I arrived in Taiwan and was punched with the heat.
My relatives picked me up from the airport in Kaohsiung. They were very skeptical of me - they saw me as a failure and believed I was bringing them misfortune. They didn’t think I would last more than a few weeks in Taiwan. But, I really love proving people wrong. My relatives did help me find a job teaching English on the beach three hours away in a place called Henchun. They were happy to be rid of me, and I was happy to be on my own. It was a mutual parting.
I worked for a crazy lady named “Melody” who hired me because she was super pregnant and needed someone to teach English to elementary and high school kids. Melody was such an unusual character. She chose Melody as her English name because she liked to prance around singing and playing guitar. But, on my first day, she gave me a megaphone and two beating sticks with little hands on the ends. I was coming from a place where you would get fired or go to jail for smacking a kid. This was all a bit of a shock for me.
One day, when I was teaching, Melody noticed a little boy at the back not paying attention. Suddenly, she turned into an Olympic athlete; she hurdled over the desk and coordinated an amazing stick slap to the head of that little boy. I was shocked, amused, and also sad for the boy...but they were used to it. Maybe it was all these stick strikes that drew me to arnis.
When I would help prepare food for the children during my lunch break, Melody asked me not to use too much peanut butter because the children would get fat. I once watched as she called two little boys into her office and ordered them to hand over their little lunch bag treats. She then scarfed the treats down in front of them. I had to pick my jaw up off the floor.
Melody would guilt me into doing extra chores like cooking, cleaning, and handing out flyers because her feet hurt, her back hurt, her head hurt - there was always something. I soon found Melody’s presence suffocating - it felt like she wanted to keep me there forever. She would park her car outside of my apartment every night to see if I was home. She kept close relations with my relatives in Kaohsiung to assert her presence in my life - she wanted them to believe she was saving me, and that I should stay with her for a long time. This was a secluded area and finding another “foreigner” to do the jobs she needed would be very difficult. I felt trapped.
I had a lot of free time on my hands so I biked a lot, ran, hiked, and explored. I remember running up a hill once and running into a water buffalo. Sometimes rabid hungry stray dogs would bite at my heels. I’d run past fish farms, people frying fish, and people selling fish. Lots of fish. I enjoyed the beach at night because I was alone and I liked to swim. The Taiwanese believe that ghosts roam the beach at night. I would swim far into the ocean under the moon. One time I reached my arm back over my head and it felt like I had grabbed a skull. I did not go swimming at night after that.
I used Internet cafes to connect to the outside world. I discovered a gym in Kaohsiung called “The Forge.” It was a gutted apartment building with judo mats. It was there that I met my Muay Thai coach.
On the first day of training, people looked at me like I was crazy because of how intensely I would push myself. I had been taught to focus half of my workout on conditioning, but the people at this gym hardly did anything other than fighting drills. There was also a Filipino guy teaching stick fighting (arnis), which intrigued me. I was completely mesmerized by the movements. I could imagine myself decapitating my enemies with a sword.
After class was over, everyone sat around and conversed, which was not what I was used to. They were so curious about me. This community driven gym culture was totally new to me. In Canada, no one cared about you unless there was something in it for them - training is done, go home. In Taiwan, people brought you drinks, asked if you were happy, and always wanted to eat together afterwards.
Every weekend, I would bus 3.5 hours to my gym in Kaohsiung and 3.5 hours back because this was the kind of environment I wanted to be in. I really had nothing left to do in Henchun. I had completely rehabilitated myself and hadn’t touched any drugs. I still smoked like a chimney though. I decided it was time to move to Kaohsiung.
A few friends helped me find a two-storey apartment in a busy shopping district. One of my neighbours was a lady who paced up and down our walkway in the late morning moving no faster than a snail. Another neighbor had a tiny dog caged beside his outdoor toilet. I turned the first floor of my apartment into a school where two evenings a week, I would teach an adult English class. To supplement my income, I taught music while also teaching at elementary and cram schools during the day.
I was on the move all day and didn’t take my shoes off until midnight every night. I had to have my place fumigated twice because of cockroaches. I was sleeping inside of the gym in the winter time, freezing my butt off. At this point my Mandarin was strong enough so that when I visited my relatives I could understand what they were saying. I knew they were spewing insults about me and so, despite all the hardship, I knew I would rather suffer alone than stay with people who didn’t respect me. It gave me the motivation to keep going.
Around that time, my coach convinced me it was time to fight. He wanted to showcase Muay Thai in Taiwan because it was new and he was the only one teaching it. He decided to match me against the National Taiwanese Sanda Champion, Peyleen. I was excited; I wanted badly to fight and advance my skills.
In order to fight, I had to lose 15 pounds in a month to match her weight.
I then had my first experience with a personal trainer. He told me to meet him first thing in the morning with two sets of clothes and an empty stomach. I was excited to train. He tortured me on the treadmill for a long time until I was completely drenched in sweat. Thank God for the extra clothes. After that, he destroyed my chest, shoulders, and abs in the weight room. Then, he told me I must train this way and only eat one sandwich a day to lose the weight rapidly. The thought of being “overweight” on fight day motivated me to do what he said and then some. I lost 13 pounds.
On the day of the fight, I was still a bit heavier than my opponent, but they let us fight anyways. My coach thought I would knock her out without preparing me at all! I had hardly even sparred anyone! All I had done was run and hit pads. In my mind, I thought anyone who I faced off with would end up in the hospital! HA! I learned quickly that this wasn’t the school yard or the street. This was a ring. This was a sport.
Although Peyleen was shorter and smaller than me, she was very experienced. She was smiling at me in her corner. I looked at her thinking, ‘awww, look how cute she is!’ When the bell rang Peyleen tried to take my head off. I had the reflexes to avoid her initial barrage of punches. I quickly realized that my boxing skills sucked, so I kept her away with a lot of low kicks to her thigh. When she got in range to throw punches, I grabbed the back of her head and threw a lot of knees which ultimately got me the win. This was physically the the most exhausting thing I had experienced in my life. The fatigue is some next level ship!
After that fight, I became all the more obsessed with training. I thought - this is something I can do that people will respect and value. I pushed my body to its limit every training session. I ran in the mornings until my legs were wobbly. I followed a strict diet. I weighed myself every morning. I tracked all my runs. I had no time to socialize; I only had time to train.
This is PART II of INSIDE OUT - a blog series about FLG’s fighting memories. Check out our Instagram and stay tuned for the next installment!