Arguably, the most successful exports of Asian culture, besides Hello Kitty and shitting in holes, are martial arts. Karate, Judo, Kung fu, Taekwondo, kickboxing are all increasing in popularity and are regular fixtures in things U.S. kids will try for three weeks and quit. They have pushed aside ballet, cub scouts, pee wee football, and riding lessons as the required “I'm a good parent” activities. I'm a little envious martial arts are so popular these days, as the only exposure I had to Kung fu growing up was watching Kung Fu Theatre on Saturday mornings while folding laundry. Come to think of it, were my parents inadvertently racist by making us fold laundry as our household chores? I remember eagerly turning the tv dial to Channel 5 and watching incredibly bad English dubbing with awesome fight scenes. It was my brother's job to quickly spin the dial to Channel 12 PBS if we heard the footsteps of my mother coming down the hallway, as she strongly disapproved of anything that didn't include things college professors wouldn’t fall asleep to. Kung fu was something cool I could claim and none of my other friends could. I adored it. But, to actually study it back then was simply an impossibility.
Kung fu was almost the only thing on television an Asian boy could relate to. Unless you counted the show about the Vietnam War which always made me wonder if maybe I should call in sick to school the next day so I wouldn't get picked on. I remember when the Karate Kid came out (the real one, not the crap one with Jaden Smith and Jackie Chan) and I got to see Mr. Miyagi. What was cool about it was seeing an old Asian man beating the Cobra Kai dude. What wasn't cool was realizing when I get old I'm going to look like Mr. Miyagi. I think that's when I decided I never wanted to get old. My schoolmates always asked me if I knew karate, or Kung fu. Taekwondo hadn't been discovered yet and since we all look alike, it wouldn't have mattered anyway. When they found out I was born in Korea, the immediate follow up question was if I could speak Japanese. Which completely makes sense, as most American 7 year olds were intimately familiar with Japanese Imperial expansionism and the colonial influence in Korea. And in the interest of inclusion, they adjusted the finger pulling eyes thing to up for Chinese, down for Japanese, and just for me... sideways for Korean! I never realized how accommodating my childhood peers were to make sure I was included in their inadvertent racism. After the question of Japanese language fluency, the next questions would always fall back to martial arts. Ahhhh, the good old days. Good old days? What am I talking about? That line of questioning actually still happens today!
There are many iconic cultural examples that don't get the follow up questions to other ethnicities. If you meet someone from Ireland, do you ask them if they knew Irish step dancing? If you meet an Italian, do you ask them if they are in the mob? If you meet a Kiwi, do you ask them if they fuck sheep? Yet, consistently in my life people just assumed I possess a black belt in whatever martial art they have been minimally exposed to. They’ve never asked me if I could make an egg roll, or if I was a Buddhist. Although, to be fair the first Chinese restaurant came to Kutztown in 1989. And, the Catholic church in town was considered an extreme, alternative religion. You were pretty much Lutheran and the only acceptable ethnic cuisine was French fries. You think I'm kidding, but my mom's lasagna recipe included cottage cheese instead of ricotta. When going to the grocery store, your cheese choices were wrapped slices, shredded, white, orange, or holes. And, cottage cheese was to be eaten with apple butter, or used for lasagna.
he odd thing is the more popular martial arts has become, the fewer people have asked me if I know them. I think it's because with the advent of mixed martial arts on television, people have come to associate people of many different ethnic backgrounds with the skill of hitting people in unusual and violent ways. Many people get upset with other people appropriating elements of their culture. If people want to learn Taekwondo, I'm totally cool with it. I'm not sure why I have any right to an opinion, as I've never taken a lesson of Taekwondo in my life. I think I would love to learn, but I would feel uncomfortable taking group lessons because people would be silently wondering if I'm the instructor and then later on …. Why is this Korean dude so bad at this? Let's go grab a rugby ball and practice tackling, you judgmental shit biscuit.
There are plenty of other racist things people can ask me now that martial arts has fallen down to Number 18 of stupid shit people want to know. Since that question has plummeted faster in the rankings than the Pitbull's album sales, I wistfully yearn for the days of constant questions regarding a Japanese, or Chinese martial art. It certainly beats being asked if I'm North Korean, or if I eat dog. I'll even go buy a headband and some nunchucks to help inspire you to assume I'm a black belt master.