You can tell a person by her dojung.
Almost everything in Master Young Sook Kim's "World Tae Kwon Do Martial Arts" dojung (karate training room)--from trophies to photographs to plaques to mirrors--reflects.
So does Kim, on the time before women were accepted in taekwondo. Before she did some kicking against established Korean mores.
"Everywhere I went, I opened doors," said Kim, demonstrating with her arms. "Open, open, open."
Though Kim summons door metaphors as if she were Jim Morrison, her dojung has few. More interesting are the walls. The plethora of artifacts from glories past might seem gaudy and self-congratulatory, but then, Kim--who leads visitors by the bicep from memento to memento--didn't become the Jackie Robinson of taekwondo by being demure.
She has been around a man's world in 35 years, struggling for gender equality in the martial arts. Now she stands before yet another creaky door--loosened by her own endeavors--which she is primed to knock off its hinges.
Only four referees from the United States--of a pool of 250--will travel to Manila for the 12th World Tae Kwon Do Championships and the fifth Women's World Taekwondo Championships from Nov. 17-21. Kim, as she often is, will be the lone woman.
Fifty-six other referees from 146 other nations will also arbitrate the proceedings in Manila. All are male and few can compete with Kim's prodigious pedigree.
Born in Korea in 1947, Kim began secretly learning taekwondo at age 12, despite disapproving parents.
"In [South] Korea, [the] man is first, the woman behind the door," Kim said. "My brother was a black belt, but my parents didn't want me to do that. They cut up my uniform."
Kim learned anyway. When her older brother, Young Sam Kim, traveled to teach at faraway dojungs, she stealthily trained at one near her home.
Soon after, she became a teacher herself. At age 23, she opened the first women's taekwondo dojung in the world. Two years later, she instructed the south Korean Women's Army Corps.
But women remained subjugated in taekwondo, as Kim again discovered in November, 1973, at the Seventh Tae Kwon Do Masters' Training Course at the World Tae Kwon Do Federation headquarters, in the most subtle of ways.
The headquarters, built for men, did not have a restroom for women. The lone female enrollee, Kim endured three tearful days: while her classmates changed clothes and relieved themselves in the bathroom between four-hour blocks of classes, she braved frigid temperatures to run to a hotel.
On the fourth day, she thought she found a door to a bathroom.
When she opened it, she encountered no sinks, just a sinking feeling: she had read the sign wrong and interrupted a private meeting headed by the WTF chairman.
She left the room to disapproving glares. Another reminder that she was different.
Today, Kim posts reminders for her students in her Canoga dojung. One is a list titled "Ten Articles of Faith." Nine on that list is "never retreat in battle." Ten is "Always finish what you start."
Kim heeded both.
For six years, she taught taekwondo at nine embassies, and to men twice her weight in Korea's metropolitan police mobile unit. She also became head coach of the Korean national women's team--which won five gold medals at the Pre-World Games Tae Kwon Do Championships in 1978--and organized the Korean Women's Tae Kwon Do Assn.
Then, due to some "personal problems," she organized her belongings and moved to Michigan.
Five months pregnant in 1982, Kim took a job as head coach of the United States National Women's Team, telling only the team physician her condition.
"I was much more skinny then," Kim said. "In the shower, I don't think they could tell. And I could do everything but the jogging."
In order to inculcate a larger number of people, she moved in 1986 to Los Angeles with her now ex-husband, Sun Hwan Chung, and daughters, Michelle, 15, and Sophia, 12--both second-degree blackbelts.
While continuing to serve on myriad women's taekwondo committees and opening the dojung in Canoga Park, she has dabbled in officiating. In 1989, she was the first female to referee a second degree international taekwondo competition. Now she needs three more international competitions to move up to first degree.
But she most savors teaching and, it seems, fame, even when it touches those she has touched. Shin Ja Lim, a former student, coaches the Korean national team, success for which Kim takes partial credit.
"It's easier for her now," Kim said. "Now they teach it to women in college."
Since Tae Kwon Do Times magazine featured Kim in its September cover story, fans worldwide have contacted her for advice, and she appears to get a kick out of the attention. One girl from Pennsylvania, claiming to be both a reporter and blackbelt, called. Kim, not believing either boast, put her on speakerphone and asked for the names of her master and publication.
The girl fumbled. Kim giggled.
For the most part, though, Kim has acted in a supportive role with youth. The city of Los Angeles awarded her a community service award, and if anyone questioned her influence on Valley youngsters, teens such as Steve Gallagher would testify on her behalf.
Gallagher, 15, from San Fernando, cut his hair on Kim's request, as he would not do for his parents. After bowing to the visitors, he said that he has undergone less-tangible changes as well.
"I'm definitely more disciplined now," Gallagher said softly. "I respect a lot more people. I'm kinder, more polite. I was kind of unruly before. My friends and I were watching old videos and couldn't believe that was me. This is definitely more spiritual than anything I have done."
For others, such as 8-year-old Timothy Yuan, taekwondo has helped overcome timidity.
"He was kind of shy, very feminine, crying like he doesn't want to do it," Timothy's mother said. "Now he likes it."
Timothy runs around the room in socks, kicking, punching, laughing. He picks up a life-size poster print of the Tae Kwon Do Times cover with Kim's menacing countenance, as if to honor the person who unlocked the door to his spirit.
"Look, Power Rangers!" Timothy says, pointing instead to an inset photo of the television heroes. Fame may have limits, but one needn't be famous to have influence.
Kim fancies herself as a second mother to her students, supervising them well after classes end if parents are late and refusing to teach those seeking to use taekwondo as a means to exact revenge. Instead, she preaches self-control and hygiene--harping on clean cuticles, among other things--and often places surprise calls home to students on Saturdays to see if their rooms are clean.
"I care about my students," Kim said. "Respect country, respect parents, respect brother and sister. Bow to show respect."
Just don't bow to custom if it needs to be changed. And don't respect closed doors if they are meant to be open.