A guest post by Sarah Tynen.
“I used to be like you. I didn’t wear make-up. I was a tomboy. I told people that I trained boxing and jiujitsu. I was tough. Then I stopped training. I started wearing make-up. Everyone tells me how pretty I am now.”
It was 2015 and I was in Far West China. I was sitting across from Guzelnur catching up over dinner.
“Don’t tell people, especially boys, that you practice jiujitsu,” Guzelnur advised me. “They will be scared of you and they won’t see you as a potential girlfriend. You should wear make-up and paint your nails. Be pretty and delicate.”
My heart dropped into my stomach and I had the urge to vomit. But outwardly I just nodded my head. I often had conversations like these with female training partners about why they quit training. If they continued training, they kept their jiujitsu a secret from family and friends. For them, secrecy of this kind was normal.
I was living in a city along the ancient Silk Road. The region is home to the Uyghur people in China. Xinjiang is a hybrid of two nations at the same time, Chinese and Uyghur. Think Tibet, but Muslim.
How did I find myself half-way across the world training jiujitsu?
In 2014, I was a blue belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ) and training at Easton in Boulder. I had lived in China before, but I wanted to learn more about Xinjiang, a far-away place with violent ethnic tensions in China’s Muslim borderlands. In April of that year, I learned I had won a grant to live in Xinjiang and study development there for two years. In June, I uprooted my life in Boulder and re-planted again with new roots in Xinjiang.
The support networkthat jiujitsu provides made such a challenging move to a new life sustainable.
The jiujitsu community in every place I have visited and trained in—including Russia, Thailand, Spain, and Guam—has welcomed me with warmth and acceptance, regardless of my rank. Xinjiang, rife with economic, political, and cultural strife, was no different.
My Jiujitsu Adventure in Xinjiang, China
“Do you by any chance know of any jiujitsu gyms in the area?” I messaged an American woman I knew on my first day in Xinjiang.
“Let me send you Jay’s contact information,” she replied. “He does some martial arts. He’s from England and teaches English here.”
I contacted Jay immediately.
“I’m a blue belt in BJJ and looking for somewhere to train,” I inquired hopefully.
“Yes! Let’s train tomorrow,” he suggested.
I was thrilled.
The next day, I met up with Jay on the public bus and we headed to his martial arts studio, where he trained Chinese boxing, called “sanda.” Sanda is similar to Muay Thai but with take-downs and no elbows. They also trained some grappling, he explained.
After taking a crowded elevator up to the seventh floor of an OB/GYN hospital, we made our way into a room covered in blue and pink puzzle mats.
Every surface was covered with a gray tinge from soot. We were in one of the most polluted cities in China. Many people there still used coal to heat homes and cook food.
One wall was lined with mirrors and a punching bag hung from the ceiling in one corner. Careful not to be late, I quickly ran into the women’s changing room, which was a small closet in the back of the room.
When I entered the small enclosure, a shy but wide grin stared back at me. The girl sitting on the floor in a white gi with dark hair down to her waist stared at me, but didn’t say anything.
“I can speak Chinese,” I said in Chinese, smiling. Her demeanor immediately relaxed.
“I’m Guzelnur,” the girl said in Chinese, embracing me in a hug and kisses on each cheek, a common greeting for Uyghur people. After changing into my gi, I entered the mat room to find the whole class already lined up.
“Please, coach, can you teach class today?” the head sanda instructor implored in Chinese, his hand outstretched for a handshake. Taken aback, I reluctantly agreed. I was only a blue belt after all, and hadn’t had time to prepare a lesson.
I taught the fan sweep that day. From then on, I was referred to as “coach” (jiaolian) or “teacher” (laoshi) at the gym, despite my insistence that they call me by my name (Tian Ran in Chinese).
They rearranged the kickboxing schedule, changing two lessons a week to grappling instead of striking. I traded my jiujitsu lessons for a free membership and trained sanda with them twice a week. Later, we went up to four nights a week of grappling. We loved the challenge of learning a new martial art. The students were a mix of both Chinese and Uyghur.
Jiujitsu Abroad: A Universal Language?
The question people always ask me is: How was jiujitsu different in China? The answer is: It really wasn’t that different. Jiujitsu is a universal language. It is a language of chess, of give and take, of submission and of defense. It is a language of vulnerability and trust. It is a language of community and support. It is a gentle art that embraces flow. Like any other gym, we had to teach the white belts how to calm the spaz and embrace the gentle art of flow. (In Chinese, “jiujitsu” translates directly from the Japanese to mean “gentle art” and I had to remind the white belts of this frequently.) We are not so different as human beings when it comes down to it. Racial differences aside, we are all one.
At the same time, the culture around us felt really different in a lot of striking ways, mostly when it came to gender and ethnicity.
After that first class, I stayed after to drill with Guzelnur. After an hour of fan sweeps, we exchanged the usual small talk and introductions. When she said her age, I couldn’t help but ask her, “Are your parents pressuring you to get married?” She nodded and we chuckled knowingly together. Uyghur girls start being pressured to get married around 25 years old.
“Yes, but I want to go abroad first. I just keep telling my parents that I need to finish my studies before I get married,” she said. This was a common dream among young women.
We took selfies with kissy faces in the studio mirrors for her social media, frequently collapsing into fits of giggles over our own ridiculousness. At the time, I did not speak Uyghur yet, but we conversed well in our mutually accented Chinese.
“Let’s get dinner together, please, Sarah, please!” she begged.
I soon found myself in a Uyghur restaurant eating polu, a rice pilaf dish with lamb and carrots, topped with fresh, homemade yogurt. She refused to let me pay for anything.
“Come over and hang out at my house,” she insisted. I agreed, curious to learn more about my new friend.
Her “house” was a room in a shared dorm. I had assumed we would shower there, since we hadn’t done so yet. But her place didn’t have a shower, nor a washing machine. Turns out that hygiene standards are different when you live in the middle of the desert in an impoverished region with few water resources.
“We should live together in the fall!” Guzelnur squealed in excitement at one point, jumping up and down while holding both of my hands.
“Really?” I breathed. I could hardly believe my luck. Full immersion with a Uyghur roommate was exactly what I needed to learn a new language.
“Of course!” she said, pinching my cheeks and giving me a big hug.
I nodded as butterflies filled my stomach. I was half scared, half excited.
“This is the happiest day of my life!” she exclaimed.
A couple weeks later, I moved in to Guzelnur’s apartment across the street from the local college where I took Uyghur classes. And that is how I spent several months training sanda and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu while living without a shower or a washing machine. We took sponge baths and hand washed our clothes.
A Whole New World
Her entire family—parents, siblings, nieces and nephews—would often stay with us in our one-room dorm.
It took about three months of full language immersion before I could start having full conversations in Uyghur, and after that, we conversed exclusively in Uyghur.
During those first three months of getting my bearings of living in a Muslim culture and learning a new language, it felt in a visceral way that I had moved to another country, or another world.
A world where arranged marriages were commonplace. A world where the word for “strong” was only used to describe men. I covered my legs with black tights underneath long, loose skirts. I even grew my hair out to my shoulders for a time. I wore earrings and covered my chest with colorful scarves.
Now, when I think about the times I brought non-Halal food into the house, or blew my nose at the breakfast table, or walked around with a skirt and my legs uncovered, my face burns red with shame and I cringe as though someone just kicked me in the stomach. It did not matter that I was a foreigner. Uyghurs were horrified when I broke cultural norms, especially when it came to my gender and my expression of that gender.
One night, Guzelnur braided my hair and did my makeup.
She told me I look beautiful with makeup and I should wear it more often. We danced to Uyghur songs together. Guzelnur hollered and squealed in excitement to the music, and shook her hips with skill and confidence. After we collapsed on the couch, breathless from dancing too much, she cooked dinner for us.
Guzelnur ended up moving away to another city in Xinjiang in 2016 and I haven’t seen her since. Due to the political situation in China, I have no way of contacting her anymore.
The Same, Yet Different
The universal language of jiujitsu teaches us that we are, at the end of the day, all the same. And as much as we are “all the same,” cultural differences around gender and ethnicity do exist. Such differences are important to understand, especially as we keep working towards equality and human rights at home and abroad. In doing so, what is most important is keeping alive the love that will prevent violence and harm.
Little by little, through every interaction we have, we can make a difference. The more we connect with our communities, and the less we drown ourselves in our phones and screens, the more we can help make people feel loved and included and cared for. Jiujitsu is one conduit for achieving these essential connections. Then the less discrimination will happen. We can change the world, one piece at a time, one day at a time, one person at a time, one smile at a time.
Your presence makes a difference. You can invoke change in the world through ripples. You touch lives every day and it’s the little things that matter. Whether it’s a smile or a nod at the gym, or a hard roll at the end of a long day, we can and will make a difference by recognizing we are all one in the universe.
I’m thankful for my Easton jiujitsu family this holiday season for teaching me the most important lesson of my life: community through sustained daily struggle and support can transcend all other divides. #TisTheSeasonWithEaston.
Sarah is a purple belt at Easton Boulder.