Years ago, when I first began going to conferences by myself, I found that traveling on my own also meant sometimes walking alone in an unfamiliar city. I loved these opportunities to explore a city by myself, but I wanted to do something to make that experience safer. So I signed up for karate lessons.
I went three times each week, very early in the morning, to a dojo near my house. The dojo had a shining hardwood floor and huge floor-to-ceiling mirrors. I'd take off my shoes when I came in, go to the dressing room to change into my white gi, and then take a spot, sitting cross-legged on the floor. The class was small, about eight people at that time of day, and I was the only woman.
Mr. Macho, the guy who owned the dojo, was the younger brother of someone I'd gone to high school with. He was apparently quite good at karate tournaments. When he came into the dojo, all the students would bow to him, calling him "Sensei," and acting like he was royalty or something. I had a hard time conjuring up the proper subservient attitude toward him: to me he was still someone's snot-nosed kid brother. His wife ran the office, doing the administrative work of the dojo, and when she was in, I'd go chat with her, she's tell me funny stories about what it was like to live with Mr. Macho, and we'd both get into fits of giggles. When I came out of the office, the other men would look at me suspiciously. "What are you two laughing about in there?"
I liked karate right from the start. The katas were lovely and graceful: all of us moving in the same way at the same time, and it did feel empowering to punch and kick. I'd never punched anyone before, or defended myself from a punch or kick, and it felt good to know that I could. Although I was the smallest person in the class, I'm strong for my size and I could do everything easily. And I had the advantage of having a female body: I was more flexible than anyone, even the blackbelts.
Sometimes I'd get tips from Mr. Macho. He knew what he was doing when it came to karate, but he wasn't a very deep thinker. Almost every week, he'd look at my long hair swishing all around as I did the katas (most of the men had shaved heads), and he'd say: "You should put your hair in a ponytail."
"But this is how I wear my hair in real life," I'd explain. "If someone attacks me on the street, I'm not going to have time to put my hair in a ponytail before I defend myself."
He'd watch me spar, and say, "Are you left-handed? How come your left hook is so much stronger than your right?"
I'd explain patiently. "No, I'm right-handed. But that means my right hand is valuable to me. I hit harder with my left because I'm less afraid of hurting it."
For the most of the exercises, we'd be told to choose partners. The men would always turn and look at me, waiting to see who I'd pick, as if being a woman gave me first dibs. I always chose the same guy. He was the least macho of the men and the smallest, which meant he was closest to my size. He also had the loveliest British accent. For months, I partnered with him, doing these oddly intimate stretching exercises. We'd sit on the floor, for instance, our legs opened and feet touching each other, and then hold hands and pull our bodies first one way, than the other.
We'd exchange just a sentence or two, but often they'd be revealing. I found out he had a wife, two small kids. I had been hoping, from his accent, that he was a British rock star or something cool like that, but one day he told me he was a college professor who taught computer science. A computer geek! It was such a letdown. And he continued to give me scraps of his life in an understated way. We'd be sitting on the floor stretching, and he'd say just one sentence. "I'm getting divorced" or "I've had a dreadful week."
It did give me confidence to learn karate, to learn how to eye a situation, figure out my best tactic, to practice blocking a kick or punch, to learn how to put a wristlock on someone much bigger than I was. No, I never turned into one of those people you see in the movies — able to fly into the air while simultaneously dodging swords and kicking five different enemies — but still I felt more confident about the strength of my own body. The men in the class, who all had way more experience than I did, were helpful, giving me tips and encouraging me.
"Punch harder!" Shaved Head would say, grinning after I'd just punched him in the stomach. "Pretend I'm someone who did you wrong." Of course, then when it was his turn to play the role of the attacker, he'd pause and push my hair tenderly off my shoulder before grabbing me and flipping me onto the floor.
Sometimes the instructor would try to give us lessons about the culture of karate. We'd gather on the hardwood floor, sitting cross-legged, and he'd stand at the front of the room. For all his karate expertise, it was obvious to me that he had no training as a teacher. He seemed always to be looking for canned answers.
For example, I can remember him asking, "Why do we bow to Sensei?"
Around me, the men sitting on the floor in their white uniforms chorused: "Respect." That was the standard one-word answer to anything the instructor asked. He nodded approvingly.
Then I spoke up. "I think who we bow to shows a lot about the values of a culture."
The men turned to look at me. I was the only one who ever answered with whole sentences. "Sensei could beat any of us in a one-on-one physical battle. That seems to be the reason everyone bows to him. Obviously, we live in a culture that values the ability to beat the hell out of someone."
By now, all the men were listening, and Sparring Partner With the Lovely Accent was trying hard not to grin. I continued, just to make my point. "If we lived in a culture that valued life – well, I've given birth four times. You'd all be bowing to me."
Sparring Partner laughed. As usual, my response seemed to cut the teaching session short, and soon we were back on our feet, kicking and punching each other.
Another time, the instructor tried to talk to us about the formal rituals that we were taught to observe in the dojo. "Why do we bow to each other? And use formal titles?"
Again, the men chorused, "Respect." They had that one-word answer down cold.
I spoke up. "I've got a theory about that." Sparring Partner, sitting cross-legged next to me in his white gi, caught my eyes.
"I think it's because we have a situation here in which men are paired up to do intimate exercises with each other. And men are culturally ingrained to feel uncomfortable with intimacy between two males. So we need these formalities — these rigid rules, these formal titles — to make that acceptable. Learning karate can be very sensual and the formalities are put into place to counter balance that."
My words were followed by a deep silence.
Sparring Partner turned to smile at me. Then Shaved Head spoke up. "How about we ... not let her answer any more questions?"