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Saturday, April 2, 2016

Happy Times with Grandmaster Park Chull Hee

Many of you in my martial arts family already know that Grandmaster Park has passed away.  Today I am skipping work to write this post about happier times, because it's all I can do in the face of profound loss.  There's no way I can go to the funeral in Korea.  I want to do the normal things that people do when they mourn, but that involves friends, instructors, and training partners on the other side of a language barrier, and the world itself.

A wallet certificate for a martial arts master in taekwondo's formative years,
before they even nailed down exactly what to call the art.

While the world is a little bit less today for not having him in it, this is a post about happier times.

In fact, I'll start off with a Fish Story, which I wrote before I started this blog, at a time when a Guardians of the Galaxy reference was somewhat timely.

Fish Story

I have a fish story for you.

I wanted to take Grandmaster Park out to a nice restaurant before I leave Korea.  Being unfamiliar with restaurants in the area, I asked the taekyun staff for a recommendation. They suggested an oddly-named restaurant that translated to, "My mother cooked me fish."

So when I offered to take Grandmaster Park there, he absolutely could not understand why I kept telling him that my mother cooked me fish.  He was too polite to say, "Listen you crazy foreigner, I know for a fact that your mother didn't cook you fish, because your mother isn't even on this continent, and even if she did cook you fish, why do you keep telling me that?"  But eventually I got him to the restaurant and pointed at the sign, and perhaps he no longer worried that he needed to report me for some mental health screening.

When we got there, I saw that the pictures were not what I expected.  The taekyun staff told me it was "fried fish," so I imagined breaded and fried fish pieces, like you would get at a fish fry in America.  But no.  They served up whole fish.  I have a personal rule to not eat anything that looks like it did when it was alive.  Why?  Because I'm a wuss.  But Grandmaster Park seemed happy to be there, so I decided to suck it up and face my impending doom.

I get squeamish when I can't tell if it's a meal or a pet.

I was thankful when Grandmaster Park selected a dish that was served without a head or a tail.  I wouldn't have to worry that my meal would start screaming as soon as I poked at it with chop sticks.  And even more importantly, I wouldn't have to go all Yondu on Grandmaster Park's fish and save it from being eaten.  After a sigh of relief, I ordered two of them.

When the meal arrived, I had no idea how to eat it.  I'm pretty good with chop sticks at this point, but I couldn't imagine how to cut a fish with them.  So I focused on my soup until I could see Grandmaster Park do it.  He basically scooped the meat out like he was using a spoon.  I watched and copied, and managed to eat.  It was pretty good.

Using magical powers that I can only assume come somewhere around 9th degree, Grandmaster Park was able to turn his fish into two neat rows of bones that looked like they had been cleaned in a chemistry lab.  Mine looked like somebody had scraped some of the meat out, gotten frustrated, and decided to smash the rest with a hammer.

When I finally gave up, Grandmaster Park teased me.  He said that when it's time to pay, I should get a discount because there's still enough fish there that they can sell it again.

I wonder if in Korea, they put soy sauce in the wound instead of salt.

A Story About His Character

The first time I went to Korea, I knew that Grandmaster Park was in Seoul somewhere.  I didn't even try to look him up.  I was only a first degree back then, and I figured the founder of our kwan had better things to do than hang out with the likes of me.  I would have loved to meet him, but I didn't want to inconvenience him.  So you can imagine my surprise when he was the one to reach out to me.

I've told the story before, but I'll tell it again in a little more detail now.  I had been training in a Kukkiwon school under Master Jang.  It was valuable, certainly, but it was a more modern experience than I expected.  So one day after my Korean language skills had developed enough, I spent some quality time with Google and found a Korean website detailing the beginning of taekwondo through the original nine kwans.  On that page, I found the correct hangeul spelling of Park Chull Hee.  Then I was able to search for his name in Korean.

Spoiler:  I found him and trained with him.

Automatic translators between English and Korean are not very helpful, but back then they were even worse.  Google returned a myriad of results, but I understood almost none of their contents.  However, there was one result that included a picture--a map of an area in Seoul that I recognized.  It said there was a taekyun school there, which was surprising to me because I had been there and never noticed any martial arts school in that area.  Still, it was more to go on than I'd ever had before.  If these people were talking about Grandmaster Park on their website, they must certainly know how to find more traditional martial arts schools in Korea.  So as soon as the weekend came, I went to Seoul and followed the map, all so I could ask if there was a Kang Duk Won school near where I lived.

The school was closed when I arrived, but there were two people in the office.  I must have looked like a lost tourist.  But I did get to ask about traditional martial arts near my town.  Neither of them knew, but they took down my phone number and promised to find out.  The next day, Grandmaster Park called me.  I have always wondered about how that conversation went.  "Hello, sir.  How are you today?  There was a lost white lady asking about you today.  Her name is unpronounceable but here's her phone number."

When he called me, we arranged to meet at the taekyun school.  I had to wait until the weekend so I could travel to Seoul again, but it turned out that he traveled just as far.  He chose the place not because it was convenient, but because he knew that I could find it. When I met him, I bowed, because that is how you greet someone in Korea, but he shook my hand because that's how you greet someone in America.  We went to a restaurant and got to know each other a little bit.

Communication was difficult.  No one whose Korean is as terrible as mine has any right to complain about anyone's English, but we did not always understand each other. Moreover, he had some hearing loss, making it even more difficult.  I desperately wanted him to tell me stories.  I knew he had been deeply involved in the origins of taekwondo, and he must have so much to tell.  So at one point I asked him to tell me about his instructor.  He misunderstood and said something about the buses.  So I said, "No, I mean your instructor, Yoon Byungin."

He was surprised that I knew that name, and he lit up like a little kid on Christmas.  I've seen that smile from him exactly three times.  The first was on that day.  The second was when he learned that I was training in taekyun.  And the third was when I told him I was starting a school.

And a Very Personal Note

My strongest visceral memory of Grandmaster Park was during my first trip to Korea, on the day I told him I was going back to America soon.  It was a phrase he said in passing after training that day.  He said, "...when you start your school."

I loved martial arts and teaching too, but I understood that certain doors were closed to me, and that was one of them.  Even if it wasn't, it was dramatically premature to talk about that sort of thing.  I was only a first degree when this conversation took place.

He said, "When you start your school."  Not, "If you start a school," or even, "Hey, Jinyeong, have you ever thought of starting a school someday?"  He was so confident that I would persevere, that I would get there, that I would make this impossible thing a reality someday.  I didn't have the heart to tell him that I planned to give up on martial arts when I went back home.

That night was torture.  I barely slept.  I kept thinking how awful it was that I had this incredible instructor--one who could teach me so much, who was so happy to work with me, who never charged me a dime but demanded my utmost effort, who went out of his way to help me at every turn, and who even really, truly believed in me--and I was losing him because it was time to go home.

Well, I didn't lose him that day.  I went back to Korea every chance I could to train with him.  Each time I would show him the progress I had made by practicing what he had shown me last time, and he would smile and say, "Very improve!"  He didn't do email and phone conversations became increasingly difficult as his hearing worsened, so I communicated with him through snail mail.  I didn't lose him that day.  I lost him today.

But I'll always keep alive the things that he taught me.  I'll forever be a better person because of the things he did for me, and I'm more successful because of the ways he inspired me.  I'll do my very best to be worthy of the confidence he had in me, and I'll do everything I can to make sure my students carry the torch as well.  I'm sure many other people he touched will do exactly the same.

The world is a little bit less today for not having him in it, but the world is so much more because of the many years he was here.

Grandmaster Park and myself in front of the place where he took his first lessons.
Carrying on the tradition is all up to us now.

Thanks for listening.