One day when I was nearly 9 years old, I beat up a boy so badly that he fell to the ground.
I hadn’t done anything wrong. It was a friendly practice sparring match during an afternoon karate class. Instead of accepting his defeat gracefully, he got up, furious, and proceeded to chase me around the building. Being the shy, nonconfrontational person I was back then, I let him do this until he was scolded and told to calm down.
I’d been told that “boys never like getting shown up by girls” but never quite understood it until that day.
Growing up in karate made me different. In elementary school, when my friends dreamed of becoming gymnasts or dancers — elegant and graceful — I dreamed of being able to break boards with my feet. I wanted to use sais (a kind of sword). I dreamed of being powerful and courageous.
I started at age 7, in a trial class offered by Arizona’s Best Karate at my elementary charter school. I liked it enough that I enrolled within weeks.
Almost every afternoon was the same routine: put my uniform on, drive to karate with mom, bow (out of respect) at the door, put my sparring gear in the corner of the room, and bow (again, out of respect) onto the mat for class.
In Arizona, karate was officially a co-ed sport. But I climbed the ladder of belts with mostly boys at the same level and age as I was. In fact, I don’t remember there being any other girls in my immediate belt level. This didn’t bother me back then — I didn’t pay attention to gender roles (nor did I understand the term). I just thought I was a tomboy.
I battled boys in practice but could not spar with boys in competition for reasons unknown to me. In some ways, that made competition harder. When too few girls signed up for sparring events, they combined my age group with the one above me. Most of my new competitors had already reached puberty. During one competition, I found myself sparring against a woman twice my size. I was scared but knew my mom was watching every move. I was kicked down several times but finished the meet.
As I neared the end of my training at 10 years old, I went to practice every afternoon and on Saturdays. In November 2005, I graduated with my black belt.
I was in excellent physical shape and had great confidence, but I couldn’t wait to finish. I had grown tired of the constant practice and lack of social life outside the studio.
Looking back now, I feel bittersweet about ending my career the day I got my black belt. Hands down, karate had more of an impact on my life and growth than any other experience I had growing up. I learned respect, courage, focus, determination, commitment and hard work, skills that stuck with me in high school and now college.
More than anything though, karate taught me to stick to my guns. I remember, once, at a “show and tell” in elementary school, I performed a karate form to “The Star-Spangled Banner.” A karate form is similar to a dance number but instead of twirls and leaps, it consists of kicks, spins and punch combos. I remember nailing the performance and being proud of myself as I kicked the air above my head while holding our nation’s flag in one hand and the Japanese flag in another. The class, however, was more impressed with the ballerina and the tap dancer.
I didn’t care.
This story was written in partnership with Zocalo Public Square.