IN THE SHADOW OF MY REGRET
I swore I would not be one of those parents, one who forces their child into an activity because it’s something they love or something they always wanted to do. But sometimes it is hard to let go of who you were and what you once dreamed. When I lived in Korea two decades ago, I studied taekwondo for a short – too short – period of time. During my first teaching stint, I only enrolled for a couple of months, enough to earn a yellow belt. While I enjoyed it, I was young and it was my first experience abroad, so time with friends, time to explore the city, trumped all else. I returned to Korea several years later, with a renewed focus, a specific objective. Days after I began teaching — in a different school, a different part of the country — I recommenced my taekwondo lessons. Dedicated to improving my technique, I went every night, never skipping a class even after pulling a muscle. I desperately wanted to earn a black belt, but unhappy at work, unable to figure out what I wanted to do with my life, I quit my job and left Korea having only earned a blue belt. The regret sits heavily upon me. I’m not sure how my life would be different, if it would be different at all had I attained a black belt, but my mind periodically returns to my early twenties, and I wish I had more to show — more than photographs and a hand full of memories — for my time in Asia. In conversations, I will occasionally comment about learning taekwondo, but inevitably, the response highlights my failure, “So are you a black belt?” I am not, and it galls me that I never finished what I started, that I never mastered the sport in its country of origin. And so when my son was born, I decided that someday he would learn taekwondo. Self defense is an important skill for anyone to possess. Besides, the confidence and sense of accomplishment that one feels as they meet tangible goals and advance through the belts is exhilarating.
One spring, shortly after my son turned three, I was taking him for a walk in his stroller. As I passed the local strip mall, I spotted balloons and a banner hanging over the door of the corner unit. Curious as to what had opened, I steered my son in that direction. “Grand Opening! Top Mixed Martial Arts! Reduced Rates for the first 100 students.” My steps quickened. I drew closer to read the smaller print. Taekwondo. Twenty-dollars for a uniform and a four class trial period. My son, Gary, sat up in the stroller to see why I had stopped. Baffled he looked at me. Excitedly, I asked “Would you like to do something fun?” But without waiting for a response, I unbuckled him and walked inside the dojang to inquire if he was old enough to enroll.
To accommodate little ones, the school offered a Little Tiger class for children aged three to six. Recognizing that the young ones would not be able to master the same complex skills as older children and adults, they used a different belt system to mark advancements. The man I spoke with, Mr. Kang, had a Korean accent, and all the instructors spoke English with varying degrees of fluency. They had recently moved from Korea and somehow this made the school more appealing. It added a dimension of authenticity or perhaps, it simply permitted me to pretend I was elsewhere, connected to a place I once belonged. I wanted to sign my son up immediately, but I didn’t have any cash at the moment and so I said I’d return the following day.
As I walked home, my spirits started to sag. Enrolling my son was one thing, paying for it another. We didn’t have the money. We barely had money to pay our bills, a consequence of living on a single teacher salary. The advantage of being a stay home mom was that my son didn’t have to attend day care. The disadvantage was a serious lack of funds.
As expected, my spouse opposed the idea. “We can’t afford it,” she said flatly.
“But you keep telling me that he would benefit if he spent more time with other kids,” I argued weakly, aware that I was avoiding her point. “I’m signing him up for the trial.”
“And then what. We don’t have the money,” her tone sharpened, her blue eyes like glacial ice.
“I’ll figure it out.”
My enthusiasm renewed, I clutched a twenty-dollar bill when I returned to the dojang the following day. Master Kang rifled through a stack of uniforms still in the plastic wrapping and selected the smallest size. He opened it up, and with a black marker he wrote my son’s name in hangul (Korean letters) on the front of the uniform. How long had it been since I’d seen hangul writing? Taking my son into the bathroom, I changed his clothes and when the master tied his white belt, he looked adorable. Before class, the masters released a dozen large plastic balls onto the mat for the kids to kick around and throw. Gary immediately joined in the play, smiling as he chased after the balls, picking them up with his small hands and throwing them wildly at the other tigers.
And then the masters told the kids to clean up, and my son sadly looked up at them, his brown eyes darkening, his smile wilting. He didn’t understand. He thought he was there to play. To have fun. The other kids, following directions gathered in a circle around the masters. My son reached for another ball. Unlike the other students, Gary didn’t attend preschool or daycare. The concept of sitting when told, listening, following directions as part of a group confounded him. He didn’t understand the expectations, nor did he want to understand them. When Master Shin pulled him aside, tried to work with him independently, my son ran away. The concept of structured play boggled him. He had absolutely no interest in listening to directions.
For two classes, the instructors struggled to draw him in. I marveled at their patience, their kindliness. They were gentle, yet firm, and Master Shin made him laugh. But standing at attention, holding a kicking stance, running through the basic motions, or simply listening held no appeal for my son. On the third day, he broke away from the instructor, darted passed me, and scurried out the door. I’d never seen his little legs move so quickly. Pumping his arms, running as if his life depended upon it, he escaped. He was half way down the strip mall before I caught up to him. A shadow of desperation shading his face.
I crouched down to his level, my hands on his shoulders, “Do you want to go home?” I asked, disappointed, but well aware of the fact that taekwondo was my dream, not his.
He nodded his head vigorously and I was devastated. Crushed. But I promised myself I would not be one of those parents. So I took his hand and stepped into the parking lot, “Okay, we don’t have to come back if you don’t want to?”
And he didn’t, not for two years.
Then in April, a few months after my son turned five he had gone to a sleep-over at his friend’s house. The boy studied taekwondo on Saturday mornings, and his mother asked if I’d mind picking Gary up at the dojang, the same one I had taken him to two years earlier. It was more convenient, and closer than having to drive over to her place early in the morning. Arriving before my son, I took out a book, leaned against the outer wall of the dojang and read.
“Mama, Mama!” I looked up to see my son sprinting towards me. “Can I do taekwondo too? Please, please, please.” He didn’t pause for an answer. Instead, he shot through the open door. Again I chased after him, this time in the reverse direction. When I reached him, his shoes and socks were already off, tucked in with those of the other students.
“You didn’t like taekwondo,” I reminded him. “Don’t you remember?” I asked, still determined to let him choose his own path, and not walk in the shadow of my regret.
“But that was when I was little. I’m not little anymore.”
I sighed. He was older, but he was still little, young enough to be in the Little Tiger class.
“Gary!” I looked up to see Master Kang walking over to my son. “Are you back? You want to stay with us? Learn taekwondo?”
Shyly, ducking to hide behind my legs, my son nodded.
I didn’t have any money with me to pay the fee for another trial period. However, charmed by Gary’s excitement, his friend’s mother reached into her purse and handed Master Kang twenty dollars. I thanked her as my son grabbed my hand and pulled me into the bathroom so that he could change. This time, when the masters summoned the students to their spots on the mat, my son enthusiastically jumped up, doing exactly what he had been instructed to do. The half hour passed in a blur of activity, and when the class ended my son’s face was glowing. Except at Disney World, I’d never seen him so excited.
Four more years have gone by since then and my son is now nine. I have watched him grow, and have enjoyed seeing him learn new forms, and more difficult kicks. He has developed a passion for the sport that has far exceeded my expectations. Last spring — now at a different dojang with different instructors — he tested for his first degree black belt. He practiced and worked extremely hard to master the required skills. The morning of the test, though I cooked waffles — his favorite breakfast — he barely ate. A mixture of excitement and nerves made eating difficult. He performed beautifully. Doing his form nearly flawlessly, breaking the boards, and sparring his peers, he earned his black belt. As his instructor, Mr. Peterson, tied it around his waist for the first time, I cried. Brimming with pride and excitement, I couldn’t stop myself. To celebrate we went out or dinner — a rarity considering our financial situation.
But later that night, long after Gary had gone to bed, regret stirred, needling me so that I could not fall asleep. He accomplished what I set out to do in another lifetime, but living vicariously through him did not lessened my disappointment in myself. If anything, it has sharpened it. I look at his belt and feel my own failure more acutely. But money is still tight. I long to find a full time job, but despite a strong resume, I have been unsuccessful. What money we have we spend on our son. And so, for now, my own dream remains deferred.
Elizabeth Jaeger’s work has been published in River and South Review, Trash Panda Poetry, Conclusion Magazine, Watchung Review, The Doctor T. J. Eckleburg Review, The New Ink Review, Ovunque Siamo, Placeholder Magazine, Parentheses Journal, Brush Talks, Foliate Oak Literary Magazine, Peacock Journal, Boston Accent Lit and Literary Explorer. She has published book reviews in TLR Online and has participated in an episode of No, YOU Tell It! When she isn’t writing she enjoys spending time with her son.