12 April 2012

The Potential Value of the Martial Arts for Ostracised Korean Children

Image Source
There is a phenomenon in Korea known as “wangtta.” The word is used as both a noun—a person is said to be a wangtta—and an adjective—a situation is described as wangtta. I will use the term primarily in its noun form, as it is easier to grasp within the English idiom and from a Western paradigm. Simplistically, a wangtta is usually a child that is an outcast from his or her peer group. As an outcast the wangtta may experience various forms of bullying, including verbal and physical abuse. However the most common and severe form of bullying for the wangtta is ostracism, a complete disregard for the person—literally treating the wangtta as if he or she doesn't exist.

While ostracism can be terrible for any child, in a group-oriented society like Korea the effect is especially severe. Like any group-oriented society, being part of a group is fundamental to the person's sense of value, and so being ostracised is cause for terrible shame. In fact, it is not unheard of for Korean children that are treated as wangtta to commit suicide. This is a tragic, but very real occurrence in Korea.

So what anti-bullying, i.e. anti-wangtta, strategies has the martial arts to offer?

In this context anti-bullying self-defence techniques are only somewhat relevant because the real abuse is not as much physical as emotional. For these children being physically abused is paradoxically sufferable. Accounts I heard of Koreans having suffered being bullied says that one just have to take it and wait it out. Eventually somebody else will become the wangtta and the focus will shift away from you to someone else. The paradox here is that if one is physically bullied, it means that your existence is actually still somewhat acknowledged. You are not yet completely ignored, you are not yet treated with utter disregard, as if you do not exist. Like a child so hungry for attention that even negative attention would suffice, the physically bullied child is often willing to endure it. It seems that the most dangerous form of bullying in the group-oriented society is to completely ostracise the child, for it is often these children that are so lonely that they kill themselves. Wanting to be acknowledged, having ones existence recognised, is so enduring to the Oriental psyche that it forms a prominent motif in many children's animation. I think, for instance, of the famous Japanese manga and anime series Naruto, in which one of the main driving forces for the main character is to be recognised and accepted by his village and peers. Naruto's journey from an outcast to an accepted and acknowledged member of society forms a crucial motif to the plot, and I believe this is part of its popularity not only in its native Japan, but also here in Korea. Of course, although I believe ostracism to possibly be the worst form of bullying for the Korean child, it would be ungrounded to downplay the awful effects of verbal and physical bullying altogether.

In my opinion the greatest thing that the martial arts can provide the ostracised child is a community, a group to belong to. I guess it is possible that the child may be ostracised even within the dojang, but with the close interaction of the observant and caring instructor, opportunity for bullying is much less. Furthermore, a sense of “group” is often inevitable in martial art training. Even when a child is ignored by other members, activities such as pattern training, where everybody moves on the count of the instructor, creates a synthetic group. In that moment of synchronised movement, all the members act as one group, which includes even the ostracised child. Other partner work activities such as pre-arranged sparring further enhance a sense of “group.” A child that may in other circumstances ignore the wangtta is in the dojang forced to interact during the partner exercises under the watchful eye of the instructor. Furthermore, many martial artists can testify how the dojang has become a second “family” and even people that may not have anything in common outside of the dojang are bonded by the commonality of their shared recreation. The “sacred” space of the dojang often acts as catalyst for friendships that may not have formed under other circumstances. Hopefully the dojang could provide the ostracised child with similar relationships that many of us have received from our martial arts training. If nothing else, at least the dojang can provide an alternative space for the child—away from school or other negative environments—where he or she is not the wangtta.

Furthermore, it is often the more shy and timid children that are bullied. While martial art training may not change ones personality (it won't necessarily make an extrovert of an introvert), it does seem to make one more comfortable in one's own skin. Feeling comfortable in your body—aided by the ability to move with agility and grace—undoubtedly has a positive effect on one's self-esteem. The slow but constant progression in ability, skill and rank becomes a new standard of judgement for the child. Even the most inept child will, through constant training, progress in skill and rank. Respect for rank is part and parcel of the dojang, so the child that are shunned outside of the dojang receives—although it may be superficial—respect and acknowledgement from lower ranking students inside the dojang. As the child's self-esteem improves it often causes a series of ripples: the child feels more confident, and as a result looks more confident, which lessons the likelihood of looking like an easy target to be bullied, and may potentially cause the bullying to stop.

While I do not dismiss anti-bullying self-defence techniques which the child may possibly learn during martial art training, I think the real value of martial art training for an outcast (a wangtta) is found in the sense of community that a dojang can provide. The dojang is potentially a new (“safe”) space for the child to become part of a “family” of fellow martial art practitioners. The training and progression in the martial art also provides the child with another criteria of judgement—one that is not arbitrary, but based on a syllabus to whom everyone is held. With consistent training the “wangtta” can prove him or herself and move to a position of respect. This, and the positive affects of physical training, has the potential to build the child's self-esteem, which in turn lessens the likelihood of being victimized.

I'm certain that such positive effects are just as relevant in individual-oriented societies as in group-oriented societies.


Ymar Sakar said...


Then there's the problem solvers that are the trouble makers...

SooShimKwan said...

Anti-bullying speaker turns into a bully. Sounds like he has a lot of anger issues.