How Travelling With a Jiujitsu Gi Changed The Way I Viewed the World Wander Wonder

“Where should we train?” is the first question Denise Li wants answered whenever she visits a new country. 

When my best friend – a foodie and cafe owner – travels, she never leaves home without a list of the latest restaurants and cafes to check out in the city she’s heading to.

Another acquaintance of mine likes squeezing as many tourist attractions into the itinerary – and has the Excel sheets to prove it.

When it comes to travel, everyone’s style is different, and the main reason why it’s important to pick a travel buddy whose style is similar to your own. But regardless of how you travel, I daresay that the one thing most people have in common when they go abroad is to feel a sense of “newness”. In our own ways, we’re all looking for a unique experience that feels a world away from our workaday lives. It’s the reason why destinations are always billed as “exotic” on those glossy travel brochures.

“Exotic” is a catch-all word to describe whatever feels unfamiliar and alien to our own culture.

The problem with going to a new place and hoping to imbibe its “exoticness” is that, often subconsciously, we make quick and often stereotypical judgements on its people. For instance, someone might go to Laos, one of the poorest countries in the world, meet some smiling, hospitable villagers, then conclude that they must still be happy despite having so little.

But making such assumptions based on so little information about these people and what their lives are really like is ultimately a very condescending and patronising thing to do. We often draw erroneous conclusions about the locals we observe because all we see are the differences between “us” and “them”. (In the humanities and social sciences, this is referred to as the concept of the “Other”) We are so eager to paint our travels with this glossy sheen, so eager to feel good about ourselves, that we end up putting people in limiting boxes.

I, too, have been guilty of doing this in the past. And when I picked up jiujitsu one and a half years ago, the last thing I could have imagined was for the sport to change the way I viewed the world too.

Now, the first thing I do research on before visiting a new country is on jiujitsu gyms in the area. Going to a jiujitsu gym in a new place has been – for want of a better phrase – “same same but different”. Each gym may be comprised of a different demographic of people, and the training might differ somewhat from what you’re to getting at your home gym, but the mat is literally and metaphorically, common ground. At every gym I’ve visited, I was greeted by warm, smiling faces, friendly fist-bumps, and enthusiastic “hellos”. I can’t think of any other situation where perfect strangers would come up to greet you like an old friend!

A photo posted by Denise Li (@smackeral83) on

Clockwise from top left: Bali Muay Thai & MMA Training Camp; Team Quest Chiang Mai; Gorilla MMA Brugge; BJJ Academy Amsterdam

My husband (who also practises jiujitsu) and I constantly marvel over how quickly and easy it is to strike up a conversation with a fellow jiujitero. Conversations around jiujitsu are seemingly endless; from discussing how to pull off a certain technique, to sharing how long each of us has been training, to difficulties we face or injuries we’ve sustained. I’ve found jiujitsu to be the great big equaliser, bringing together people from all walks of life and cultures.

Visiting jiujitsu gyms when I travel is a constant reminder to me that people aren’t so different from each other after all, regardless of where they’re from. It is also the quickest and best way to get to know some locals, and as a result, we discovered some pretty cool restaurants and hangouts we wouldn’t have otherwise known about.

Going to a new, foreign place for the first time can be overwhelming. But paying a visit to the new jiujitsu gym, however, always feels a bit like going home.

Related post: 8 Things You Need To Know About Brazilian Jiu-jitsu

She may have been born and bred in Singapore, but Denise considers Chiang Mai her spiritual home and needs to make a yearly pilgrimage there to maintain her sanity. Competitive by nature, she enjoys combat sports and is currently obsessed with Brazilian jiu-jitsu, which she picked up just under a year ago. To no one’s surprise, the country currently at the top of her travel bucket list is Brazil.

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