Hierarchy: Heaven or Hell?

Sitting down behind my laptop to start writing this weekly, it strikes me that it’s the 4th one already! Which means I’m quarterway through my training period here at Namchang Dojang. A lot has been going on during this 4th week, last saturday being the highlight. Dutch newspaper Het Parool‘ published a rather open-hearted interview about my life in Korea. The journalist who wrote article did de interview with me via Skype and it lasted for over 2 hours. He really had to cut short on my views on Korean hierarchy, which we had discussed intensely. So underneath I’ll continue where he left off, read on for an insight in this complex ‘pecking order’.

PS Parool JPEG 2:11:2013PS Parool JPEG2 2:11:2013

In martial arts circles I applaud a certain hierarchy. I can’t stand gyms where masters are shouted at with disregarding terms as ‘chap’ or ‘buddy’. Not only do I think people should treat others who have significantly more experience in life with a fitting portion of respect, I have even experienced that hierarchy is beneficial to training performances. Because, believe it or not, when someone with the status of a god (I have heard Koreans referring to the grandmaster with words like this) tells you to do 200 push-ups, you’ll do it. No matter what. If you consider him to be your equal, your mind is more tempted to think: “Ah, to hell with it.” That’s why learning a martial art starts with courtesy and respect: without the right mindset training is useless. Remember Karate Kid (1984 version) who had to promise mr. Miyagi in a ‘sacred pact’ to do whatever he said, before even learning a single karate move? I rest my case.

However, outside of martial arts life, clinging on to this hierarchy doesn’t seem the right thing to do. In fact, I attended one of the very few high schools in the Netherlands where students don’t have to address their teachers with “mister/miss something”. In school as well as business life, feeling subordinated cuts performances back rather than improves them. I would be far less comfortable with asking questions to my teachers with the distance between us that hierarchy causes. In companies, where work is often done as a team, I prefer working together with others as colleagues than to kiss the feet of everyone who is higher in rank, as is the case in many Korean firms.

Proof of the pudding: when Dutchman Guus Hiddink became the football coach of the South-Korean squad in 2001, the first thing he did was to get rid of the hierarchy. Up until that moment, the hierarchy had been the reason if a player would be in the game or in the dugout. Older people are usually higher in hierarchy in Korea, so the Korean squad consisted of lousy, slow veterans. Hiddink kicked them out and let the young, vital players do their job. They reached the semifinals of the World Championships and Hiddink became a national hero. From that moment on, companies have slowly began to realize that they take the hierarchy thing far too serious.

Anyway, in the dojang it’s all ‘older brother’, ‘senior sister’ or even ‘master’ that I have to address the Koreans with. I feel myself very at home in this taekwondo family, but it’s essentially different from having friends like I have in Europe. So the moral of the story is: get yourself a friend who doesn’t care how you address him, who doesn’t give you orders but does always listen to you: a bonsai tree. Does anyone know a good name?

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P.S. I love writing weeklies, but I love it even more to write them when you’re interested in the stuff I write about. So, if you are wondering about any Korea/martial arts/whatever-related issue, do let me know! Leave a comment or drop me an email, I’ll really appreciate it.

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