One bright Saturday morning during my third year of college I dragged my ass out of bed early for a belt test. It was a pretty important test, the transition from the tier of intro belts to intermediate ones, and my first weapons test. I was a bit nervous because the prior weekend I’d sent my shoulder into one of its particularly bitchy moods where instead of range of motion, I get spasms down the left side of my back. So instead of doing extra training for the test, I’d been doing everything I could to be able to use my left side which, when you’re testing with nunchaku, you kinda need.
I got through the test. I wasn’t as sharp or solid as I’d have liked to be, but I didn’t embarrass myself. My stances, at least, were good, I knew my forms, I didn’t hit myself in the head, and most importantly for me, I didn’t fumble any of the hand-offs and drop the nunchaku which tends to happen if my muscles are being crabby. I wasn’t stellar, but given the circumstances, I was pleased.
This particular group did a bit of an oral examination at the end of the test. Do you know the code of ethics, are you down with the philosophy, are you here for the right reasons, etc. I got grilled on having taken a year off. “Well, I had mono. Really bad mono. I wasn’t allowed to do contact sports, and couldn’t handle much more than classes and work, anyway.” When head chief tester man was assured that I’d gotten a bit fanatical about training, (to the point of somewhat regularly sending my back into cranky spasms), I got the stoic nod of approval that meant I wasn’t about to be the first person ever failed at a public test.
Then something weird happened.
The instructor I spent the most time working with, who I kinda liked the best, congratulated me. Not because I’d pulled through rough circumstances to make it to the test. Not because I’d bounced back from an enforced medical leave of absence. Hell, not even because I was showing up to train while pulling good grades double majoring at the University of Chicago and working almost full time. Any of that, I’d have been all over getting congratulations for. No, I got congratulated because my nunchaku were regular ash ones instead of plastic and foam.
“Er,” said I, because I was completely baffled. About two thirds of the class use ash nunchaku.
“Yeah, but most women are too afraid of the full weight and just use foam.”
“I’m not being macho,” I said, because I really didn’t get why I was being congratulated. “I’m not all that naturally coordinated. That’s just what it took to have any sense of where the end I’m not holding is.” Which was absolutely true. Hand me a pair of foam nunchaku and they’re going to go flying, but not until I’ve thwacked myself in the head several times. They’re light enough to be functionally invisible to my proprioception.
I stayed confused about why I was being congratulated. It felt an awful lot like compliments I’ve given which basically go, “Good job. You’ve overcome your crippling idiocy to achieve mediocrity.” Except he was being sincere. He really was impressed that I’d shown up to my test with ash nunchaku and felt I deserved to be informed of that. At some point I made the logical connection that his comment about “most women” was paired with the part where I was female, and I was getting patted on the back for not being like them. It felt like my back-handed compliment because it was, except instead of overcoming endemic idiocy, I’d beaten my en-uterused status. Given that flexibility is as important as strength for martial arts, speed isn’t particularly gendered, and women have a higher pain tolerance, I’m not sure why being female was seen as a limitation. Certainly not why that seemed like a more salient limitation that the bit where my ligaments don’t work. But it was, so I took my well-intentioned but highly patronizing pat on the head and went on.
I just spent two hours thinking about that incident, because it was happening again, except in a context where it makes even less sense. “That a young woman like you blah blah blah.” “For a tech savvy business woman to blah blah blah.” “And a woman who isn’t just dabbling blah blah blah.” Over. And Over. Again. Good job! You’re an idiot, but you’re breaking into mediocrity. Now go feel good about yourself. This time it was special, though, because it wasn’t macho martial artists, but women old enough to be my mother or grandmother, and a sleezebag guy who’s perpetually perplexed that his attempts to be fatherly don’t go over well.
Once again, I’m fuddled, wanting to explain that I’m not trying to overcome anything, I’m just doing what seems optimal. I haven’t nobly thrown myself into anything; I’ve coldly calculated a way to get what I want with a minimum of effort. I’m not valiantly volunteering; I’m making sure you morons don’t screw this thing up. Can we all please just stop complimenting me for things I don’t value?
Clearly, I should have brought the ash nunchaku today, too.