Mr. Kim’s Lonely Fight to Preserve a Korean Tradition

Kim Sang Hyun is 56 years previous, lives in a basement house in Queens and repeatedly drives to Florida and again to get vegetation for shops in New York.

He can be a man with a imaginative and prescient.

For the final 30 years, he has nearly single-handedly labored to convey the game of ssireum, a 1,700-year-old type of Korean wrestling, to the United States. In this process he has been undaunted.

“So many Korean-American kids who are born in America or come when they are young don’t know much about Korean culture,” he stated. “Even if there is only one student who wants to learn ssireum, I must be there for them.”

Ssireum (pronounced SHEE-rum), which boomed in 1950s Korea after its civil warfare earlier than truly fizzling out within the 1990s, is a low-impact contest of energy and talent. Contestants face off in a ring of sand, every carrying a band known as a satba across the waist and thigh. Each grabs the opposite’s satba with each fingers, locking the 2 in a type of hug, and tries to pressure one a part of the opposite’s physique above the knee to contact the sand.

In distinction to Japanese sumo, rivals don’t rating factors by muscling an opponent out of the ring. There is not any hitting or kicking, and since the wrestlers are by no means greater than a few inches aside, few accidents.

A fall for one usually brings down the opposite as nicely. At the tip of a match, the opponents brush the sand from one another’s sweaty our bodies.

“It’s a very gentlemanly sport,” Mr. Kim stated.

Ssireum was as soon as strictly for males, who loved hero standing in its heyday. Women made undergarments from wrestlers’ satbas to enhance their possibilities of bearing sons, or put satbas close to their beds to enhance fertility. But now girls’s groups are widespread.

Even toddlers be taught the game in Korea, urgent their backsides in opposition to one another after which utilizing their legs to pressure the opposite toddler out of the ring — like sumo, solely behind-to-behind somewhat than belly-to-belly.

It’s fairly cute.

But again to Mr. Kim.

Between runs to Florida this May and June, he taught the game to youngsters at a church in Great Neck, Long Island, and to youthful youngsters at a church camp in Palisades Park, N.J.; he organized an exhibition of wrestlers from Korea in Queens.

“Look at these kids,” he stated, throughout a lesson in New Jersey. “They are learning Korean culture and ssireum can’t be missed. I must continue.”

Jaewoo Park, 16, of Fort Lee, N.J., began finding out with Mr. Kim a couple years in the past, drawn by the competitiveness and the satisfaction of beating opponents who had been larger than him. He stated that the majority of his friends didn’t find out about ssireum, even these from Korean households. Many laughed once they heard about it. “But once they saw it, they were amazed,” he stated.

Still, he added, most had been busy finding out for the SAT check. “They don’t have time for this,” he stated.

Mr. Kim has had loads of causes to hand over. Most years he spends $15,000 to $20,000 of his personal cash attempting to kindle curiosity within the sport. He provides all of the indicators and shovels sand into the ring.

“He is a very special person,” stated Il Tae Kim, president of the Korean Sports Association of New York, which runs weekly courses in ssireum that draw a mean of 10 individuals. “To teach ssireum well and systematically costs a lot of money. Not many Korean immigrants have enough financial stability to invest their time and money into ssireum. But if it doesn’t get taught, it will be forgotten. He has the passion to keep it going more than most people.”

Lee Tae Hyun, a professor at Yong In University who brought the Korean wrestlers to Queens for the exhibition, saluted Mr. Kim’s efforts over the previous 30 years, despite the fact that, as he stated, “there has been little interest to keep the ssireum here in New York City.”

The work makes calls for. If it weren’t for ssireum, Mr. Kim stated, talking in Korean, “I’d probably have two big houses already.”

His spouse, Kim Hee Soo, who helps at occasions, stated that always individuals didn’t recognize the sacrifices her husband made for ssireum. Instead, they stated he was in it for the cash. “It really hurts me to watch him being taunted by people like that,” she stated.

“He dedicated his life to ssireum, and he deserves much better than that.”

Mr. Kim, too, has had his moments of doubt. One night time, shoveling sand at four a.m. earlier than an exhibition, his fingers cracked and blistered, he broke down in tears, questioning why he was placing himself via a lot torment. “For whose benefit?” he stated. It was the primary time in his life he had ever cried, he stated. Ms. Kim, additionally crying, hugged him.

But then the second handed. He knew why he was doing what he did, he stated, and for whose profit. What was a little sacrifice in contrast to a custom like ssireum?

The day after the exhibition in Queens, the Kims set off on a 5,700-mile drive to Seattle and again, for a Korean American sports activities competition there. For the couple, it was cause sufficient to preserve going.

“Even though I feel so tired and rewardless many times when I prepare ssireum events,” Mr. Kim stated, “once I get there and see students’ excitement on their faces, I forget about everything and get excited too.”

Sometimes, he stated, his spouse means that he hand over the mission, that it’s too exhausting on him. But she can be his largest supporter.

“Ssireum is like a child to me,” he stated. “I know I should have done more for my wife, but if I don’t take care of ssireum, who will?”

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