Like much of the blogging community, I was not especially well-built as a child, and was also something of a loudmouthed fool. Past a certain age, I could no longer bank on the strength of the cubicle doors keeping my assailants out, so I had to learn other self-defence mechanisms than slamming the toilet doors shut and waiting. For instance, acting as though I was mentally unwell fended a few of the more gullible attackers off for a good while, and only cost me my dignity and the respect of those with actual mental illnesses. The revered and deadly “kick-to-the-groin-and-run-like-the-dickens” technique was also useful for taking on one person at a time, but since I have been prone to using phrases such as “run like the dickens” for a good long time, I quickly moved past the phase in which just one person trying to kick my head in was anything other than an inexplicable but welcome break from the usual state of affairs.
I’m not going to pretend to have been especially ill-served. I received no long-lasting scars or particularly savage injuries from my angrier, more socially adept peers. I was also kind of a douchebag: if you remember the game “pixie-dust”, where you pretended to throw dust in your classmate’s eyes, and ‘won’ when they blinked as a natural reaction, then you will understand what a dick move it was for me to walk around with a handful of salt all day, shouting “pixie-dust” at people who had bested me previously and throwing the salt right in their stupid faces. This was a major, and I have to say justifiable, factor in my being singled out for the purposes of violence by particular persons.
I was pretty fed up with the whole ‘ritual beatings’ situation, though, and this was the reason that when my little sister signed up for karate classes I was pretty eager to join up, as well. I think this counts as the first of many warning signs, as there are few eight year old girls who are well-versed in the deadliest arts.
There are even fewer deadly arts taught by elderly ninja masters which also take place behind a soft play area at a local leisure centre, yet my expectations were inexplicably high. This is part of what convinced me that my time was best spent, not correcting and improving on the basic moves, but rather learning all the flashiest kicks and trying desperately to remember their japanese names. To this day, I can only remember the roundhouse and reverse-roundhouse, mawashi-geri and ura mawashi-geri respectively. Below you can see the ura mawashi-geri (referred to as the gyaku mawashi-geri for complicated reasons), demonstrated by Tom Selleck and that good-for-nothin’ kid who got your daughter pregnant then went down to juvie for four years.
As you can see, even with the most seasoned and skillful practitioners, what results is less of a kick and more of an excellent way to get people to charge and push you over while you’re off-balance. It also appears to resemble something of an elaborate dance, for reasons that will become clear soon.
Karate is primarily based around dancing. Did I say soon? I meant to say “reasons that will become clear now.” The Karate kata is the term for what Wikipedia calls “detailed patterns of movement practiced either solo or in pairs”, which the more meaning-oriented among you might have worked out means “dancing”. It is also the main way you progress up the typically martial-arty belts system. I made it to brown belt and never once threw a punch in anger, or even in mild irritation.
I did dance a lot, though, and when I explained to people about the mystic and ancient art I was learning, they tended to suss this out very quickly. The next thing they tended to suss out was the vast potential for piss-taking and lunch-money-getting from this veritable gold-mine of dorkitude.
I comforted myself with the knowledge that once I really learned how to karate, I would have my vengeance. I would be like the wind, silent but deadly, or like an autumn full moon — oh for god’s sake, stop tittering at the back. I’m doing the mystical imagery over here. Anyway. Short term, the fact I was attending dance class did not work out so well for me.
It probably didn’t help my cause that the first time I attempted to use my skills, I used a front kick, which I hadn’t actually been informed was supposed to be used to gently encourage people to give you more room on the bus rather than actually inflict pain. This resulted in much hilarity all round. Two people who’d only previously tormented me verbally rather than physically, and who I therefore considered ‘friends’, found my flat-footed pushing kick both hilarious and enjoyable, and invited me to perform my miraculous “painless kick” as frequently as possible, pushing them down hills and onto skate ramps and half-pipes on whatever makeshift vehicle they had created, then pissing themselves laughing at how I’d ever thought that the kick could do harm to a human being. Then they would spend a little while showing me how to perform a Granddad, a far less intimidatingly named kick than the mae geri I had ‘mastered’, and which mostly involved kneeing me in the thigh. For me, this was partly entertaining but primarily just humiliating, setting the tone for the rest of my social encounters throughout adolescence and well into early adulthood.
It was about that time that I came to an important realisation; Karate is not Kung-fu.
Well, it seems obvious when I put it like that. More to the point, Karate was not what I wanted to learn. What I wanted to learn was the shit that Neo learnt in the Matrix, the stuff that made people back off when you merely mentioned, almost offhandedly, that you knew it. I’m probably thinking mostly of Wing Chun which emphasises self-defence, but I’m sure other kung fu schools are applicable. Or at least, more applicable than Karate.
The thing is, the way freestyle karate tends to be taught de-emphasises practical strikes and self defence at all times in favour of learning how to perform the pretty moves in the right order. It can end up being closer to tai chi than a real martial art, albeit with more emphasis on making your clothes make a “swooshy” noise than tai chi has. The distinction is subtle, but important — swooshiness is vital in several of the major martial arts, though not, strangely, in krav maga. During one of the few practical lessons we had, paired up with a guy of equal weight, people regarded me with awe when I demonstrated my mastery of the principle of momentum when it comes to letting a guy throw himself around. Yet still, in real fights I spent most of my time fleeing for my life, or at least for my not-getting-my-delicate-skin-bruised.
Despite Karate’s drawbacks, such as the fact that I spent an hour a week for just over a year and a half unlearning how to throw a decent punch, I have to admit that my own physical shortcomings played a huge part in my crapness with it. Any martial art that I could turn my hand to, I would recoil from it moments later pulling an ‘owie’ face and nursing a broken hand.
The moment that I realised for sure that I would never be a ninja badass was probably when I managed to badly damage my face climbing about on the soft play area. It was at this point that I decided, shamefacedly, to call it a day, and instantly spent two months working up the courage to tell my parents that I was quitting.
I have to say, I’m really not a fighter.
The mae geri in the hands of a more expert fighter, against styles such as muay thai which incorporate rapid, low kicks, can be useful. It’s just not so good for a kid trying to defend himself from other kids. If you do happen to be good at karate, good for you.
If you liked this post, you might also enjoy reading about my humiliation as I tried to learn how to do the boxing. You bastard.