Kevin Cyr – Second Degree Black Belt – Central Academy of Martial Arts
“What sports do you do?” Jim slumps in the chair next to me. His stomach spills from the bottom of his white polo.
“Uh, I don’t do sports.” I spin to face him on my own green plastic school chair.
“You don’t do anything? Like physical?”
“Well I do karate.”
“You play karate? That’s sick!”
“I do karate.”
He giggles. “Whatever man. What belt are you? My little cousins a black belt, he’s been to a lot of tourneys. Always gets first place.”
“I’m a brown belt.”
“Only a brown belt? How long have you been training?”
“Since I was three, thirteen years.”
“He’s been training for three. Man you’re getting ripped off if you don’t have your black belt yet.”
“How old is your cousin?”
“Uh, he’s six.”
There are three stereotypes, or three first thoughts people have when you tell them you do karate. They come from my experience of telling people at school and elsewhere. Some make me want to use my martial arts *whispers* on them, others make me have hope.
1) Bruce Lee
Bruce Lee was a phenomenal martial artist. Physically, he did things most couldn’t. He developed his own fighting system and marked martial arts forever. Later in his career, he strayed from the art, and into making the art popular. His movies involve pummelling wave after wave of clueless enemies. He fights dramatically, with screeches and absurd facial expressions. Instead of me trying to write out the sounds, it’s easier for you to listen and watch.
In a real situation, Bruce wouldn’t take this long to attack, Bruce wouldn’t let the enemy surround him, and Bruce wouldn’t take that much damn time screeching at fallen opponents. When I mention I do karate. Some people assume the video above. Some drop into a low stance and make Bruce Lee sounds. This makes me squirm.
Bruce did a lot for the martial arts technique wise, but also created a stereotype. He made it look like a demonstration, compared to actually defending yourself.
2) Oh you do Karate? You can to the Splits?
NO. I cannot do the splits; I cannot do a back flip, or a front flip, or a hand spring, or a head stand. This the second most common representation of Karate, people see it as a sport, and more gymnastics than self defence.
When karate was brought over to America, it became americanised. It became a sport. It was no longer about learning to hit hard, be aware and defend yourself, it became about how many flips, how fast you can flail your arms, or a weapon, how loud you can yell, and how low a stance you can drop into. There’s nothing wrong with sport karate. It’s impressive. I can’t do what they do. But it becomes frustrating when people think that’s what karate is.
This wouldn’t work in a self defence situation. If three men jumped you, there wouldn’t be time to take a step back, gain momentum and flip kick them. More importantly, there wouldn’t be time to hit play on the boom box. I respect it as a sport, but being constantly compared to this is horrible. It’s built ONLY for sport, and if people can understand there’s a difference between Traditional Karate and Sport Karate, then its progress.
3) The rare few
In the past, a black belt was respected. A black belt was a human weapon, someone who commanded respect and someone to be loyal to. “Wow you have your black belt?” Not a “wow” in a surprised way, but a “wow” in respect. The physical and mental skill required to get a black belt was at such a high level, it was unattainable for most.
Though this video might not seem as flashy, or cool as the other, this is how traditional karate is: How to punch and kick real good:
Now, a black belt is different. Its definition has been diluted. Karate not only became americanised by becoming a sport, but it also became a business. It became a way to make money. Instead of giving belts when the students are ready, technically and mentally for the next rank, instructors hand out belts to keep students interested.
“Why train here, where it take ten years to get a black belt, where I can get one in a year over here?”
This became the question. And to the untrained mind it made senses. The definition of black belt differed from each school. When you see your little cousin gets his black belt, that idea of a black belt being special is lost. And there I am standing at the same level as eight year old little Johnny.
There are a rare few, the ones who still respect the term black belt. I have met a person like this once. I don’t flaunt I have a black belt, mostly because its meaning isn’t as potent, but mostly because no one recognizes it as something special.