The white belt who never gave up

A student reflects on her journey to a black belt and the lessons she learned along the way.


There are many things about my adolescent years that I’d like to forget, like wearing the brands Tapout and Ed Hardy and using the word “sicknasty” unironically. 

The isolation I often felt in the hallways of my high school is another one of those things. 

But something I love about my adolescence is the three years I spent working toward a first-degree black belt in Kenpo karate, a martial arts form that focuses on self-defense. 

Right before my 16th birthday, I decided to take up martial arts, for no other reason besides thinking it would be cool. I had no idea at the time, the dojo — the studio for martial arts — and the people I met there would become so important to me. It was my second home during my sophomore year of high school until my freshman year of college. 

I definitely didn’t expect to find myself in a world where I’d be bowing on and off the mat, and to my senseis, all while saying a Japanese word that loosely translates to “respect.” I never thought I’d recite a chant vowing to live by the “Principles of Black Belt” on and off the mat, and I especially didn’t think I would take it seriously. 

I tried my best to live a life of “modesty, courtesy, integrity, self-control, perseverance and an indomitable spirit,” and I bought a bunch of books to learn about East Asian cultures and martial arts history. I even started teaching myself the Japanese language. 

Karate quickly became more than my hobby. It became my life. I made friends. I slowly started overcoming my shyness and anxiety. I became physically stronger and more confident, and I found a place where I felt comfortable being myself. 

One of my favorite parts about my journey was my senseis’ mentorship. I always had someone to talk to when I felt lost, lonely or depressed or I needed advice. They did more than teach me how to do roundhouse kicks and defend myself; they taught me life lessons and pushed me to be my best, even when I didn’t feel like it. 

Growing up, I never won any awards or trophies, and I always felt inferior when I compared myself to my friends who had entire shelves dedicated to their achievements. 

Karate gave me that sense of accomplishment I craved every time I passed the test to earn a new belt. Unlike any of the sports I played, karate had no season; it was all year round, and the only way I could lose was if I stopped going. 

Whenever I feel like quitting something, I remember when one of my senseis told me, “A black belt is just a white belt that never quit.” 

When it finally came time for me to dedicate myself toward the last few months of training and testing to receive my black belt, I was overwhelmed. I felt like I couldn’t possibly keep up with the schedule or the physical demands. 

I had to run two miles, even though I have exercise-induced asthma, and I had to come home from my university every weekend for practice runs and tests for the big black belt extravaganza. I was already struggling with mental health issues at the time, and I was falling behind in school, but no one knew. 

I managed to make it through the runs — inhaler in hand — and I passed all the tests, even though my dramatic self was sure I wouldn’t survive. 

The week before the extravaganza, I had a breakdown and had to go home on medical leave. The excitement of getting my black belt was dissipating more and more. 

On the big day, I got my hair French braided, and my friend did my makeup. My anxiety was boiling up. 

I stress-ate an entire bag of candy on the ride to the venue, and I had to hold back tears so I wouldn’t ruin my eye makeup. Even so, I performed my skills for a room full of people and was awarded my beautiful, prized black belt. 

When I went to bed that night, after posing for tons of photos and enjoying a well-deserved celebratory dinner, I realized I made it because I was a white belt who never gave up. 

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