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Thursday, December 17, 2015

How to Train in Korea

Training in Korea has been an incredibly rewarding experience for me, but it took a long time of learning the hard way in order to get to this point.  This post is the resource I wish I had before I went to Korea the first time.  I hope someone finds it valuable.

That time I photobombed Grandmaster Park on the
front page of Taekwondo Times.

Figure out how you are going to get there.

Depending on your country of origin, the visa rules will be different.  For Americans, you can visit for 90 days with only a passport.  This is an expensive trip, so having a job waiting for you can help immensely.  If you are a native English speaker with a 4-year degree, you might be able to get a job teaching English.  If you do, your choices are 1-year contracts or 1-month camps.  There is nothing in between.  Keep in mind, though, that work visas can be tedious to obtain and the rules are always changing.  In some countries (including America) it can take several months to prepare all of the documents. It's not necessary to arrange your job through a recruiter, but it can be very helpful to do so the first time.

I introduced these guys to roleplaying games, riddles, mythology and fables, and
I guess I taught them some English, too.

Figure out where you are going to stay.

If you are traveling to Korea on a work visa, your employer will arrange your lodging.  For tourists, your options are hotels, goshiwons and homestays.  For a short visit, hotels will do just fine, but for longer stays they can be prohibitively expensive.  Goshiwons are miniature dorm rooms.  They are uncomfortable for very long-term stays, but if you are in Korea for only a month or so, this is a very cheap and serviceable way to go.  Homestays involve living with a family who can be a great resource for helping you make the most of your trip.

Know what you want to study.  

Before my first trip to Korea, I was told there was a taekwondo school on every street corner and it would be easy to find a place to train.  While this was a slight exaggeration, there were indeed about a dozen schools within walking distance of where I lived. However, I would not say that it was easy to find a place to train.

The schools that can be found on every street corner tend to cater to children.  While they will eagerly accept an adult student, it is likely to be a much more modern experience than you might expect.  It may be difficult to find one with an instructor who speaks English.  I trained at one of these schools for a year, and while I absolutely love the people I trained with, I can't recommend this option.  Modern taekwondo is a very prolific art--it is available all over the world.  If this is what you want to train, you are likely to get more from the experience at home, where you fluently share a language with your instructor.

The person in this picture who speaks the least English is my instructor.
The person in this picture who speaks the least Korean is me.

For adults who are serious about modern taekwondo, the best instruction is available through universities.  Taekwondo is the national sport of Korea and it is offered at many higher education schools, often as a major and sometimes in English.  Like any college or university back home, expect to go through an admissions process and enroll in the school like any other student.

If you are training in an art other than taekwondo, a university will likely not be an option and you should expect it to be a little harder to find a school.  For obscure arts, simply finding a school and signing up is the best, and perhaps the only, way to go.

Taekyun is one of those arts that is harder to find.

Traditional taekwondo is hard to find.  You will probably need to have a connection before you arrive in Korea.  In my case, I made my first connection by knowing my lineage and style's history.  When my Korean language skills grew to the point that I could surf the Internet in Korean a little bit, I found the correct Korean spelling of Park Chull Hee, who founded the style I learned in America.  I found a website that mentioned his name and had a map.  I couldn't understand anything else on the page and the automatic translators were no help, but I recognized the area in the map.  The next weekend, I took a few hours for a trip to that area and discovered a taekyun school.  It was closed.  But by pure luck, there was someone in the office who could help me.  Long story short, I now train at that taekyun school every chance I get, and they introduced me to Grandmaster Park, who I also train with every chance I get.  Every traditional martial arts connection I've made in Korea has come from them.

Which brings me to...

Have a contact ahead of time.  

Having a contact within your martial art is a huge help for making sure you get to study what you want to study.  Your time in Korea is a finite resource, and you don't want to spend it bumbling around trying to meet the right people.  Preparation is key.

It's also valuable to have a connection for day-to-day issues.  If you don't have an employer or at least a friend in Korea, you probably want to stay at a major hotel where the staff speaks English.  Any number of issues can come up when you're travelling, and having someone who can help you is invaluable.

Don't neglect your language skills.  

Especially if you are staying in Seoul, you can get by using only English.  Don't.

Your instructor probably will not speak a lot of English.  Those who can must still conduct their classes in Korean, translating for you only when time permits.  The more you understand, the more you will get out of your training.  Try asking your instructor for some vocabulary words that will help you understand the class.  Most will appreciate the effort.

Even if you are lucky enough to find an instructor who is fluent in English, I would recommend putting some serious time into learning Korean.  At the very least, learn the Korean alphabet before you arrive.  It's easy and extremely valuable.  Many of the signs are in English if you can just understand the letters.

I often say that I don't speak Korean, but that isn't completely true.  I'm not conversational, but I can make myself understood even in some unusual situations.  "My friend is drunk and lost" is not exactly covered in Level 1 textbooks, but being able to convey that to a security guard who spoke no English turned out to be a useful skill to have.

But besides the usefulness of being able to communicate, the biggest reason to work hard on learning Korean is the doors it will open for you.  Even when I have said completely wrong things, even accidentally offensive things, the people I spoke to recognized that I was making a genuine effort with the language and culture.  Being a foreigner who is willing to do that sets you apart from the tourists and straight-out-of-college expats who are just looking to have fun in a foreign country.  That kind of dedication is rare, and almost always appreciated.

Korean is not an easy language for native English speakers to learn, but there are a number of free resources.  I particularly like Talk To Me in Korean.

Be respectful of the culture.  

Never forget that you are a guest in this country.  This should go without saying, but sadly I've seen westerners behave in ways that made me cringe just being near them.  I've heard those same people complain of how mean and unfriendly Koreans are.  That has never been my experience.

I've found Koreans to be very kind and polite people.  They are incredibly helpful and forgiving of people who can't speak the language in a way no visitor to the United States could expect.  Once I was lost on the outskirts of Seoul.  I asked for directions in a convenience store, and the worker called her English-speaking daughter to help me understand what she was telling me.  They walked me to the bus stop and asked a man there to help me get on the right bus.  That man asked a passenger to help me get off at the right stop.  It became a community project to help the lost foreigner get to the right place.  I can't imagine that happening back home.

And I managed to get where I was going before dark.

Making just a little effort with the culture will go a long way.  Being rude will get you nowhere.  Don't be that guy.

Take notes.  

Especially for a short trip, you have a finite amount of time in Korea, so you want to get as much out of your training time as possible.  On my first stay in Korea, after my class with Grandmaster Park, I would write everything I could remember in a notebook during the bus ride home.  When I got home, I would type it in my martial arts journal.  This was great not only for creating a reference resource, but also for the process of recalling everything I was taught.

I still use my journal to record technical details, but videos are also incredibly helpful. Take videos if and only if your instructor is comfortable with it.  Your instructor might allow you to make a video but ask you to keep it private.  I have a dozen or so such videos that no one besides myself has ever seen, or ever will.  My instructors are trusting me to use it purely as my own reference and not as a representation of them or their style.

There are plenty of cafes where you can write notes after class.  This one has
a travel theme and some really good cappuccino.

Also be prepared for the likelihood that you will not have space to practice between classes.  Especially if you are in Seoul, space is at a premium and your options will be limited.  If you can't practice on your own, it becomes especially important to take notes and review them before the next class.

Be patient.  

It's tempting to think you need to cram in everything as quickly as possible, and you are right.  You need to make the most of your time.  But understand that on your first trip, your instructor doesn't really know you.  Cultivating that relationship takes time.

I've made several trips to Korea to train in taekyun, and each time I was greeted more warmly.  The first time, I was treated like a customer with a genuine interest in martial arts. They gave me a fast and interesting introduction to taekyun.  Most foreigners don't make it back for a second trip, so when I did, they treated me like a dedicated student and started outlining some long-term plans for me to continue my taekyun training.  Upon my third arrival, I was greeted with hugs and the attitude that since I was a regular now, I had better improve my skills considerably.

It's not fair to expect this kind of thing to develop overnight.  Most instructors in any country will respond to dedication, and Korea is no different.  Are you a serious martial artist, or a tourist who trains in martial arts?  It can be hard to tell the difference, so take the time and prove it.  You prove it by never missing a class, by training even when you are tired and jet-lagged, by diligently reviewing, and by keeping up the practice when you're not in Korea.  Serious martial artists know the drill--that's just how they operate.  Be patient and your instructor will see it.

Drink in moderation.

Drinking is part of the culture in Korea, but don't go overboard.  You're here to train, not get wasted.  Besides the negative impact that alcohol has on your physical performance, you've only got so much time in Korea.  Do you really want to spend it drunk and hung over?

A Buddha statue surrounded by "ten thousand Buddhas" at Kuknyeong Temple,
hidden away in the mountains.  You will never get there drunk.

Enjoy the adventure.

Sometimes people ask me for advice about teaching English in Korea.  I always tell them that if they're looking for an adventure, they're going to have a wonderful experience that they'll remember their whole lives, but if they're looking for a job they're going to be miserable.  Traveling or living in any foreign country will have its quirks and annoyances, and the longer you stay the more chance they have to get under your skin.  Nobody goes to Seoul for the crowded subway ride.  They tolerate the crowded subway ride for the adventure at the other end.

If you try to live like you do back home, with a western diet and western habits, it's difficult if not impossible.  Even if you do manage, it will be expensive and frustrating.  Eat your kimchi, try the thing that still looks like it did when it was alive, hang your wet clothes instead of trying to find a dryer, and always remember that what happens in a noraebang stays in a noraebang.

Things you can only do in Korea:  photo op at the Kimchi Museum.

This is a country with thousands of years of history and countless stories to tell.  Seoul exists firmly in the past and in the future--I've never seen any other place where you can be so completely surrounded by the height of technology and the modern world, but turn a corner and see something that has been there for hundreds of years or more.  You can't spend every minute training, so take some time to experience the culture.


  1. My sifu has traveled to China to train in multiple styles of Kung Fu. Do you know of any good resources similar to this post for China (or particular parts of it)? It'd be cool to hear about some of your adventures outside of the school sooner or later :)

    1. I'm maybe not the last person on Earth who you should ask about China, but pretty close. As far as adventures outside of the school, I post them in moderation. I did one about the Forbidden Garden in Korea, and a couple from Seattle. More will come--I just want to keep the travel to martial arts ratio at a good level.