“Hana, tul, set.” I felt as if I was back in Korea hearing someone counting to three in Korean and yet I wasn’t. I was in Miatcatlan, a small pueblo in the Mexican state of Morelos, and just about the farthest I could be from Korea, in terms of both distance and culture. Watching a taekwondo belt exam take place at the Mexican orphanage where I worked was somewhat ironic, especially when the taekwondo instructor and the person presiding over the exam were both Icelandic.
As the orphanage’s onsite journalist, it was my job to write newsworthy articles for the organization’s website and newsletter that would keep the organization’s donor base abreast of what was going on in the various homes (there are eight located throughout Latin America) and also to “unintentionally” solicit donations from benevolent persons. So, when news of the belt exam came up, I knew I wanted to be there, if only to view the strangest intermingling of cultures ever-Mexican and Korean with a little Icelandic thrown in.
Although I was slightly annoyed at having to get up early on my day off and further annoyed when I was mildly mocked by some of the home’s teenage residents for sporting pegged jeans (teenagers are obnoxious regardless of the country or language spoken), my heart melted and all past feelings of annoyance dissipated when I saw some of the home’s youngest residents in their taekwondo uniforms. Being around the children never failed to bring a smile to my face or or remind me it was because of the ninos that I decided to throw caution to the wind and live abroad after graduation from college without the safety net I’d had as a study abroad student in Spain and Costa Rica.
Before discovering the orphanage’s taekwondo program (which was singlehandedly started by Levi, the Icelandic volunteer), I had never equated this Korean sport with Mexico. When I think of sports being played by Mexican children, I think of futbol (soccer). Although scores of American children from all races and backgrounds take taekwondo, Mexico was never the nation of immigrants that the United States is. But seeing the kids earnestly kicking their legs upon a command, their stances so perfectly erect, I realized that taekwondo is not just an extracurricular activity taught to children who are driven to lessons in their mom’s minivan. While the younger students were sillier in their poses when I wanted to take pictures of them, there was one boy of pre-teen age who was most serious and ardent. I caught him practicing outside of the exam room, away from the crowds, away from even his friends, preferring the quiet solitude before his section’s exam time came. I had immense respect for this particular student, for he exhibited intense devotion to his study of practice even though he was after all still just a kid. Some years later I would read how Levi took two of the students to Iceland with him, where they participated in a taekwondo tournament. I like to think that one of the children who went was the boy I had so greatly admired.
During my time spent working as a volunteer at the home, I heard many stories about the horrific and unimaginable experiences many of the children had gone through prior to being placed there. Although none were ever conveyed directly to me, I knew that many of these traumatic experiences would never be entirely forgotten. Losing one’s parents, being abandoned, being wrenched from the institution of childhood in an instant, placed in the role of adult, is more than most of us can ever begin to imagine going through. And yet seeing children whose native tongue is Spanish, shouting out words in an East Asian language, reminded me that even something as simple as taekwondo, a sport I had always equated with middle-class America, can bring joy to a group of Mexican orphans, and also help in giving them a sense of normalcy in their young lives.