I recently took a trip to Hawaii, which was a very pleasant place to be in January when it’s in the 70s and 80s on the island, and in the 30s and 40s in Kansas. It was a nice occasion to visit my mother who lives on Oahu, burn some of my accrued annual leave before I hit my use-or-lose mark, and decompress from all the nonsense that daily life tends to lump on your shoulders.
Going to Hawaii meant a paradise of beautiful, and plentiful beaches, booze, and … other words that start with “b”. It is also a miserable quagmire of traffic headaches. Everywhere we went was fun, but getting there made you want to murder people. It’s also very difficult to avoid the crowds, especially when you’re doing the really popular things like watching fireworks over Waikiki. I don’t like crowds, but they were bearable even in the popular shopping centers. Speaking of crowds, the blend of cultures there is fascinating; the original Polynesian cultures and the incoming Eastern and Western influences. My wife made the comment that Honolulu is like San Fransokyo from Big Hero 6 and she wasn’t that far off. You don’t have to live in California or Texas to get used to Spanish subtext on signs and products, but seeing street signs and flyers in English and Japanese was unique.
But most important, was that there’s a HEMA group on the island! My itinerary was fairly tight, and I only got to one of the two meetings that happened while I was out there, but it was worth it! The Sword Guild I’m a member of in Kansas City is primarily a German school, and the Schola Saint George group in Hawaii is a Fiore group. Much of what they did was new to me anyway. They had good humor when I willfully mis-translated Italian terms and seemed familiar enough with German swordsmanship to be able to discuss the minor differences in form between the schools; some overlap in membership between them and the local SCA group helped in that regard too I suspect. They ran me through the first six plays and shared some of what they expect their students to know before they earn their first belt. I learned some new disarms – I love disarms. Most important, I was overwhelmed with how welcoming they were, both online and when I arrived. No one shied away from questions I asked and I really felt that if I were a newcomer who lived there, and not a HEMA-tourist, I would have belonged to the group from day one.
Belts are one of the major differences between the Hawaii HEMA group and many of the others I encounter. It doesn’t take much time on HEMA blogs and forums to notice that the community at large, especially the sport fencing side of the hobby, has taken a very open and unabashed step away from popular norms of Eastern martial arts. They avoid white equipment to be visually distinct from the traditional white appearance of a Gi. I haven’t seen a single other group use belts as a form of advancement. In fact most HEMA groups seem to shy away from the idea of advancement at all, generally in an attempt to focus on the study and the history and expose themselves less to the trappings of “sportifying” the hobby or making it about earning ranks instead of studying the art for the sake of the art. The majority of HEMA groups you look up online generally have three or four levels of classification, such as Novice, Apprentice, and Scholar – and even those they don’t really use as a form of hierarchy of status.
However, like I mentioned above, Honolulu has a very distinct culture that you don’t find on the mainland. The Japanese and Chinese and Portuguese and countless other cultural influences on the native Hawaiian culture have competed for equal contributions to what Hawaii is today. My history of the island is pretty spotty, but my gut tells me that it was mostly luck and circumstance that Hawaii became an American state and not the dominion of any one of a half a dozen other countries thst would have been just as happy to subjugate it. So when the Schola Saint George chapter was founding, it was competing with Eastern culture in a way very different than one does in Kansas where the familiarity with Japanese martial arts stems from 80’s karate movies and samurai/ninja/anime shows or comics and not from familial or social traditions.
As it was explained to me, the adoption of belts was a way to ingratiate themselves into the standing traditions of the people around them. It turns out I completely misunderstood what was explained to me. Colin was nice enough to clear up that Schola Saint George as an umbrella group used belts before the chapter in Honolulu was founded. My next couple comments about recognition in HEMA still stand:
I think belts are awesome. I think HEMA might be too wary of advancement sometimes, and advancement has a significant morale effect on people doing a hobby. If you look at martial arts like Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, though they have belts, those who follow serious and recognized gyms (like those under the International Brazilian Jiu-Jitzu Federation) know that even your first promotion is something that takes two years of consistent training to achieve. That’s an entirely different mindset in stark contrast to the fly-by-night rainbow spectrum karate belt mills you find advertising their “self defense” to grade schoolers. I know belts are very “karate”, but Badges, or Stripes, or Pips are all something that HEMA groups outside of Hawaii could consider as a way to reward commitment and identify skill.
But I got off on a tangent. I’m off my soapbox now, I swear. In other news, in the Kahala Mall my brother’s girlfriend works at a Sanrio store, and they had an eraser shaped like a turnip.
Schola Saint George – See you next time I’m on the Island!