Updated: Nov 17
Responding to Challenges
When Master KJ (Kwangjin Ha) first moved to Fairfield, CT in 1998 as a high school senior, it was just another stop in a long string of moves that marked his childhood. Little did he know that this town would become not just another place he was living, but the place he would call home, the community he would raise his children in, and where his entrepreneurial instincts would take flight. And little did Fairfield know, it was welcoming someone who would go on to become one of the world’s greatest TaeKwonDo champions.
Master KJ’s life began in South Korea where he lived with his mother, father, and 5 siblings. It was during this time, while in 3rd grade that Master KJ began studying TaeKwonDo. However, a defining change in his life would interrupt this early passion and it would be years before he could return to it. Master KJ’s mother, a traveling minister in the Korean Methodist Church, would be moving to the United States to continue her work and she would be taking her youngest children, who were still minors, Master KJ being the youngest, with her.
Initially touching down in Kansas, this move proved to be simply the first of many, as his mother would go on to continue her work throughout California before finally settling in Fairfield. This dramatic change left scant time for TaeKwonDo study, but the challenges it presented would be formative and create an unshakable resilience that would be present with Master KJ for the rest of his life.
Among the many new priorities and challenges in moving to the US, was learning English, which was still very new to Master KJ. In the beginning, the language barrier made it difficult to make connections and communicate with both peers and teachers. This challenge, when coupled with being separated from his siblings and family in Korea, would f an uncommon drive & self-sufficiency within him.
When Master KJ finally arrived in Fairfield, he was a high school senior. This would prove to be
perhaps the most difficult challenge.
Reflecting on this time, Master KJ notes, “Moving my senior year was very tough. In total I moved 6 high schools in 4 years.”
Enrolled in Fairfield high school (now Warde), friend groups were already set and most kids were thinking about their exciting future, rather than the present which seemed little more than a way station before the next chapter of their lives began.
Sensing this, and long accustomed to self-reliance, Master KJ and didn’t put much effort
toward trying to fit into social groups or forging friendships he would soon have to leave behind for college. So, much like those around him, he looked beyond the present and toward the future. He dabbled in sports as a way to socialize and move his body but he mainly focused on doing well in school to prepare for college admissions. “When you move schools from state to state, maintaining a good GPA is very tough. It was very tough for me to make friends when moving from one school to the other.” Beyond the challenges of school was the need to help support the family as the church had only a modest ability to do so. Even with schoolwork as his primary focus, Master KJ made time to work at a gas station, as a waiter, a private tutor, and SAT math tutor.
After graduating from high school he went on to study art at UCONN via the Stamford Campus location, commuting from Fairfield. This would be the longest time he had lived in one place. He started by working toward a degree in art, taking many different classes including illustration, painting, chemistry, biology, math, etc. “I kind of liked to have the creative ideas to put in pictures and design.” said Master KJ as he pulled out some of his old sketchbooks.
Flipping through the illustrations together it’s clear that his passion for illustration is yet another area of great skill for him. He would have gone on to get his degree in art but the summer before his senior year of college an ice cream truck would change the course of his life forever.
Setting His Own Course
That summer Master KJ decided to rent an ice cream truck and realized it was a lucrative business. Along his route he met two men with whom he eventually became friendly with. He noticed that along his early evening route these two men were the only fathers who were consistently home with their children, playing or relaxing in the front yards of their sizable homes. Throughout the summer Master KJ developed a relationship with these men & he eventually asked them what they did for a living. One was a businessman and the other was a lawyer. They discussed their careers and through these conversations Master KJ realized he wanted a career where he could both support a family and prioritize the time spent with them. That summer, just before his senior year of college, he decided to switch his major from art to business.
Switching majors in his senior year of college was a challenge, but given all that Master KJ had already overcome, challenges were not barriers, they were merely circumstances that could be transformed with hard work and creativity. It required taking extra classes and an additional two and a half years of schooling to earn his business degree but it was worth it. Through focus and self discipline he was able to put himself on the path for the life he desired.
It was also during this time that he started teaching TaeKwonDo on the side and attending a new Korean Methodist Church in Queens, New York. He would go as often as three times a week.
When I ask him what it felt like to be surrounded by a community of Korean people who shared his culture and language after being insulated in Fairfield for so long, he pauses and thoughtfully says, “It was like being home.”
Building a Family & a Business
It was there, in Queens, at this church where he met his future wife, Katie. She happened to be visiting from Korea and was attending the same church with her family when they met. A smile appears on Master KJ’s face as he describes meeting Katie, getting to know her and eventually having an all night interview with her parents to ask their permission for her to move here, to be with him, and build a life together. They had a small ceremony in the states and a larger one in Korea for both of their families to attend. Master KJ was now building a future not only for himself but for his wife and future family.
Master KJ started working at Fairfield World Champion TaeKwonDo in 2002 and by 2007 he became the owner. Each master who runs one of the WCTKD studios must train for a minimum of 3-5 years in addition to proving they can operate the business both logistically and financially before obtaining their license. Quality over quantity is the highest priority.
When the previous Master decided to move to California. Master KJ was not the only candidate in the running to take over the Fairfield location. Grandmasters and upcoming Masters from nearby towns threw their names into the ring. At the end of the day the previous Master said: “Master KJ can operate the whole school without anyone's help, he is the one for the job.” Master KJ had always wanted to open a WCTKD branch in his home town of Fairfield.
The stars aligned for Master KJ because the day after the previous Master left for California was also the day his wife, Katie was finally able to move from South Korea to Fairfield to join him. Together they would go on to build a life and raise two beautiful sons who are currently in the Fairfield Public Schools.
Photography by Kihoon Oh
Making His Mark in TaeKwonDo
Tae Kwon Do has 3 symbols, Tae means barefoot, Kwon means bare hands, Do means the way of the martial artist. “We teach about punch, kick, and total discipline. That is what TaeKwonDo is about. We give them big training, big motivations, we set a goal for each class…” TaeKwonDo is not just about using fists and feet, it’s not about fighting or creating bullies. TaeKwonDo is about building skills while learning how and when to use them through self discipline and training.
In addition to owning and running a business, being a husband, a father and dedicated community member, Master KJ continues to compete on the global stage, representing the United States at the World Championship TaeKwonDo Competition. The World Championship for TaeKwonDo happens every 2 years, traveling across continents and has taken him all around the world throughout his career.
The road to the world championship is a long one. It starts with state competitions followed by regional competitions (east, central, and west). These 3 regional competitions are called the Grand Prix while the state competitions are considered the nationals. The Grand Prix winners then come together in one place to compete. Next comes the Grand Slam where the medalists from the Grand Prix and nationals compete. From here they select the top four to eight winners and begin team trials. The winners of the team trials then become the team members who eventually go on to compete in the world championship. This process takes a full year, and the competitors repeat this process twice! At the end of this long process the last people standing are the best in the world competing for the honor of World Champion.
Fairfield’s own Master KJ has brought home both the Bronze and Silver for the United States, but he’s not done yet! He hopes to continue competing, challenging himself and one day bring home Gold.
Creating Community & Giving Back
World Champion TaeKwonDo caters to students with all different abilities, there are classes focused on giving students with ADHD and autism the support they need to feel confident, move freely, and learn TaeKwonDo. These programs help children to gain confidence and repeat patterns which result in completing tasks. One of the first things Master KJ did when he took over Fairfield WCTKD was move their location to a larger space not only to accommodate a larger student population but to give more space for kids with special needs.
One of his goals for the future of Fairfield WCTKD is to expand to an even larger space so he can dedicate half of the space solely to kids with special needs. “They need more spaces like this…they feel confident (here). I want to make a special place where kids can come regularly.”
Master KJ teaches not only at the Fairfield WCTKD studio, he also teaches at about 10 after school programs throughout Fairfield at both private and public institutions. He collaborates with schools and teachers to create programs to fit their needs. His message is clear, “Be a Buddy, not a Bully…we educate students and staff how important it is to be respectful in school.” During pre-pandemic times he had about 200 kids from different schools around Fairfield come to learn about “Be a Buddy, not a Bully”.
You may also have seen a “buddy bench” outside your school if you’re at Burr Elementary or Mill Hill elementary. These brightly painted benches were donated by Master KJ and Fairfield WCTKD as a place for any child to sit, someone who maybe doesn’t have a buddy to play with. The idea and hope being that other children can recognize this and come over to “be a buddy” for that child.
Oftentimes when WCTKD is booked to offer lessons at a school, they will then donate a portion of those proceeds back to the schools to help pay for school supplies or other needs of the school. He’s donated about $5K back into the Fairfield Public Schools from his earnings.
When the war in Ukraine broke out, he made specialized Ukraine TaeKwonDo belts that he then matched profits and sent donations to a TaeKwonDo studio in Ukraine that is currently being used as a shelter. Master KJ says of these acts of kindness, “Sometimes big, sometimes small. It could really touch somebody who really needs it, you never know how it is gonna turn out.”
As for the future of his championship goals, community work, and family, Master KJ says, “I still want to compete…I want to become a gold medalist. I want to grow the business and dedicate $20,000 a year in donations, but family first."
As I thank Master KJ for his time and gather up my items he's already busy welcoming students into the studio. I watch as the 8-10yr olds happily greet Master KJ and get to work on the mat. There is a true sense of pride and belonging in this studio and it's reflected not only in Master KJ but in his students. As a Fairfield resident I am so grateful that his journey led him here, to the place I call home.
Fairfield World Champion TaeKwonDo is located at 85 Mill Plain Rd Suite H, Fairfield, CT 06824 in the Sportsplex near downtown Fairfield.
If you don’t see the program you are looking for on their website or you are an institution who would like to book the “Be a Buddy Not a Bully TaeKwonDo program” feel free to call Jennifer at (203) 319-1333or email email@example.com
Studio family photos by Kihoon Oh
Photographer | Videographer