Good Fun and, Also, Baseball

Baseball games were always a traditional part of my childhood summers. At my brothers’ ball games, I would cartwheel on the hot, weedy dirt behind the bleachers or climb on a nearby playground, because sports are, well, boring. Even at my own games, I would practice handstands at my uneventful position in the outfield. (Later, I would play softball in junior high and was benched in the dugout where cartwheels are generally frowned upon and nearly impossible to do.) And then at professional games, I sat in the stadium seats, talking to my best friend and coloring or reading books, because, hey, sports can be mind-numbing.

Even though I’ve always been uninterested in sports, my childhood memories of baseball games are still happy ones. I wasn’t actually trying to follow the game or the score or the people running around on the field who all look the same at a distance, but I enjoyed being entertained by my friends, popcorn, and the atmosphere. And after a long hiatus from baseball-watching, in the past few weeks, I found myself at not one, but two, Samsung Lions games, cheering my face off for no particular reason.

Let me explain how Korean baseball lures you in:

  1. It’s impossible to be sad when you’re surrounded by the enthusiasm of Samsung Lions fans. Adults and small children alike shout all the cheers, while hitting blow-up spirit bats together. Let me tell you, those spirit bats are way more fun than they seem (queue photos of me and my 20-something friends hitting them together like excited children). My Korean friend, Ji, informed me that she didn’t, in fact, have all the cheers memorized; when you’re feeling lost, you can follow along with the lyrics on screens surrounding the field. However, it’s even better if you can’t read Korean because then you can just scream nonsense that you hope sounds like what the crowds are saying. Which brings us to…
  2. Ironic fandom is significantly more fun when you don’t speak the language. Maybe we just enjoyed the silliness of not really fitting in but feeling as though we belonged at the same time. Everyone around us was caring so loudly. We did our best to join in the cheers, many ripped off from popular songs, like “The Sound of Silence.” (Which is ironic because there is never silence at a Korean baseball game, especially when players are at bat. I think Korean baseball is one of the few times where Koreans are comfortable being loud.) Plus, I bet it’s easy to write cheers for players that each have the exact same number of syllables in their names. I cheered so much ironically for Park Hae Min that I really started to hope he would get a home run. (He didn’t, even though we repeatedly pointed at him and then pointed at the outfield, while shouting his name. I don’t know what was up with that.)
  3. The food is very…Korean…in the best of ways. Hot dogs? Yes (but on a skewer and add rice cakes). Popcorn? Yes (but add a sweet coating over all of it). Oh, and also lots of chicken. And spicy rice cakes. And more chicken.
  4. Cute kiss cams. Koreans are typically so shy about PDAing, so it’s kind of funny to watch the couples get really embarrassed, the women covering their faces with their hands. When the guys just go for it, though, everyone in the crowd loses it (queue tiny finger hearts).

This all probably sounds like I’m just describing baseball fan culture, which is probably true. It’s been a hot second since I’ve been to an American game. However, it seems to me that Korean baseball is a more amped-up version of American baseball. But, then again, maybe I’m just discovering fan psychology for the first time and how entertaining it can be.

So I wouldn’t say that I enjoy watching sports, per say. I will still make fun of you if you wear a football jersey on the reg or get upset when “your team” doesn’t score as many points as the other team. It’s safe to say, though, that I love the combination of spending time with friends, eating junk food, and supporting random Korean men with silly chants while they run around a field (and then crouch ashamedly in the dirt for an uncomfortably long time when they mess up).

It’s a fun atmosphere. Also, a news cameraman got a load of our extra-enthusiasm, so tune in to your local Korean news channel to see us hit each other with blow-up bats. #foreignersection #noregrets #noshame


Why Jiu Jitsu

I’ve had a lot of experiences lately that are worth writing about. However, I’ve been terribly inconsistent about actually writing. Even though I have a lot to catch up on, I want to talk about something that’s taken over my life almost as much as teaching English has: jiu jitsu.

Almost every weekday, after I finish teaching at 5:30 pm, I rush to my room to change into my exercise clothes and pack my gi in my duffle bag, and then I eat a very hasty dinner to make it on the 6:05 shuttle from campus to Chilgok, where it’s a 15 minute walk from the bus stop to the gym. I’m usually there three to four times a week, and I always have to reach the shuttle stop to head back home by 9:15, exhausted and with a few new bruises. I get gross: sweaty and germy from rolling on the mats.

So what’s the appeal? I’ve been asked this question fairly often, because my stories from jiu jitsu class often include such phrases as “I almost gagged when I swallowed someone’s hair,” “Teacher made us swivel on our butts all the way across the gym and it was torture,” “we learned this awesome choke-hold,” and “Shin-Gu bit me*.” Not to mention, there’s almost no way to talk about jiu jitsu moves without it sounding sexual.
*Not a thing that is encouraged or legal in jiu jitsu

So, why jiu jitsu? I’ll give you five reasons:

Jiu Jitsu is amazing exercise.
I think I’ve finally accepted that I have no self-control when it comes to food. Like, I’ve gotten much better as far as stopping when I’m full, but if I have the opportunity to buy a macaroon ice cream sandwich or eat a pizza, I’m going to devour that thing with no regrets. Training in jiu jitsu for the past five months has caused me to lose more weight and get more in shape than I’ve ever been in my life. I feel great, minus the bruises and near-constant soreness. It’s rewarding to see how baggy some of my clothes now look on my frame.

Jiu Jitsu is a game.
I can be motivated to do almost anything if it’s turned into a game. The only reason I got into running for a few months was because I had an iPhone app that told me zombies were chasing me. The only reason I like drinking water is because I can log it on my Plant Nanny app and see my cute lil’ plants grow in the pots I bought with virtual seeds. I love games, and I love challenges. And that’s what jiu jitsu is. You’re trying to win, using strategy and technique. Jiu jitsu has been deemed a perfect martial art for women, because it doesn’t require brute strength to win. You can be little and fast; as long as your technique is solid, you can throw someone off balance enough to defeat them. It feels good to learn a move and, after a lot of practice, use it to beat someone in a fight. We compare it to chess sometimes, because you have to be constantly paying attention to what your opponent is doing and thinking through strategies. There are actual options for reacting to a person’s attack, if you learn and practice those moves.

Jiu Jitsu Is What I’ve Deemed a “Fun” Sport
Sports. Bleh, right? I’ve never really been into sports. I played softball in junior high and for a season in high school, but I was always awful. I lacked motivation because I didn’t like competing with my own teammates for playing time and, in the end, I just decided I was not comfortable with balls of rubber being thrown at my face. And all that running. And paying attention to my surroundings. Ick.

I like jiu jitsu as a sport because I’m responsible for my own victories. It’s not that I have an aversion to working towards a shared goal, but I just didn’t like the pressure that fell on my shoulders to not screw anything up. In jiu jitsu, if I screw up, I’m the only one who’s let down. In softball, everyone is mad if you “didn’t swing because you thought the pitch was too high when really you just paniced” or you “didn’t catch the fly ball because you value the bone structure in your face more than getting the batter out.”

The only pressure that exists is what you put on yourself. It’s nice. It’s self-paced. You don’t have to carry a heavy bag of equipment. People don’t automatically assume you’re lesbian. You don’t have to sing a cheer and clap every time you’re watching a teammate do their thing. It’s sports without all the annoying parts.

Jiu Jitsu is the self-defense that my dad has always wanted me to learn.
Being my dad’s only daughter of his four children, I think I’ve been a constant worry for him. His desire for my well-being and wholeness manifests in being hyper-aware of menace in this world and being very, very protective. Learning self-defense was something he always wanted me to do, probably because my personality has always been very non-confrontational, non-aggressive. I don’t like fights and it takes a lot to make me angry. But my dad is discerning; he knows what’s up. It’s obviously not good to go around paranoid about the world, but there’s no avoiding the fact that this world can be really, really, really scary. You drink a little too much, and you’re raped by a dumpster. You order a drink, turn away, and wake up in the morning without knowing where you are or who’s touched you. Or maybe you’re just shot to death because anywhere, any time, there could be a loaded gun pointing somewhere, and who knows where the bullets will land.

I know jiu jitsu won’t save me from any of those situations. Probably not. But I have a little less fear knowing that if I was attacked, I would have hope of escaping. Even though I’m not learning punches or kicking or how to dodge a bullet, I could throw someone off balance enough to run away. I could break someone’s arm or choke them in self-defense. And if anything, I have more confidence and healthy aggression that I can stand up for myself more and fight, fight, fight for my needs and the needs of others. That feels better than going down a pants size from all this exercise.

Jiu Jitsu Satisfies My Nostalgia for Dance Class
I took dance classes from age four to twelve, and then off and on throughout middle school and high school when the opportunity arose (theater productions, a semester here and there at a dance studio). I miss it a lot, and I wish there were non-awkward adult classes out there for modern and contemporary, because I’d love to train in those types of dance styles someday. But dance classes are a serious commitment and are also much more expensive than jiu jitsu. But the point is, learning jiu jitsu moves is a lot like learning choreography. Where it’s lacking in music and exact beats, it makes up for in a certain kind of rhythm, preciseness, flexibility, and awareness of one’s own body that makes it feel like dancing. Sometimes I feel like this when I’m sparring (basically about half of the dance moves in Sia’s Elastic Heart music video). There are drills we’ve learned that could be mistaken for a dance duet if the people were dressed in leotards, rathern than gis. It’s graceful, but aggressive. It’s precise, but demands flexibility. It’s like dancing.

If nothing else makes sense, at least know that it’s been a great way for me to interact with handsome Korean men and, you know, crawl all over their bodies (in a completely platonic way. Get your head out of the gutter, geez). The gym I belong to is a great community of hard-working, kind, and humble people, with a very skilled and patient teacher. Even though very few of them speak English, I feel like I belong and am constantly encouraged and supported. I earned the first stripe in white belt last night, and I’m looking forward to the challenges ahead.

So, go out there and learn jiu jitsu. Or at least try something different that you never would have thought you would like.

Read more about how I got into jiu jitsu here.