Family bonds over black belts

At first, Stella Yao was frustrated when she struggled to crack a cement block in two with one hand as she tested for a black belt in tae kwon do, but then the 9-year-old saw her mother whack through the thick slab.

Stella took another stab at the challenge after that and broke the block in two.

“She cried a little, but she pushed through,” said Stella’s mother, Tessa Yao. “I was so proud of her.”

Stella, her mother and her father, Hugh Yao, all received first-degree black belts last month, becoming the first family to all get a black belt at the same time at JK Tae Kwon Do studio in Glendale.

It’s not uncommon for multiple members in a family to train in tae kwon do, but Jin Ki Lim, the owner of JK Tae Kwon Do’s five studios in Southern California and Acapulco, Mexico, said it’s the first time he’s seen a family achieve black belts at the same in the 22 years since he opened his academy.

Lim said he thought it was a good idea for families to practice tae kwon do together to become more respectful of each other.

“It helps, especially in the [United States], where families have difficulties communicating,” said Lim, who years ago was a bodyguard for the president of South Korea.

It took the family roughly three years to get black belts — with Stella technically having a junior black belt because she is under 16. Hugh Yao was the first, who got into tae kwon do in order to keep active. However, after watching him a few times, his daughter and wife wanted to do it, too.

The family comes to the studio for two and a half hours, seven days a week, but they do sometimes take a Sunday off every now and then. When they’re not training there, they practice at home. The family will spar with each other and practice poses. They studied for their black-belt exam, which took seven hours over two days, together.

The exam required the Yaos to demonstrate several positions, kicking techniques to break wooden boards, falling motions and self-defense techniques.

Adults have to perform twice as many of each skill as children during the test and they also have to perform a self-defense technique used against knife attacks, which children don’t do.

But everyone has to break cement blocks.

The Yaos received the first of eight levels of black-belt designations. Those with a fourth-degree black belt are considered “masters” and eighth-degree earners are “grand masters.”

“I was excited we all got to test as a family,” said Hugh Yao, a marketing manager for SoCalGas, who also is the president of the Glendale Water & Power Commission.

The other day when Tessa Yao, a financial manager at California Institute of Technology, came to give her daughter a kiss good night, Stella put her in a choke hold as a joke, insisting that her mom tap when she wanted to be released, a move Stella learned from watching Ultimate Fighting Championship events with her family.

“Sometimes she’s the one teaching me,” Tessa Yao said, adding that tae kwon do has not only brought them closer as a family, but it also has shown her daughter that she can do anything a boy can.

To share their black-belt accomplishment with family and friends, the trio posed in their black belts and tae kwon do garb on their Christmas card this year.

Some of the Yao’s friends respect them for spending so much time practicing tae kwon do, but others don’t understand how much fun the family is having.

“They ask us, ‘Don’t you want to hang out with your friends and have fun?’ But we are hanging out with our friends and having fun. This is like our family here,” Tessa Yao said, gesturing to the students and teachers at the studio.


Follow Brittany Levine on Google+ and on Twitter: @brittanylevine.


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