Kim Sang Hyun is 56 years old, lives in a basement apartment in Queens and regularly drives to Florida and back to get plants for stores in New York.
He is also a man with a vision.
For the last 30 years, he has almost single-handedly labored to bring the sport of ssireum, a 1,700-year-old form of Korean wrestling, to the United States. In this task 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 said. “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 war before tapering off in the 1990s, is a low-impact contest of strength and skill. Contestants face off in a ring of sand, each wearing a band called a satba around the waist and thigh. Each grabs the other’s satba with both hands, locking the two in a kind of hug, and tries to force one part of the other’s body above the knee to touch the sand.
In contrast to Japanese sumo, competitors do not score points by muscling an opponent out of the ring. There is no hitting or kicking, and because the wrestlers are never more than a few inches apart, few injuries.
A fall for one typically brings down the other as well. At the end of a match, the opponents brush the sand from each other’s sweaty bodies.
“It’s a very gentlemanly sport,” Mr. Kim said.
Ssireum was once strictly for men, who enjoyed hero status in its heyday. Women made undergarments from wrestlers’ satbas to increase their chances of bearing sons, or put satbas near their beds to improve fertility. But now women’s teams are common.
Even toddlers learn the sport in Korea, pressing their backsides against each other and then using their legs to force the other toddler out of the ring — like sumo, only behind-to-behind rather than belly-to-belly.
It’s pretty cute.
But back to Mr. Kim.
Between runs to Florida this May and June, he taught the sport to teenagers at a church in Great Neck, Long Island, and to younger children at a church camp in Palisades Park, N.J.; he organized an exhibition of wrestlers from Korea in Queens.
“Look at these kids,” he said, during 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., started studying with Mr. Kim a couple years ago, drawn by the competitiveness and the satisfaction of beating opponents who were bigger than him. He said that most of his peers did not know about ssireum, even those from Korean families. Many laughed when they heard about it. “But once they saw it, they were amazed,” he said.
Still, he added, most were busy studying for the SAT test. “They don’t have time for this,” he said.
Mr. Kim has had plenty of reasons to give up. Most years he spends $15,000 to $20,000 of his own money trying to kindle interest in the sport. He supplies all the signs and shovels sand into the ring.
“He is a very special person,” said Il Tae Kim, president of the Korean Sports Association of New York, which runs weekly classes in ssireum that draw an average of 10 people. “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 past 30 years, even though, as he said, “there has been little interest to keep the ssireum here in New York City.”
The work makes demands. If it weren’t for ssireum, Mr. Kim said, speaking in Korean, “I’d probably have two big houses already.”
His wife, Kim Hee Soo, who helps at events, said that often people did not appreciate the sacrifices her husband made for ssireum. Instead, they said he was in it for the money. “It really hurts me to watch him being taunted by people like that,” she said.
“He dedicated his life to ssireum, and he deserves much better than that.”
Mr. Kim, too, has had his moments of doubt. One night, shoveling sand at 4 a.m. before an exhibition, his hands cracked and blistered, he broke down in tears, wondering why he was putting himself through so much torment. “For whose benefit?” he said. It was the first time in his life he had ever cried, he said. Ms. Kim, also crying, hugged him.
But then the moment passed. He knew why he was doing what he did, he said, and for whose benefit. What was a little sacrifice compared to a tradition like ssireum?
The day after the exhibition in Queens, the Kims set off on a 5,700-mile drive to Seattle and back, for a Korean American sports festival there. For the couple, it was reason enough to keep going.
“Even though I feel so tired and rewardless many times when I prepare ssireum events,” Mr. Kim said, “once I get there and see students’ excitement on their faces, I forget about everything and get excited too.”
Sometimes, he said, his wife suggests that he give up the mission, that it is too hard on him. But she is also his biggest supporter.
“Ssireum is like a child to me,” he said. “I know I should have done more for my wife, but if I don’t take care of ssireum, who will?”