Tuesday, February 15, 2005

What I Should Have Said

Blog-readers: I wrote this originally as a letter to Mr. Hughes about my test experience and my inability to answer a question, but I decided it would be fun to post it here instead. Enjoy!

You know that nightmare that students have, the one where they come to an exam to find a question they have no idea how to answer?

Well that happened to me on Saturday. Except it wasn’t a nightmare. It happened at my very first Tae Kwon Do exam.

At the end of the exam, I stood in front of the judges table and heard this question:
"What is the meaning of Palgwe 1?"

I had no idea what the answer was. Not even enough to BS my way through.

As you know I learned Palgwe 1 under unusual circumstances. Because I’m taking class with my children—in the Tuesday-Thursday Ninja Kids session—I was not taught Palgwe at all. When I found out I had to learn it, one week before the exam, I looked it up on the internet, had Robbie read me the instructions, and I learned it in my living room.

The instructions from the internet did not come with an explanation of its meaning.

So my answer to that question on test day was "Sorry, sir. I don’t know."

But then I was curious. After the test, I went back to the internet to find out what I could about the meaning of Palgwe. There I discovered this paragraph:

Palgwe is descriptive of a world made up of elements that are both conflicting and harmonious, i.e. sky and earth, light and dark, man and women and good and evil. These elements meet and depart from one another according to the rules of nature, always growing and developing.

This was familiar—Pam and Brian had rattled it off to me on the test day. But maybe I’m dense or something, because that paragraph didn’t make a whole lot of sense to me. "Descriptive of a world"? "Meet and depart from one another according to the rules of nature"? Huh?

However, some of it sounded familiar. The "conflicting and harmonious" elements sounded to me a lot like yin-yang, the familiar symbol that I see on the Korean flag at the front of our dojang. I Googled "meaning of yin-yang" and found some more material about it. I’ve always loved the look of the yin-yang circle with its swooping black and white shapes. And I love the idea that Yin-Yang represents. According to the Wikipedia,

The outer circle represents "everything", while the black and white shapes within the circle represent the interaction of two energies, called "yin" (black) and "yang" (white), which cause everything to happen. They are not completely black or white, just as things in life are not completely black or white, and they cannot exist without each other.

Cool. I like the idea that supposed opposites need each other, are part of each other, share energy, work together. The shady side is yin, the sunny side is yang. The traffic light is yin, the bustling traffic is yang. Listening is yin, speaking is yang. And not only that. Every yin has yang in it, and every yang has yin. Or, maybe, every ballet dancer has a bit of warrior in her, and every warrior has a bit of dancer.

So if I were asked again "What does Palgwe 1 mean," I don’t think I would recite that "descriptive of a world made up of conflicting and harmonious elements" paragraph. Instead, this is how I might explain the yin-yang-ness of Palgwe 1:

When I do Palgwe 1, I move through seemingly opposing postures. Defensive postures (inside block, back stance). Attacking postures (middle punch, front stance). Those postures are a physical representation of yin and yang: passive and active. Female and male. Contracting and Expanding.

Not only that, but each posture of Palgwe 1 itself is both yin and yang. Before I place a punch, I twist my torso back. As I place a block, I step forward. That counter-movement/movement seems very yin and yang.

There seems to be more. One website explains that each Palgwe not only has a number, but also a name: Heaven, Lake, Fire, Thunder, Wind. Perhaps all the Palgwe done together represent the philosophy of Yin-Yang.

If I kept going I might be able to argue that all of Tae Kwon Do could be an incarnation of yin-yang: a physical embodiment of all that is peaceful yet strong, inward yet active, individual yet communal.

I’m looking forward to thinking about this more, doing more, learning more. This is a time when I am glad that, as the On-line Tae Kwon Do magazine says,

It will take your entire life to learn martial arts; there is no limit.

because it’s going to take my entire life to really figure it out.

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