I remember most of my childhood bedridden, in a pearl white castle. I remember my grandmother guiding me to the shower, where she would bathe me as my frail body plopped down on a wooden chair. I remember the jokes my grandfather would make; anything he said, he said to lighten up my heart. Growing up in that beautiful house, dressing in the finest silk, my health did not resemble beauty.
I am sure you are curious about how ill I was, so I shall give you a list to ease your curiosity: Asthma, Immunodeficiency, and Iron Deficiency Anemia. As you can see, I won the lottery for the worst combination of health disorders. Awesome! How beautiful it is to struggle to breathe 24/7. Another fact that is even more beautiful is that my iron was so low, it halted the development of my immune system, hence, my vulnerability to infection. Iron deficiency means less oxygen is being delivered to the hands and feet. My body always felt the cold more easily and so, my grandmother would cover me up like a mummy. It was so much fun having to be stuck on a bed because I was too weak to move my limbs. There were times where my throat would feel so itchy that it feels like a tickle. It started with a tickle that became a cough. My muscles would begin to ache, I grew irritable, and who would not lose their appetite over that?
But enough about my past sickness. I want to show you all more of my house! There was no gate at the time- the front yard was blossoming in gleaming colors, with soft brown dirt fighting to creep through the spaces between square marble tiles. My grandmother loved admiring flowers. Hence, my grandfather took it upon himself to make her happy. Each afternoon, she watched him tend to the plants, and he would happily work with her loving presence. Bougainvillea, kumquat, peach blossoms, poinsettias, yellow apricot, yellow chrysanthemum--to me, these flowers were a reminder that life can be beautiful. What I loved most about my day was the part when my grandparents led me up the steps to our third floor. Every inch of the house was illuminated in white, making it seem like I was walking on the staircase to heaven. The touch of the spiral handrail on my fingertips had a smooth texture due to regular burnish, its rubberwood covered in a raw umber color and the porcelain marble treads soothed my skin. When we would reach the top, I recall counting three hundred sixty steps to the left, and there it was! A steel door leading us to the other side. The sound of the latch unlocking would fling echos through the void hall… it was like music to my ears. As the door slowly crept open, my lungs loosened and allowed me to be embraced in the sunlight. The warmth would sink into my skin, finding its way to fill the empty space inside my chest. Ten more steps, and I would be at the iron railings, and I could oversee almost everything from up there. The birds would be much closer to my viewpoint, yet so far away; watching them fly so freely, it felt like they were teasing me with their flapping wings, moving with such ease and strength. I remember being envious of those little creatures, for they could go anywhere, at anytime they want. I remember always wishing that someday, I, too, could spread my wings.
At dinnertime, I would attempt to feed myself. But the problem was gripping the spoon; my fingers would tremble so uncontrollably that I thought they were going to turn into jello. Many failed attempts ended up with the spoon slipping and the food splattering. For the state of my health, the doctors said, my meals were to be followed by my best friends: Blue Headache, Red Nausea, White Digestive, Yellow Immune System. They were bitter and unbearably salty, making them hard to chew. My stomach could not digest as easily as others, so my reflex was to hurl after every swallow. Every day, I would have to practice breathing exercises each time I awoke and before I went to bed. My oxygen mask–what you may know as Continuous Positive Airway Pressure, or CDAP–would leave an imprint on my cheeks, which I could see in vivid, red marks. It was a habit before bed to scrutinize my blue countenance, to see if the mirror could somehow transform the way I looked. The clothes my grandmother dressed me in covered my body from the neck down, in protruding layers. Sometimes, there would be too many layers and I had to pivot and twist to take steps. When I wanted to sleep, my grandparents would have to use all of their strengths to lift me up and set me down like a feather on my bed. They would let me get on the bed myself, but whenever I tried, I would fall and crash to the cold, hard floor. Now that I think about it, it almost sounds like I was born a penguin. But penguins are cute, and I was, well, not cute. Just a bit too sick.
There were times where I was in bed, staring at the empty ceiling, and I would not know why there were tears in my eyes. Now I realize that my weakness was too much to bear. I knew it wasn't normal to be the way I was; I knew normal people wouldn't have to do any of the things I did. I knew all this, and it confined me in an immeasurable sorrow.
During my years at Washington Middle School, I was constantly picked on. Before the bell rang, during lunch and recess, after-school. I was seen as an alien to the other kids in school. I didn't talk much, kept to myself, was fatter than the average kid, always had to know the right answer so others could copy my work. I recall an incident in which I was pushed down a flight of stairs, causing a vicious ringing in my ears that lasted for about two weeks, followed by pixelated vision, with high irritation to brightness. I scored my first concussion. Sa-sweet! To top it off, I had a broken nose. Yes, I landed on my face. For a month straight, the same kids would laugh at me whenever I walked by. I had stitches and bandages on my nose, bruises on my face, and a plastic shield covering it. There was a song they created just for me, it went like this: "Yoonah went to the store and got some milk, but Yoonah forgot she drank all the milk, now she's crying because she spilled her milk." Those kids had a daily routine of waiting for me to finish my meal, then decorated my head and plate with milk. Remember the school milk carton that we all know and love? Yeah, I hated it. Not only did they beat me, teased me, but they also made me hate the thing I loved most–milk! But don't pity me much, I drink milk now, like a boss.
After enduring years of harassment, I saw an advertisement for a martial arts club–Kempo Karate System. It was the year 2013 and I was attending seventh grade, which was also the last year of me getting bullied. I told myself I'd had enough.
During our typical movie night, my parents would bicker over which channel to stop on. The television flickered as my mother's thumb kept pressing on a round button. Usually, I would sit back and relax, let them pick their poison. But, that night, something caught my eye. I yelled, "Mom! Stop!" In a quick motion, I snatched the remote out of her hand and pressed the button next to the one she was picking on. Its color faded into an almost dirty gray from being under our thumbs all the time.
There it was. A slogan being read in a deep, sturdy voice: "At the Advanced Kempo Karate system, you will learn to take defense and be your own defender". The instructor's name was Brian, it was positioned in the lower right-hand corner of the screen. Underneath his name included his email address and... phone number!
"You have to call him. You need to." I turned to my parents and pleaded with the best puppy eyes I could muster. In excitement, my eyes went wide and my body bounced up and down on the couch, demanding a quick response. My parents looked at each other. Their usual solemn expressions turned glib. Moments passed, and the frivolous snickering stopped when they have noticed that I was not joking. For once in my life, I was serious. I wanted to fight back.
"Are you sure? What about your health, babe? You can't even handle running." My mother used an overly concerned voice to sound her worries. I could see the wrinkles forming on her forehead. Her head turned to my stepfather, almost as if she was saying, help me talk her out of this. But he surprised me.
"If you really want to, I can give him a call and schedule your first training session." My stepfather. Greg, who was in his early 50s at the time, never spoke much. But those words were the kindest he has ever said to me. In disbelief, my mother slapped him on his rigid bicep, demanding him to take back his words. But Greg did not give in. Instead, he said, "The best thing we can do for her is to let her try, dear."
And so, I took my shot.
In the first year of training, I lost the extra weight and gained the confidence which I thought was impossible for me to attain. Each day of training improved my health. I no longer needed to depend on medications, and over time, I forgot to think of them. After school, I would hop over the graffitied Zippy's wall, buy myself musubis and jog to my instructor's gym. It was located at 1132 Koko Head Ave, right across the street from Queen Lydia Liliuokalani Elementary School. On a timed average, I could get there in 30 minutes at a steady pace. My instructor suggested I do this for cardio training and fat reduction. It was also a good warm-up. Instructor Brian would train me for two hours every day.
First, stretching is needed to loosen up the muscles. Then, I would shadowbox while wearing a five-pound weighted vest. After shadowboxing was the actual boxing. Yes, the 1, 2, 3, 4, duck boxing. I would mess around and throw in some jabs with random combinations. Finally, karate time–my favorite time! We trained karate during the second hour, meaning Instructor Brian and I would spar. Desperate at times, I used to pull dirty tricks, hoping to catch him off guard, but I could never be faster than the master. Grappling, kicking, punching, throwing- none of that could sweep this man off his feet!
As his youngest star pupil at the time, my instructor did not give me any slack nor did he allow me to doubt myself. When I could not perform a move like how he demonstrated, my first instinct was to feed into my negative self-talk. I would say, "No, I can't do it." Brian would not hesitate to halt our session until I reminded myself, "Yes, I can do it."
I watched Instructor Brian grow into an even stronger fighter. This man won so many medals that his walls ran out of space. Being in the front row of witnessing his success and happiness, I pondered on a question: How did he become so strong and happy? I did the exercises. I trained. I never gave up. Just like he taught me. But why did I feel like there was something missing?
After struggling with being overweight and other health conditions, I applied for cross-country. I never had a chance to exhibit my physical abilities, because I was never able to stand on my own two feet. This led me to think to myself, why not try? Maybe I can find that piece I've been missing.
It was my first competition day. I cannot forget how ecstatic I was. My veins were pumped with overwhelming adrenaline; I thought I would burst. Sweat dripping my neck, I gulped a mouthful of saliva. Goosebumps and chills ran down my body. I could feel my anxiety coursing through my bloodstream, causing me to bounce off the dirt. I looked around me, noticing the atmosphere shifting as everyone aligned themselves behind a white, horizontal line. The breeze fell over me like the leaves on the orange dirt. As the chatter faded, all sights were set ahead, bodies in a crouching position. A high pitch whistle pierced through the air. Then, WHOOSH!
The goal was to race down the track and back, with orange cones as our boundary markers. I had to eat up 2 miles. At the beginning of the race, I was behind, slowly passing player after another player. It was discouraging seeing everyone having a head-start with a burst of energy, but those who were ahead were soon behind me as I neared the finishing of the first mile. My parents, possessed with bewildered expressions, jumped on their feet, shocked at the fact that I was the third child to appear after 8 minutes and 20 seconds. The time was imprinted on my brain, for the whistleblower announced it in screams. It was not over yet.
I fell, I stumbled, I tripped, but never once did the thought of doubt crossed my mind. I clenched on the fabric of my uniform, hoping to minimize the pain of the cramped muscle in my stomach. Passing the last set of orange cones, the red finishing banner called out to me. Come here. There was no more time to waste. I was the third. l used my adrenaline as my fuel, thanking it for reviving my speed. My sides were screaming, but I did not listen. My lips tightened in an attempt to suppress the pain. My eyes locked on the finishing line. Almost there.
Come on, Yoonah. As I passed by the second runner, each stride I took widened and I left the dirt behind along with her. I almost looked back in disbelief–did I just beat her? I could feel another runner catching up behind me. As she was about to pass me, I could hear her uneven breathing and there it was: my chance. She tripped. My speed did not break, it accelerated. I could just taste the finishing line for it was so close. Eyes set straight ahead, I overheard someone yelling out my name in the crowd.
"YOONAH! FINISH THIS!" My mother is not the type of woman to be into sports. But that day, she was really taken into it. The urgency in her voice seemed to push me forward and I plummeted into the rocky ground as I crossed the finish line. "Chaeyoon Cho, second place, with a time of 17 minutes and 48 seconds." The whistleblower–I mean, the referee--declared my time with astonishment. I locked eyes with him as the strength left my knees. It was like my body finally registered the low fuel alert. I experienced what is called the runner's high. It was a brief moment, however, deeply euphoric. After an intense, lengthy race, my brain cells were jumbled. Under my breath, I murmured, "Second…… place?"
"Holy fuck, I placed." My knees rocketed off the ground and my right hand came up to snatch the medallion ribbon out of the referee's hand. This is mine.
"Thanks for holding onto my medal," I said with a grin so big anyone would think my face could crack any second. I felt a hand on my shoulder and looked over to find my parents standing behind me. There were not many words exchanged, but the shimmer in their eyes and our long, family hug proved enough. They were proud of me, and so was I.
With a tear trickling down his wrinkled cheek, my stepfather whispered in my ear, "We knew you could do it." We pulled away from what seemed like an eternity of an embrace, and when I lifted my head up to face my parents, the sun beamed at me. My mother's hair glowed under the brightness of the sun, and she patted my head.
"We believed in you. You just needed to try, too."
This was not only my first competition, it was my first time knowing what it felt like to be a winner, which sent my self-esteem soaring. You should try winning–it is the best feeling in the world.