This past Wednesday I was awarded my first degree black belt in taekwondo. My years of hard work and dedication paid off! It was a wonderful, memorable moment to share with my instructors, fellow black belts, classmates, and the supportive family members who have patiently sat through countless hours of our classes.
Am I proud of myself? Sure, just as much for overcoming the mental and emotional hurdles I’ve faced over the years as I am for the physical feat of earning a black belt. Plus, I don’t know many other cubicle dwellers who willingly get sweaty, stinky, a little bit crazy, and enjoy getting in fights on a regular basis with people who are half their age and twice their size. I’ve pushed myself harder these past few years than I ever have, but unlike reaching academic or work goals, this never felt like a chore, even during more frustrating moments. It was always a privilege, always enlightening, and always a joy to train. More than anything, though, getting a black belt is humbling. I’m so honored to share this title and this martial arts practice with so many talented and brave people.
It still hasn’t quite sunk in that I’m a “Black Belt.” I’m still me. I have blue eyes, I still have my corporate day job, and my favorite gelato flavor is pistachio. I’m still me in taekwondo class too. In sparring I turn so red I start to look charcoal grey. My favorite kick is hook kick, and my favorite forms are a toss-up between Palgwe Sah Jang and Palgwe Chil Jang, although surprisingly, Palgwe Pal Jang has really grown on me over the last few months. Same old me, just with a new belt.
There’s a misconception that a black belt means the end of one’s training. I’ve reached the pinnacle of my martial arts prowess, at least according to the well-meaning folks I’ve talked to. If first degree black belt were “it” that would be the equivalent of peaking in high school, and who wants to be that girl? Several people have asked, “Now what?” as if I’ve gone as far as I can, and now it’s time to quit and pick up a new flavor of the month. Some people also assume that suddenly I can go all Uma Thurman in “Kill Bill” and knock out ten people with a cartwheel or something. And don’t get me started on the registering my “deadly” hands jokes, UGH.
That couldn’t be further from the truth. In, fact the little mnemonic we have around the dojang is that “jyo kyo neem,” a Korean term that very roughly translates to assistant instructor/first dan black belt, means that you’re a “joke” because you’re at the bottom again. I won’t go into how being a first degree black belt means that the journey is just beginning, because you can find many articles and blog posts about that concept by martial artists who are much more experienced and eloquent than I am. I’ll just tell you how it feels from one little jyo kyo neem’s perspective…
There are several different meanings of the black belt floating around, so it will take some digging to find an authoritative resource describing what the black belt represents. (Sounds like a job for an ex-librarian!) Black Belt Magazine has a beautiful parable about the black belt symbolizing a dark time: the practitioner has skill but not necessarily the wisdom to make the right choices all the time. Another resource states that a martial artist who achieves black belt acts from a place of humility and serenity. Another mentions that a black belt has a high level of skill, including a rejection of darkness and fear. Serene, humble, fearless…that’s pretty sweet. I imagine that, like any other form of leadership, a black belt also requires a heightened sense of self-awareness, both of one’s strengths and of one’s deficiencies. True leaders know when to swallow their pride, ask for help, and be humble enough to lean from others.
So that’s where I am right now. I’m a black belt puppy, a freshman. I’m that toddler who’s really good at running around, screaming, and breaking stuff, but is stumped by skills that require more refined motor skills and intellectual prowess, like buttoning a shirt. (For me, in the realm of taekwondo, that would be hand-to-hand self-defense techniques. That part of my brain moves much slower than the one that handles forms and fighting.) I’m not discounting the skills I’ve demonstrated so far. I just know that, like the book by Marshall Goldsmith says, what got me here won’t get me there, i.e., the next black belt level. This will hopefully be a lifelong and ever-evolving practice. My instructors and classmates are stuck with me.
There is still so much more to learn and so much room for improvement, and becoming a black belt opens up opportunities to do that. I’m just now starting to break some bad sparring habits. I’ve only had a few months of getting to play with weapons defense, half of which I’ve spent flapping my hands and giggling and getting “killed” because I can’t think or move quickly enough when my opponent slashes at me with a rubber knife. I still can’t quite remember all of the color belt one-step sparring techniques. And my jump spin kick? If that’s all I have to defend myself with then I’d better just go full Texan and buy a gun.
After our awarding ceremony Wednesday night my chief instructor started teaching me and one of my classmates one of our new forms (which means there will be a revival of The Poomsae Series!! Stay tuned!!) and hand-to-hand self-defense. I spent most of the time nodding dumbly and watching him with the wide, glowing eyes of the proverbial deer in the headlights. I’ve accepted that that’s going to be my expression for the next few months.
Being a newbie again is actually refreshing. It keeps me fresh and on high alert. One of my favorite songs by rapper Jay-Z is “My 1st Song,” especially the introduction, an interview with Biggie Smalls talking about how to approach a project: stay humble, work hard, and act like you’re an intern, like it’s your first day on the job, and it’s your first project, “just stay hungry.” That’s how I want to approach taekwondo: black belt maturity on the outside, white belt curiosity on the inside. I’m a martial arts Oreo. Mmm, Oreos…
So now what? It’s life as usual: attending class four days a week, continuing to strengthen my right hip and hamstring, continuing to teach and coach the lower ranking belts, and continuing to learn and practice. I’m glad the heat’s off me at least for being a testing student, and I’m looking forward to watching the progress of other students. I still need to learn how to hold focus pads the right way, so I imagine that’s how I’ll be spending some of my time in the dojang. I’m not joking; it’s confusing.
I definitely have my work cut out for me. There are EIGHT levels beyond first dan (and possibly one more, but I’ll let the TKD historians confirm that), each one requiring an increasingly difficult level of physical and intellectual mastery, not to mention decades of training. Were I to seriously pursue the progressive black belt path I wouldn’t be eligible to even think about testing for the level my own Grandmaster is at 9th degree until I’m eighty years old, and that’s not happening. If I make it to eighty I’m going to be busy eating bacon sandwiches every day and sipping from a flask of whiskey in my old lady purse—not really Grandmaster material although hopefully I’ll still be yelling at little kids and throwing teenagers on the floor in taekwondo class. I’d love to progress to at least fourth or fifth dan, but if I’m a first degree black belt forever I’m happy with that too.