his ability to accurately break 10 wooden boards in succession using only his feet. Others spun rapidly through the air before their limbs made contact with the thick planks. Shouts from the participants as they executed the techniques bit through the epic music selected for the demonstration. Each short segment drew raucous cheers and applause from the crowd of hundreds of residents that sat and watched in the grass.

Sang Deok Lee said he was surprised by his own emotions while watching people practice Taekwondo in the U.S. Students five to 57 years old were on the mats together. The different age groups don’t normally jointly train in South Korea, he said.

“It was kind of shocking, but it made me feel so proud,” he said.

Ji said he had the same feeling watching his students’ behaviors throughout the visit. He said students who couldn’t do backflips before learned the skill in only two days by working with their new friends from South Korea. He said his group was respectful and more motivated.

“I was very proud of them inside of my mind,” Ji said. “I am proud like a parent, maybe even more.”

Park wanted his students to get the same knowledge and experiences he was able to access as a young student, and to see Taekwondo isn’t only in South Korea.

“Even if you don’t have the same language, you can still make a community,” he said.