“This is communist, and it’s illegal.”
That’s what they said to me at the Osan Air Force base in South Korea when I presented my Taiwanese ID. It was all uphill after that.
During my five years of practicing jiu-jitsu, I’ve had the immense pleasure of traveling to many different gyms. I’ve been to concrete boxes with puzzle mats on the floor and a water bucket for a shower. And I’ve been to Renzo’s gyms with mat spaces as beautiful as the Sistine Chapel. That being said, the Osan Air Force BJJ community is the most friendly and dedicated group of practitioners that I have ever come across.
The club consists of practitioners ranging from white belt to black belt. It has nogi guys and gi guys, judo and wrestling. Due to the frequent rotation of its members, though, they never have long-tenured teachers or a set curriculum in place. The thing that keeps these amazing people together is not a world-renowned coach or the reputation of its club, but simply a profound love for jiu-jitsu and the community it provides.
The Osan BJJ Club is the only free club on the base, because inclusivity is their highest priority. But with the lack of membership funding, they often train on tumbling mats laid over the wooden floor of a dance studio. This room is located in the base’s gym and is the only place where potential newcomers can see the club’s members train. The older members field questions, while service men and women from all walks of life filter in to train or participate in their first class.
The other times that we weren’t in the dance studio, class was tucked away far from any other building amongst a field of shipping containers. There, in a rather innocuous building, we used the security forces’ space. The mats were much nicer and bigger but housed in what amounted to be a giant, metal box. This didn’t matter to anyone. No one was paying fees. No one came here to get the most out of their membership before they cancelled. Everyone came because they loved jiu-jitsu and wanted to learn.
The club connected people from all over the base. Both enlisted personnel and officers trained together. It didn’t matter if you were in logistics or intelligence. Everyone trained hard together.
For many people this was their first time being stationed in a foriegn country. Most were separated from their friends and family back home. The club provided structure in an otherwise unfamiliar and often high-pressure environment. I saw this club bring a sense of familiarity to its members. As most BJJ players know, it’s hard not to feel close to someone after they’ve sweat all over you for hours.
But I also saw how the club connected its members with the local scene as well. BJJ is something that easily transcends language barriers. The BJJ club at Osan uses this as a means to connect with the world outside the base. In turn, they were met with open arms from the Korean BJJ and MMA network.
The club often visits other gyms across the country, traveling and registering for competitions. These interactions forge connections with the martial arts community and by extension the Korean people at large.
That I was lucky enough to be able to train with these talented men and women on their base is something that I will always treasure. I also sleep well at night knowing they’re ripping their opponent’s legs apart with what I showed them.
But I know what I took from them was far more precious. The passion and respect they showed me while training is something I will strive to bring with me wherever I train.