Bye, Bye, Miss Jiu Jitsu Pie
drove my chevy to the levee, but the levee was dry
My grandfather was born in 1930, which means that he was only nine years old when World War II broke out. I think of this as my dad tries to convince his father that the current world war waged by COVID is not as bad as the past world war waged by humans, and that in fact, my grandfather — despite being too old to walk alongside the longest river in Asia as he’s done for decades — is in fact still living a good life.
This Yellow River was the first, though not last one, that has played a significant role in my life. In fact, my name shares a Chinese character with it. In the morning tugboats would chuff through; in the afternoon the rickshaw driver would accept my tip after dropoff at jiangbian; in the twilight rowdy gamblers would smoke, spit and squabble over cards and mahjong; in the evening couples of all ages would dance in the moonlight.
Later, as a new older sister, I would make the multi-mile trek down to the Tiger Leaping Gorge and watch as my younger sibling — still weak from a virus — scale an abominably terrifying set of ladders to return back to stable ground.
As a senior applying to college, I fondly wrote of these memories (Sky Ladder notwithstanding), only to be told by my mentor that this essay would never work as an admission essay.
As if on cue, a cool breeze blows through the atmosphere, and locals emerge from their air-conditioned homes, lugging out mah-jong tables and collapsible chairs, ready to begin another night filled with betting, cigarette smoke, and relaxation. Hot tea is poured despite of the humidity that hangs heavily in the air, roasted sunflower seeds delivered to each table, and soon the shouts of children are joined by the shouts of men and women engaged in a vigorous game of cards. The people hired by the small noodle shop rush about here and there, taking orders and coming back promptly with several bowls of steaming noodles. Patrons down the noodles, spicy soup and all, their long continuous slurps of contentment only broken only by the quick, scattered words of conversation between swallows. Farther down, streetlights illuminate a courtyard, the scene of the daily dancing hour. There are couples everywhere. I can tell who has been married the longest, not by their age but how they dance.
PS, I got in.
In the last semester of senior year, we memorized Kubla Khan for Academic Decathlon — the first stanza which still stands vividly before me:
In Xanadu did Kubla Khan A stately pleasure-dome decree: Where Alph, the sacred river, ran Through caverns measureless to man Down to a sunless sea.
One winter break in college, I discovered a piano piece called The River Flows in You by Yiruma and obsessively learned to play it in a matter of days, despite not playing piano for a decade at that point.
In law school, I would run furiously along the Hudson to the beat of cringy pop songs, reflected in the rise and fall of commuter ferries in stormy weather. Once, I ran in a snowstorm. The garbage men of New York City, impressed by almost nothing, waved to me. And on many early morning trips to the law office, I’d watch as a crew team meticulously made its way upstream, like me, one laborious stroke at a time.
So, it’s no surprise that rivers have a poetic significance that easily translates to the path of my martial arts journey so far.
The classification system for rapids ranges from Class 1 rapids featuring “very small rough areas, requires no maneuvering (skill level: none)” to Class 3 rapids featuring “medium waves, maybe a 3–5 ft drop, but not much considerable danger (skill level: experienced paddling). In real life, I myself have run Class 4-5 rapids, which are anywhere from large waves and long rapids to continuous rapids, large rocks and hazards. Class 6 rapids are not passable, with any attempt to do so resulting in serious injury, near drowning, or death.
Rivers are fun to experience because they can be wild and dangerous at the same time. Jiu jitsu is the same way with literal rough and tumbling of forces in motion. Class 1 rapids may be learning a variation of a technique that I’ve practiced before. Class 2-3 rapids could be trying to get dominant position on a less experienced person who is thrashing for their life. Class 4 -5 are going against more experienced fighters that could be threatening to suck me under any moment, so I need to pay attention.
Rivers are sometimes polluted, sometimes pristine, and sometimes ambiguously in between. Jiu jitsu too, has its pockets of clarity, followed by muddier eddies. Rivers make their mark through the landscape in which they move through, albeit in imperceptible and mysterious ways. In jiu jitsu, progress seems slow day by day but incredibly impactful over time.
From the time I started jiu jitsu, I had hoped the journey would be an easy one, simply because at that point in my life I couldn’t take challenging situations anymore. I still believed that ease meant talent, and that talent meant unique, and that unique meant worthy of love.
But, there aren’t any easy shortcuts. Instead, life is a matter of figuring out the best way to navigate the obstacles that come your way, instead of avoiding the journey altogether.
This past year, I have regrets about how I approached my jiu jitsu (sorry, Omar, but these are the *facts*). I wrote about how hobbyists were the most important people in the room, but I couldn’t accept that I wanted to be a hobbyist. I competed too much and spent too many resources trying to chase a goal that never made it past illusion.
Ultimately, I lost sight of my vision of a martial artist: one who learns the art simply out of love. I forgot that the numbers don’t matter: it isn’t about the medals, the win-loss record, or even the number of submissions that you get in the gym. It isn’t about the number of hours you’ve trained.
But fortunately for me, as a river can change its course, so can I. As a river can work its way around obstacles, so can I. And as a river finds its way in the world, by making itself a path in it, so can I.
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