A Strange But Fulfilling Year Abroad

A Canadian reflects on a year-long naginata experience in Great Britain by Milton Chow

It has been a whole year that I’ve spent in Great Britain for my master’s degree at the London School of Economics, and with just a few days left before the completion of my dissertation and my departure back to the other side of the pond, I can’t help but reflect on the year that I’ve spent practicing Naginata with my British friends in London.

I had no idea what to expect when I attended my first practice with the London Naginata Dojo on September 26, 2020. As a Masters’ student from Canada whose experience overseas was heavily affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, I knew that I could not expect to practice under normal circumstances, if practice was even a possibility. The last time I had picked up a naginata had been in early March at the Canadian Naginata Federation’s annual grading and seminar in Montreal, just before we went into lockdown.

But many of my apprehensions were dispelled by the welcome that I was given, and the care taken to ensure I could practice to the best of my abilities, especially given my several months’ worth of absence from practice. Over the past year I have been able to catch up with both shikake-oji and shiai, and while I admit that I am likely well behind many of my Canadian friends, who have also struggled to practice regularly as a result of lockdowns and other circumstances, I feel that I have nonetheless made progress that I can be satisfied with.

More striking for me, though, has been the fact that I’ve done regular practice in three venues. At the time I arrived, indoor practices were not a possibility, so practices were taking place in Shoreditch Park, next to the dojo where the London club normally practices. The arrival of the cold weather and the winter lockdown put any plans for the next few months on hold, but eventually, as restrictions were lifted, indoor practices could become a possibility. When I returned to practice, having been stuck completing examinations for the previous year, some surprising news arrived – the sports centre where the dojo was located was to be torn down and replaced by a new facility. I had just one month to practice at the old site, where the club had been located for 17 years, before the move to the new Britannia Leisure Centre in July.

In spite of these changes, one thing that has certainly remained the same has been the people I have practiced with. They have been absolutely wonderful in welcoming me to the fold and involving me in feedback and socialisation, and I am glad to observe their own growth and improvement in the last year. From having drinks and chips at the pub together after practice, to having a laugh over paying club fees of £5 with a £50 bill, I can’t stress enough how much the friends I’ve made have made the experience feel all the more complete. I can only thank Bruno, Abdul, Mikey, Charlie, Claire, and of course my gracious host Rachel for being so vital to making the experience feel as complete as it does, and I can’t wait to see them again in due time.

I will admit that I cannot leave fully satisfied by how I have spent my time here. I have been absent from as many practices as I have attended, usually due to the difficulties of work. I have never been in the best of shape, and my last practices certainly exposed that fact when doing shiai, especially since my physical condition has deteriorated noticeably as a result of lockdown. But these do not outweigh the positive experiences I have enjoyed in my short time here, and by knowing the mistakes and shortcomings of the past, I can look forward to dealing with them in the future.

I will not be away from Britain for too long. I will return to Canada to work, and after some time hope to return to Britain, this time in a PhD program. I anticipate that I will spend more time with the same friends along with some new ones. It is my sincere hope that the small group of people I’ve met in this year will expand, and that I may become acquainted with other clubs and practitioners from elsewhere in Britain and Europe in due time. Hopefully that time will come sooner than later!

by Milton Chow from the Canadian Naginata Federation