The Karate class is divided by belt: black belts on the softer mats for grappling, everyone else being led in stretching and warm-up by Olivia. She’s a black belt of several degrees as well, but she’s our Sensei while Sifu is having the other, much larger, black belts do these throws. So we are aware of what they’re doing, but we’re not watching. There’s even a slight barricade between us, these long and chewed up logs that rest a little higher than my waist on iron stands. They’re for building up chopping strength in your wrists and forearms, I think, but we use them as obstacles to get height on our kicks. But right now we’re running in circles around the small area of flat, hard mats and the black belts are on the other side of the logs, on a runway of softer mats. As we run counter-clockwise the banners flap against the red walls, their Japanese lettering beautiful and unreadable to me. The black belts grunt and make loud slapping noises as they throw one another to the mats; our feet slip slightly on the black vinyl as we loop around and around.
Just as we’re lined up along the horizontal logs, facing the black belt grappling session, one of the biggest men in the room is in the middle of a drill and he either throws wrong or falls wrong. He collapses and the tension in the air rises before his groans of pain even rise into the air. This guy is tough – he’s huge at 200 lbs or so, covered in tattoos and does everything asked of him even when he’s ready to collapse – so seeing him writhing on the floor all of a sudden feels serious. I wonder, given how fast he collapsed, whether he’s snapped his Achilles tendon. Immediately the man he was working with is off the mats and standing at a distance, his hands on his hips, watching. Sifu, much calmer, immediately drops to his knees and wraps both hands around the big guy’s foot. He starts squeezing and turning the ankle, feeling for the damage. The man cries out as Sifu does this, but he allows it. He quiets himself as much as he can, involuntarily protesting with his groans when Sifu hits the hard spots. It seems he’s rolled his ankle badly and it’s already starting to swell.
We’re lined up at the logs like an audience to this scene, like a gasping, horrified audience in the old surgery rooms of medical theater. My own face is contorted in worry, I can feel it, although I’m confident in what Sifu’s abilities are in calmly and quickly tending to this guy’s injury. Sifu looks up as he manipulates the foot, telling the guy to push against his hand, then point his toes – keeping range of motion in the quickly stiffening joint. Sifu smiles at all of us, making eye contact as he tells us, almost with a laugh, to “get back to work.” We’re like a crowd around a traffic accident; we offer nothing by staring. So we start kicking, counting out our left side and right side as we go. There’s no sound, even though there should be. In a Karate class you should hear our breathing, you should hear the black belts throwing one another; you should see the flags on the walls flapping.
My legs are burning from the height of the kicks, but I keep counting. I’m listening to Sifu explain to the guy as he keeps massaging his ankle for him, that a doctor will only tell him to ice it and rest it. Sifu laughs and looks at Olivia, “doctor Sifu,” he smiles and I smile, too. This is exactly what Nook up at Lanna says of himself when he’s massaging out a lump in my shin or forearm. I even have a pair of shorts that have “doctor Nook” written out, phonetically, in Thai. I’m watching my deteriorating form in the murky reflection of the giant windows that look out over the night street, motorbike taxi drivers clapping their hands to invite passersby to hop on. Now the man is already standing and walking over to the corner of the room behind us. Sifu hands him a stick that’s used for Karate weapon work – it’s like a staff – but the guy just posts it in front of himself for balance and starts shifting his weight back and forth on both feet, keeping his range of motion as much as he can in the swollen foot. He’s just swaying, his face calm but focused – exactly as it would be if he were learning a new move… exactly as I’m trying to do as I shift my weight between my feet to do this very awkward back kick. I catch a glimpse of the log behind me as I kick over it, the sound of the black belts grappling hitting my ears almost as an afterthought. My movements are cumbersome and I lose my balance here and there, trying to get the angle of my foot right on the extension. Sifu divides the class again and the two highest level belts before black (brown and blue) are tasked with these repetitive movements over on wooden “sparring trees,” or whatever they’re really called. We all create this rhythm, this repetitive dance in the room as we fill the space with effort to make every move more similar; the effort of removing effort from the movement. Like the flapping of the banners against the red walls.