I first learned of Uncle's story when I overheard a conversation between my mother and a relative while falling asleep. I didn't know what "illegitimate" meant, but from the way my mother and the lady whispered that word, I felt it was something you couldn't really say aloud, like "penis" or "vagina." And so I pondered the word in secret for a long time, and vaguely began to understand the meaning after reading the "Tale of Hong Kiltong." It went something like this: you couldn't call your father father or your brother brother. It seemed to me that it was kind of a cool thing. After all, the illegitimate son, the hero Hong Kiltong, was a righteous bandit who helped people. Uncle reminded me of Hong Kiltong, too: a free and lonely outsider who stood apart from the crowd. For a while, I had the funny idea that all cool people were illegitimate.
With the end of winter break, Jong-tae and I entered middle school. It was the same school my brother Dong-gu went to. He was the top student in the entire school and a favorite of the teachers. At first, as the younger brother of the star student, I got a lot of attention. But maybe I wasn't as smart as my brother, or maybe I didn't try hard enough, because my grades turned out to be only average. After the first round of exams, the teachers lost interest in me and I found myself feeling slightly hurt and alienated. Unlike [End Page 65] Uncle, I guess I was the type who craved attention. But what could an average middle school student, who was neither a good student nor a good athlete, do to draw people's attention? I thought of Uncle, who had become an instant hero among the students for his roundhouse kick. When I went to town with him, kids would whisper as we passed by and throw us looks of admiration. Oh, how badly I wanted people to look at me that way, too! I immediately decided to learn martial arts from Uncle. My bones had grown; I even had hair between my legs: it was high time I mastered the martial arts.
That evening I went with Jong-tae to see Uncle in his hilltop martial arts training ground. I talked Jong-tae into coming along because, even though I saw Uncle every day, for some reason I felt shy asking him to teach me martial arts. Jong-tae was more than happy to tag along. After seeing Enter the Dragon last winter, he, like us, had become a devout follower of the church of Bruce Lee.
At that time Uncle was deeply immersed in a form of martial arts called Wing Chun. This was after he had read in an article that, before going to America, Bruce Lee had mastered the techniques of Wing Chun from the legendary master Yip Man. The magazine featured photos of Bruce with master Yip, practicing the techniques on a wooden dummy. Convinced that the secret of Bruce's martial arts lay in Wing Chun, Uncle immediately decided to learn it. But there was no one in Korea at that time who knew Wing Chun. He searched all the kung fu studios in the area in vain. Based on the magazine photo, Uncle even made his own Wing Chun wooden dummy, the muk yan chong, by carving it out of wood and propping it up on the hill. But that's about as far as he could go. Not sure exactly what to do with a dead tree, he would end up clumsily knocking his bones against the hard wood and yell from the pain.
A year of going to a hapkido gym while in elementary school had been Uncle's only experience of learning martial arts. My dad, seeing that his little stepbrother was constantly getting picked on by the neighborhood kids, felt sorry for him and enrolled him in [End Page 66] the neighborhood gym in return for a payment of seven doe of rice.1 On...