The Art of Fighting Through the Pain

Each of us took a bow before entering the room, our upper bodies rigidly bending forward, accompanied by the subtle cracking of starched white uniforms. The room was cold, we shuffled forward, our gaze fixated on the floorboards, eyes unwavering for fear but mostly in respect as weathered bare feet emerged from the inner folds of an identical uncolored happy coat. I sneaked a peek up at the man, the back of his head turned away as he angrily gives the black belt around his waist a final yank before whirling around to face us with slits for eyes, a mouth formed into a grimace and resolute hands unwavering as they slice the air, full of purpose. The palms of his hands came together and he bowed one second a warrior, the next a monk and we returned the favor, lower backs tense, paused at the bottom, rose slowly like the Japanese sun.

Remember what it was like being a second grader? I do. After school every Tuesday and Thursday, I would depart the world of flip-flops, juice boxes and jungle-gym tag for karate lessons. For just an hour and a half, twice a week, I’d grow up, live with a maturity that extended beyond my years, temper the responsibility of mind over matter and contort my body to land jump-kicks and aerial punches. Karate was everything you’ve seen, and more. We’ve grown up with “The Karate Kid” series of movies, lived through the progressively worse “Rush Hour” trilogy and Bruce Lee’s face is universally recognized. The old Japanese master with fists of iron and ambiguous words of wisdom? All true. It was one big cliché, yet there I was in pursuit of the iconic black belt.

Ah, the black belt karate’s elusive Holy Grail. So many set out to attain one, yet supply stores don’t even bother to carry them in stock. To earn a black belt was to graduate from a school where masters are continually learning and teaching is to discover metaphorical inner peace and open doors to uncharted phases of mind. Sure, technically anyone can order a multi-ply, 80 percent cotton black belt for fewer than 40 bucks, but you’d look ridiculous with nothing to show for it when push literally came to shove. The worse part of the belt system is that the steps between the whites of beginners and the solid black of experts is a lengthy process, choked in ancient Japanese tradition and all the colors of the rainbow.

Seriously, what kind of second grader would ever agree to join the completely impossible pursuit of perfection? My first instructor was not your everyday small Asian man with almond eyes and green-tea breath. No, he was a large Caucasian man with forearms wider than my neck, a limp from some unknown accident, crazy sandy-blonde hair and a black belt so faded it looked like a fraying old piece of rope covered in gold Japanese characters. He was atypical, but he knew how to move, finishing his roundhouse kicks with a piercing, “Ki-Ai!” I admired his unwavering focus, amid the doubtful glances of parents who questioned his ability to communicate the intricacies of an ageless Eastern art. As the bottleneck constricted, students fell out of the program, falling victim to the pressure that mounted with each passing day of relentless formality and physicality. I pushed on and finally snatched up my first upgrade to yellow, which also meant I got the opportunity to work in the advanced class with a Mr. Miyagi-type figure whose balding head, oval spectacles and rice paper scent was a throwback to the days when Hilary Swank was an awkward, rebellious, hawk-loving teenager.

As I got older and entered middle school, karate was no longer an art in my eyes, it was a form of torture I believed should have been reserved for “real” Asian kids who believed in pocket protectors and the power of Pikachu. I begged my parents to let me quit and they half-heartedly obliged, seeing as I had resorted to faking injuries in an immature attempt to play off of the after school caretakers’ sympathies.

What I lost the day I folded my uniform for the last time was the unshakable dedication of children to things they are passionate about. You must remember how it was being absolutely obsessed with something a sport, N’Sync, dogs, tater-tots, etc. Being on the field for four hours, owning all of the C.D.s, memorizing the lineup at the Westminster dog show, or knowing which cafeteria worker fried them the best are all signs of a true fan. I enjoyed karate for most of the time my parents had signed me up for it, yet a point came where I was so miserable that the ever-changing colored belt I wore, the feeling of physical exertion and the reverberating grunts during elaborate techniques was not enough to keep me from feeling the compounding pain of strained thighs, mental exhaustion and awkward moments of silence, while I could hear my peers outside running around with footballs and soccer balls. I let the chase beat me, falling way short of the coveted black belt. I let the mocking taunts of classmates irritate me. I let go of the opportunity to fulfill a part of my culture. Worst of all, I let myself down.

In a closely guarded world of secrets and self-actualization, karate transcends the fight, it rises above the stigmas and clichés. For those four short years it gave me a cultural identity and molded my mind to block out distractions. To this day I am unsure if quitting was as bad as it felt, perhaps I just wasn’t meant to hold that beautiful black belt in the upturned palms of my hands, yet here I am, expressing regret for all of the reasons I fronted in my desperate scramble to quit the sport. I’m not going to give you a moral of the story, but I will say that I think twice now before cutting an activity out for good. I give it a second chance and remember the great times I had, the significance it’s had in my life and the lessons it will build for my future. In rewinding those memories, still as vivid as the day they played out, for the sake of tainting something I actually loved, I realize I have to reword a previous remark: I enjoyed karate, period.