Eagerly accepting an offer to graduate school, I hopped on a one way ticket and touched down in Germany in October 2016. There I navigated through a sea of words like Siebentausendzweihundertvierundfünfzig (7,254) and got settled in. Naturally, I began my time in Deutschland like any student abroad, drinking my way through Oktoberfest, gorging myself with the local cuisine and Instagramming around central Europe. The world was my schnitzel, I felt like hot shit and in between my classes I sought to throw a physical activity into the mix.
With the song, “A Whole New World” from Aladdin still ringing in my ears I signed up for a Muay Thai class. At this point I thought I was tough. I wrestled in high school, drunk wrestled friends in college, learned some martial arts and I thought I was in decent shape. Following a few practices hitting the pads and refreshing on some basics, I felt ready to attend a sparring session. So, I picked a day and strutted into the gym expecting success.
I Did Not Find Success
The warm-ups and drills that day left me dripping in perspiration. Between gasps of air during the break before sparring, I slipped into my shin pads. Swiveling my gaze around the room for reassurance, I sized up the people around me. Some looked muscular and athletic while others appeared to be the German counterpart for the average Joe— a few even looked a decade younger than I was. This little visual survey proved to be useless because almost everyone in the room that day handed me a thorough ass-whooping.
My first opponent walked me down as I leaned and slipped, attempting to mask my exhaustion. Then, I snapped out a jab-cross. This bounced off his block like raindrops on a windshield. He returned-fire, spearing me with a body shot that left me wheezing. With the next sparring partner I resorted to kicks and that went swimmingly (sarcasm). I swung my right leg into his shin check (a block); it made contact with what felt like an iron street pole. I limped backwards, wincing and the ensuing matches that day didn’t get much better: I remembered distinct moments when it felt like my opponents were armed with more limbs than I was (Later on, I realized that most people in the room were taking it easy on me. They turned out to be some of the nicest people that I’ve met in Germany)
As I moped my way home that night, I rationalized: “What the fuck happened? I was out of shape, I was rusty as fuck, and everyone in there had more experience than me.” Even though all of this was true, I sat on the train bruised and humbled.
Why Am I Sharing This With You?
More than a year later, after training several times a week and taking on an amateur Muay Thai fight, I still go to sparring to get punched in the stomach. In times like these when we get instant hits of dopamine via likes on Instagram and Twitter, there’s nothing more delicious than an instant humble pie to the face. Good reality checks taste bitter at first but leave a rich aftertaste once you let them sink in.
Now when I spar I feel satisfaction when I do well—knowing that I have earned small victories here and there with the time that I have put in practicing footwork, head movement and technique. During these performances, I’ll feel great, like I’m the biggest badass in the gym until I get put on the floor by a kid 8 years younger than me.
It’s great to dive in headfirst and try something new. What isn’t great is the expectation that you will be given on-the-spot accolades and a feeling of accomplishment the second you try on a new endeavor. Looking back on this time, I know now that I was floating on a cloud of entitlement with my new life in Germany, looking for participation medals. It took a few punches to remind me that the impulsive, instantly gratifying nature of travel can and should be balanced by something earned through work and time.
This is not about stepping outside of your comfort zone, instead, it is about dropping your ego and taking a test. It’s fine to be put in a position of vulnerability; it’s humbling to take an “L”, recognize why it happened and grow from that point. Obviously I am not saying that we all need to get punched in the face– although some of us may need it from time to time. Humble pie can be served in a variety of forms, whether it’s a rejection at the bar, a verbal lashing for poor work performance or your friend telling you the truth about your water-color paintings.
I’m encouraging those who read this to find their own reality check: one that hits hard enough, one that gives you a sense of achievement when you’ve earned it and most importantly, one that happily sweeps you off your feet when you haven’t.
Outside Picture Credits(all pictures are sourced from royalty free sources):
Michael Du is originally from New Jersey but is now living in Germany to pursue his Master’s degree in Sustainable Resource Management. He is a fan of cooking/ eating, mma, denim button downs, movies, outdoor activities, singing in the shower and pulp in his OJ. Along with the help of a few friends, he created this website for your personal enjoyment.