Every late afternoon and evening, the streets of Jeju fill with children dressed in cute white outfits headed to taekwondo practice. Loosely meaning “the art of the foot and fist,” taekwondo is Korea’s national sport and a source of great national pride.
Upon arriving in Korea, many foreigners are eager to try this martial art in its birthplace. However, many are also discouraged when they find that enrolling in most beginner taekwondo classes means being surrounded by giggling eight-year-olds in an all-Hangeul environment. Master Cho offers a solution.
Located in Shin Jeju, Cho’s gym offers a foreigner-only martial arts class every night from 8 to 9 p.m. On Monday and Wednesday, he teaches taekwondo, and on Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday, he teaches aikido. The cost is 90,000 won per month, with a one-time fee of 40,000 won for the dobok, or uniform. After paying the monthly membership fee, students can choose to learn taekwondo, aikido, or both; the cost is the same. (Though nobody is currently enrolled in aikido, Cho is eager to introduce more foreigners to the sport.)
The gym has been open for seven years and has a total of 60 students in both its taekwondo and aikido programs. Cho, a cheery yet soft-spoken Jeju native, has been practicing taekwondo for 21 years. He began aikido more recently, and really enjoys it as it is “very different” from other martial arts. Aikido, originating in Japan, is a martial art that focuses on redirecting an attacker’s strength back on him or herself.
When asked how he spoke English so well, Cho chuckled and responded, “My wife is a high school English teacher.” As far as he knows, he offers the only English taekwondo/aikido classes in Jeju City.
Cho started the foreigner classes two years ago after being contacted by a friend, a teacher whose coworker was looking for a taekwondo class in English. Now, approximately 10 foreign students have passed through Cho’s doors.
Sean Ferguson, an EPIK teacher from Michigan, is the person whose co-teacher made the initial call. He was Cho’s first foreign student and is now working on his second black belt. Normally, it takes students about one year of attending two days per week to obtain their black belt. In order to earn it, applicants must attend a public test at which they perform a choreographed sequence and then spar with another applicant. Though he had to fight “the largest man in Korea,” Ferguson considers the hard work well worth it.
His favorite things about taekwondo are the “different levels and goals to achieve.” His sentiment, that “after high school and college, it’s difficult to create athletic goals,” is one with which many people would agree and what often draws foreigners to study taekwondo.
Though I was not planning on it, I was invited to participate in the class by the other students and decided to take advantage of the opportunity.
The class began with group stretching then proceeded with about a dozen different kicking exercises. I was a bit nervous at first, but the other students and Cho were so friendly and accepting that I was soon kicking away and having a great time. With each kick and accompanying yell, I could feel some of the day’s stresses (thank you, 6th grade girls) floating away. The focus was more on kicking than on punching, which the other students said is typical.
The class finished with group stretching, bowing, and “thank yous” all around. Cho definitely knows how to push his students, and I, along with the others, was a sweaty mess. Along with (and better than) the sweat, I felt a nice glow of satisfaction and accomplishment.
Exclaiming “I feel great!” after the class, EPIK teacher Sarah Brodie obviously agreed with me. A former professional basketball player and aspiring yoga teacher, this class complements her other athletic interests. “I love it. I’m super excited for my black belt. It is such a good workout, with tons of dynamic stretching, and it also addresses the competitive drive within myself.” She has been enrolled in the class since last November and hopes to receive her black belt this fall.
The third and final taekwondo student is Tara Franklin, from Northern Virginia. She is the newest addition and also has nothing but positive remarks. “I’ve only been to four classes, but it’s been awesome. I’m already feeling stronger,” she said.
Cho is always accepting new students of any level. To accommodate different levels in the same class, he has students teach each other and gives them separate techniques to focus. Cho offers one free drop-in class to anybody considering enrolling, so if you are looking for a great workout and a bit of Korean culture, get in touch with Cho — and get kicking!
▲ Photo by Susan Shain
Taekwondo is on Monday and Wednesday from 8-9 p.m., while aikido is offered Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday. The gym is located in Shin Jeju, between Namnyeong High School and the corner of Wollang 6 ro. It is across the street from a large green FDI photo shop. Call 010-9546-4334 for more information.
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