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It is especially unladylike, my mother believed, for girls to learn martial arts and "wave their hands and feet about." I've always had an interest in martial arts, and I guess growing up watching Hong Kong kung-fu sagas with bad-ass, sword-wielding heroines had a little something to do with fueling my passion. When I expressed my desire to my traditional mother--who still manages to put a three-course meal on the table every night for family dinners--she didn't allow me to get into martial arts. In my early teens, I'd watch my two older male cousins go off to their paid karate lessons and pine away at their freedom.
When I got to college, I wormed my way into two rather unconventional things: 1.) Being an English major, and 2.) Being an aikidoka. My parents had high hopes that I'd select a more lucrative profession . . . they had given me choices of the more acceptable study paths: to become an engineer, doctor, lawyer, or, if I managed to fail at all of the above--at least a real-estate agent. And if I were so incompetent as to give up all that, I had the choice of marrying either an engineer, doctor, lawyer, or--if I must--a real-estate agent. After all, my older female cousins all went into or married men in those fields. A husband like that would protect me financially, keep me comfortable. My parents had no idea what I'd do with an English degree besides teach, and I ended up not even getting that right.
Getting into aikido was an equally amusing experience. I showed my mother my Schedule of Classes booklet, pointing out the necessary electives for graduation credit. "Mom, I need these P.E. units to graduate, and this aikido class is the only thing that'll fit into my tight schedule--you do want me to get a college degree, don't you?" I thought I'd try out different martial arts one by one until I found what I liked and wanted to stick with, but when I was handed my gi and went through the first few aikido classes, I was in love.
When my youngest brother developed an interest in taking up martial arts and I showed him a few techniques I learned, my mother shook her head at my dad and said, "That's it, we have three boys instead of two sons and a daughter." She gave me the stink-eye when I accidentally broke things: an automatic umbrella, a French Press's glass carafe, a few of her porcelain rice bowls that I swear had chips leading to a weak fissure in the first place; she'd half-jokingly blame my "martial arts hands."
I took the offered aikido classes on repeat for two-and-a-half years, long after I had fulfilled all my necessary P.E. credits. I put my training on hold for a while as life took me on its often unpredictable path. And I've just picked it up again this year, restarting the journey.
My mother still doesn't get why I stay out in the evenings past family dinnertime to wrestle with sweaty people and wave around wooden sticks and swords, but she's more tolerant now. She's tolerant, but she doesn't completely understand. Just the other week, glancing at me taking off my blue belt after class, she asked, "So when are you going to be done with aikido?" I looked at her like she was speaking Latin. She didn't ask as if she was hinting that I should stop--she was genuinely curious as to how much longer it can go on (like an exercise class that ends every semester, or a college degree that you'd get after x amount of years). I don't know how to explain to her these things I feel inside, about this other culture that I grew up in, and which she still feels alienated from. That while I do eventually want to get married, I also covet the ability to protect myself, both physically and financially. That if I have a daughter, I'd want to raise her to be strong, too, in mind and spirit, as well as body. That the idea of stopping my training again is like giving up the ability to dream, the desire to fly. And that even at Black Belt, when down the road I am ready to test for my Shodan, my "first step"--it does not end but would have just barely begun.