Dispatch from South Korea: American movies and tae kwon do

Editor's Note: This is the second in a series of dispatches from Luke Zeller, who graduated in June with a bachelor of science in secondary education (English and communications) from the College of Education. A Schreyer Scholar, he earned a Fulbright Scholarship to teach English as a foreign language in South Korea. He arrived in early July, and will spend the first six weeks in an intensive Korean language and culture orientation at Kangwon University in Chuncheon. Afterwards, he will be placed with a host family to begin his teaching at a community school until July 2009.

Aug. 18:

Wow, so I just returned from seeing "The Dark Knight." We got "Batman" a couple weeks after all of you in the States, and it was a pretty wild experience. I went there with a bunch of miguks, (Americans) and sat through a two-and-a-half-hour experience of pure American, over-the-top action in a theatre that was big enough to be in King of Prussia. Then, the movie ends, and I look around. Oh yeah, I'm in South Korea. 

Beyond our dorm, living with about 80 other Americans, and our trips to the movies, it is quite clear where we all are. Our orientation is nearing the finish line, and a few sentimental "ends" already have occurred. During my experience student teaching in Sweden and traveling Europe, I became acquainted with a reality of traveling. I have amazingly unique experiences with the understanding that they may not ever happen again. I just take a moment or two to acknowledge how blessed I am to be doing what I am doing. But, anyway, the end that I arrived at was my summer tae kwon do (TKD) training. I plan to continue through the school year, but it probably won't be like my summer training under a seventh- degree black belt master. About 25 of us signed up for the monthlong training, and we even earned our yellow belts. Although, I think we were on the expedited track to earn our belts as foreigners. 

The highest degree black belt is the ninth degree. For each additional degree of the black belt, you have to wait that many years until you can test for the next degree. So, needless to say, a seventh-degree black belt is very rare. Our master, who could probably take any of us down in a matter of seconds was very friendly and had a great sense of humor. During our warm-up laps, he would kick the heels of whoever was trailing in a good-natured way.    

The other highlight of our sessions was the kids who helped train us. Our instructor did not speak much English, and he explained that TKD should be taught in its native language when in South Korea. Therefore, we often had these little Korean kids excitedly join us to demonstrate the moves that we were supposed to be learning. I loved working with my young teacher who taught me my first TKD Form in order to learn my yellow belt. 

A Form consists of about 20 coordinated moves. These young TKD experts could run through the routine with their eyes closed, but it took us a little practice. I was also glad to take a picture with the TKD master who embraced a bunch of miguks so wholeheartedly. 

My friend Rachel joins us in the picture. On the last day, our master took us out for a wonderful meal of dalkalbi. It is a delicious meal of chicken, cabbage, sweet potato, rice cake and hot paste that is cooked right in front of you in a huge pan. I was fortunate enough to enjoy the meal with some of our TKD teachers. One young girl is a great athlete who already has a black belt.She exchanged some of her broken English for some of my broken Korean. They were incredibly sweet.

Finally, I need to share a few Penn State connections that I made this past week.  First off, I was able to meet my friend MinSoo Kim in Seoul last weekend. I met MinSoo through our work for Asha for Education at Penn State. After we miraculously found each other in one of the world's largest cities, we took a pretty astounding tour of Seoul's Gyeoungbokgung, the main palace of the Joseon Dynasty, which dates back to 1395. In addition to the wonderful MinSoo, we had a presentation this week by a high school teacher who has been collaborating with Fulbright for several years as a co-teacher. Our co-teachers will be our main point of contact with our schools once we start teaching. It turns out that our presenter, Fred Junwoo Choi, will begin his studying for his doctoral degree in education leadership at Penn State this year with William Boyd, education professor. It was fun to tell him about life in Happy Valley. He has a blog of his own at http://fred.pe.kr.  He offered some interesting perspectives on the education system in South Korea, which I will be writing more about as I experience it.   

So, that's all for now.  The next time I write, I will be in a very different environment: actually living with a Korean family in the Southwest province of South Korea, in a town called Hwasun.   

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Last Updated November 18, 2010