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American Woman of Hungarian Heritage Becomes Taekwondo Master Through Perseverence

My name is Gwenyth Szabo. Zay-bowe. The “s” is silent. It’s not s-zay-bowe, sah- bowe, or zah-bowe. My name is Hungarian, and I usually have to clarify it every time I introduce myself or when people see it written. However, aside from knowing its origin and that it means tailor, I don’t know much about my Hungarian history. Does my last name indicate that my family came from a tailoring background? Probably.

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"...My grandmother always recounts ... how my great-great-grandmother was the bride, groom, and guest at her own wedding! She made it into the world record book at the time because she was the bride of her wedding, while her maiden name was Gueste, but she took her husband’s last name, which was Groom."

I’m not like most of the stories on the iForeignBorn Blog. My parents aren’t immigrants, and even my grandparents aren’t immigrants. Instead, my immigration history remains a mystery to most of my family. I simply hold onto interesting facts about my family that I’ve heard from my grandparents or other family members. For example, one of the famous stories my grandmother always recounts is how my great-great-grandmother was the bride, groom, and guest at her own wedding! She made it into the world record book at the time because she was the bride of her wedding, while her maiden name was Gueste, but she took her husband’s last name, which was Groom.

It’s stories like these that I cherish or the fact that my grandmother is still fluent in High German. She mostly speaks Germenglish (German and English at the same time), and I hear stories of how my great-grandfather saw Hitler and Mussolini in a street parade in Germany. In fact, he’s the only one I know who immigrated. My grandmother can’t even remember why he came from Düsseldorf, Germany to the United States, so growing up, I learned most of my principles, not from a strong immigrant heritage, but from activities I liked, such as Taekwondo:

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 “What are the five goals in Taekwondo?” I asked a small white belt, no older than five-years-old. I slid back into the examiner’s chair, satisfied that I had stumped this “little lion,” as we call the younger students.

 “What are the five goals in Taekwondo?” I asked a small white belt, no older than five-years-old. I slid back into the examiner’s chair, satisfied that I had stumped this “little lion,” as we call the younger students. “Look over there,” I said, pointing to the wall to my left where the five goals of Taekwondo are painted on the wall of the Dojang. Together, the child and I read them: “Perseverance, humility, honesty, self-control, and respect, got it?” The kid nodded. While the words meant nothing to him, I hoped they would come to hold the same meaning to him as they do to me.

Perseverance. The paddle loomed above my head, a target begging me to land the bottom of my foot on it. I took fighting stance: right leg back with both arms up. I swung my leg up as hard as I could, feeling my yellow belt smack my face as I reached with every part of my six-year-old body for the kicking target. My foot missed on the way up, like it was supposed to, but as my foot came smashing down, in hopes of making the satisfying smack on the paddle, my entire body, too, followed, and I came crashing down. The edge of my toes had merely grazed the paddle. I blushed, embarrassed of my fall,but I rushed to get up, ready to attempt another kick.   

“Never give up,” Master Smith always reminds his students, pointing to the slogan written across the wall, and he reminded me of those exact words after I had fallen. He reminded me that my fall was not the end of my Taekwondo training but another challenge to tackle. Being at the end of the line was another chance, not a shameful punishment. Whether I miss a kick or make a mistake, my Taekwondo training reminds me that I can always push to do better.    

Humility. I thought it was going to be easy. “Miss Szabo,” Master Smith called me to the front of the class to perform my required form (a series of techniques) for blue belt. I stared down at my feet, clenching my fists, and assumed the ready position, in Korean known as jhoonbi. I looked up, waiting for the starting command. “Shi-jack!” he shouted, meaning begin in Korean. I rushed the form, sloppily throwing up blocks, ignoring the techniques and stances, so when I finished, Master Smith gave everyone a tip (acknowledging they had passed that portion of the test and were one-step closer to the next belt), except me. I watched my little brother pass me in the ranks with his tip, while I stood next to him, shocked and mortified.   

As all little brothers do, he proceeded to gloat, “I can do the form better than you, Gwen!” I scowled at him, but his tip proved his point. “You didn’t bend your knees enough when you did the last part,” he criticized, analyzing my leg-stances. I didn’t enjoy hearing his feedback or teasing, and being the older sister made it even harder. Nevertheless, age doesn’t matter when you stand in line during Taekwondo, and it doesn’t matter when it comes to learning. I had to swallow my pride and admit he was right. I had to admit that just because he was younger didn’t mean I couldn’t learn something from him.  

Honesty. “Who doesn’t know their form or needs improvement?” Master Smith asked the class. I watched a few people reluctantly raise their hands. “Okay, you guys over here,” he said, motioning to one side of the Dojang. “Yes, sir!” shouted the group, running to their position. Suddenly, a small red-black belt piped up, “I need to work on my forms, sir.” I’ll never forget as Master Smith turned to the young boy, a red-black belt, just like me and said, “Thank you, young man, for being honest. Go over there with the other group.” The young boy ran to his assigned position, jeopardizing his changes to do kicks and have fun.  

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Ms. Szabo becomes Master Szabo

As a kid, the best part of Taekwondo is the kicks and the games. Forms can be tedious, trying to remember all the motions, getting the technique and stances down perfectly, yet the young boy had sacrificed the fun part to do the work he needed. He was honest by showing self-awareness and transparency with his training. He acknowledged a weakness, and his action set an example as an alternate way to show strength. 

Self-Control. The only obstacle between a fighter and their opponent is a hand. The referee’s hand, to be exact, and for sparring that day, my opponent was my best friend. We trained together, but we never fought. The referee’s hand moved, “Fight!” he called, backing away. My friend charged at me with a roundhouse kick, hoping to score the first point. I saw it coming. I spun, lifting my leg and connecting with her head gear, countering her attack. Instead of resetting for her next move, though, I saw my friend collapse in tears. I had hurt her, and for a long time, I hated sparring. But, as Taekwondo has shown me, self-control requires practice and awareness, not only with techniques but in any tough situation. 

Respect. An example of respect in the Dojang is calling people by their proper title. For me currently, as a fourth-degree black belt, people address me as Master Szabo. Even younger students are called “Miss so-and-so” or “Mr. so-and-so.” My friends laugh when I tell them people refer to me as “Master Szabo,” but I show just as much respect by using Miss and Mr. as others do by calling me Master. The title is simply a reassurance to others that I will respect them. It symbolizes my journey because I know what it is like to be a lower rank. I know how it feels to learn the goals and principles of Taekwondo the hard way.  

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"While it is true that martial arts teach deadly take-downs and combat moves for sparring, I’ve learned that it has an artistic aspect through forms. Forms, or poomsae, as it’s called in Korean, are a series of techniques (kicks, punches, blocks, etc.), and there’s a form specific to every belt rank. They are choreographed in a specific way where the movements flow, and even though the techniques retain their practical fighting use, the combination of movements together is very beautiful when performed correctly. Every step requires a specific hand and foot placement, teaching balance and focus as well as self-control."

I have trained in Taekwondo since the age of five, and while I’m obviously not Korean and can’t pronounce the commands correctly, I do have a respect for the art and culture. People often view Taekwondo as simply a sport and self-defense. While it is true that martial arts teach deadly take-downs and combat moves for sparring, I’ve learned that it has an artistic aspect through forms. Forms, or poomsae, as it’s called in Korean, are a series of techniques (kicks, punches, blocks, etc.), and there’s a form specific to every belt rank. They are choreographed in a specific way where the movements flow, and even though the techniques retain their practical fighting use, the combination of movements together is very beautiful when performed correctly. Every step requires a specific hand and foot placement, teaching balance and focus as well as self-control.

I’ve found Taekwondo helps me maintain physical fitness but also gives me confidence in my every-day life. It’s more than just a regular hobby, for me, and I personally try to live my life by its principles. I’ve often called Taekwondo my religion because its motto “never give up” and principles govern my every-day behavior. While I may not be able to trace my culture back to a specific country or place, through Taekwondo, I’ve found a community of family and friends with its own culture that has had an enormous impact on my life.


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Gordon Landefeld