By Nicki Kaplan, Medill, Immigrant Connect
Shik Lee and Irina Dragounskaia came to the United States in the 1990s for better work and a fresh start. They came from different worlds and never would have expected that their paths might cross in such a large melting pot.
Dragounskaia immigrated from Russia in 1991 due to the country’s poor economy. “It was a very bad situation in Moscow because the power was changing,” Dragounskaia recalls. “The stores had no food at all. Everything was so scarce.” When she settled into a Chicago suburb, she was shocked to find bountiful supermarkets and a nannying job.
Lee, who is a master in Taekwondo, immigrated from Korea in 1998 to pursue a career in the martial art. “[In America there were] not [many] professionals teaching students,” Lee says. “They [students] definitely wanted [Taekwondo] masters in America [with] professional techniques and background.” He taught as a master for a local school years before opening his own school, called White Tiger, in suburban Wheeling.
Dragounskaia and Lee met at one of the schools. Her entrance into the sport began when she enrolled her then 4-year-old son in Taekwondo classes. According to Dragounskaia, martial arts participation is uncommon for women in Russia. Once in America, she signed up immediately upon hearing that the school offered family classes, providing a means to bond with her son. She and her son trained under Master Lee for years before following him to White Tiger when it opened.
According to Lee, family Taekwondo classes are an American creation, highlighting a key cultural difference between the United States and Korea in terms of age hierarchy. “Asia’s culture looks down and up. You have kids, they’re low, and grandparents are all the way [at the top.] Kids are supposed to respect them,” Lee says. “America is a flat state. [I see] five-year-olds talk to [their] grandpa like a friend here.”
Lee introduced family classes at White Tiger to teach a universal value of respect, regardless of his students’ nationality and background. “It’s not one-way – I want to do both ways, and Korean people encourage kids to look one way,” Lee says. “I want to have parents who respect kids, and kids who respect parents.”
For Lee, respect is more than a family dynamic. “A lot of [people of] different cultures train here. I’m from Korea, some are from India, some from the Midwest. Some come from Russia and Europe,” Lee says. “I wanted to teach them to respect everybody – to respect the other countries also.”
The dynamic of acceptance that White Tiger instills is a factor in the school’s strong diversity. Lee estimates that 60 percent of his students immigrated to the United States, while 40 percent are native-born American citizens.
Lee says the rich mix results from the diverse communities surrounding White Tiger. “[It] looks like people made it here [in America],” Lee says. “A lot of people [from] other countries want to live here, and so literally around White Tiger a lot of different people are living.”
The sport’s international popularity also accounts for the diversity. According to the World Taekwondo Federation, the martial art is practiced in 188 countries. “They [immigrants] knew Taekwondo already before they immigrated here,” Lee says. “So they wanted to continue training at White Tiger because White Tiger is [registered with] the World Taekwondo Federation – following the news and following the curriculum there.”
For Dragounskaia, she practices Taekwondo because it provides self-assurance. “There was some inferior feeling that you felt when you had to communicate language which is not your first language,” she says. “Taekwondo gave me that assurance – the confidence that I think I was lacking. And I think that’s why many foreigners are there.”
For both Lee and Dragounskaia, Taekwondo’s social environment forges relationships that cannot be found at the office. “I don’t personally communicate with people from work,” Dragounskaia says. “So the friendships you develop with people when you work out – they’re much more open.”
Lee also views his Taekwondo school as a rare social setting. “In Taekwondo we can make a friend in each other, throw a party together,” he says. “But other businesses, I saw that they cannot do that – make a good relationship with unique people.”
White Tiger’s strong community leads students to gather together for
birthdays and post-competition celebrations, providing a means to share unique cultural traditions. “When you celebrate somebody’s birthday, everybody tries to bring a [unique] food from their culture,” Dragounskaia says. “It’s a big exposure, and to me it’s bigger than probably what you do when [you] go to work. I think people are willing to share much more [at] Taekwondo.”
The Taekwondo community also fosters a helping environment. For Lee, being a master means supporting his students both inside and outside the classroom. He has created a charity pool of money, reserved for providing academic and athletic scholarships for hard-working yet financially-burdened students. “[Through] the [master-student] relationship I understand them. I understand their country, cultures, and character,” Lee says. “I can help them; we all help each other. [And] more understanding teachers make America more strong and more comfortable.”