My father was serving time the year I was born…
GOTCHA!! No my father wasn’t in prison. He was serving in the U.S. Army, stationed in Korea, the year I was born. Little did I know how much of an effect it would have on my life. My father studied TaeKwonDo while he was there, and earned his 1st degree black belt while in Seoul. While we lived in Germany, my father in enrolled all four children in TaeKwondo classes at our local recreation center.
I am sure the inspiration to take martial arts was also heavily influenced by movies. My father had loads of martial films stored on these black, rectangular casings with film inside…these contraptions called video cassettes (VHS-video home system). Remember those?!? My brother and I used to watch karate/kung fu movies, fight with each other, and then get in trouble. By the time I was five years old, it was already too late, the martial arts mania was already in my bloodstream.
I remember loving how cool Jim Kelly with his perfectly trimmed afro in “Enter the Dragon.” I learned how to carry my backpack on one shoulder because of one Daniel Larusso of the Miyagi-Do Karate Dojo. Bruce LeeRoy (i.e. the Last Dragon) taught me that you could be a nice guy, kick a bully’s ass, and get a hot girlfriend all at the same time. Jackie Chan taught me that there are some things you really shouldn’t be trying at home without professional stunt team supervision. I’m fairly certain that I have bruises on my brain because of the concussions I received trying his stunts at my local park. Then there was Bruce Lee (pause for the glistening eye twinkle). Bruce Lee’s movies made me feel like I could take on the world single-handedly. Did you ever see The Chinese Connection? I think the title was Fists of Fury in Asia. But there was that scene when Bruce takes out those chucks and proceeds to beat the be-Jesus out of every member of that Japanese dojo? It was all so appealing to me…truly amazing stuff!
It was in Germany that I would try my hand at martial arts for real. It was here that my life-long love affair with martial arts would begin. The Taekwondo (TKD) teachers at the Butzbach rec center were EXTREMELY strict. They rarely, if ever, smiled and doled out knuckle-pushups like we actually enjoyed them. I was often intimidated by my stronger, bigger teachers and students, but something about the training to be like my martial arts heroes and facing my fears was extremely addictive…
The first martial arts instructor I ever had was Mr. Carillo. I will never forget how my brother and I would always imitate his permanent scowl. He was a pretty hard core dude. Let’s just say a lot of kids left class in tears. Because it was the military, parents weren’t overly sensitive about their kids receiving positive reinforcement. When one too many of the kids weren’t taking class seriously, we all had to get into push-up position on our knuckles. I vividly remember not having the strength to endure the pain but not wanting to get out of the push-up position lest I cause more trouble for myself…I endured. The dull ache in my now rouge fists begin to turn into true pain…tears and sweat streamed down my cheeks. It was tough.
I remember getting the wind knocked out of me by several of the upper belts during sparring sessions. One in particular was this kid named Willie who had a side kick that could break through concrete blocks…no joke. I remember some of the older karate students poking fun at my techniques and not being able to do a whole lot about it, lest I get pummeled.
Tough times aside, though, I remember loving martial arts so much that quitting never once ran through my head. Was I nervous going to class every week? YES! The tension in the air was thick enough to slice with a samurai sword, but I never wanted to quit.
On occasion I would do something and turn Carillo’s scowl upside-down; that was motivating for me. I remember as I advanced up the belts, I was getting stronger. In the time we had, I only made it to blue belt, but one of my biggest success stories was when that kid Willie kicked me smack kadab in the breadbasket with one of those side kicks and not only did I not cry, I was able to keep fighting…I surprised myself. I even remember being so excited to tell my Mom about it.
My father instilled in me the need to stand up for myself. I remember getting into an altercation with three other boys, all slightly older than me and my father saw it from the apartment window upstairs. He leaned out of the window and yelled “Hey!…” (“Thank God,” I thought to myself “I’m saved.”) “Don’t take him on all at once! Fight him one at a time,” Dad said. “What?!?” I quizzically thought to myself. In my head I thought “There’s no way I’m beating all three of these kids…even one on one.” The boys didn’t actually fight me, but I see where my Dad was going with that. I have to learn how to fight my own battles sometimes.
Living abroad meant that I had friends of all races: Korean friends, Filipino friends, Indian friends, black friends, white friends, green friends, blue friends (okay, maybe not the last two). I had friends from all types of backgrounds as well. Some had much more money that my family did, there were others that had far less. I was taught to be kind to people no matter where they came from, what race they were, etc. If they respected me, I respected them…it was that simple.
I learned to embrace other cultures this way, too. If I went over to my Korean friend’s house I remember eating kimchi with their family or fumbling while trying to use chopsticks. I miss how simple things were then. Why is it was people get older, they separate again? I’ve seen it time and time again. People have these wonderful friends from all over the place, and the when they become adults they go back to hanging out with people that only look like them. I don’t know what causes that, but I’m trying my best to have good friends from everywhere. Living in Japan is perfect for that.
Germany taught us how to be a closer family. Living so far away from the United States and our relatives meant that our strongest link was each other. I learned that there is a whole world out there…just waiting to be seen, explored, and experienced. Mind you, I wasn’t thinking this as a six-year old, but, again, this is me reflecting on a wonderful experience.
I was sad to leave all of my friends in Germany, but moving back to the U.S. meant a new environment and new experiences.
Donald Ash is an Atlanta, Georgia-born, American expat who has been living in a Japanese time warp for the last eleven years. While in that time warp, he discovered that he absolutely loves writing, blogging, and sharing. Donald is the creator of thejapanguy.com blog. Wanna know more about this guy? Check out his "What's Your Story" page.
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