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.

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On Being Called “Brave”

A co-worker called me “brave”
when I shimmied through a foot-and-a-half wide gap
between walls to get inside a room.
Locked doors in basements are made to be entered.
Darkness at the end, long-legged spiders,
no light except my phone.
This school building in Chilgok, big and silent.
Fear smaller than curiosity.
“Brave.”
I laugh because I am not this.
I laugh because I never have been brave
before.

“You’re so brave,” a girl at church, my age, told me.
She came to Korea for the first time, too.
Out of the country for the first time,
but she has her husband.
“Brave” because I came alone.
I laugh because I have never been brave.
Just curious.
I cried often before Korea.
Packing, praying, surprise parties, goodbyes,
and tears.
You can cry and still be brave, I guess.
Sometimes it’s brave to even cry.

When they called me brave,
I peeked my head out from under insecurity blankets.
Say what?
Maybe
it’s because my best friends
traveled alone to other countries
and shimmied through gaps between walls.
I have timidly followed them through
those gaps so many times
by now I can follow through on promises
I tell myself.
Sarah, you will travel.
Sarah, you can be alone.
Sarah, don’t sit on the sidelines and
watch life slip through the gaps
and leave you behind with no mystery
and still, sometimes, spiders.
Brave Sarah. Brave Sarah.
Like learning a new word from a new language.
Brave. “Yong-gamhan.”

I side-stepped through the gap in the walls,
wandered through dark rooms,
switched on lights.
I unlocked the door to let my friends inside.

South Korea: First Week and First Impressions

12109283_901438709926766_7741723750300968074_nAnnyeong haseyo. I’m back! (To my blog, that is. I’m actually in a whole different country now, if you weren’t paying attention.)

I’ve finished my first week in South Korea, and I love the adventures I’m facing. There are aspects of the culture that allude me, but there are parts of it that I feel like I fit into comfortably. However, it can be kind of scary only knowing how to say about five phrases, because eventually you’re going to run into a situation where “Thank you” and “Where’s the bathroom” are not helpful, like in my first Korean cab ride as I journeyed from the Daegu airport to the campus where I’m now living. I self-consciously told the driver, “Hanguk-mal-moteyo” (more or less, “I don’t speak Korean.”), and the awkward chuckle we shared was followed by a 20-minute silence, unless you count the sound of me praying that we were headed to the right destination and that I wasn’t going to end up dead somewhere my first time out of the country.

But, I’m alive, and I have no complaints about this beautiful place. Here are some thoughts on how it made an impressive first impression:

Korean society is group-oriented, and so respect for others is essential. For instance, the monorail that runs through Chilgok has Smart windows, meaning they fog over when passing housing districts, allowing privacy for commuters and people in their homes. Additionally, they have special seats reserved for the elderly, the disabled, and those who are pregnant or have children with them. They also expect you to be quiet on the monorail, like it’s a public library, since commuting is often the downtime of people’s busy days. All of this ensures people are given the space they need to function and have some peace. In the U.S., I’ve yet to encounter the same value of public consideration for others.

Korea has its classy down. On the flight from Incheon to Daegu, they played classical music before take off and after we descended, and the overhead lights turned a calming blue. The flight attendants were 1960s well-dressed. They wore kerchiefs around their collars and fancy bows in their perfect hair. They wore classy gray or turquoise (as I’ve seen them) dress suits. American flight attendants are generally very friendly and good at their jobs, but I just can’t emphasize enough how unclassy Americans seem to look compared to Koreans, at least on a general scale. And I know I’m basing this sweeping generalization on very few observations, but I don’t have time or money to conduct proper research, so my conclusions still stand. Korea is just so classy. Deal with it. Please?

“But,” you protest, “what about those horrible squatty potties???” You might not think that squatty potties, essentially porcelain holes in the ground, are all that classy. “We sit on thrones of porcelain glory!” you insist. No no no. Sit down and shut up, dear reader.

I am all about the squatty potties. I’m at the point where I’m actually disappointed if I open a public stall and it’s not a squatty potty. Here’s why: There is research out there that talks about how our bodies are made to excrete at the angle that squatting allows, as evidenced by the colon and other bowel-related ailments that started after the invention of the modern toilet. So, as long as you have legs that bend and you pull your pants down appropriately, it’s so natural. Super natural even. And if you’re a slight germophobe like me, then you don’t enjoy sitting where so many others have sat their butts, anyway. The benefit of squatty potties is that there is no butt-sitting that will ensure the exchange of butt germs. It’s a miracle! The flushing knob is also close to the floor so you can just step on it instead of touching it with your hand, or pushing it with your foot like I do. And, yeah, I know: “But you’ll get pee-pee on your shoes. Ew!” Yes, yes, this is inevitable, especially if the person who squatted before you was drunk, but Koreans also have an etiquette that suggests, if not requires, you to take off your shoes when entering homes or restaurants like the one I went to my first night in Chilgok, where we sat on the floor–the night I stepped in a drunk person’s urine a little bit (with my shoes on, mind you). So there, everyone. Squatty potties for the win!

In addition to my growing love of Korea and squatty potties, I’m proud of myself for taking risks, however small. Five years ago, I would never have imagined myself living in another country on my own. The night of my first full day at DGEV, everyone went out for chicken and beer for a coworker’s birthday. Jet lag hasn’t affected me very much since I’ve gotten here, so even though the other new teachers were not up to going, I hopped on the shuttle and followed my coworkers to Chilgok. If I hadn’t gone, I wouldn’t have met a young couple who told me they went to church. If I was still the hyper-cautious, shy person that I was five years ago, I wouldn’t have asked them if I could tag a long. So now I have church buddies. This trip off campus was also a good start to getting to know more people I would be working with. As soon as I stepped off the shuttle, a girl put her arm around me and asked me about myself. That meant a lot to me. They welcomed me into their group, and I felt like I belonged, even though I couldn’t read the hangul that faced me in every direction, even though I barely knew these people.

At Chicken Daily, we sat on the floor at a low table in our socks and chopstick-fed ourselves breaded chicken. I had a shot of peach-flavored soju which did not exactly taste like juice as someone had promised me, but it was much, much better than the beer, which was real bad, just as they promised.

I’ve had great food so far. Our cafeteria, unlike most school cafeterias in Korea, is quite good. The rice is sticky and I don’t have to eat tentacles with every meal. There are also always American options, too, even if that just means chicken nuggets or a PB&J sandwich. And, again, I can’t complain. I will take fried, breaded sweet potatoes or kimchi or tentacles over something I would have eaten in America. Because it’s different, and that’s what’s exciting.

On The Truman Show and Exiting to Enter

If you’ve seen The Truman Show, you know the final scene where Truman (Jim Carrey) at last escapes the place he’s called home his entire life. When the tip of his boat crashes through the wall of the dome encircling the small city which, until now, had been his whole world, he gets this look of realization in his eyes: his life-long hope arrives with the crunch of a boat through plaster and a door that opens onto darkness.

Leaving for Korea feels like facing that exit door. It would be dramatic to compare my life exactly to Truman’s (e.g. I know I’m not in a reality show, and I’m at least pretty sure my family and friends are not hired actors). However, it’s easy for me to identify with that sense of resolution and tension as I prepare to leave my home country for the first time.

Truman’s dream was to go to Fiji: “You can’t go any further without coming right back.” I chose Korea not because it was the farthest from home, but because I fell in love with the language watching K-Dramas, I wanted to continue to work with ELL students, and I wanted to live somewhere no one else I knew had been. (Retrospective reality check: everyone and their mothers have been to South Korea. Oops.) Two years ago, when I started the search for international work opportunities, I was impatient to just GO. As a Christian, I’ve discovered how hard it is to trust God to deliver my greatest wishes when I want them so immediately. By the time I started college, I wanted to travel so badly, I felt like I could pack up and leave at any time.

I had also not yet seen the ocean until recently. I wanted to travel, even just a few states away, but circumstances, like the lack of financial and practical opportunity to take off, have always kept me from going. The first failed California road trip I planned was the mechanical issues as Truman sat on the bus, ready to leave, the driver shrugging and apologizing that the engine wouldn’t start. My second failed road trip was the people in Hazmat suits, knocking Truman to the ground and forcing him home. No matter how I tried to plan a trip to the ocean, I felt like it would never happen.

When I decided to pursue teaching abroad, I prepared my parents for my imminent departure by telling them of my plans to apply to programs halfway across the world. They were both sad to think that I’d be gone from their lives, even if just for a year, but my dad was additionally confused as to why I felt this need to travel. Truman tells his teacher that he wants to be an explorer, and she replies, “Oh, you’re too late. There’s really nothing left to explore.” This was not too far off from my dad’s response. He questioned my reasons for wanting to travel. I had trouble expressing it then. He wondered if I felt discontent, if I was seeking fulfillment in the wrong places.

The reality show director, Christof (Ed Harris), speaks to Truman, disembodied, like the voice of God, and tries to persuade him to stay: “There’s no more truth out there than there is in the world I created for you. The same lies. The same deceit. But in my world you have nothing to fear.” It’s true that if I were to stay, if I were to give up on my dreams of traveling, I could learn to be content. God can use us wherever we are, and if He’s who I’m truly seeking, then I’ll find Him anywhere, even in the same city I’ve lived in for 12 years. I can still eat, pray, love in my backyard, right?

It strikes me that Truman doesn’t know that what’s through that exit door is any better than the suffocating reality he’s lived in; he only has the hope that whatever is but a few steps away will bring change. But we can discover ourselves when we step out of our familiar element. We grow the more our comfort zones are prodded. Truman and I are okay with uncertainty. We’re both willing to take one step forward, to ignore every whisper of “You can’t leave. You belong here.” That’s the trouble of being an especially curious person; I want to learn about whatever is outside my current realm of experience. I want to see what the unknown can tell me about myself and the world around me. It’s the same reason I wanted to learn how to ride a unicycle, see the ocean, play a violin, jump the fences in my backyard.

My parents, though they tease me sometimes about them forcing me to stay, are accepting of my choice to leave home. I have the benefit of supportive friends and family, something that Truman didn’t have. And as much as I love my family and friends, and will miss them terribly while I’m having my long-awaited adventures, I know when I board the plane to Korea, my head will be swimming with “In case I don’t see you, good afternoon, good evening, and goodnight.”

Being a Foreigner Abroad

Today’s guest blogger is Mike Smith. Check out his travel blog here.

“If you’re a giant freak monster here in the U.S., then it HAS to be even harder for you there in Albania!”

Truer words never spoken, friend.

Sometimes it is tough to be me in general. I have, unfortunately, never been able to fit in or go unnoticed anywhere in my life just because of my physical appearance alone. When traveling abroad, that feeling is amplified exponentially. Sometimes it is hard dealing with all of the attention I get, positive or negative, and it can be a bit tiring when everyone stares at/wants to take pictures with you when all you want to do is go to the store to buy a loaf of bread. To add to the whole sideshow attraction feeling, I make up about 25% of Albania’s current black population (maybe a little more since I’m bigger than the rest of them) so you can get an idea of how life is for me at present. If you’re just going on vacation somewhere, then it’s not that big a deal, but if you plan on living somewhere for an extended period of time, it can eventually become overwhelming and incredibly stressful.

That’s why I wanted to share with you Big Mike’s Top 5 Ways to Not Feel Like the Unwanted Foreigner in a Different Country (or “Coping Mechanisms” for short).

1. Walk with confidence! – Stand up straight. Shoulders back. Head up. If you walk with confidence you will FEEL confident, and that feeling will carry you through a lot. It seems like a small tip or common knowledge, but you’d be surprised how many times I see other visitors/my fellow volunteers hunched over slinking through their towns staring at the ground because they are afraid to make eye contact with the locals. That demeanor can actually ADD to your fears or unhappiness and give you that nagging, “I can’t wait to go home” thought in the back of your head. Get yourself together, fix that posture, and strut!

2. Learn the language! – Again, one would think that this is common sense if you are living in a country that doesn’t speak your L1 for an extended period of time, but I wouldn’t be bringing it up if I didn’t see people ignoring it everyday. You need to know at least enough for things like everyday conversations, work, travel, buying things, etc. When I see people just slamming English into everything and refusing to learn the language of the place that they live in it irks me. You don’t have to be perfect, but showing the locals that you’re trying does wonders for your approval rating and they will really appreciate the effort.

3. Make local friends – You need friends no matter where you go. Either someone that you can visit or can visit you. These friends can help you get adjusted or introduce you to other people or things that you may have never known about otherwise, and they are invaluable when settling in at a new place. And that doesn’t mean you have to make friends with EVERYONE. One or two really good friends will do just fine. It’s always better to have 4 quarters than 100 pennies.

4. Make American friends – We are quite literally everywhere…like a virus or a plague. Americans are absolutely all over the world, and chances are high that you will run into a few wherever it is that you are traveling to. You may even know some before you go. Some people will tell you that if you want to really be successful, you have to spend as little time with people that are like you as possible. I call b.s. You need as many connections as you can get in your strange new land, so don’t shun anyone! Odds are that they have gone through the things that you will go through as well and can help you to adjust more quickly. ‘MURICA /salute

E. Accept invitations – Inevitably you will be invited out to do things with local people, whether it be to get coffee or lunch or what have you. Make some time to go and hang out with your new peers and neighbors. Everyone will want to know about you, why you are there, for how long, what toothpaste you use, etc. Go out and get to know about them, too! Being open to little social meetings will do wonders for your integration and you could even find some new friends from there as well. Of course, use your judgement when accepting invites to things. Don’t go to someone’s house for “Netflix and chill” if you just met them, obviously…

If you find things getting a bit rough for you, these things will definitely help you get through most of it. You will find that most things that you are stressing about are all in your head and the more you integrate the faster they will go away. It will not be instantaneous, and it will feel like ice skating uphill for a little while, but eventually you will find your groove and start to love your new place.