Favorite Anecdotes From Students and Friends:
Part of testing included direct feedback
from the instructor, in written form. The scores, combined with the
notations, were invaluable in understanding the art form and moving
forward. Some notations were direct – “Lower your side-medium block so
you don’t get slammed in the ribs”. Some were a bit more esoteric –
“Lowering your center and projecting more energy will help you advance
overall.” Unfortunately, with Mr. Kim’s limited English, those lucky
enough to test directly under him often received forms filled with the
same phrase over and over again – “More work.”
It's been mentioned by
many others about how Mr. Kim would write on your testing sheet, "Needs
more work." I got that from him at least once. He used to say that to
me, too, when I asked if I was doing a move correctly. Originally, I
attributed it to his limited English skills. After years of studying Han
Moo Kwan TKD and now Goju Ryu karate, I see how egotistical (and wrong!)
my thought was. I now think that he said that because there was not only
one or two things that I needed fixed, but that there were too many of
them for Mr. Kim to go into at that time. Who was it who said, "When the
student is ready, the teacher will appear before him?" I wasn't "ready"
yet, so Mr. Kim advised that I just keep working . . . on everything.
There were times after a test when I
didn’t do so well and he would consol me by telling me not to look at
the test score but to look at my improvement. He would tell me to do my
I loved it when he would
interrupt a class session if he felt the instructor wasn’t teaching it
properly. He’d just walk in and say ‘No, this way!’ and then show us
how it should be done. As an intermediate I thought it was a real honor
that he would do that for us, not sure how the instructor felt.
As the instructor in the
story above, I can tell you exactly how it felt. At first, I was
confused and thought I was being scolded or ridiculed. Mr. Kim’s style
of training was to correct the instructor in front of the class, using
as much time as necessary to ensure the technique was correct – while
the rest of the class simply waited. After numerous occasions of this
uncomfortable process, I had several discussions with Mr. Kim about
western teaching style and how alternative approaches might help support
the instructor’s credibility. He politely acknowledged my concerns, and
then continued with the same methods. What I learned over time was the
depth of its value. The students benefited from watching the quality
and intensity of his corrections. It reinforced the concept that we are
all students. Above all, it taught me huge lessons around keeping my
ego in check.
During class he demanded
that our posture was always correct even when we were just standing
around between classes. This reflected his belief that you live martial
arts – you don’t just practice it.
I can still remember the
time during self defense when someone complained “what if you’re
attacked when you weren’t ready” and his reply was so simple and
profound, “You’re always ready.”
After years of keeping to a specific
set of basics, Mr. Kim started teaching a spinning back kick to some
of the black belts. His fighting style was in direct conflict with
turning your back on an opponent for any reason, but he found
practicing the kick useful. During one of my practice sessions I
was able to execute it, albeit not gracefully. Mr. Kim was
animated. He said “This kick very difficult. Practice! Practice!
Practice! 1000 times! 10,000 times! Never use!! This kick for
when your opponent…” Obviously struggling to find the appropriate
English word, he finally gave up and acted the word by sticking his
tongue out, tilting his head back and shaking it slowly. I got the
message... this was a “finishing kick”, not to be used in facing an
I had been working out with Mr. Kim for
over 20 years. Every night, it began the same way. I would do some
light warm-up (jumping and running in place) followed by 20 minutes of
stretching, then start with basics and work my way up. One evening I
was doing my stretches and Mr. Kim approached. He asked what I was
doing. I was puzzled. Did he think I was practicing a technique, and
somehow getting it wrong? I explained that I had not started my workout
yet, and that I was just warming up. In his broken English, he said “No
more – No time before a fight to warm up.” I realized he was telling me
to teach my body to tolerate jumping straight in, with power. That was
15 years ago. I’m still working on it periodically. I hope to see the
day that I don’t limp the following morning.
For safety reasons, the first club added
basic falling practice to the workouts. These were not part of Mr.
Kim’s style, and most were stolen from Judo. He was reluctant to have
them included, but we insisted that they added an additional level of
safety – just in case someone fell. Years later, he was asked why we
did not include ground-fighting techniques and defenses. He replied:
“Don’t fall down.”
When asked about our goals in martial
arts, or simply why we should practice, Mr. Kim simply said “To better
In the early days (1970’s) Mr. Kim thought
the chest protectors in the stores were flimsy and inadequate. He
convinced us to make our own. We found ourselves in my back yard, with
an open fire, carving up strips of bamboo and heating them so they could
be shaped appropriately. Add some neoprene, very heavy canvas, huge
needles with thread and you had yourself a Neanderthal sewing circle.
What we produced was very impressive. I made the mistake of offering to
test the first model. When Mr. Kim hit me with a side kick, I went
airborne for a good 3 feet before landing on my back. He said that was
half power. We decided we still needed to pull our punches a bit.
I’ve studied many martial arts, learning
from a dozen or so instructors. They all had their different styles and
approaches. Corrections always came in the form of an explanation,
physical adjustments, and some encouragement when it started to get
better – you know the drill. With Mr. Kim it was different. If I used
something that was not effective he would turn to me with those very
cold eyes and simply say “You’re dead.” Nothing drove it home faster,
or more effectively, than those two words.
Brian was lucky he
told him "you're dead" when something didn't work. He told me, "You dead
chicken." I wasn't thrilled about that, but I got the message clearly.
During an open session, with everyone
working on whatever interested them that evening, I was practicing some
self defense with another black belt. From a same-side grab to the
wrist, I would raise my arm outward and then inward, pick up the
aggressor’s hand with my free hand, lock their wrist releasing the
pressure on my arm, then force my elbow into their forearm to initiate
an arm bar. It seemed to be working moderately well. Mr. Kim walked
over and took a position in front of me. He put out his wrist, so I
grabbed it to experience his correction. With his free hand he punched
my grabbing hand, pretty much shattering it and definitely eliminating
the threat. He turned to me and said “Basics. Always work.”
If you’ve studied any of the karate forms
you will know that the road to learning and later perfecting a hyung (kata,
form) is a long one. You usually have to run through it 200-300 times
just to get it down, then double that to fully understand it.
Practicing as a new brown belt one Monday evening, Mr. Kim approached
and said he was going to show me my next hyung – Pyung Ahn 5. I said
Great! He said “You’ll perform it at the demo on Saturday.” He wasn’t
asking if I was free on Saturday, or if my busy college schedule would
allow me to practice between now and then. It was simply understood
that this was going to be done, and I would make it happen.
As a young black belt, in my prime, I
loved developing new combinations to use in sparring. I’d get together
with my favorite sparring partner off hours and perfect my technique (in
secret). From time to time I was fortunate enough to spar Mr. Kim. It
was always humiliating, but you never know – right? I had this great
5-point combo all set to go which started with a lunging backhand,
followed by 3 other strikes, ending with a heel-kick to the head. When
I started the backhand, committing myself to the routine, Mr. Kim simply
stepped aside and raised his hand to catch the final kick. It was
terrifying to see myself (in slow motion) executing all this as a body
memory – knowing it was not going to end well.
A particularly flashy
young black-belt (can’t remember his name) and Mr. Kim were sparring
lightly. The young black-belt was delivering kicks and punches and Mr.
Kim was blocking or taking as he wished, all the while with a little
smile on his face. At some point, Mr. Kim being ready to end it (I
guess) just simply grabbed the black-belt’s dobok (uniform), pulled him
in flailing, pushed him to the ground and punched. It was so simple and
Someone was relating a
story of using a simple sweeping motion of his hand to “accidently” stop
the progress of someone who was cutting in line at an amusement park.
Mr. Kim was most displeased with this type of use of force and
expressed his displeasure simply with something like. “No, No, No,
that’s not a good use….”
The class was having a
bit of a bull session in with students throwing questions left and
right; “What do you do if….?” Mr. Kim was answering them in turn and
then someone asked, “What do you do if someone points a gun at you?”.
He quickly responded, “Turn and run as fast as you can!”. It was a
nice lesson that sometimes you have to use common sense over force,
which is also a nice life lesson.
self-defense or a new move, Mr. Kim would be asked a question. He would
explain, then turn to you and say, "You do." It didn't take me long to
realize the incorrect response was to say, "I'll try." Mr. Kim's
response was always, "You do, do not try." Jedi Master Yoda obviously
got his famous quote, "Do or do not. There is no try," from a writer who
studied martial arts.
I could never really
get a handle on Mr. Kim's sense of humor. He was not one to tell
jokes, tease, use irony, etc. But there was laughter, definitely
laughter. In a constant clash of cultures, he reminded us just how
absurd we can be. We laughed at ourselves. One of my fondest
memories was from the very early days, when Mr. Kim was still new to the
United States. He came in puzzled one evening. It appears
that the prior evening his typically quiet neighborhood was overrun by
children, running around knocking on doors. When he answered, they
said something unintelligible and he would shoo them away, puzzling them
to no end. After workout, he turned to us and asked "What is
It was important to
include a social component within the club atmosphere, especially due to
the brutal nature of the art form. The first club picnic was
interesting to say the least. All the students dressed very
casually, while Mr. Kim showed up in less comfortable clothing. We
had set up lots of food, drink, and games. Mr. Kim walked around
talking with people and connecting with the family members. When
volleyball started up, we wanted to make him feel welcome so we asked if
he knew how to play. He gave us a puzzled look, then answered in
the affirmative. We gave him the ball to serve. He threw it
lightly into the air, hit it with knife hand, and placed it anywhere he
wanted in the court. At that point we knew we were in trouble.
In the decades Mr. Kim
devoted his time, skill, and patience guiding us through the rigorous
training of martial arts, he never accepted any form of payment.
It was difficult for him to even understand those who profit from
teaching something that was to be shared with community. At one
point we offered to just reimburse him for his transportation expenses;
he was very insulted.
One of Mr. Kim's greatest
gifts was his ability to build community. He reminded us how
important it was to slow down and spend time with family and friends.
As our friendship grew, we went to dinner often. Although I
enjoyed the time with him immensely, it did raise a point of contention.
Did you ever try to get a check away from a 6th degree black belt?
Mr. Kim was someone you could go to when life wasn’t working out the way you wanted. Not just with issues around learning martial arts, but with most everyday challenges. Some examples:
Mr. Kim’s response was always the same: “Show up. Work out.”
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