Getting My Black Belt in Hapkido

As most of you Dear Readers know, one of my main goals upon returning to South Korea was to give the martial art known as hapkido a try. When I was here last time, I tried my hand at Korea’s national sport of taekwondo and it was great, but I wanted more. A student from my old academy was also a member of my taekwondo gym which was right across the street. He was actually one of my worst students but warmed up to me as soon as he found out we studied taekwondo at the same gym (if only I had known it was that easy to control the unruly boys in my class). One day he asked me if I knew about hapkido and I told him no. He explained that it was like taekwondo but with more arm and hand moves and more self-defence than in taekwondo, which is mostly leg work and kicking moves. Sold.

I was in. When I got back to Ontario and eventually out to Toronto, I searched for a hapkido gym several times but they were few and far between. Mixed martial arts had peaked in popularity due to UFC, so those gyms were everywhere but specifically hapkido? No luck for this lady. Flash forward to 2013 when I was back in Korea. The only male co-teacher that I worked with knew that I was interested in hapkido and thought it was pretty cool. He volunteered to help me find a gym in the area and help me to enroll.  He found two locations in my neighbourhood and took me to both and acted as translator on my behalf. The first gym was small and stuffy, with no female students. The second gym was bigger, with some female students and also a female junior master, which instantly made me more comfortable. I joined that gym in May of 2013 and my hapkido classmates quickly became like my second family. Despite the language barrier, we communicated through my expanding Korean and my junior master’s expanding confidence in her English. Body language also filled huge gaps in our conversations so we ended up miming a lot and using copious amounts of sound effects which was and still is, hilarious.


Celebrating my birthday last June. They surprised me with a cake :)


A year later, it was May of 2014 and I found myself in my master’s van on my way to my black belt exam at the Hapkido Federation of Korea. Off we were to one of the Hapkido Federation’s testing centres to show off our skills in exchange for our first degree black belt.

A carload full of us all on our way to prove our stuff.

A carload of us all on our way to prove our stuff.

Now: When I tell people I got my black belt, many reply, “Already?” So allow me to clarify. After one year of training, it’s expected to be achieving your first degree black belt. There are nine levels of black belt to achieve, so it’s not like you get your first degree belt and walk away knowing everything. After one year and your first degree, you should know the fundamental basics of hapkido. It grows from there and it’s after the first year that expectations get higher and the skills learned get increasingly difficult.


Stretching and practicing for my exam.

That being said, I was still crapping my proverbial pants while waiting my turn to show the judges my mad skills. I’ll let the pictures tell the story from here. Let it also be known that I was the only foreigner in the room. Everything was said in Korean and although I understood most of what was going on, most was not enough. I had my junior master whispering the English translations in my ear and without her I would have been a deer in the headlights. Many thanks go to her.

My gym classmates and many other gyms waiting for the judges to arrive and for the exam to begin.

My gym classmates (and many other gyms) waiting for the judges to arrive and for the exam to begin.

My junior master waiting with me. She was my self-defence partner as well.

My junior master waiting with me. She was my self-defence partner as well.

Finally the four judges arrived, were introduced, seated and ready to judge. Here are some of my shining (and by shining I mean sweaty) moments.


Bowing to my defence partner before we begin.

Self defence with my junior master as my partner.

Self defence with my junior master as my partner.


Breaking out of a wrist grab with my junior master.

After my portion of the test was over, I was able to sit down and calm my nerves while the next group of ten got up to do their thing. Almost two hours went by of first degree students earning their belts. After that, we had the pleasure of watching some second and third degree contestants prove their skills to earn their respective belts. The third degree students looked like they were in a Jackie Chan movie, it was very cool to watch. If I am able to study for 3 years, I hope to be in their position some day.

A couple weeks later, my belt was presented to me back at my home gym.

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I am quite proud to have earned this accreditation and to have achieved this goal. I feel that hapkido keeps me young, gives me confidence and makes me feel like a modern day warrior. I will continue to study this year and if I am able to stay in Korea next year, I hope to be taking my second degree exam in May of 2015. Stay tuned! Until next time Dear Readers, be well.

Shakespeare in Seoul: Magic Unearthed with A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Last Sunday I stepped out on the world for just a while but it was grand and I’d do it again. Down the stairs of the Kim Dong Soo Playhouse and into my seat I crept, entering into an ancient world of gods and legends, forest and foes, love, lust and trickery. There the Seoul Shakespeare Company swept me off to a land of enchantment as I spent my afternoon inside A Midsummer Night’s Dream. What a lovely experience it was and one that I must share with you.

Ben Summers as (Lysander) and Helen Joo Lee (Helena). Photo courtesy of Robert Michael Evans.

Ben Summers (Lysander) and Helen Joo Lee (Helena).
Photo courtesy of Robert Michael Evans.

The story of A Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare has often been called the first romantic comedy ever made. I remember reading this play in high school and thinking that humour in the 1500s had a long way to go. The vocabulary was difficult, the characters seemed winded and stiff and my poor teacher struggled to make us see its value.

L-R: Michael Downey (Peter Quince), Alex Sawyer (Francis Flute), Cody Wilson (Nick Bottom) and Dominic Schiferl (Snout).  Photo courtesy of Robert Michael Evans.

L-R: Michael Downey (Peter Quince), Alex Sawyer (Francis Flute), Cody Wilson (Nick Bottom) and Dominic Schiferl (Snout).
Photo courtesy of Robert Michael Evans.

Seeing the story come to life on the stage last weekend changed my mind completely. The plot is based around four young lovers who escape into an enchanted forest to flee from life’s pressures back in the city of Athens. Little do they know, they’ve stumbled into a forest claimed by fairies and the intruders suffer greatly for their trespassing. This aged tale blossoms with new life – a modern feel overhangs each scene while staying true to the story’s virtue. Young, vigorous actors and actresses filled with passion and wit enthrall the audience, bringing a whole new demographic to the often dusty world of Shakespearian plays. The Seoul Shakespeare Company’s presentation did a fantastic job of bringing an old play to life for a younger –and often- foreign audience. (The play was performed all in English with Korean subtitles running on the wall.) I had the pleasure of meeting the director, Ray Salcedo, and got some background story on how the play came to be.

Grethe Lochner (Titania) and Lauren Ash-Morgan (Oberon). Photo courtesy of Robert Michael Evans.

Grethe Lochner (Titania) and Lauren Ash-Morgan (Oberon).
Photo courtesy of Robert Michael Evans.

How long have you been in Korea?

Six years. I’ve been teaching English drama at Seoul National University for four years now.

Is this your first time working with Seoul Shakespeare Company (SSC)?

I joined SSC’s board last summer. A Midsummer Night’s Dream (AMND) is the first production I’ve directed for the company.

I heard this production took 10 months to prepare, is that accurate?

Yes. Once we decided that we would produce something lighter—a comedy—after our heavy Hamlet last year, we immediately went into production mode: as director, I immersed myself in deep textual analysis, selecting which themes I wanted to highlight, while also mapping out the design concepts for the show. As producer, Artistic Director Lindsey Higgins, along with Production Manager Angi Belsly began a wide search for a talented team of collaborators and a performance venue. For a production of this quality and scope, it takes almost a year’s time of planning and organization.

L-R: Ye-Seo Park (Cobweb), Alexis Nicole Santos (Mustardseed), Grace Zong (Peaseblossom), with Paul Silvestri (Puck) at centre. Photo courtesy of Robert Michael Evans.

L-R: Ye-Seo Park (Cobweb), Alexis Nicole Santos (Mustardseed), Grace Zong (Peaseblossom), with Paul Silvestri (Puck) at centre.
Photo courtesy of Robert Michael Evans.

Did you already have an idea of  how you wanted the main characters to be portrayed before you found the cast?

Yes and no. I certainly had qualities that I needed actors to portray for each role, but with a community as talented as ours, actors often come in with interesting interpretations of a character that directors might not have considered. It was very clear to me, however, after all auditions were over, who I wanted to cast. Our auditions drew in so much great talent, and fortunately, my first choices for all major roles accepted their parts. We did have an actor drop out mid-way due to other conflicts, but we were lucky enough to have a very talented replacement jump in last minute.

Lauren Ash-Morgan (Oberon) and Paul Silvestri (Puck). Photo courtesy of Robert Michael Evans.

Lauren Ash-Morgan (Oberon) and Paul Silvestri (Puck).
Photo courtesy of Robert Michael Evans.

The show took a modern twist on a classic tale of love and comedy. It was also very physical. Was that your intention or did the physicality just evolve organically?

Physicality was one of my primary design concepts from the very beginning. Making Shakespeare come alive to a young and non-native English speaking community (one of SSC’s goals), means that we have to rely on more than the powerful words to grab our audiences. Movement is one way to help bring the story along. Lacey Kearns, our dance choreographer, created some hauntingly beautiful dances for us, set to the sounds designed by our brilliant sound designer, Brian Macqueen. Our actors also do an absolute terrific job moving around that stage, designed by Averi Israel, keeping all sections of the audience engaged. I am particularly fond of the big fight scene with the four young lovers. Every step, every grab, every gesture is meaningful, and it grips me every time.

Front L-R: Brian Petersen (Demetrius), Heather Moore (Hermia), Ben summers (Lysander), Helen Joo Lee (Helena). Back L-R: Lauren Ash-Morgan (Oberon) and Paul Silvestri (Puck). Photo courtesy of Robert Michael Evans.

Front L-R: Brian Petersen (Demetrius), Heather Moore (Hermia), Ben summers (Lysander), Helen Joo Lee (Helena). Back L-R: Lauren Ash-Morgan (Oberon) and Paul Silvestri (Puck).
Photo courtesy of Robert Michael Evans.

Do you know what the Seoul Shakespeare Company is looking to put on next?

We in the board will probably determine that in the next month or two, but we’ve put up two tragedies and two comedies over the last four years, so I dare say a history may be in the works. Then again, it could be any of his great works. There has been a recent discovery of a long-lost play by Shakespeare, The History of Cardenio, which has not yet been released to the public, so who knows! I know I’m dying to get my hands on that text.

What can we look forward to seeing from you in the future?

I am currently in post-production for the filming of my short play, the award-winning “Caliban’s.” Our premiere is scheduled for mid-to-late July of this year.

How can people get involved if they’d like to volunteer or audition for the next performance?

We are always looking for people with a passion to do great work in theatre. All interested should visit or follow us at I can also be directly contacted via, or under the same name on Facebook.

Is there anything else you would like the readers to know?

Please support your local theatre community. The main reason we spend countless hours passionately creating work we can feel proud of is because of you, the audience. The audience is the most important element in any production. For tickets, please email:


It should also be noted that the cast and crew in A Midsummer Night’s Dream are mostly all teachers by day and Shakespeare enthusiasts by night. Hometowns range from but are not limited to: Korea, Canada, America, England, South Africa, New Zealand, Spain and Russia. Considering what their last 10 months have probably been like, it’s amazing to see what they have created as a result. The final performances are this weekend so if you’re in Seoul or the surrounding areas and looking for something unique to do, the Kim Dong Soo Playhouse in Hyewha is where you need to be.


Photo courtesy of

Schedule is as follows:

Saturday May 24: 7:30 PM

Sunday May 25: *1:00 PM

Sunday May 25: 6:00 PM

* Q and A to follow 1:00 performance with cast and crew.*


20,000 won for adults, 15,000 won for students

DIRECTIONS (as taken from the website):

Exit 2 Hyewha Station (Line 4). Continue walking straight for approximately 5-7 minutes. (When you pass the rainbow poo statues, you are getting close to the theater.) When you come to the first big intersection, the theater is on your left at the corner. (Next to the Hyundai Car dealership. There are 2 theaters next to the dealer, one on each side. KDS Playhouse is the one at the corner of the intersection. It is underground, underneath the car dealership.)

Address in Korean: 김동수플레이하우스  (혜화역 2번출구)

종로구연건동 178-1 동마루빌딩


Photo courtesy of


Photo courtesy of

For more information on the Seoul Shakespeare Company, click here.

For more photography from Robert Michael Evans, click here.

First Birthdays in Korea

When my Korean friend invited me to her daughter’s first birthday party I was happy to be a part of her special day. I was told it would be held at a venue not far from her home in Seoul and thought no more of it. What she didn’t tell me is that this event was a pretty big deal in Korean culture. I learned as I went.

The first birthday party in Korea is more like a wedding ceremony than a little one eating home-made cake with their hands. I walked into the venue to meet my friend and found her at the end of a long hallway looking a little stressed and speaking quickly into her cell phone. As I approached I saw that her hair had been spun and twisted into a beautiful updo and her makeup had been professionally done. I noticed she was standing outside of a mini salon, where she had just finished said hair and makeup. I saw her in a pair of jeans and relaxed a little, as I myself was in jeans and a nice top and thought for a moment that I was underdressed.


“Is this what you’re wearing?” I asked.

“No no! Come here, I’ll show you,” she said, leading me further down the hall to a big dressing room. Uh oh. I was so not ready for this level of fancy.

Other rental hanboks for adults.

Rental hanboks for women.

Rental hanboks for babies.

Rental hanboks for baby girls.

It’s ok, I told myself. Just play the foreigner card. You didn’t know you weren’t supposed to wear jeans or that this was practically a black tie event.

She proceeded to show me the western-style evening dress she would be wearing for the beginning of the event, then the traditional Korean hanbok she would change into for the second half. Her baby and husband also had both western and Korean outfits they would be renting from the venue for the afternoon. The fitting room had everything from dress shoes to hair accessories for baby and Mom. This was going to be quite the ordeal.

Traditional Korean hanbok for Mom.

Traditional Korean hanbok for Mom.

Matching Hanbok for baby.

Matching Hanbok for baby.

Traditional shoes for men.

Traditional shoes for men.


For the ladies.

Once her husband arrived, he too had to sit in the makeup artist’s chair and get his face and hair spruced up.


Once that was sorted it was into the first outfit and off to take some photos with the hired photographer that would be their shadow for the rest of the event.

Mom and Dad in their western stlye outfits.

Mom and Dad in their western stlye outfits.

We were approaching the start time for the party so we drifted into our allocated party room (there were at least 6 party rooms that I could see on that floor) and elaborate picture taking continued. Mom, Dad and baby were constantly being photographed in different arrangements and settings around the room as guests started filing in and sitting down. Eventually an MC appeared to formally get the party started at which time Mom, Dad and baby disappeared for a wardrobe change. We were all invited to dig into the buffet outside in the dining hall and I was relieved to see some family and friends wearing jeans. All was not lost.

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After some time for the guests to eat, the young family re-emerged in their matching traditional Korean clothes and took a seat at the back of the room. The lights went dim and the MC started to play a video of baby Minsole’s first year of life. It was quite touching to watch and sweet to see the new parents just revel in their little one.


The reason for such a big celebration comes from the old days in Korea. Long ago most Korean people were poor and many were unhealthy due to malnutrition and other ailments. Many babies didn’t survive their first year and although sad, it was the way of life then. As conditions improved, more babies made it through their first year and so began the tradition of having an elaborate celebration for each baby’s first birthday. They do this in China too, both cultures celebrating the simple fact that their young ones are healthy and continue to live. (Koreans also celebrate a baby’s 100 day anniversary, but it’s not as big of a party, mostly just a photo shoot in a studio.)

The MC is in the yellow tie on the left.

The MC is in the yellow tie on the left.

After Minsole’s video montage, the MC hosted some games including a raffle draw, a quiz game and a “guess the baby’s future” game (I chose that she would become a doctor). Soon after, the MC left the room and left us to finish nibbling on our buffet treats. During that relaxed time at the end, guests approached my friend to congratulate her on her baby’s successful life thus far and gave her an envelope of money which was slid delicately into her purse with a humble “thank you.” Although another Korean friend told me that money or a gift was suitable for a first birthday party, I the lone foreigner, was the only one who gave a gift and once again I felt a little underprepared for the event. That being said, English books for babies (the cardboard or foamy ones that kids can’t destroy) are hard to find in Korea so my gift was unique at least.

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At the end of the day, Korean people are practical and I think this is why monetary funds are the most common gift. Same goes for funerals. Parties and funerals cost money to host and this is why money is usually given at both events. It’s a way for friends and family to ease the burden of the cost of life’s milestones.

Here’s a run-down of the basic costs for one of these shindigs:

Hair and make up for Mom and Dad = 110,000 won (approx. $115 CAD)

Outfit rentals for Mom, Dad & Baby = 200,000 won (approx. $210 CAD)

Photographer for approx. 3 hours = 270,000 won (approx. $285 CAD)

Room rental for 50 people (all inclusive) = 1,500,000 won (approx. $1,590 CAD)

Total cost (rental rooms can be bigger if needed) = 2,080,000 won (approx $2,200 CAD)

The event room for our group.

The event room for our group.

Once everyone left, Mom and Dad finally got a plate of food and were able to sit down and eat. Baby Minsole was back in her street clothes and fast asleep in her stroller. After dinner, they changed out of their traditional garb and my friend was her regular self once more. Tired but happy, we drove home chattering about how good Minsole behaved having her picture taken for over 2 hours straight. I was proud of her because if it were me, Auntie Karli couldn’t have done it. I was honoured to be a part of their celebration and will never see first birthdays the same way again.

Baseball in Korea!

Going to a baseball game in Korea is nothing like going to a baseball game back home. As I remember the Toronto Blue Jays games when I was a teen, there was very little cheering, just the low chatter of the fans and the announcers voice guiding us through the game. There were no songs and I don’t recall ever doing “the wave” at a baseball game either. Things may have changed  since those days but I never went back so it’s the laid-back, low energy atmosphere that I remember of ball games back home.

In Korea, it’s totally different. It’s noisy and active, cheers and chants going off every 2 minutes, snippets of songs bursting out of all speakers in surround sound at all times. It had the noise and energy level of a Canadian hockey game so it was quite a culture shock to watch this happen at a ball game.



Friends from left to right: Darren, Will, Sky, myself, Mairi and Sarah.

My friends and I went to see the LG Twins play the NC Dinos and sat in the Dinos fan section. When I say LG I mean LG as in the electronics and appliance company, which is an interesting difference in Korean baseball as well. In the KBO (Korea Baseball Organization), most teams are established under corporations like Lotte department store corporation or LG electronics for example. So they have teams like the Lotte Giants, the Samsung Lions or the KIA Tigers, instead of city-named teams like we have in the west like the Toronto Blue Jays or the Boston Red Sox. In the case of the NC Dinos, they are owned by NCSOFT, a video and computer game company.



Me with Sarah and Jon.

In the stadium, there are platforms set up on each team’s side of the seating area. Each platform had a guy standing there who was the team mascot, but no big bird costume or anything. Just him, in a baseball uniform, keeping each side pumped up and ready to sing. Each mascot would often be joined by cheerleaders, another thing we don’t have in western baseball, who would step up to the platform and do choreographed dance routines to the beat of the mascot’s whistle blowing or the cheer being chanted by the fans.

Mascot in the center, cheerleaders on the left and right.

Mascot in the center, cheerleaders on the left and right.

It was so noisy in fact, that I was amazed at how the pitchers and batters could concentrate on what they were doing. I suspect they are used to it but most teams have a few international players on their team (from Japan or the US for example) and I wonder what they think of all the ruckus.


Excited NC Dinos fans dressed in team gear. We really wanted to get a Dino hooded cape but couldn't find a vendor!

Excited NC Dinos fans dressed in team gear. We really wanted to get a Dino hooded cape but couldn’t find a vendor!

Another big difference is the party-like atmosphere outside the stadium. There are vendors selling snacks and beer for reasonable prices and there are also commercial chains like KFC and Burger King there. You can buy boxes of fried chicken from many different vendors as well, although the chicken has already been cooked and is probably not too hot by the time you get to eat it. People buy their food outside the stadium, grab some cans of beer or juice and take their bags of food inside. Or, you can eat and drink outside just hanging out with the other fans.


Giant KFC blow up dolls flopping around in the wind to make sure everyone knows they’re there.


Independent vendors selling pop, dried squid and kimbap.

At the Toronto Sky Dome (now the Rogers Centre), a pint of beer (although a very big pint) used to cost around $11 as I last remember. The last time I was at an event at the Toronto Stadium, you could only buy one pint at a time and your ID was scrutinized every single time. There were often not enough vendors and very long line ups, creating frustration at the games. In Korea, there are several mini convenience stores inside the stadium, selling all kinds of drinks, alcoholic or non, snacks and all other items common in a 7-11 and all at regular street value. So if a can of beer would cost $2.50 on the street, it would cost the same inside the stadium. Same goes for food prices. No price gouging going on in Korea which makes a day at the games fun and affordable. Tickets to the game were only 10,000 won (approx $10.60 CAD) which was great too. Aside from the several convenience stores in the stadium, there are also some vendors walking around the seats selling beer out of a big tank on their backs. This, I imagine would not taste very fresh, but just the image of portable pints was hilarious and quite ingenious.


Jamsil Olympic Stadium from the 1988 summer games, right next to the Jamsil Baseball Stadium.

Jamsil Olympic Stadium from the 1988 summer games, right next to the Jamsil Baseball Stadium.

After the game (the NC Dinos won), fans of both teams gathered outside the stadium to mourn their loss or celebrate their win with eats from the various food stands. The place was packed and smelled delicious. We were tempted to join in on the food but there was no room for all of us to sit together.


Overall it was a great experience and one I’ll never forget. It made me appreciate the game a lot more and the passion from the fans was both amusing and contagious. We will definitely be back to Jamsil Stadium for more games this summer!