Churches without All the Noise

My church in Daegu, Korea is very modest. Besides the geometric stained glass behind the altar, it has the feel of most Protestant churches that were built in the 50’s: the architecture and decor is built for function more than religious expression. For the English service, the congregation of about 20 people meets on the third floor and are seated behind folding tables draped in flower-patterned table cloths. The worship team, which anyone who mentions they play an instrument will be encouraged to join, nearly outnumbers those in the congregation.

Growing up, I rarely went to church, even though my family was Christian. In college, I accepted that, unless I joined a community of Christians, I wasn’t going to develop my relationship with God. I was constantly faced with a sense of loneliness and laziness in my faith and started seeking a community that would support and encourage me. I had witnessed a drastic change in heart and attitude of an acquaintance on Facebook after he started attending a church in Colorado Springs, where I lived, so when he invited me to attend that church’s Bible study, I was excited. However, I had experienced Bible studies held in people’s homes before, and they always seemed insincere or lacking in meaningful discussions, so I didn’t know what to expect from this one.

I was struck when I walked through the door, very hesitantly taking off my shoes in the entryway, and I heard my name called out. Two friends from high school, who I hadn’t talked to since right after we graduated, greeted me. It started to dawn on me that most of the people here were tied to my high school, which normally would fill me with panic and dread, but it felt welcoming and familiar. Who would have thought that my old friend, Kim, would be here? (Well, God did…)

I started attending their church services with the accountability of Kim, who also became my roommate later on, the year before I left for South Korea to teach English for a year. Having this connection to a church was vital to my future in Korea, because, as I was preparing for this transition, I always had people praying with me and encouraging me. So when I left the States, I was hoping to find a church where I also felt a sense of belonging.

And I discovered, as I continue to discover, that prayer works. My first day in Korea, I met my best friends, Timmy and Rachel, who became like my brother and sister, and they invited me to a church they had chosen out of a few they had visited.

When I had attended church irregularly in high school, before I started going out of the desire of my heart instead of out of guilt, I went to a mega church: a church famous for the Ted Haggard scandal, when the pastor was found guilty of engaging in prostitution and drug use; a church that used up tens of thousands of dollars buying world flags so that we could pray over/at/to (?) them in the auditorium, and then following it up with a “Move the Mountain [of Facilities Debt]” series wherein they emphasized the importance of tithing; a church that hosted guest speakers that prioritized salesmanship over teaching; a church that believed strongly in pleasing the masses over addressing difficult questions of Christianity; a church that produces cirque du soleil-magnitudinal performances of the salvation story and sells pricey tickets; a church that people flock to because their worship services are rock concerts with colored spotlights and fog machines. From this, my experience with the church was that it was a business. It was a corrupt government. It was a popularity contest.

So I learned to love churches without all the noise.

God led me to these small, welcoming churches. This church in Daegu, where the Korean pastor tries so hard to speak our language and apologizes because his English is “short,” and it doesn’t matter because he’s so kind and joyful. Where my favorite pastor is a woman because she knows how to get to the point of her message and talks to us like it’s a conversation, a devotional, rather than a lecture. Where the worship service is led by passionate people from Uganda, the Philippines, Korea, the United States. Where we all speak in different tongues to worship our Lord. Where, afterwards, we gather together and pray and converse over rolls of kimbap and Costco muffins.

And that’s how I want to worship the Lord on Sundays.

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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.

Black Day 2016

The reason why you can’t pressure me to talk to the cute guy in the navy blue gi at jiu jitsu training is because in my head I’m facing a battle with my 23 years of never having dated, wondering why men I’m attracted to are never attracted to me, even though I’m blessed with a confidence in myself grown of so much support around me by my loved ones, because who needs lovers anyway when your heart is already bursting from the laughs and truth shared with your own people, and I think celebrating Black Day on April 14th in Korea (following Valentine’s Day, February 14th, and White Day, March 14th) is a perfect way to illustrate every interaction I’ve ever had with someone I’ve pursued, in that my friends, all six of us crowded around a table in a restaurant in Chilgok, awaiting our jjajangmyeon (black bean noodles), urged me to invite the one single man we spotted to come eat with us, in observation of the custom where singles dine together, and when I expressed my doubts, they dared me that if the waitress delivered him jjajangmyeon, I would have to invite him to eat with us, and so when his noodles arrived, black bean sauce a dark abyss in his bowl, I swiftly got up from the table and crossed the room–because confidence sometimes takes swiftness–and asked him if he wanted to join us, hoping that English was a thing that he spoke; I waited for him to finish the huge pile of noodles he had just chopsticked into his mouth, and after the awkwardness grew drops of sweat on the nape of my neck, he responded, “I have an appointment soon,” and I thanked him and traipsed back to my friends at our table now crowded with beer and jjajangmyeon, and so I’m not saying that this rejection traumatized me–and, really, the spirit of this Black Day could only be compared to my birthday, I was so excited about it and had been looking forward to it for months–but this scene of a man being more interested in his noodles and his “appointment” than in my socially-stilted invitation is right on point with the mystery and confusion and fear and inconvenience that conglomerates for me on days like this, when I happen to be eating jjajangmyeon, too independent to be sad, but too lonely to overlook such a lifestyle-acknowledging day, and maybe I’m just too unaware of how romance works or maybe I’m confused about how to be lonely, because talking to the guy in the navy blue gi with the really good English and the three stripes on his belt just seems like so much work and effort that I believe in my heart of heart of hearts that he has a girlfriend and/or there will be no opportunity for him to like me because, really, I’m not interesting until you get to know me or I’m comfortable enough to be witty, and why do you care anyways, when I just want to celebrate Black Day every day because what a fun way to observe a lack of romance in your life, with a heaping bowl of black bean noodles and your friends around you helping you be more than you think you can be.

How I Know

When salt-water tears stung my eyes because at the age of 22 I still had never seen the ocean, I never would have guessed, imagined, that in less than a year I would be peering through goggles, 20 meters below the surface of the South China sea, at a turtle paddling in a soft current with sleepy eyes, my breathing slow and steady, wrapped in the ocean, suspended by the ocean. A paradise risen up around me with palm trees aching with unripened coconuts.

And that’s how I know that I am loved, even when the moment is a desert with sinking sand and parched tongue, where hope becomes a mirage and faith the pulsing in my temples.

Because that moment of smallness, struck by the ocean, humbled by the creatures living below the surface, flipped upside-down in awe, feeds me the promise of a future. I know I am loved when I face great things, like the thought of someone dying for me with the pain of mothers giving birth, of sons sent across the seas to face mortality at the end of a gun barrel, aching with love that is burdened with fear and driven by holiness. I know I am loved through sacrifice. When, in the midst of despair, someone fought for me.

No matter what pain sears through life, I know I am loved because good remains. When children and mothers laugh, when battles are won, when a Savior breathes life after waging war against incomprehensible evil. Good remaining despite anguish. I know I am loved when good overcomes. When the story doesn’t end in defeat. When everything He gave led me to know love manifested in turtles who don’t worry about tomorrow, in oceans of blessings, in each new breath that inhales grace, in the sunlight of hope making a whole world glow, even in the depths.

Happy Easter, everyone. He is risen!

The Thorn: Behind the Scenes and Beneath the Makeup

Note: I wrote this literary journalistic piece in 2014, when I was trained in airbrush makeup for The Thorn. Some of the information included may be out of date as the production has only continued to evolve and expand its outreach.

A long, unwieldy string of costumed dancers begins in the airbrush room, snakes through the door, and ends somewhere down the hallway. A row of three girls, hair at their temples pulled back, dresses flowing in bright colors—yellow, pink, blue—sit in folding chairs and close their eyes as we spray golden yellow bands of paint from the corners of their eyes into their hair lines, like the tails of shooting stars.

When their makeup is finished, these dancers, ranging from children to women in their late twenties, will go back to stretching their legs and chatting about last minute stage directions before rushing through the mega church to backstage, where they’ll wait for their cue. Then, they’ll scamper downstage when music gushes from speakers blaring through the auditorium that seats 10,000 people, referred to by New Life Church regulars as “The Living Room.” This space, which usually holds church services, has been transformed into a theatrical heaven where rows and rows of overwhelmed and intrigued eyes view dancers and aerialists, martial artists and stage actors.

The Thorn is a dramatization of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The emotional performance starts with the creation story and the fall of man, ventures into the politics of the Roman Empire, and opens onto the story of Jesus with Mary rejoicing over her immaculate conception. The rest of the story unfolds in graphic detail, and it ends with a montage-like scene of the disciples sharing the Gospel throughout the world.

As youth pastors, John and Sarah Bolin created The Thorn in 1997 in order to share the Christian message with high school students in a new, relatable way. By 2014, the performances have grown to include hundreds of cast and crew members, performing not only in Colorado Springs at New Life Church, where The Thorn originated, but also in cities around the country, such as in Denver, Fort Worth, Dallas, Kansas City, Sacramento, and Nashville. The audiences have grown to include over 20,000 people per show.

The dancers, along with the rest of the cast and crew, have been training and rehearsing their parts since at least January, preparing for the Easter performances, where they usually spend entire days at the church or other venue, switching back and forth between stretching, rehearsing, performing, and taking breaks to pray and eat snacks. Sometimes the Dancing Angels return to the rehearsal room and their ballet slippers have stains from the artificial blood that flies from the Jesus actor’s body suit when he is lashed by a whip. The girls laugh it off—by now, their shoes are a mess with the stickiness of such a production.

The representation of angels brings an awe all its own to the play. When the meta-narrator, John the Beloved or Doubting Thomas (the roles alternate every year or so, just as the play itself evolves), finishes the introduction, the auditorium darkens until all attention is centered on the Globe Angel, who walks under a spotlight with a glass globe, representing Earth. As she walks, the haunting soundtrack plays and a woman’s voiceover speaks: “In the beginning was the Word.” The globe is lifted into the rafters by a pulley system, and a bell tolls twice, leading into the “heaven” music, a beautiful orchestration that matches the soaring of acrobats on silk cloth that spills from the ceiling to the floor. I have always gotten goosebumps at this point in the production, whether I was in the audience or dancing on stage as an Angel.

But there’s a darker side to this supernatural representation when spiritual warfare is enacted by the actors casted as Demons. They wear torn up black t-shirts and sweatpants, and the makeup artists airbrush every inch of their skin in white paint and shadow their muscles and bones to look gaunt. In the play, the demons are always crouched at the side of the actor who plays Satan; they are like his minions, always present to fight the angels. They descend from the rafters in nets, writhe down the aisles and make gutteral noises at the audience, or leap on the stage with spring-powered stilts. They look inhuman, as we imagine demons would.

A twenty-something girl with hair teased into a burst of frizz, next in line for airbrush, plops down in front of me and waits for instructions. I tell her, “Raise your chin up to the ceiling for me.”

She turns her head up, and I spray a “V” shape from her earlobes to her collarbone. I use a plastic board to cover part of her cheek as I airbrush a shadow across her jaw line. Then I paint a black ray into her hair, blend the darkness onto her eyelids and into the crooks of her nose. One Demon tells the artist beside me, “They won’t let us go up behind people and scare them anymore. It’s so stupid. That’s part of the fun!”

Representing spiritual warfare in The Thorn is undoubtedly part of its appeal. While it strikes the fear of God in some, for many it has the effect of a haunted house. After all, evil is thrilling—it’s sudden and mysterious. I once watched the auditions for the children’s version of The Thorn, called The Crown, which several years ago played alongside The Thorn so that a less mature audience had the opportunity to experience the story in a way that wouldn’t be too intense. The casting director had to warn the teenagers and children auditioning that it’d be better for them to show that they could perform well as an Angel; everyone wants to be a Demon. It’s more competitive because it’s more glamorous. Everyone wants to be intimidating; being the villain gets you more attention than being the hero sometimes. Additionally, though the whole Supernatural cast gets the coveted full-body makeup, the Demons don’t necessarily have to have martial artist, acrobatic, or dance skills to qualify for the role, so there are always more people trying out for the Demon cast.

When I was a Dancing Angel in high school, a fellow dancer told us, when asked what her atheist husband thought of the play, “Well, he liked the demons. He thought they were cool.” In many ways, The Thorn could be seen as an attraction for Christians and non-Christians alike. The play has even been compared to Cirque du Soleil, with the addition of a storyline that’s heart-wrenching to watch. S. Watkins, from Colorado, wrote a review, saying, “My life was changed at The Thorn. I couldn’t stop crying—not a weeping but a gut wrenching sobbing.” However, the struggle to downplay the theatrics of the Demon cast continues to be controversial within The Thorn community. It’s important to ask, Are we drawing in an audience by encouraging them to get excited about, even comfortable with, evil? Do we want to generate chants of “More demons! More demons!” from audience and cast alike?

In some scenes, especially at the end of the play, the demons run, or rather slither and crawl, away whenever the power of God overcomes them. However, the demons are not simply there to be foils for the angels. They have a more complex role in developing the characteristics of evil. In the scene where Judas betrays Jesus, it grows intense with the screams and writhing of Tortured Souls and the demons flit about the aisles making creepy, guttural sounds. This, along with blinding pyros, unsettles the audience, but it’s undeniably a fascinating scene in the way it highlights the chaos of hellishness. However, it can arguably distract viewers from confronting the significance of this evil: Judas hanging himself from the guilt of his betrayal. The music shrieks to a hault, the lights go out, and the audience looks for the Demon who is running on all fours up the aisle, making animalistic sounds.

One girl returns to the airbrush room twenty minutes before the show. “Hey, can I get some more makeup? I saw my friend with lines on her neck. Can you give me that? And can you paint the skin showing through the holes in my costume?”

Jessie, who was a Demon last year, raises the girl’s sleeves and sprays her arms. She turns her around and highlights the spinal cords on her neck in thick, black curves. “Awesome,” the Demon says and then scoots out of the room before the first VIP tour comes by.

The Thorn might seem like a circus when you’re not whispering the Salvation Prayer in your seat during the sermon-filled intermission that follows the scene where Jesus is nailed to the cross, spilling the blood that gets on the dancers’ shoes. There are scenes reminiscent of a haunted house, tours, real tigers (some years back), stuntmen, acrobatics, everyone covered head to toe in costumes and makeup. There are merchandise tables in the lobby, like any business-savvy Christian concert, conference, author visit etc. would include before and after the shows. If the muscular, martial artist Angel and skulking Demons appeal to you, then you can pose with them for a picture. You can also leave with a Thorn t-shirt, water bottle, or bumper sticker. You can buy a DVD of the production to watch on a Friday night. You can get a selfie with Jesus.

“AMAZING! WOW! By far the Best Live Theatre we have ever seen,” remarks Dawn Christiansen, from Washington. With a budget of $175,000, The Thorn creates an experience unlike your average church Easter play. The production is worth seeing whether you are moved by the story or not—the theatrics are impressive and so much professionalism goes into the end product. It’s interactive in a bold way; when you’re finding your seat pre-show, centurions might harass you or little girls might try to sell you flowers. When John and Sarah Bolin set out to create The Thorn, their mission was to allow believers and non-believers to experience God in a powerful way, and this is still the mission of the majority involved. But does the high-quality production persuade the audience of the truth of Christianity, or does it only prove to the audience that even Christians can put on a good show?

John Bolin said in an interview, “The story of God should be done with excellence.” With tickets selling from $20 to $50, the Bolins, with the hundreds of cast and crew members who dedicate their time and energy year-round in preparation for this production, have built what was once a small performance into a major theatrical ministry…and spectacle. If you find yourself in the position of not being able to afford the pricey tickets, The Thorn does offer scholarships to go see the show. However, no longer are there free performances during the final dress rehearsals, where New Life Church members could invite their friends and family or anyone who might have otherwise not attended, who may have especially needed to experience this message of love and grace. Now if you want to invite your atheist coworker, you’ll have to be ready to shell out some cash or really play up the Cirque du Soleil comparison.

Now a tour of children, their parents, and their grandparents are walking by, tugging on their VIP badges and gawking at us as we pretend to paint the demons before the show, as if we hadn’t already finished a half an hour ago, right on schedule. “See? We’re not scary,” a Demon tells a child. The child returns a smile.

Costumes are on, makeup is perfect—everyone playing a role. It’s show time.

Jiu Jitsu in Daegu

The gym is a few flights up a stairwell that smells like cigarettes. It isn’t very large, so by the time the fifteen to twenty students arrive, it will be crowded. It’s winter, so it’s cold inside until we warm up and begin sparring. The windows and mirror fog over from the body heat.

The gym is like a small apartment; Teacher instructs classes until midnight and then sleeps until the late afternoon in his office tucked into the corner of the room. It’s like we’re learning jiu jitsu in his living room, except there’s nothing but a fridge and couch in his office to make it a home. The gym has waist-high padded walls and a floor covered with thick, gray mat material. There are two punching bags and a watercooler. Outside, Daegu boasts its most ramshackle view: buildings that look unplanned, the Daegu Health College more like a shady warehouse disguised as a school.

Class begins and we form a circle. Teacher gives instructions and commands in Korean, so I just try to follow what everyone else is doing. According to my foreigner friends who recently encouraged me to try out jiu jitsu, Teacher has learned a lot more English than he knew when they first joined this gym. He seems to know some basic conversational phrases and anatomical terminology related to jiu jitsu training (knee, head, arm, etc.) and directional terms (push, turn). Thankfully, though, the routine is almost always the same, so it’s easy to figure out what we’re supposed to do next. It also helps that there are some Koreans who are pretty fluent in English and they are quick to translate if the language barrier becomes too real.

After we form our circle, Teacher sets a timer and we do push ups, crunches, and squats, taking turns counting to ten for each exercise, the Korean hana, tul, set, etc. occasionally interrupted by an English one, two, three. There are about five of us from the English Village who attend jiu jitsu, but everyone else is Korean. We go through a few more exercises like this.

And then Teacher shows us two to three moves, always demonstrating on Harry, a high schooler whose English is strong and who takes a lot of falls for the class while Teacher flips him this way and that, locking his leg and pulling him down or knocking him forward. Then we get into pairs and practice on each other.

It took me a little while to not feel awkward crawling all over a person. During my first trip to the gym when it was open mat, I had to bite back my giggles as my friend Rachel and Timmy, her husband, instructed me to kneel between Rachel’s legs. And being comfortable with someone coming at you with the intention of pinning you down also took at least a few times before I began to build any sense of aggression within myself.

This is not something I ever imagined myself doing. I have the George Michael from Arrested Development syndrome where, if someone throws something at me or generally tries to get in my face, my instinct is to essentially curl up in the fetal position (which, for your information, is an effective strategy in jiu jitsu, on occasion). But my friend Timmy wore me down into coming with them and trying it out, because I also have a syndrome that makes me bad at saying no. In this case, though, I was persuaded because I like to try new things, even if physical exertion just seems like the worst way to spend my time. I can be persuaded to do most anything if I figure I’m spending time with friends. For instance, one time I went to a barbershop concert with a friend just to spend time with her (another event in which I had to stifle my giggles and be mature about things).

So we practice the moves with each other, usually stumbling about and pausing to say something like, “And then I do…that? My leg goes here, and I sweep yours back? Wait, I’m missing a step.”

And the best/worst part of this whole experience is the position game and sparring. Either way, your goal is to just go at it and try to get a dominate or fatal position (i.e. triangle choke hold, where their head is between your knees, or arm bar, in a position where you could break their arm but don’t). This part is fun because it’s all about technique and thinking your way out of difficult positions. It’s not about strength as much as knowing how to throw someone off balance and prevent them from getting control over you. Rachel described it as chess: everyone has their own style of approaching this “duel” and you have to consider your own strategies. Even though I’m terrible compared to everyone else, I can feel myself get a little bit faster each class and use more effective strategies against my opponent.

Sparring was really intimidating the first few classes I attended. I wasn’t expecting to have the teacher point at me and pair me up with a man, Korean and sweaty and non-English-speaking. I felt very stupid not knowing even how to attack. I was dragged by my feet a lot and put in choke holds where I wasn’t sure if I had lost or not, only because no one ever goes full force on choke-holds and they sometimes just tell you to “tap out” because they don’t want to actually hurt you. I spar with at least three or four people each class. The students are a mix of ages, mostly men and a couple women in their twenties, some middle-aged men, and a few young boys who play on their phones a lot because their parents are paying for these classes.

When I stood on the sidelines that first day and looked at Timmy in panic, saying “Is this optional?!” He asked me, “What are you paying for?” So I walked up to this Korean guy Teacher paired me with, slapped our hands together and then fist-bumped (as you do to start a “spar” or “battle” or “brawl” or whatever), and then I proceeded to get dragged around and put in a choke-hold.

People seem a lot stronger when you feel completely helpless in protecting yourself. But even after just a week, I feel a lot less helpless–still really inexperienced, and I get taken down really easily, like when another supposedly “new” guy grabbed the edges of my sleeves and made it almost impossible to defend myself–but still stronger and a little more capable.

And then there’s Shin-gu, or “Bully” as he’s referred to outside of class by my friends. His big build, very pale skin, and completely hairless head, usually with sweat dripping down his scalp, is an intimidating presence. He’s a blue belt, higher than most, and his favorite pasttime is laying his entire body weight on his opponents (newcomers are no exception) and crushing them while laughing. He did this to me the first time we sparred, and the next time he spun me in circles while I tried to choke-hold him with my arms.

Which is weirdly one of the beautiful things about jiu jitsu. Not this Korean man with no hair, but the fact that jiu jitsu is a lot like dancing, an art form I miss partaking in. The moves we learn are like choreography, however violent, and you have to learn to work with your opponent like a dance partner. There’s a certain amount of trust that you grow because you’re learning from each other and testing your own skills with someone else.

But Bully’s actually a pretty nice guy. He tries to get to know the foreigners with his limited English and you can tell he enjoys this sport. He calls me “Sarah Puma”, which might be endearing or might be an insult, I don’t know. I guess he just likes to, you know, prey on people’s weaknesses and stuff. Classic Shin-gu.

When we’re finished sparring, most of us are huffing and puffing on the ground, faces red and sweaty. The gis (gees) we wear as our uniform make everything so much hotter and sweatier. We begin the exercises we did for the warm-up all over again. This time I’m exhausted and sore. We usually have to hold a plank for a minute, meaning I usually hear Teacher yell, “Sah-dah!” once or twice because I’ve taken too long of a break and am basically just napping on the hair- and sweat-covered floor.

So this is me, trying new things in a foreign country.