From the outside, it looks like there is no room for a martial arts studio. But beyond the entry of Sunshine Taekwondo Academya few dozen children dressed in crisp white uniforms stretch, practice punches, kicks and other maneuvers in unison in the large, brightly lit gym, called a “dojang” in Korean.
Korean terms are part of the training of children of the first generation of immigrants from Nepal, where their instructor first learned the Korean martial art. She started practicing at the age of 8 in 1994 in a refugee camp located in the far south-east of the country. Although ethnically Nepalese, the mostly agricultural refugee families had lived in Bhutan for many years until they were forced to move to Nepal in the early 1990s.
Kaushila K. Karmacharya, 39, is now a fourth-degree black belt with around 60 students enrolled at her Brittain Road studio. About twice as many members of the Nepali/Bhutanese community are enrolled at his school in Reynoldsburg, outside of Columbus.
“I started taekwondo when I was in fifth grade with the support of my brother and my family,” she said. “Despite the poverty of our extended family of 11, I did not give up martial arts and continually earned medals to make my family proud.”
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Earlier this month, she took 30 Akron students to a tournament hosted by Himalayan Taekwondo in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. The team won 20 golds, 19 silvers, and 10 bronzes in sparring and “poomse,” the Korean term for choreographed sequences of punching, kicking, and blocking techniques.
The tournament, which drew students from schools in several states, was organized by another refugee who runs schools in Harrisburg and Kentucky.
“Tireless” motivation to succeed
Master Kaushila, as his students call him, said practicing taekwondo was not easy, as the male-dominated culture both among his people and in the sport posed problems.
“I was not supported or accepted by the community due to the patriarchal society and the fact that taekwondo is a male dominated sport/game. The path I have traveled has not been easy,” she said. “I didn’t give up. I was determined and I wasn’t bothered by the criticism.”
She earned her first-degree black belt in 2001 and eventually gained asylum in the United States in 2008, where she established a taekwondo school in Arizona. She married a non-refugee Nepali citizen and had two children before joining Akron’s growing immigrant community in 2017. She and her husband are now naturalized US citizens.
She opened the Sunshine Taekwondo Academy in 2019, only to close for nine months after the coronavirus pandemic hit. It reopened in March 2021 and it opened another branch in Reynoldsburg in January. Now she is spending four days teaching in Akron and three days in the south.
“I have won many medals and awards as a winner,” she said. “I’m a tireless leader. I’ve made dozens of student black belts and I’m still working on it.”
Korean martial art is spreading all over the world
Korean general Choi Hong Hi is recognized as the founder of taekwondo. According to his 2002 obituary in the New York Times, Choi developed this art in the 1940s and 1950s as a method of unarmed combat combining traditional Korean techniques and Japanese karate. A founding general of the Korean army, he eventually trained instructors in the discipline for the entire South Korean army, came up with the name for the new art in 1955, and founded the International Taekwondo Federation in 1966.
The South Korean government created the rival World Taekwondo Federation (now World Taekwondo) in 1973, after a disagreement over whether to teach taekwondo in North Korea. World Taekwondo is a member of the Association of International Summer Olympic Federations and taekwondo has been an Olympic sport since 1988, its beginnings as a demonstration sport. It has been a medal sport in its own right at every Summer Olympics since the 2000 Games in Sydney, Australia.
Sunshine Taekwondo is affiliated with World Taekwondo.
Nearly 40 years of taekwondo in Nepal
Although the practice of martial arts was banned at the time, a 1983 protest by a group of Nepalese taekwondo practitioners led to the government allowing discipline for police and government agencies, followed by the general public. following year, according to Nepal Taekwondo Association.
Eventually he ended up in the refugee camps, where students practiced on soccer fields, said Himalayan taekwondo master Nakul Sharma. He remembers training with the young master Kaushila in the camp in the 1990s.
Karmacharya, a fourth-degree black belt, now outclasses him. Sharma said he arrived at the refugee camp a few years before her, so he upgraded her then. Born in West Bengal, India, Sharma moved with his family to Bhutan when he was 2 years old in 1983, then left for Nepal as a refugee in 1992.
He earned his first degree black belt in 2000 and began teaching other refugees.
“I saw that our little ones and our big kids had low self-esteem, suffered from a lack of self-control and didn’t believe in themselves,” he said. “I knew that the art of taekwondo had the ability to fuel both the physical and mental growth of young children and adults. I wanted to bring about social change in their and our way of thinking. It made me take my passion and creating taekwondo schools in two different refugee camps in Nepal.”
He was promoted to second degree black belt in 2007 and moved to Pennsylvania in 2013.
Preserving culture through martial arts
Recently, parents gathered in a waiting room and away from the Sunshine Taekwondo Academy while their children practiced. They say the fact that other families with students are Nepali is important.
Rup Dhungana, father of a 6- and 8-year-old, said the training is a good way for them to associate with other members of the community who share the same native language. But most important, he said, are the lessons they learn.
“When they’re at home, they spend most of their time watching TV,” he said. “It’s organized. They come here and learn to follow the rules and regulations. They learn discipline.”
Nandy Subedi, who has a 7-year-old daughter at school, said she sees many positive benefits for her daughter, both cognitive and physical.
“I hope she gets back to health and wellness. I want her to have a good health and fitness routine,” she said, adding that working out should also help her. help them do well in school.
And as her daughter grows into a young woman, “I want her to learn about self-defense techniques,” she said.
Dhungana and Subedi acknowledge that their children will eventually assimilate into American culture as they grow older.
But in the meantime, “They have to preserve their culture,” Dhungana said. “We need to know who we are before we can explore other cultures.”
Sunshine Taekwondo Academy is located at 1717 Brittain Road in Akron and 1302 Brice Road in Reynoldsburg. He can be reached at 602-245-3403, or [email protected] The school also offers music and dance lessons.
Eric Marotta can be reached at 330-541-9433, or [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @MarottaEric