What does it mean for me, an American woman of Western European ancestry, to be studying taekwondo?

Though the accounts I've read of taekwondo's origins and development vary considerably, there's no question that the art has deep roots in Korean tradition. That's a problem.

If I were a traditional Korean woman, I wouldn't be studying taekwondo. If I were a traditional Korean woman, I wouldn't even have a name. By tradition, married women are nameless until they have one or more sons; then they're called "mother of so-and-so". My three daughters wouldn't count.

Am I insulting taekwondo by studying it? I'm the wrong gender, the wrong religion, the wrong nationality (I guess it could be worse; I could be Japanese).

I've long disliked Westerners who appropriate bits and pieces of other cultures, and especially religions, without understanding their context. I wince when I see people "signing" songs without the least understanding of ASL grammar, practicing "feng shui" without being able to pronounce it, or talking about "Native Americans" as if everyone from the Bering Strait to Tierra del Fuego shared a language and culture up till 1492.

Am I doing the equivalent? Certainly my grasp of Korean history, language and culture (not to mention taekwondo technique!) is extremely tenuous. I don't even (currently) know any Koreans, though I used to work for one (as a waitress; that's how I was introduced to kimchi--which I hate).

So here I am studying a martial art that, like all martial arts, was designed by and for men. I'm working on a form named for a man whose father was a god and whose mother was a woman who used to be a bear. I haven't yet learned the correct pronunciations of the few Korean terms I know, and I couldn't find Seoul on a map if my life depended on it.

As a former theology student (talk about an art designed by and for men!) I should be used to the implied insult I pose to my chosen field of study. Consult Augustine of Hippo, Thomas Aquinas or Henry VIII on the subject of the equality of women. (Henry at least got his comeuppance in his daughters.) But the Episcopal Church was a product of the same culture that produced me, and taekwondo isn't. Therefore I wonder to what extent I have a right to mess with it.

How do Korean women handle this problem? If I understand correctly, Korea fielded a women's Olympic taekwondo team. Did their moms all call themselves "so-and-so's mother"? If so--pretty rapid cultural change there. The boat must still be rocking pretty hard.

I guess the question boils down to this: does a martial art or any other cultural construct have value completely outside its cultural context? And how much does respect for the art depend on respect for that context?

If I find out, I'll let you know. (6/12/02)