22 October, 2012

The end of an era / El final de una época

Yesterday marked a momentous occasion for me - I 'graduated' to the 8th gup (3rd level) of Taekwondo. I now have a 'real' martial arts belt (ie, not beginner's white) and I have to start preparing for combat and breaking things (...there's probably an official name for that). 

My old belt wrapped up for storage. The profe even wrote my name in purple! The white belt is for the first level, and the yellow stripe is for getting to the second.

Where I grew up university was pretty much a given. Out of the 120 people in my year at school I would say less than 10 didn't go to university, and of those who did, probably only another 5 never graduated (despite facebook I don't have exact statistics, sorry). The majority of my peers have (or have at least seriously considered) master's degrees or some other form of post-grad specialisation. Until I met lots of people from other backgrounds it never really crossed my mind that you could choose not to go to uni, or horrors! not even have the option (I've been extremely lucky just because of where I was born - thanks mum and dad!). Perhaps that's why my Taekwondo graduation ceremony yesterday seemed so much more momentous than I remember my university graduation to be - it was my own choice, paid for by me - not just 'what one does,' helped out considerably (= entirely) by my parents (or perhaps it's the almost decade that's passed since...).

Even the fact that I'm writing this on a different continent, in a country where the native language is not my own, doesn't seem as impressive to me as my new (bright yellow) belt. 

As part of the ceremony the teachers take off your old belt and tie the new one on for you. So very strange to be helped with your clothes in your late twenties!

When I first joined my dojang it was as a way of making new friends, and of spending more time with the friend I already had. It was something to do in the evenings and a form of exercise. It has become so much more than that.

Everyone cheers me on when I'm struggling, and congratulates me when I succeed - even if I was only trying to do 20 situps, a pathetic sum compared to the higher levels' 100. Just as much emphasis is placed on the theoretical and moral aspects of Taekwondo as on the physical - we have all sworn to be 'champions of justice and liberty' (I haven't picked my superhero name yet - suggestions on a postcard please). It's become my family away from home, the place where I can go to let off steam after a stressful day (punchbags ftw), share good news (and cakes), and remind myself that I'm rather awesome actually when I need to be.

Estrenando. Very pleased that while my white belt was a size 40, the yellow is only 38. I guess sit-ups do work after all!

As a competitive person (so much so that I even take being competitive competitively), I expected to be really upset (and to be completely honest, vengeful) about other people's successes when I couldn't equal them. Perhaps it's the belt system (the different colours are supposed to simultaneously motivate and humble us) but everything is just "OK" there. When I'm not as fast as everyone else, it's fine. If I can't complete the same number of pushups or kick quite as high or knock my partner over with a punch (we use lots of padding), there's no problem. Obviously there is plenty of friendly joking but no real comparison - you are what you are and your only benchmark is your own previous performance. (At this point my pride compels me to point out that actually I can kick really high and once (just once!) I was the fastest in the group.) It's the only place I really feel like I can let my guard down and just try, despite it being the only place I've ever had people queue up to hit me (yes, literally).

Me and my profe (V level black belt = don't mess).

I hope the day when I (have to?) leave Colombia is far in the future, but I already know that when and wherever I go next, I will miss these guys the most. When you come to Colombia, for whatever reason, the only certainty is that you will find (and fall in love with) much more than you expected.