I Am Not Jackie Chan
Femininity, Tae Kwon Do, and kicking ass

I'd never been kicked in the face before. I thought she was five feet away, but somehow her foot materialized just below my chin ... a microsecond before it sailed into my face. Hard. The spectators cheered, and I could see the judge award her a point while I gasped in shock. If it wouldn't have got me disqualified, I would have made one of those Three Stooges pig squeals.

See also...
... by Christine Kenneally
... in the Scope section
... from September 21, 1999

It had been a year since I joined the local Tae Kwon Do school. Young men teach the classes. When they're not aping drill sergeants, they're showcasing their bodies. The second they realize you're watching, they're in the air, spinning and kicking like Nureyev, screeching like Bruce Lee with the flu. Their shamelessness brings out the little macho man in us all. We practice our kicks -- roundhouse, front snap, side and spin-side; we punch at invisible targets and learn the forms until personal boundaries, social niceties, and the stiffness of carriage that solidifies throughout the adult years melt away.

Eventually, it led to the tournament. A thousand people had shown up wearing crisp white Doboks. Pot-bellied Great Santinis bayed at the ringside for the sake of their sons' manhood and their own. Nearby, soccer moms clapped respectfully. At least five lone men in camouflage wandered through the crowd; wearing hunting knives and scraggly beards, they spoke to no one, only watched. Why? I don't know. I was watching the army of helpers running around with Clorox bottles, wiping up the blood.

There were tiny children there too, some as young as five, chasing each other around the ring. The faster kids traded kicks in synchrony like little wooden dipping birds on a paddle. Their grown-up counterparts displayed a bewildering range of styles: One young woman stuck her butt out far and thrust her chest forward, arms crooked back, doing a chicken dance. Each time she stepped towards her opponent, she released a velociraptor scream that had everyone in the stands weeping with laughter. It seemed to work. Her opponent -- who didn't get in one kick the entire match -- wasn't amused.

And then it was my turn.

There were five of us in the "31 and up" group. Win or lose, I was going to have to spar three times, and my first opponent taught me a hard lesson: I am not Jackie Chan. From the start she wouldn't get the fuck out of my face -- I couldn't get a kick in, and kneeing is not allowed. So I punched her, knocking her backwards, to get some leg room. I punched, then she punched, and soon we were boxing instead of sparring. "Kick her!" yelled some asshole from the sidelines. But I was! At least, I was trying to, but she was kicking my butt too, till the blood in my body drained away and I felt empty and hollow. Two minutes! It felt like forever, but by the end of it, I had won. I spent the next 10 minutes trying not to vomit.

As the next round began I felt so sick I could barely move. Imagine my surprise, then, when the umpire cried "sheejak!" and my opponent flew backwards across the mat. I'd kicked, she was airborne, and then she hit the floor. I couldn't work it out. Rushing to see if she was okay, I was appalled when the umpire restrained me; he thought I was going to kick her while she was down! But I'd done it again - she hit the mat, and I won. Somewhere between the nausea and the kicking, I'd found my second wind.

Opponent number three was closer to my size, but I'd found the confidence to enjoy the challenge. When the umpire threw down his hand, she let out a kiyup of power and rage. "Yeah, yeah," I thought, "show me the money." She did.

We traded front snap for roundhouse, roundhouse for side -- good, point scoring, devastating kicks -- and then it came clear what I'd been doing since the first match. When my opponents came at me full tilt, I threw my leg up at the right moment, bouncing them right off the end of it. It's not how you are supposed to spar. But it worked, and I did it. So, when she came running at me for the millionth time, I raised my leg again to block her ... and my foot landed right between her legs. It was a gruesome moment of truth. I realized then that I was a hideous and aggressive person and a complete failure as a female. God, what had I done?

But I didn't have a chance to think about it. The umpire started us again, and it was kicks all round. She caught her breath, and nailed me really hard in the face. Not the headgear -- the face. Once the stars faded, I got an immediate, powerful rush of motivation. This wasn't Karate Kid Zen, it was revenge: simple, childish, and primal. "Kiyup this, sister!" I kicked her backwards across the mat, and it was all over.

It's intense and strange to kick people instead of bags, but now I know I'm capable of defending myself, and not in some pansy, Tae-Bo-lycra kind of way. But invoking the flight or fight response so literally is exhausting ­- something, I think, to be saved for special occasions, like Christmas with the family and Woodstock '99.

Christine Kenneally is an Australian in Iowa.