Four months and one blue belt ago I began Hapkido. I feel the need to quickly profile my experience because Monday I am following our Hapkido teacher to a bigger school in Pyeontaek (the neighboring city). This marks the end of one of my favorite experiences of my lifetime. I can only describe it, so let's go together, starting with the walk from my apartment.
I let you try and unlock my apartment door but the many needless locks confuse you and eventually I have to interfere.
You huff, "Leslie we have been in your apartment for two seconds, Korea is the safest nation in the world, I think the dead bolt would suffice and save you at least 20 minutes a day!"
"I'm sorry but my mother has put the fear of god in me, and unless I lock all the locks, I waste 40 minutes a day trying every combination until the twelfth attempt yields daylight. Did you come all the way from America to bitch, Katchi ga, we're late"
We exit my apartment building which is the same color and design of every other Korean apartment building. You know how in new suburbs, developers take three home models, make small variations, then pepper 100 miles with the same house...Korea did this with 20 floor high rises.
We cross the small playground just outside apartment, Korean adolescents currently loiter, passing the time with K-Pop synchronized moves.
"Those were four teenage boys simultaneously pelvic thrusting to a boy band...right?" You ask with disbelief.
"Yes, for such a homophobic country, I swear half of these men would be a shoe-in for chorus line. Keep moving they are starting to stare at us."
We walk the short block out of my apartment complex.
"Les-uh-lie, Les-uh-lie, Yonga sunsangnim! Yogio! Les-uh-lie"
We are swarmed by four of my students in roller blades and Tykwondo uniforms. Each child carries a dixy cup filled with random, delicious, street food. Three more children ,who are too young to be my students but know my name, join the fray. They circle us like pigeons to bread crumbs, chirping the same phrases, "Oh who this? American? Beautiful, beautiful (insert your gender here)."
One child skewers a bit of tak (Korean thick noodle) with her toothpick and offers the delicious morsel to us. You don't take it, because quite frankly, I wouldn't have either eight months ago. You still recognize, eating off others cutlery exchanges germs and remember that bit about taking candy from strangers. I, on the other hand, accept the second and third helpings she offers me.
"Hapkido, go, now," I say, as I peel a small child from your pant leg.
"Goodbye!" They all say in unison.
We continue walking down the unevenly paved street. You trip and fall because someone cemented one brick into the middle of the slanted sidewalk. Sorry I should have warned you. While crouched on the ground massaging your knee, you absorb the sounds of the street.
"Do I hear.... small children reciting the Korean National Anthem.... a possible concert pianist practicing....an intimidating Korean male training Tikwando students....kids singing the English alphabet....is that the Gettysburg Address?" You ask.
"Yes, in Korea, every single child goes to an after-school Hagwon. Hagwon is a sweeping name for private institute, they range anywhere from piano lessons, to martial arts, to English lessons. In summer, with every window open, as you walk down the street it is like your I-pod shuffle is broken so every step it skips to another song/subject." I explain.
"I think I see another group of kids coming and I can't eat anything else before Hapkido, lets go!" I quickly add.
I help you up and we continue down the street, towards my favorite cafe. On Mondays, I go to the cafe before my Korean lesson and the shop owner corrects/does my homework. He is a little too vigorous with his help, I often spend the bus ride to my tutor rewriting his work so it at least looks like my handwriting.
We pass the cafe, the owner is cooking in front of the window. He gives us a huge smile, points to you and gives me two thumbs up. This means he thinks your cute. We use the same system with my outfits in the morning, only a few of my skirts have received two thumbs up...you must be really cute.
We continue up, in my opinion, a practically vertical hill. Kids pass and yell hello, adults pass and give us a perplexed nod. Your presence represents a 50% rise in the foreigner population.
At the top of the hill I point out my temple...the Aseong Jinjibang (spa). Don't worry, we will go there later, right now we need to rush. My school is on your right, no need for a tour, you remember it from the You Tube video.
We rush down.... a wide ally? My uncertain descriptions can only be explained by Korea city planning, they pave an entire area first. There is no initial flattening of land or preplaning as to what structures will be built upon the cement. If an ant mound existed before the cement, the ant city is forever entombed in the middle of the sidewalk. After everything is paved, in no discernible fashion, they start constructing buildings.
We continue down my short cut, climb over tractors, decline offers to buy lettuce and slip on multiple heaps of litter, until we finally reach the Hapkido door... Ok the entire walk only took us 7 mins.
I will continue with the actuall class tomorrow.