For the third night in a row, Seok Han’s mother comes to our gym in tears. She is helpless and frustrated. Outside, the desolate darkness of the winter night seems to echo her maternal sorrow. We calm her down and listen to her grievances.
A couple of months earlier, Seok Han had come to register at our gym, his anxious mother in tow. Burly and tall for his age, Seok Han is a sophomore at a high school nearby. We find out that he has little interest in his studies, but has developed a keen interest and passion for Muay Thai after watching K-1 on TV. Luckily for Seok Han, his mother is understanding enough to allow him to pursue his passions, instead of insisting unrelentingly on academic achievements like other Korean parents do.
After Seok Han’s first training session, his mother confided in us. She told us that Seok Han had gotten into trouble at school for engaging in underage smoking and drinking repeatedly.
Disciplinary measures from both his parents and the school seemed to have no effect at all.
She hoped that Muay Thai training would allow Seok Han to both pursue his passion, and develop a sense of discipline at the same time.
“You do know that smoking and drinking affects your performance as a fighter, right? If you correct your bad habits, I will allow you to fight next month.” Okbae, the gym’s owner and head trainer encouraged Seok Han by appealing to his motivation and passion for fighting. Seok Han responded eagerly and dutifully, and performed well at first.
The follies of youth soon manifested themselves merely a few weeks later. Seok Han’s mother received a call from his school principal. It was a dire warning; Seok Han would be expelled if he continued flouting the rules brazenly. With his history of offences, no other school in the country would be willing to accept him even if he applied for a transfer.
“Please, please do anything in your capacity to get Seok Han on the right track again,” Seok Han’s mother pleads with Okbae. She grasps Okbae’s clenched fists beseechingly, and bows deeply and formally to us. We recognise this as a mother’s last desperate plea for help.
Okbae is furious and disappointed. He spends the next morning calling his teacher and seniors for advice. Okbae’s teacher offers the insights from fifteen years of operating a gym. “Spare the rod and spoil the child. You have to nip this bad behaviour in the bud.” Okbae’s seniors, other gym owners, tell him that they administer corporal punishment and verbally admonish errant children in the gym after receiving parental consent. As I watch from the sidelines, I can tell that Okbae has reached a decision regarding Seok Han.
That evening, Seok Han turns up for training as usual. A grim expression replaces the usual smile on Okbae’s face as he watches the teen enter the gym. “Get changed and wait in the room at the back!” Okbae hollers, folding his arms. His eyes are hard and unflinching. A mixture of surprise and fear surfaces on Seok Han’s face, a far cry from the jaunty smirk he usually wears. Instructing a senior member to lead warmups, Okbae grabs a thick rattan cane and goes after Seok Han. He asks me to come along and witness the proceedings.
We find Seok Han pacing nervously in the room. “Do you know why you are here?” Okbae asks authoritatively, and Seok Han snaps to attention. This is the Disciplinary Voice Okbae uses when kids forget to greet their elders in the gym, or leave the equipment in a mess after training. However, we all know that what is happening now might have a decisive impact on a young person’s life.
Seok Han catches sight of the cane and gulps. I am slightly surprised to see that Seok Han is capable of feeling fear. Okbae waits patiently for Seok Han to stammer out his admission of guilt before launching into a calm lecture. I admire his impeccable control.
“What you have done is inexcusable. You have caused your school, the gym and most of all, your mother much distress. Do you know that?”
“YES SIR!” Seok Han manages a reply. Do I hear a slight sniffle from this boy who is at least two heads taller than I am?
“Do you still want to fight? I don’t allow students who repeatedly break the rules to train in my gym.
What use is it to be an excellent fighter, but possess not a shred of discipline or respect for your elders?”
Okbae lets the last words hang heavily in the air. Seok Han bows his head and does not look up.
“You have to accept the punishment for your misdeeds. Bend over the chair and pull your pants down.” Okbae waits for Seok Han to get in position before administering ten controlled strokes of the cane. By the last stroke, Seok Han is sobbing openly, and large teardrops stain the concrete floor above which he is bent over. I realise that for all his bravado and bluster, Seok Han is still a youth who desperately needs guidance and love. The community and support in a Muay Thai gym would allow him to thrive and flourish.
“Wipe your tears away and join the training session when you are ready,” Okbae instructs Seok Han. “Do not make the same mistakes again.” He smiles compassionately at Seok Han and pats the teen’s broad shoulders before leaving the room. Seok Han nods obediently. I sense that there is a growing change in Seok Han as I leave to give him some private moments to himself.
Later during training, Okbae holds pads for Seok Han. The flow of movements between both of them is exceptionally beautiful that day. This synergy seems to reflect the ineffable bond between a loving and strict teacher, and a student who has finally developed true respect for his teacher. As I begin to ring Seok Han’s mother to tell her about what had happened earlier, a surge of warmth and hope blossoms in my heart.
Rachel Lee first came to South Korea in 2011, intending only to visit a Korean fighter she had met at a Muay Thai gym in Thailand earlier that year. With her month-long visit sprawling into a four-year sojourn, she has since gotten engaged to the Korean fighter, and is currently running a Muay Thai gym with him in Seoul. A traveler and explorer at heart, she frequently finds herself treading precariously between ambition and reality.