She stood only a few feet away from me, mirroring my stance — feet shoulder-length apart, arms bent at the elbows, her hands balled up into fists at belt level. My heart was beating fast, a tingle of excitement stirring in my belly. She was a black belt, and I was a red belt, this only my second Tae Kwon Do competition.
“Begin!” the referee yelled.
We both stepped back with our left legs and raised our arms, the fists at the chest level. I didn’t attack first. I almost never did. I waited for the opponent to make the first move, because most people were jumpy and nervous in the beginning, and I liked to take advantage of that.
At my first competition, when I was a white belt — a beginner — I won first place in showing forms. Forms are prescribed steps and movements that everyone has to master. There are different forms (katas) for different color belts. But now, a year and a half later, I was in a competition for fighting, and this was a very big deal for me, a self-professed coward.
I have always loved martial arts. My love began as a teenager, with movies, watching the big stars like Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris, but not stopping there. I would watch low budget Chinese martial arts movies. I devoured those movies, and not because of crackling dialogue, superb acting or complex plot lines. It seemed the hero would always have to avenge either the death of his master or his family, usually his wife. The rest was fighting — the hand to hand combat. I loved the fighting. It looked like glorious kind of dancing to me, precise yet artistic, like ballet with punching, kicking and blocking. The word that came to my mind most of all wasn’t “athletic” or “strong” but “graceful.”
It took me two years to convince my mother to let me take Tae Kwon Do lessons, the Korean form of martial arts. She wanted me to take dancing (something I had no interest in), because she herself loved dancing. I got that dancing was important to her, but I did not budge, and never took dancing. Finally, my begging, pleading, whining and cajoling paid off, and I began training in Tae Kwon Do. Along with proper technique, we were also taught some Korean history as well as language.
I don’t remember my very first lesson, but I clearly remember running a hot bath afterwards, lowering my aching and exhausted body into the water and crying. Hard. This was the most demanding physical exertion I’ve ever experienced up to this point in my life. It. Hurt. So. Much. But, this is what I asked for and what I wanted to do. I am glad I somehow found the strength to go back. I did go back, and kept going back, learning new katas and getting a reputation for fierceness and toughness I knew I didn’t deserve. I have a feeling part of it was my fierce ki-yap, the scream we’re supposed to make from our very core to help us tighten our stomachs and deliver more of an oomph on punches and kicks. Mine was not a wimpy little ki-yap. It was a full-blown bellow from my very gut that jarred most of my opponents — that was the idea. Another thing that I did was grin during sparring. I wasn’t aware I was doing it, so it wasn’t a conscious way of throwing off opponents — I just enjoyed sparring to a ridiculous degree. I was doing what I’ve been dreaming of doing for years and I could not believe my good fortune.
My mother came around soon enough, and came to respect my hard work. “Why am I paying so much money for your karate training?” she would ask, and answer with an assignment. “Go beat up your father.” She was joking, of course.
The years I had spent studying and practicing my martial art skills, in my late teens, I was in the best shape of my life, and I felt strong and unafraid. Well, maybe not unafraid, but certainly more confident. By the time I became a black belt, I knew that if I was ever attacked, I could defend myself enough to do some damage, then run away. In all seriousness, my desire to learn Tae Kwon Do, other the beauty of it, was to give me confidence. With this confidence, even as a black belt, I knew myself enough to know that if I ever found myself in a fight, my desire was to be out of that fight as soon as possible.
Oh, and that competition I was in, when I was a red belt? I took second place, and a lovely trophy that still sits on a shelf in my office.
Now, years later, my body has quite a few extra pounds, a replaced hip and a replaced knee, and doesn’t allow me to participate in martial arts.
What I would really love to learn is Karate, the discipline I have grown to love above all others. Tae Kwon Do taught us to kick to the head. Seriously? I don’t have to kick above a knee, because that joint only goes one way, or even a shin, because that also hurts a lot. Japanese, or Okinawan Karate has the economy of movement that looks deceptively simple, but requires a zen-like attitude and focus that becomes better with practice. Its sinuous steps are like those of water, flowing and graceful with power that doesn’t require any concentration because you become “in the flow,” one with movements.
So, I have decided to create my own sort of a martial art — knowing that there has even been something invented for the elderly, to fight with a cane, called “Cane Fu.” I have decided to make my own fighting style, something suited for an overweight, put-together with replacement parts, older, inflexible human. Wish me luck, and hopefully at this time next year I will have something concrete to show for my dreams and wishes.