NYC244 cover image See all stories from issue #244, November/December 2014

A Black Belt Who Refused to Fight
David Shin

When you hold a black belt in Taekwondo like I do, people have expectations about you. They expect you to do amazing flying kicks and to be an overall great athlete. Those are the parts of being a black belt I can identify with and I’m proud of. But they also expect you to be aggressive and be the best, and those are the parts that I’m not comfortable with.

Taekwondo is a Korean martial art that many Korean city boys start learning when they’re about 5 years old. I grew up in Seoul so my parents sent me to a Taekwondo school.

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By the time I had moved to the U.S. and entered high school, I was nearly a second degree black belt. (It goes by a ranking system from low to high: 1st degree, 2nd degree, 3rd degree, up to 9th.)

Taekwondo became part of my identity. I like to make the analogy of a black belt being like a doctor. When people ask doctors what their job is, they proudly say that they’re doctors and those who ask have respect for them. I feel that same way when people ask me what belt I am. The label “black belt” makes me feel respected and proud.

I can do things that most people can’t do, such as flying kicks, split kicks, and scissor kicks. I think of Taekwondo as an artform, not a way to hurt people.

Newsflash--I’m Not Competitive

My parents want me to be competitive, but it isn’t in my nature. Trying to be better than someone, and winning, leaves me with a sore feeling, especially if I hurt the other person as a result.

When I was in 8th grade my coach suggested I start competing in tournaments. I thought it would be a chance to challenge myself, so the next time one was announced, I signed up.

On the day of the tournament my division was the last event, so I sat through all the other people sparring and doing amazing maneuvers. I watched the older kids fight. One guy kicked another guy in the face, and he collapsed momentarily. “Wow,” I thought. “That’s both embarrassing and scary at the same time!”

My heart pounded like it did during a horror movie. I was nervous watching other people fight. “What if I get hurt?” I thought.

My division was finally called, and the ref had us weigh in to match people up of similar weight. The kids looked tough and I was frightened. I learned that two of them were New Jersey state champions. Then a friend said, “I think you’re cooked” which made me more nervous. I stepped on the scale and freaked out. I was heavier than I thought. That meant I’d be fighting taller or more muscular people. I felt like a rat inside a cat cage.

Bob and Weave

Ring! The bell sounded and my first fight began. I was confident when I fought at school, but when it came to competing in my first tournament, I felt like a coward. My dad and my instructor were watching along with about 50 other people. My opponent and I bounced around, trying to find a chance to knock the heck out of each other. To tire my opponent out, I kept dodging his kicks. To be on the defensive like that was a cheap strategy. As an accomplished student I should have been doing a lot of attacks along with jumping kicks, but I was too scared.

Neither of us scored any points during the bout so we went on to a sudden death round, which means the first person to score a point wins. There is no time limit. Sudden death is a perfect name for it because one hit decides the winner of the match.

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We were both exhausted. My opponent seemed angry. He started charging at me. He threw a powerful round-house kick, which I also dodged. However, I found a chance to counterattack. I did a round-house kick—Pow!—that hit him right in his stomach.

The fight was over. I won but only because I had been passive for most of the fight. I hadn’t used much of my skill or intellect. I just wanted to get my trophy for participating and go home. “One down, one more to go,” I said to myself.

Pep Talk

“What are you doing?” my coach said when I got back to the bench. “Stop defending! This guy is tall, so you need to go up to him. Stop being a wimp.”

His words gave me courage. My opponent was a third degree black belt and he was more muscular and taller than the first guy I fought. But I was tired of being scared. And I knew it wasn’t just fear of getting hurt that was holding me back. I was afraid of messing up advanced tricks in front of an audience that felt Super Bowl-big to me. Still, even though the other guy had more experience competing in tournaments, I knew I was a good fighter. I decided to give it my all.

”Blue and red get inside the square,” the ref called. I stepped inside the ring. “Fight!”

This time, I tried to use all the techniques I’d learned.

Special turning kicks and head kicks were worth three points, which was the highest. I knew I wasn’t going to go Bruce Lee and do amazing flying kicks. So I decided to hunt for the head. My opponent kept charging me to make me tired.

On the Attack

I counter-attacked and pushed him away from me. It was time to score some points. I threw some fast head kicks and scored. My opponent was mad. He landed a lot of kicks but they only hit me on places that wouldn’t give him any points like my thighs and waist. He did hurt me though and gave me black and blue marks.

I kicked him in the head again. I was now ahead 6-0. Then I realized I was enjoying it a little. I felt like a bull fighter teasing the bull. He was extremely mad, but that only contributed to my excitement. I kicked him in the head again. The score was now 9-0. The crowd was moaning for the poor boy and probably thinking I was a terrible person. Only 30 seconds remained, and I decided to let the clock run out and just dodge everything. I even gave him a free point, so he wouldn’t feel that bad. “Stop!” The ref yelled. “Face each other, bow.”

The tournament was over. I had beaten two guys. I was the champion of my division.

The judge put the medal around my neck but I didn’t feel good about winning. In the first fight I hadn’t done anything but run out the clock and make a move at the very end. Then in the second fight, I fought well but I felt bad that the other guy didn’t score a point until the end. He was crying after the tournament, which also made me feel bad.

I never competed again, even though my coach wanted me to. It was exciting, but when I competed I didn’t feel true to myself. It wasn’t the way I identify as a Taekwondo practitioner.

Part of the Taekwondo definition is “the right way of using all parts of the body to stop fights and help to build a better and more peaceful world.” That’s what I identify with. To me, being a black belt is about being an artist, being disciplined. Forget about all that fighting stuff.

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