How Taekwondo Made Me by Dina Nayeri
June 4, 2019 9:38 AM   Subscribe

When she arrived in the US as a 10-year-old refugee, Dina Nayeri found it hard to fit in. But that all changed when she hatched a plan to get into Harvard – by becoming a taekwondo champion. A long read from The Guardian. [Note, talks about restrictive eating]

When I was 13, three years after arriving in the US with my mother and brother, I devised a plan to get into the Ivy League. I was a refugee kid with no money and I lived in Oklahoma, where university means Tulsa or Stillwater or, if you’re smart, somewhere in Texas. My mother, who had been a doctor in Iran, was now a single parent working in a factory. My father, who was a dental surgeon, had stayed in Iran and rarely sent money. Our sponsors, conservative Reaganite Christians who thought public assistance was a slippery slope to a lifetime of sloth, discouraged us from applying for temporary relief. It took all our energy just to continue living, working and studying. I didn’t have tutors or advisers. No one was bribing coaches or hiring consultants on my behalf. But I did have a vague notion that I needed more than good grades and test scores – I needed to transform into someone the books called “a high achiever”.

... Taekwondo is a Korean martial art focused on strong legs and cardiovascular fitness. Unlike karate – a calmer, more physically balanced combat style – in taekwondo, you do a lot of jumping around and kicking. It is a perfect sport for teenage girls, and yet there were almost none in this dojang, probably because all the glory came from bloodying and being bloodied – and you could really mess up your face.

It was a strange place: a Protestant fighting school called Kicking Christian Soldiers (KCS) run by Kerry, a white man with a Navy Seal body, and his scary Thai girlfriend, Cheri. She was KCS’s first selling point: those blond bitches had nothing on this lady. Her thighs were torpedoes.

And here was the second selling point: I learned that they handed out trophies by age, belt and weight, almost every weekend at local competitions that led up to statewide, then national contests. That meant I could starve myself into a lower category, beat up a bunch of scrawny green belts and write my ticket to Harvard – a totally logical way of becoming a doctor or professor or supreme court justice.

Dina Nayeri on the blue previously and previously.
posted by Bella Donna (7 comments total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
Really interesting story, lovely writing. I got hooked by the reference to Sit and Be Fit.
posted by solotoro at 10:41 AM on June 4 [1 favorite]

That was so engrossing and relatable I forgot I was reading, I just saw it all in my head.

Thanks for posting!
posted by sio42 at 10:52 AM on June 4 [2 favorites]

Thanks for posting this - I had been meaning to. It was unclear to me whether she actually followed her initial strategy of "beating up a bunch of scrawny green belts" to write her admission ticket - or if she ended up getting side-tracked by more ambitious targets. In either case I love both the ingenuity of her plan, the way things worked out for her - and her latter day re-acquaintance with the sport.

Sit and be Fit will probably not get you anywhere Ivy League - but I provide the link here in case there are other foreigners like me who think it was made up.
posted by rongorongo at 11:33 AM on June 4 [1 favorite]

Thanks to the mod or whomever alerted a mod to add the warning up top.
posted by Bella Donna at 1:00 PM on June 4 [1 favorite]

It always drives me up the wall how Americans pronounce tae kwon do.

They say it like "Thai Kwan Doh", and it's just. so. fucking. awful.

It's "Teh Kwun Doh".

The article is wonderful though.
posted by anem0ne at 2:14 PM on June 4 [1 favorite]

Another interesting thing about Iran/South Korea.

Seoul's Silicon Alley is Teheran-ro (Tehran Blvd), named for the capital in pre-Revolution times in a sort of exchange (there is Shahrak-e-Seoul, or Seoul St., in Tehran as well).

I really love this article.
posted by anem0ne at 3:00 PM on June 4 [2 favorites]

Wonderful story.

I know a kid who decided he wanted to go to [elite university A], and though he had great grades and a lot of accomplishments, he knew his chances were slim. He decided to become a competitive fencer.

Fencers who get recruited generally start in elementary school, and he was a high school junior. But he came to our fencing club, worked his tail off, did a great job, showed his incredible stick-to-it-iveness and general positive attitude, went to the summer fencing camp at [elite university A]and ended up getting in early-admission --

-- To [elite university B], for which the club's owner happened to be assistant coach, which the kid hadn't known when he joined the club.

It's the flip side of that horrid college-admissions cheating scandal. Sometimes there are kids who decide to work the system and succeed for all the right reasons.
posted by Peach at 5:35 PM on June 4 [4 favorites]

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