Photo by Brian Kaiser.

Living Legend

When Choon Mo Yang arrived to Columbus, Ohio in May of 1970, he had one dollar and fifty cents in his pocket and a dream in his heart: to share Taekwondo, the martial art of his homeland, Korea, with the people of America.

Forty-seven years later, he is a true Master—fulfilling his destiny, albeit in a place he’d never imagined.

Before Yang’s arrival in the United States, he’d already lived a rather full and eventful life. Rigorous training gained him a black belt at the young age of 10.

“I learned martial arts because in An-san, where I lived, there was a big mountain there. Everyone said that’s where the Master lives, with a white gown; he moves around the mountain like wind,” Yang said. “My god, I wanted to be like that.”

Yang then attended one of the largest high schools in Asia at that time, Seoul Technical High School, and went on to study law in college. All throughout, he continued his Taekwondo training. In April of 1960, just a few years after the Korean War armistice established the two countries, North and South, the April Revolution occurred in South Korea. Yang joined the student revolution to oust Syngham Rhee, the first president and ruthless dictator of South Korea; he played a vital role in the formation of modern South Korea, and eventually joined the Presidential Bodyguard staff for Rhee’s successor, President Park Chung-Hee.

The tragedies, sufferings, and unknowns caused by war not only pushed Master Yang to learn and hone his Taekwondo, but to also leave his homeland and come to the United States.

“When I came here, it was better than my dreams—I tell you the truth,” Yang stated, matter-of-factly. “When you watch American movies, you say, ah, it’s so beautiful is it real? Then I came here, I talked to my friends and told them: it’s better than the movies.”

Yang took up residence at the Downtown YMCA and established himself in the weight rooms, eventually speaking to administrators and demonstrating Taekwondo, which led to his teaching classes there. Now, nearly a half-century later, he’s impacted thousands of students and continues to teach classes at 18 different YMCAs around the mid-Ohio region.

His work and mission here has made America his home, as he admits he’s not been back to Korea one time since.

“I was born in Korea, I am Korean,” he said. “I’m never going to change my identity and all the feelings and all that stuff. But it’s almost a half century that has passed. It’s getting farther and farther away from me.”

What made him stick around for so long without going back? His extremely busy schedule, borne out of his feelings of responsibilities to his students and their lives. “I love impacting people’s lives. I’m so busy, I don’t even know how I live here from 1970 until about 2015. I don’t even have time to think. I don’t think about money, house—I like to take care of people. I’m crazy about people.”

“I think it’s hard to express the level of which he’s helped people,” says student and long-time friend Bernadette Bourke, who started attending Master Yang’s classes with her kids. “In teaching them self-confidence, self-respect, to defend themselves, those people all [had] lives before or were preparing for something bad to happen in the future potentially. I know of many people who had rough lives previously who his teaching—the self-confidence and the way it builds people up—[has] had an impact on their lives that they’ll never forget.”

“Bored” as a 10-year-old at the Hilltop Y with nothing to do during the winter when the pool was closed, Scott Ward and his brother would pass their time there with their father, who happened upon a class taught by Master Yang. Scott’s father asked if the boys might be interested in taking a class, and they were. That began a decades long relationship between Scott and Master Yang. “Master Yang is pretty much like my second dad,” he said.

In the presence of Master Yang, I can’t help but think of my own father, a Korean-born doctor who immigrated to the U.S. in 1971. Learning about their incredible journeys gives me pause and reflection, especially in these volatile and challenging times. Just as my own father came to America intent on helping people, Master Yang saw learning, spiritual and physical growth in his work. Like many immigrants, his priority was to make a good life for himself, while contributing to the community that he embraced.

Ohio is now an inextricable part of both men’s identities.

In fact, in one scene from a 1999 award-winning documentary that tracks his life, Master and The Mountain, Master Yang is in a forest, practicing roundhouse kicks. He deftly throws something up into the air with his hand and with incredible precision, roundhouse kicks the object out of the air with a loud “smack.” The object is a Buckeye, the ubiquitous symbol of his adopted home. It’s a stark, beautiful collision that symbolizes the marriage between two cultures, so different from each other, but united simply by the fact that we share a universal humanity.

How can you not marvel at Master Yang’s story, his unwavering love of this country, and the unseen impact that he has had on many individuals’ lives? Why, I asked Master Yang, is welcoming those with different experiences and cultures so important to the fabric of America, or any community?

“Because we learn from each other,” he said. “I learn from here, I learn from Korea, whoever comes here they learn … all that information is exchanged and it makes us better—a better society and human life.”

Community Classes with Master Yang and his instructors are offered at YMCAs as well as Master Yang’s studio on Columbus’ West Side. Visit www.ymcacolumbus.org or www.yangtaekwondo.com for more information.

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