Saturday, May 28, 2011

Jiu-Jitsu Tournament

I’m in the finals of the 2011 Daegu Machado Jiu-Jitsu Gi tournament, heavyweight division. I toppled a redwood Canadian in the first round, and then was immediately put back on the mat to fight a tenacious Korean in round two. Now, my opponent with a bull’s chest and eyes rounded and wrinkled like the dawn from a lifetime of smiling is posing for pre-match pictures with me. My victory is all but assured.
                “One more, funny,” he laughs, his voice rising at the end as he wraps his arms around my waist and squeezes lightly while I put him in a headlock.
                “Sure,” I say. The ride to the technical high school was tense. Our master told us he had rented a bus for the ride, but in his fumbling English, he meant to say he had bought us all bus tickets on the same bus as all the other competitors in Daejeon. We rode with our possible opponents, everyone staring around the cabin on the hour long ride looking for who they’re going to fight first.
                “Okay, Brian, you’ve got this,” James, a short, thin New Zealander who’s been my coach today, says patting me on the back. “You’re going to run through this guy.”
                I move towards the mat and I tell myself, repeating it like a mantra that this is all for fun. The gymnasium has railed-off row of bleachers above the floor, making it feel as if we were gladiators in the Roman coliseum preparing for possible death. Also, being tucked behind a labyrinth of metal shops and open garages filled with drill presses, table saws, clamps, vices, and other devices that look like medieval tools of torture makes my heart and stomach twist inside my torso like two anacondas trying to swallow each other.
                “You’re up,” a Korean woman sitting at the scorer’s table says in her staccato, chopping board English.
                As we step onto the mat I fix my gi jacket and tighten my belt. The thick, coarse linen jacket feels like a metal vest, a wire brush coat that will push me on the ground. I try to breathe, I tell myself this all for fun, and no one takes it too seriously. Across the mat I look at my opponent and smile, but his eyes are locked on the floor. He begins to punch out breaths and flexes his arms like a pit-bull. He’s almost shouting as he breathes. His eyes look like crosshairs, he has the eyes of a soldier now as he steps forward to shake my hand. But I’m sure it’s all in good fun. The bell rings and he grabs my collar and thrusts his forehead into my lip. I can taste the copper of my blood as it trickles onto my tongue. His hands are as tight as the vice grips bolted to the tables in the adjacent building. My heart starts pounding, and I bite my lip and try to push my skull through his. He pulls at my jacket as if he was whipping a rope, and I shove him back. He’s strong, like your-father strong when you were a little kid. I grab him and push and remember that I’m strong too. We head butt and push and twist each other trying to throw the other one to the ground. He rifles a right palm into my chest and I rifle one back. We grip each other’s gis and go back to our bull horn twisting, grinding head butts. The ref blows his whistle and steps between us.
                “No pushy,” he says punching his fists together, “fighting,” he says addressing only me.
                “If we get any more aggressive this is going to be a fistfight,” I say shrugging.
                “You’ve got to take him down,” James says from the corner. I snarl and tell myself this is no longer just for fun. I’m here to win. I jokingly told Sung, my master, if I didn’t win this tournament I was going to burn the building down. He didn’t laugh at first, he only stared at me out of the corner of his eye and told me all my competitors were going to be more experienced and prepared than I. He then suggested maybe I shouldn’t compete. I patted his shoulder and assured I knew I was probably over matched and I just wanted to try it. But now, after being head butted and thrown around like a child, I’m determined to win.
                The ref waves his hand and I shoot before the large man can grab me. He sprawls and his crotch is pressed to my cheek. He snakes his arms across my trachea and tightens his guillotine hold. I wheeze but I keep my fingers dug into his thighs.
                “No, no, no,” I say. I push forward, and he flexes. He flexes and I tell myself to keep pushing. I push and I pull, and I turn and I take him down. The ref says, “Two points.” I scream, “Yes.” He struggles, but I run around his guard and gain side control, and the ref raises three fingers. I press down on him and wait for the clock to run out, hoping he has nothing left. He wiggles and pushes and gasps and wheezes and the ref blows the whistle and we both collapse. He stands up and grunts out his disappointment. I keep watch him as we walk back to the center. The ref raises my hand, and as if we had just finished having lunch my opponent smiles, grabs my hands, and says, “Congratulations Brian, very fun, yay.” He then skips off and hugs his friend wrapping his large camera around his neck like an Asian tourist.

Saturday, May 7, 2011


I’m fairly certain there is mold growing in my ceiling. My ceiling has the texture of a melting bag of ice cubes, and it has a pouch of papyrus white paper that’s coming up like a shirt that’s shrunk too small at the bathroom wall. A long pipe into the protruding phone booth of my bathroom, and after a few months of trying to figure out who was pissing in the alley behind my house each night, I realized there was a hole in the ceiling boards that was dripping water.
                I ignored it at first, but the dripping kept coming like an impatient businessman in wingtips clicking on the sidewalk. I’d wait up at nights and pretend that it wasn’t the dripping pipe. “It’s just someone walking by,” I’d tell myself, or, “Someone just turned on their stove upstairs and the ignition just won’t turn over.”
                I didn’t want to tell anyone. I didn’t want to move from my quiet building. The only other option was the frat house of teacher across town where Julian blasts his music drunk at three in the morning from Friday to Monday, Koreans have a church gathering with choir music at six in the morning every day, and there are constant rumblings and arguments between the teachers on the stairs.  I saw my solitude at first drifting into nights clutching my pillow over my ears and rocking back and forth in my bed to stop myself from throwing a chair into the hall and charging at anyone yelling in the cavernous stairway.
                But the dripping became persistent. It bothered me late at night like a girlfriend with too many thoughts and no job. “What do you think about Aliens?” it’d drip at two in the morning. “Do you think Korea would be called Korea if it weren’t filled with Koreans?”
                I had to try to fix this. I told Tommy that my ceiling won’t stop dripping. Tommy is like the foreign teacher’s bitch at our Hagwon, any problem we have Tommy has to take care of. He would be better at his job if he wasn’t constantly sucking his lips, scratching his head, and showing up to work with hangovers.
                The next day a man came with a plunger and a coiled, metal snake. He bowed, slipped off his shoes and ran past me before I could point to the ceiling. He moved so quickly I really thought I had clogged the toilet. I tapped him on the shoulder and pointed at the ceiling, and then he sucked his lips and got on his cellphone. He pulled a chair over—he had the slouched shoulders and small build of a mole in glasses—and squinted at the ceiling. He got down from the chair, mumbled something into his phone, and then said to me, “Upstairs.” He bowed and ran up the stairs. He never came back.
                For a few days the pipes were quiet, and then they came back. The dripping became louder, and after talking to some of the other teachers I realized the patches of green were probably mold. I told my boss about this, and asked why no one had fixed it. Her reply was, “Tommy said if you don’t say anything not to worry about it.” She smiled. I thought again about moving, and told her to forget about it. You can’t read Mark Twain in a Frat house.
                As the months drew on I became curious about the changing bruise in my ceiling. I began spraying bleach mixed with water over the bulging hematomas of fungus growing through the ceiling paper. Everything was going fine, I had suffered a few colds but nothing serious, until I wondered what it felt like. I pressed my index finger into the dry oatmeal board and made a bullet hole through the wood and paper. Water began pissing out, and I ran to the store to get duct tape. The only duct tape they had was bright green. I bandaged the ceiling, and sprayed bleach over the duct tape.  Next, the paper began to pull back, and I fought this by spraying more bleach on the paper. I thought several times about telling Tommy, but I really don’t want to move into a noisy building filled with all of the people I work with. I like them, but they tell stories about the noise. The Korean church group apparently has an organ of some sort, and they liked to clap a lot.
                I spend most weekends staring at the wound in the ceiling. This weekend I finally decided to look up what diseases I might get from long term exposure to mold. The most common disorder is ODTS and it just resembles the flu—itchy eyes, runny nose, fever. I could also contract bronchitis, which I already had, but I think I got it from someone at work. The last illness I could contract is pneumonia. Nothing in my research—I looked at least three webpages—said there would be long term effects. Also, I became certain that if I continue spraying bleach on the ceiling, everything will be fine. Anyways, at this time, I have bigger problems, yellow dust—toxic dust from the Gobi Desert in China—is invading the city like tiny snipers hiding in Oxygen particles. I wanted to air out the smell of bleach from my apartment, but I didn’t want the yellow dust to get in. My solution: I’m wearing a surgical mask and running the air conditioner. I feel this is the best route; my only other option is to have maniacs yelling outside my door. That just sounds horrible.  

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Day Two

My back-rib pain, from getting slammed repeatedly and not asking if I was falling correctly during Judo last night, has receded to a whispering numbness. I’m still going to compete in the jiu-jitsu tournament on May 14th; I have no reason not to. My back twinges as I wait for the light to change, and I promise my back I’ll go light tonight.
                “I’ll only work on technique,” I assure my back and ribs.
                As I walk up the stairs I hear the patter of foot movements and the slap of gloves snapping out punches. I enter the gym, and see two men sparring in MMA. No one is rolling on the mat, and besides the two men circling each other in the cage, everyone else is inert on the mat and by the weight benches watching the show. I rush into the locker room—a close with five lockers and a shoe bin behind a dust covered fan—and pull on my shorts.
                “Nah-say-oh,” I say greeting the people on the mat. They reply in a unified zombie-moan as they watch our head MMA instructor snap a jab into his opponent’s jaw that makes the other man look like a grandfather that just ate a lemon. I call him Big-Guy-Purple-Shorts, because he is a big guy who always wears purple shorts—our head MMA instructor that is.
                I sit down and begin to stretch as Big-Guy-Purple-Shorts taps out his opponent. He stands up and begins speaking in Korean to the men sitting on the red square a few feet away. The cage is a large rectangle with black mats running around two squares of red and three heavy bags running along the windows of the far wall of the gym. Big-Guy grabs his opponent and tells the men on the floor what he did wrong. He then slaps the other man on the shoulder, smiles, and stands up. I twist to my left and my back becomes hot, screaming and shouting that it’s not fine. I grunt and turn the other way, and my ribcage bites together and asks if we can leave.
                “Briayawn,” Big-Guy says singing my name in his Korean accent. “Sparrring?” he asks putting one too many r’s in the word.
                I jump up and say yes before I think it through. I’m pulling on the gloves when I hear my name a second time, spoken in the raspy, Godfather voice of the Buddha-built mobster that gave me a hangover from a drinking game the week before.
                “Brian…” he says and then loses me in a labyrinth of Korean and fist pumping.
                “He says put on a show,” someone translates.
                I pull on the gloves and my hands twinge and my fingers dance excited to finally hit someone for the first time in a long time. I start hopping, and the threads and sinews of my muscles pull tight as if they’re going to snap. They keep pulling tight as I move in, and they pull tighter when Big-Guy rockets a jab into my cheek. I laugh and we start trading punches. My back soon goes quiet as the rest of my body bobs and weaves trying to land a big punch. He grabs me and we go to the floor. We’re twisting and coiling when Master Sung yells, “You can punch him in the face…Punch him in the face.”
                I climb on top of him like a schoolhouse bully and start dropping axe-blow right hands. He tries to get up and I punch him flat again. He laughs something to the mobster sitting outside the cage on a weight bench, and I punch him in the mouth again. He twists and moves using the years of experience that got him a purple belt in jiu-jitsu and helped him knock out more than a few people in the cage. But none of them were as strong as me. I don’t even mind that he’s locking up my left leg in his half-guard. I hook several fast shots into his ribcage. I’m not worried as he rolls onto his side; I uppercut a few lefts into his chin and drill a few rights into his spine. His foot on my hip means nothing as I jackhammer my right hand into his temple. Then somehow, whipping his legs like the twirling flags of Olympic flag twirlers, I’m locked in a deep triangle while he punches my face like a speed bag. All I can do is laugh as I turn over trying to pop my head out. His legs go tight as two anacondas and I have to tap. We both collapse on the mat and my ribcage curses me for being an idiot. But I couldn’t be a punk ass bitch; I can’t show weakness in front of the Koreans, they might think Americans are soft.
                I heave and place my hands on my hips as Big-Guy, in a show of respect takes both my hands and bows to me. I bow to him, and the Mobster laughs something at him while he points at me. Then Mobster gives me a big thumbs up. I drop my gloves, and wipe some blood from my lip. I look up and a smaller man with cannonball shoulders and MMA trunks slides on Big-Guy’s and starts hopping while he stares at me.
                “I think you have a challenger,” One of the other Americans says pointing her eyes at the other guy.
                “Okay, enough,” my ribs and back plead, “You didn’t even win the first time.” My back and ribs can be very rude when they’re feeling discomfort, and just mean when they’re in pain. I nod and wave a hand asking for a moment. The Challenger sits down in the Lotus position on the mat next to the sprawled out body of Big-Guy, laying with his forearm over his forehead and sucking in all the air he can.
                I slide on the gloves and touch hands with the Challenger. He starts changing levels and sliding his feet like a trained fighter. He throws a one two combo with a low kick and I realize he’s a trained fighter. He moves in and I snap out a jab to keep him away. He throws a low kick at my thigh and I jump back. I plant my front foot and whip a leg kick at him and my ribcage bites down on my muscles and spins me across the gym with my hand planted in my back as if I were ready to give birth.
                “My back,” I groan. The Koreans mumble things to each other, the big man sits up on his elbow, and the Mobster waves claps his hands asking for a show. I slink out of the cage and sit down on the weight bench while the Koreans look away me with accusative-slit eyes. They whisper things and smile, and I’m certain they’re all calling me a big sissy. I spend an hour apologizing and trying to stretch before I pull on my post-workout shirt and then hobble out onto the street to look for a cab. I tell Sung that my back is hurting and he smiles and says, “Feel better.”
                Now, I’m lying on my bed reclined like a Roman Emperor with my calves hanging over the edge. I’m worried if I lay down on my back I won’t be able to get up. I’ve left my door unlocked and I have my phone in my hand just in case when I wake up I can’t move. I just hope I can compete in the tournament in two weeks. If I can’t, I’ll tell them I was hit by a car during after fighting off five, no seven guys. I just can’t tell them I went to bed biting my pillow to stop myself from crying. I’m also certain that I am never doing Judo again. I know those repeated slams are the cause of this. I will never do Judo again, unless one of them challenges me to Judo sparring. I can’t look weak. They need to know Americans are strong, even if they’re hobbling around on canes at the age of 28.