So there is this Argentine girl that trains at my Jiu-Jitsu spot. She kind of has a stumpy body type and big frizzy hair. Not ugly, not exactly pretty either, but I can see why guys like her. At first I think she’s American or British or Australian because I hear her speak English quite fluently, and actually speaks Portuguese with a slight gringo accent, so you can imagine my surprise when she said she was from Argentina. Buenos Aires.
We swap background info. I tell her I’m from the U.S., but she wants to know where my parents are from.
“Taiwan,” I tell her.
“Oh really?” she says. “I have a friend that’s going there in a few months. I’m thinking about living there for a bit.”
She tells me about her plans to teach English. I tell her that they pay for that service pretty well in East Asia. She asks me how the city is. I stare up at the ceiling and think about it for a moment.
“Well, it’s kind of like a big city. Lots of tall buildings, lots of traffic, lots of pollution,” I start.
“Yeah, not like here, huh?” she replies.
I think about the comparison for a moment. I mean I guess if I’m strictly thinking about the architectural landscape, then sure it’s not quite the same. But at the same time, Rio being such a universe in itself, it could be.
“But you know, I don’t really care about the beach anyway,” she adds.
I tell her that there’s a bullet train that can take you to the south of Taiwan in about 2hrs and it’s full of beaches in the south. Her eyes light up with a feigned excitement and she expresses a verbal glee that I find forced. My suspicion heightens due to the fact she just finished talking about how she doesn’t care about beaches. A couple of guys in the middle of a roll tumble into our space and we go sit against the another wall to continue our conversation.
“I’d really like to go to London though, but I don’t know…” she says.
“It’s expensive,” I chime in, just about the only thing I know about the city.
“Yeah and it’s hard to get in there,” she says. “And the US, forget about it.”
“We got a pretty strict visa policy,” I say as a guess to her rationale.
“Yeah and you know whose fault that is?” she adds, “Mexicans. God, I’m Argentinian, and we’re nothing like those Mexicans.”
Alright. I can feel where this is going. The way she said “Mexicans” and the slight twist in her lower lip gives me a clue. I give her a chance hoping she didn’t mean it that way, so instead I try to blame it on good ol’ American ignorance. After all, I’m American so I can blame my country, right?
“Yeah, people in my country think everything south of Texas is Mexico,” I say. “And they think everyone in Mexico is the same. They don’t even know that they are so many different races in that country.” I suddenly realize that I took a huge risk mentioning “race.”
“It’s like that in Argentina too,” she starts. “We have all types of people. We even have negroes.”
Ok. I try to give her a pass. After all, the word for “black” in Spanish is “negro”.
“I don’t mean like black people. Like he’s a black person,” she continues, pointing at one of the Jiu-Jitsu black belts. “I mean like ‘negroes’. You know, like the ones that live in poor places and are just like…ugh.”
Good god don’t put me in this conversation. Not now. Please no.
I pause for a moment, not really knowing what to say, so I fill the space with the only thing I know about the topic.
“Oh well when I was there, I didn’t see any black people,” I say. I don’t know why I chose that as a reply. I guess I was at a loss for words so I filled them with the most idiotic thing I could think of. I mean it was true, I didn’t see any black folk when I stayed in BA for three weeks, but I also know that there are Afro-Argentinians and their lack of visibility is actually a huge social issue in the country. I guess I just wanted this conversation to end.
“Yeah we try to hide them,” she laughs. I kinda pause with this “Really?” sort of look.
“Just joking, just joking,” she jests, patting my arm.
I just stare at her, not like menacingly, but more like curious as to why she thought this would be an appropriate conversation to have on a Monday afternoon. I guess to her my curiosity translated into not understanding the point she was trying to make, so she kept going.
“I’m sure you have that in the US. You know, what is it? Ghetto? Like you have black people who act like negroes. They talk different, they don’t like to work, they’re violent.” She’s slightly nodding her head, nudging me to agree. I’m sitting there torn between my racial politics and my love for fighters in fighting sports, wondering how the fuck I got into this conversation in the first place.
“Well I mean we do have poorer areas,” I finally say. “And I guess you could say that there’s a subculture and the people have a certain dialect…”
Before I can finish she says “Yeah!” and claps her hands. Ugh. I can’t believe she just subbed me into that conclusion, but at least it’s over. I move onto something else I'm interested in, since she is kind of an anomaly in this sport.
“What is it like for you as a woman training Jiu-Jitsu?” I ask her. She shifts her head back and forth, thinking of her response.
“It’s good,” she starts, “I mean there’s not a lot of women here. I get tired of sparring with men.”
“Do you feel that the men treat you differently because you’re a woman? Like do they treat you lesser or anything?” I ask.
“Oh no, not at all,” she says. “Everyone here treats me with respect, like an equal.”
I sit back and wonder how much of that is true. I mean for the most part I’ve found fighting sports to be an equalizer for social signifiers, but there’s still been plenty of “Japa” comments thrown around at me, jokes in the locker room about me being an undercover Yakuza because of my tattoos. It’s all in jest, but it’s not like race completely disappears on the mat. Maybe in the heat of a sparring session it does, but not when we return to the normality of everyday life.
I think about how that would affect a woman. You have to first understand that many Jiu-Jitsu positions can be misunderstood for sexual, at least I know I’ve had my face buried in between a guy’s legs more than once. It’s not sexual by any means, but there is a hell of a lot of close bodily contact in this sport. I wonder what that looks like for a woman, in a place that often draws men with too much testosterone. I wonder if there is this culture of silence in fighting sports since women are a clear minority. I wonder how women guard against that, if there is even a way.
Earlier the Argentine was my partner in practicing a cross-collar choke from guard. The move involved taking out the bottom ends of the opponent’s kimono from out beneath their belt to ease the passing of the collar to the other hand. You’re definitely altering their uniform, but you’re by no means undressing them. Most practitioners have a shirt or rash guard underneath anyway, so the action is much like undoing a bath robe of someone already fully dressed.
When it came turn for me do the move, she said, “Ok now you have to strip me.” I dismissed the comment and focused the task at hand. You have to understand in Jiu-Jitsu, you really only think about Jiu-Jitsu, so you tend to let awkward comments pass. She might have noticed so brought the comment more attention.
“I’m just joking, you know. I have a boyfriend,” she laughed. I laughed in return out of politeness, but kinda crook my eyebrow at the whole thing. Then somewhere later in our conversation, somewhere between Taiwan and Mexico, she said it must be hard for me to find a girlfriend in Rio. When I ask her why she thought that, she went into some weird explanation that didn’t have any relevancy to my question, and before I could clarify anything, she began talking about race, and yeah. You could say the whole thing was too much for me to handle.