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.