Following Your Dream

“I Will Teach You” by Great Grandmaster Tae Yun Kim

Photograph by Republic of Korea

Photograph by Republic of Korea

Only a miracle would free her to live her own life

As the following passage opens, the young Tae Yun Kim, a South Korean girl who has been separated from her relatives by the horrors of the Korean war, has returned to her family.
–The Editors

Eventually, I was reunited with my family, and when the war was over I went to live with my grandparents. One blue-gray morning in Kimcheon, South Korea, I was awakened by a shout. Although the war had ended, sudden sounds still had an unsettling effect on me. Cautiously I slid open the rice paper window in the room. My uneasiness disappeared as I saw something that instantly captivated me.There, in the early morning fog, my uncles were practicing an ancient martial art. I was mesmerized. The mists swirled with their fluid kicks. Their bodies glistened in the first light of dawn as they moved with amazing power and grace. What I saw awakened a deep feeling inside me. Their movements seemed mystical and yet so natural. To my seven-year-old mind, this was beautiful and exciting. It was important. Nothing had ever seemed so perfect. I had to learn how to do that myself. Little did I know how profoundly that moment would affect my life—and how much opposition I would face to fulfilling my desire.

As soon as I could, I asked my uncles to teach me how to do what they were doing, but they met my desire with laughter. “What?” they laughed. “You’re supposed to learn how to cook and sew. And if you’re lucky, someone will find you a husband.” You see, being seven years old was not the obstacle. The obstacle was that I was a girl.

Teaching martial arts to little boys was not unusual. In fact, it was a common practice. Girls, however, were forbidden to learn martial arts. Why? Simply because it had been that way for centuries. Everyone told me it was silly for me to even imagine that my uncles or anybody else would teach me martial arts. I should look forward to growing up, getting married, and having twelve sons, they kept saying. But I didn’t want to follow the path everyone expected of me. The women in my village were always working, working, working with their backs hunched over. That didn’t seem like any fun to me. I didn’t want to become like my mother. I didn’t want to become like my grandmother. I didn’t want to produce a lot of sons. I didn’t want any of that. I knew in my heart that I was supposed to dedicate myself to learning martial arts.

No matter how often my uncles told me that it would be impossible for me to learn martial arts, I would not listen. I insisted that they teach me anyway. Finally one of my uncles came up with a strategy that he thought would work. “Well,” he said, “if we go ahead and give her lessons, she will probably give up.” They were sure that I would stop being so persistent when I saw how difficult it was and started getting bruises from working out.

So every morning, I practiced. Yes, the work was hard and the bruises were many. I had to wear pants to hide the bruises so the other children wouldn’t laugh at me. But to my uncles’ surprise, I did not give up. To their further bewilderment, I progressed. I faced enormous difficulties—not in the art itself but in the continued resistance I met from those who believed that a woman couldn’t and shouldn’t be able to do that. I was, after all, breaking a five-thousand-year-old culture and tradition.

My family, my neighbors, and everyone I met applied enormous psychological and emotional pressure to try and stop me. My family even applied physical pressure, beating me and locking me in my room to keep me from practicing. My mother constantly nagged me and complained, “Why are you such a terrible daughter?” My father would come home drunk every night and beat my mother and me, demanding that I start acting like a marriageable young lady so he could have some peace in life.

My mother was once so desperate to keep me from practicing that she took a pair of scissors and cut off my hair, leaving me with a short, funny-looking hairstyle. She wanted to make me feel so embarrassed that I would not want to leave the house to go practice. I cried, crawled into the corner, and touched my hair in disbelief. Then I thought to myself, “Okay, hair grows back. My hair will grow back. I will have to endure looking like this for a little while, but I am not going to let you stop me from doing what I love. You are not going to cut away my dreams. I will not give that power to you.” In reality, the actions of my mother and family only made me more motivated and committed. The more I heard, “No, no, no,” the more I said to myself, “Yes, yes, yes. I can do it. I will do it.”

When I tell this story, people always ask me whether I was upset with my family for trying to hold me down. Of course I shed a lot of tears and would become frustrated and angry. At some point, though, I realized that my mother was simply doing what she thought was right. She had been taught, as had her mother before her, that the best way to raise a little girl was to teach her to fulfill the role expected of her as a good wife and mother, not to encourage her to dream big. The people who raise us usually do what they think is best for us. If you can understand why they are acting the way they are, you can have greater compassion for them. That doesn’t mean you have to accept their opinions or act like a victim. When you really want something that you believe in passionately, you can’t let anyone rob you of your dreams.

Take a moment now and think about yourself. Have you ever had to stand up for yourself in the face of pressure from those who wanted to force you to live in a certain way? What sort of challenges are you facing now? What dreams are you fighting for?

Photograph by the Republic of Korea

Photograph by the Republic of Korea

At this point in my life, I had an even worse reputation if that was possible. I was considered bad luck because I was born on the lunar new year as a girl instead of a boy, and now I was doing something that only boys and men were supposed to do. Everyone in my family was convinced that there was surely something wrong with me. While they would have been proud of my accomplishments had I been a boy, they regarded this as one more way that I was bringing shame upon them. In addition, my family was understandably worried that if I kept behaving in such odd ways, nobody would want to marry me and I would grow up to be a lonely, isolated, outcast old woman.Still, my mind was set. I was determined to break out of the box everyone was trying to keep me trapped in. I knew I had to be true to the burning desire deep within. Although I didn’t realize it at the time, that persistence is what would keep my dream alive through what was coming next.

One day I saw my grandfather talking to a strange woman in broad daylight, something that you would never normally see in our strict culture. All at once I realized what was happening—the woman was a matchmaker and my grandfather was bribing her to find me a husband. That’s not going to happen, I told myself. I knew that I needed to find a way to make sure the matchmaker didn’t like me, because if she did, I was going to be in big trouble.

When my grandfather asked me to serve tea to the two of them so the matchmaker could get a closer look at me, I knew this was my chance to thwart his plan. As I walked toward them holding the hot tea, I suddenly knocked the cup filled with steaming liquid onto the matchmaker’s lap, making it look like an accident.

She was furious. “I don’t care how much  money you give me,” she shouted. “She’s bad luck and I’m never going to find her a husband. She is clumsy, she is no good, she is like a boy!” Other girls would have been dismayed that such an important person as a matchmaker didn’t like them, but I was ecstatic.

As you can imagine, after I had spilled tea on this woman, no other matchmaker would come anywhere near me. My family was at their wit’s end. In their minds, they had done everything in their power to knock some sense into me. Now, they thought, if no one would marry me, they had only one choice left—to turn me over to the Buddhist monks and ask them to accept me as one of them.

Photograph by Jason Briscoe

Photograph by Jason Briscoe

That’s how the only person who would come to believe in me entered my life. Following the painful episode with the matchmaker, my grandfather invited a monk to come to our house to talk over this plan with him. As they were talking, the monk kept glancing over at me. I had no idea why he was there, but I knew they must be talking about me. Then the monk motioned for me to come over to him. You may not realize how extremely unusual that was. In my culture at the time, girls were not allowed to even make eye contact with their elders. They always had to look down, and if they ever dared laugh or smile in the presence of a grown-up, they were supposed to cover their mouths. Girls were never allowed to speak directly to their grandfathers or even eat in the same room with them, nevertheless talk to a man who was a monk. That was like having a king ask me to talk with him.

I walked over to the monk, looking down at the ground. In a very gentle, amazingly kind voice, he asked, “So, little girl, don’t you want to get married?”

“No, sir,” I answered.

“But it’s a woman’s place to get married and to be happy having sons and taking care of her family,” he said.

“No, sir,” I repeated. “That’s not what I want.”

“So what do you want to do when you grow up?”

“I want to become a teacher and help people.”

What a bold statement that was. In the 1950s in Korea, it was unheard of for girls to have such dreams. I might as well have been saying, “I’m going to the moon.”

“A teacher?” the monk asked. “What can you possibly teach?”

“I want to teach martial arts.”

“Martial arts?”

“Yes, sir. I’m going to be the first woman teaching martial arts.”

Unlike every other person in my life, he did not scoff at me or dismiss my audacious claim. Instead, in the same gentle tone he said, “Look at me.”

Since girls were not allowed to look a monk in the eye, I thought he must be crazy. But he took his hand, put it under my chin, and lifted my head up. “Um hum,” he said, as he studied my face for what seemed like an eternity. I had no idea what he was thinking. Then he looked directly into my eyes and said the words I had been waiting so long to hear: “Yes, you will become a great teacher.”

I could not believe my ears. Someone was finally acknowledging me and my desires. Then he said something even more amazing: “I will teach you.”

At first I didn’t believe him. But when he again said, “I will teach you,” I knew he was serious. For me, having someone of his stature say he was going to teach me martial arts was like winning a billion dollars in the lottery! It was the first time in my life that anyone had looked at me not as a lowly girl who was always disappointing everyone but as a human being who had value. In that split second, my life changed. ♦

Excerpted with permission from Seven Steps to Inner Power: How to Break Through to Awesome by Tae Yun Kim (Mountain Tiger Press, 2018).

From Parabola Volume 43, No. 2, “The Miraculous,” Summer 2018. This issue is available to purchase here. If you have enjoyed this piece, consider subscribing


Helping Native Women deal with Assault

A self-defense model focused on rediscovering strength rather than putting up your guard helps Native American women heal from sexual assault.
Lakota Women Self Defense Class

Patty Stonefish can take down a fully grown man by his finger. She makes it look graceful—a skillful flick of the wrist and her 220-pound husband, Dereck, drops straight to his knees. Patty, a 26-year-old joint-lock ninja of Lakota heritage from North Dakota, has been studying taekwondo for more than a decade. She knows dozens of complex hapkido sequences that can immobilize opponents. But for demonstrations like the one she is doing tonight, she keeps it simple: single-action moves with names that women can remember in a panic, like grandma’s grip, jazz hands, and, in this case, single-finger takedown. Most people start timidly, afraid of pushing too hard, but Patty urges them to act like they mean it—anyone who apologizes has to drop and do squats.

Based in Fargo, North Dakota, Patty and Dereck are kicking off a series of self-defense workshops in a local community center through their project, Arming Sisters/Reawakening Warriors. Their first group is small, with just three participants—two adults and a preteen girl. Dacia, 41, of North Dakota’s Spirit Lake Tribe, said she’d never heard of the program before seeing the event advertised by the tribal center.

Before launching into the hapkido moves, Patty and Dereck talk through the impacts of generational trauma in Native American communities. Dacia keeps coming back to the point that strikes her most: You have the power to change your own life.

Patty launched the original program in 2013 to offer Native American women a self-defense model that was more about rediscovering strength than putting up your guard. This year, she and Dereck are trying to expand, launching workshops for men and boys on masculinity. Together, they have led more than 25 trainings around the country, from reservations to college campuses. In Patty’s words, the workshops focus on putting the “self” back in self-defense. Many Western approaches put people on guard against the world, she says. “I wanted women to rediscover what’s powerful in themselves.”

Lakota Women Self Defense

Patty Stonefish’s tattoo is of the Arabic word “horreya,” which means “freedom.” She spent years in Egypt during and after the Arab Spring, watching women take their place on the frontlines of Tahrir Square. “I got it because, especially as a Native, freedom got ruined for me,” she says of the tattoo. “Egypt gave me the true definition back.” Photo by Dan Koeck.

That means common self-defense principles—like verbalizing boundaries and removing yourself from dangerous situations—are applied much more broadly. “Removing yourself” could mean anything from crossing to the other side of the street to leaving a relationship after years of abuse. And while you might come away with some useful tricks to thwart an attacker, the hope is that the physicality and communion will also rekindle a belief in yourself. “You are strong,” Patty tells women. “You are awake.” Only individuals can re-empower themselves, Patty says: The “re” in these sessions is central. When you realize you can take down a man like Dereck with one move, she says, you begin to think, “I’m strong—I’m not only physically stronger than I thought, I’m emotionally stronger than I thought.” Maybe strong enough to break cycles of violence and trauma.

That means common self-defense principles are applied much more broadly.

Patty, who as a preteen survived an assault by two White men, long internalized her own trauma; she didn’t tell anyone for years. “I wouldn’t say it out loud even to myself,” she says. She hears similar stories during the talking circles that follow her workshop’s trainings. Sometimes women, emboldened by one another, share their stories for the first time.

About one-third of Native American women are raped during their lives, according to the Department of Justice, and some activists think that number is much higher. “Lots of women will tell you they don’t know anyone who hasn’t been raped,” says Sarah Deer, a Muscogee (Creek) professor at William Mitchell College of Law who has studied violence against Native American women for decades. And they are most likely to be assaulted by non-Native men. Eighty-six percent of sexual assaults against Native American women are perpetrated by members of other races, a fact that sets them apart from White, Black, and Latina women. These rapes are rarely prosecuted: Under federal law, tribes have no jurisdiction over non-Natives; federal prosecutors, who could charge attackers, usually don’t.

Patty and Dereck Stonefish Lakota

Patty and Dereck Stonefish’s marriage tattoos connect when they grip forearms—the best way, they say, to pull someone up easily. Photo by Dan Koeck

A few hundred miles west of Fargo on the Fort Berthold Reservation, an oil boom began around 2009, attracting thousands of non-Native workers. Advocates became so concerned about Native women’s vulnerability to violence that a national Native American coalition petitioned the United Nations to investigate human rights abuses.

Stonefish’s expanded program’s “warrior” track encourages conversations among men and boys that challenge what Dereck calls the “colonial” approach to masculinity that emphasizes glory through violence and war. Instead, Dereck explores a traditional view of warriors who care for their people, often at great sacrifice. “We try to show boys how we traditionally valued women as the core and pillars of our community,” he said.

This is the second time Brande Redroad, an 11-year-old also from the Spirit Lake Tribe, has participated in the program. Tonight, she came with her mother, Tanya, 41. She’s vocal with her opinions, comfortably says no when she doesn’t want to try a particular move, and shows her strength easily when she does. “I always knew I had the power in me. I just didn’t know how to express it,” she said. “No one really showed me how to use it until now.” Her mother nods. “We’re going to be talking about it all the way home.”

This article is part of a larger project funded by a grant from Images and Voices of Hope.