By Karen Eden
When I walked out onstage as an 18-year-old contestant in a “Miss Virginia” preliminary pageant, I already knew things weren’t going to swing in my favor. I had watched the way the judges seemed to light up every time a blonde-haired, blue-eyed girl strode out. Bottom line, I was an ethnic girl competing in a beauty pageant at a time when it wasn’t popular to be ethnic.
That was also the time that my grandmother from Japan was staying with us. I so appreciated her altering my gown and being so excited to see me compete in the “Miss Vinton Dogwood Festival” pageant.
There I was, standing out like a sore thumb. I was a dark-haired girl in a sea of white skin and yellow hair. I felt out of place and awkward, and I wanted to walk off the stage as soon as I got on. Within minutes, I would have that chance, as my name wasn’t called to be one of the final competitors.
The stage directions called for all non-finalists to exit downstage and into the audience. As I did that, I ended up walking right by my grandmother, who was sitting in the last seat of the middle row.
For some reason, she grabbed my hand and wouldn’t let go. She literally stopped the “procession of losers,” while looking at me with the biggest smile on her face. I assumed that she must not have understood that I lost. “Obachan [grandmother], I lost,” I whispered. My mother repeated my admission for her in Japanese.
But for some reason, it didn’t seem to matter to her. She then grabbed my entire arm and smiled even bigger. Looking into her eyes was one of those moments when time stands still. Finally, letting go, she began clapping as I continued the procession to exit the auditorium. She was so proud of me and, for years, I could never figure out why.
Flash forward to me as a martial arts instructor taking my students to compete in a karate tournament. As their instructor, I’m just as happy for the ones that win as I am for the ones who go home empty-handed.
As a competitor myself, I know what it’s like to win and to lose, and I know that losing never feels very good. Yet, as instructors, we see things that our competing students may not be able to see. We can judge, from our experiences as teachers, what a particular student is made of, even when that student doesn’t see it for his or herself.
I want to tell them, “Just because you’re losing now doesn’t mean you’re going to keep on losing. And just because you didn’t place in a karate tournament doesn’t mean you’re not going to do well in life.”
Looking back, I honestly think that that’s what my grandmother must have meant when she grabbed my hand after I was ushered off stage. I think she saw something in me that the beauty pageant panel couldn’t see — something that I couldn’t see in myself at the time! I think she knew that I was destined for great things in spite of me feeling like the world’s biggest loser. My grandmother knew what would take me years to understand.
Rest in peace, Obachan. I now know why you clapped. Sometimes, you lose battles, but that doesn’t mean you’re not going to win the war.
You can contact Master Karen Eden at [email protected].
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