This year is the 25th anniversary of my karate studio in LA (ok I don’t know what’s the exact date that it opened up but it definitely was in 1988, and I have definitely been in need a break from blogging about Korea).
Since I won’t be around to participate in what I can only imagine will be a series of kick-ass demonstrations throughout Burbank and the San Fernando Valley, I guess the closest thing I can do from out here in Seoul is share how Master Nagayama and the studio – more so than high school, college, or pretty much any other institution I’ve attended – shaped who I am today.
Now I could talk about all the usual things people tell you karate instills – self-confidence, health, inner peace, discipline, etc. – and indeed it does. But you already read those points on the brochure.
So I’d rather discuss the unusual lessons I took away from my 13 years of active training with the master, and more than that many since.
Btw, since I did most of my training between ages 6-18, what follows is from a very youth-centric perspective. I’m not ACTUALLY an emotionally stunted man-child (well…)
#1: Embarassment happens. The show must go on.
I believe it was my yellow to purple belt test where I freaked out with anxiety and pissed myself.
My mom hastily bought a fresh uniform in which I had to change and finish the rest of the testing. Which I passed.
A special note to the unlucky black belt had to do mop-up duty while I was changing out back: if it makes you feel better, karma repaid me years later when, as a red belt practicing double kicks on the heavy bag with my sister, and some kid peed on the mat right in the path I was running.
#2: Sometimes your parents are wrong
I’m not talking quibbles here like retelling a favorite story with minor inconsistencies, or getting some facts incorrect, or contradicting themselves between last week and this week. I’m talking basic life principles that, had I followed, I’d have flat-out come to regret. Well that’s hard to speculate, but, I’d certainly have never gotten my black belt.
In this case, the principle was ethnic loyalty. I started training under master Nagayama back when he was teaching at another school owned by a Korean. When he left to found his own, my parents wanted to stick with the Korean master, even though I’d never been taught a single class by the guy.
The argument I had with my dad was epic: think Clash of the Titans scale Medusa-versus-Kraken (and I’m talking 80s version here, not that weak sauce remake with that Kevin Costner wannabe).
Anyway, thanks to the intervention of granma who sides with me on pretty much everything, in the end I got my way and transferred to the newly minted KNMA. Meanwhile, my parent still insisted that my sisters, who had started training at the same time I did, stay behind at the Korean school until their contract expired. They ended up dropping out in boredom within 6 months.
#3: How to deal with failure (or in my case, how NOT to)
I’ve never received an outstanding on any of my karate tests.
But man, my failed red belt test and subsequent meltdown were an absolutely SPECTACLE.
I tested for red along with 2 other kids – Alan and I don’t remember who the other guy was – and all 3 of us sucked. We each received repeated and explicit warnings as tally went right up to the 6 mistake borderline between passing and failing.
Still, somehow I was still shocked – shocked! I say – when my name wasn’t up on the board the following week. I even went to the office to point out the typo, since it totally didn’t register that mister straight-A wonder-nerd over here could ever possibly fail at anything.
I don’t remember whether I waited til I got home to throw my tantrum, but I definitely recall arguing that I deserved to that pass more than Alan and the other guy whose name I don’t remember.
For the record: selling out your peers is NOT a good way to convince someone that you’re mature enough to handle a position of responsibility and leadership. Just something to keep in mind.
Looking back, I reads like a textbook case of Kuber-Ross 5 stages. And in my case, depression lasted the longest. I wallowed in that self pity for a good week, not wanting to go back to the studio.
I swallowed my pride and went back after a week – what else was I going to do? my Nintendo time was capped and homework only takes so long – and yes, everything the master had said about failing being an important learning experience in humility and realistical self-assessment proved true.
That said, there’s a corollary lesson of all that drama that’s only sinking in now as I write this, which is…
#4: we forget as adults how much failure and disappointment suck
I failed half a dozen classes in college (yeah, going on academic probation was a reality check on double majoring) and 3 major projects at work, all of which elicited a heartfelt “meh.”
It’s not like I’m any better at handling failure though. All it means is that never gave a crap in the first place. And when I hear my nephew wailing about something unfair and I dismiss it as “trivial,” I sometimes wonder how far I’ve gone along in forgetting how much disappointment really stings.
The one area where we still do feel that way is in relationships: I wonder how much more receptive kids would be to advice to accept, move on, etc. if their parents acknowledged the distress of disappointment as they would a friend dealing with a bad breakup?
#5: You gotta set your own standards
Master Nagayama’s standard for what it takes to be a martial artist is a good one, but it’s a standard, not the standard.
If my red belt test (and the ensuing drama) was a case study in crashing spectacularly, then my first degree black belt test was in lamely slithering across the finish line. The only impressive thing about the test is how far one can press the lower bound of performance quality without triggering the requisite 6 mistakes.
No seriously, here’s how bad it was: when I watched my dad’s video recording afterwards, there was no footage of my 3-on-1 sparring because he turned that camera away at the sight of the pounding I was taking. That’s when I knew how far short I came of deserving the black belt I was wearing.
It took 3 1/2 years more before I felt like I was a “real” black belt – when I was helping Mr. Lumaya and Ms. Mouton train for their 2nd and 3rd degrees respectively. Not that I was anywhere near their level, but for the first time I had an objective benchmark against which to measure myself – and I could honestly acknowledge to myself that I measured up as a decent 1st degree black belt.
That was when things turned around. The studio was no longer what I did after school, it was where I belong. Teaching was no longer filler between classes, it was how I engaged the community. The karate studio was my own personal Cheers, minus the alcohol: it was where I wanted to go because everybody knew my name (I of course, was Frasier).
2 months later I similarly helping Mr. Platis, Hoffman, and Rifkin preparing for their 3/2/2nd degrees respectively. This time as the sole throwing partner, I was getting as much of a work out as any of them: 5 sparring techniques, 30 throwing techniques, 1-on-1 free knife and 2-on-1 punching – once for Hoffman, and all over again for Rifkin. Then 3-on-1 with Platis for good measure.
I had to cut short my college visiting trip to attend their testing, but it was worth it: by the time I boarded my flight that afternoon I knew for myself I was ready for my own 2nd degree test 4 months hence. Asking master Nagayama a few days later was a foregone conclusion.
6: The most valuable skills came from not from learning, but from teaching
Those who can, do.
But how do determine in the first place whether someone can or can’t?
Nothing establishes your credibility as a subject matter expert than the ability to walk through it in a way that a child can follow but a professional can appreciate.
And speaking of working with children, everybody should have to try sustaining for an hour the attention of a dozen 6-to-12 year old white belts fidgeting in their uncomfortable new uniforms, a sizable fraction only in the studio to treat their ADD with a natural alternative to Adderol.
Compared to that, public speaking to a packed auditorium of ANY adult audience – where you don’t have to deal directly with ADD, temper tantrums, or pants wetting (probably) – is cake.
Which brings me to the final (whew!) item…
7: some lessons take a reeeeeeaaaaaallllllyyy long time to sink in
OK, we’re in the home stretch here.
I was 27 when I started giving large scale presentations at work. It was a year later before I noticed that I was actually good at it, and only last year that I figured out that my public speaking skills – far more than my technical or analytical skills – were what set me apart from my colleagues.
And all of this was directly attributable to the karate school.
Which is to say, the foundation that had been laid at KNMA from childhood through high school laid dormant for a full decade before I figured out how to tap into it.
I hope you found this post interesting, entertaining, and/or informative. But I hope above all that it leads you to reflect on what impact – perhaps imperceptible at the time – master Nagayama and the studio has had in your life (I assume all non-KNMA folks stopped reading once it became clear there would be no more pee jokes).
Congratulations on 25 outstanding years, master Nagayama and everyone at KNMA.