Meet the Pandas – The Language of Jiu-Jitsu – Charles Brissette
In Meet the Pandas we introduce the many members of the Panda Nation. Last episode was dedicated to Frenchman Raphaël Levy of Association Aranha: a professional Magic: The Gathering player. Now, we focus on a jiujiteiro on the other side of the planet. Brown belt and veteran Charles Brissette of Kris Kim BJJ, based in Seoul, Korea.
Being a cerebral guy with an interest in statistics and analytical thought, Charles Brissette is not your typical BJJ meathead. After a 20-year long career as a Korean language specialist with the US navy, Charles teaches BJJ under his instructor Kris Kim, and is putting himself through college. Also, he used the art to battle through a dark time in his life, finding a way out thanks to the comradery and endless challenges that the art presents.
How did you end up in Korea?
Charles Brissette: I joined the navy straight after high school, and I went to the military language school. That’s where I learned Korean. Most of my time in the service was spent in either Hawaii or South Korea. The USA has a fairly large military presence in South Korea, since the armistice from the Korean War. And we’ve kind of maintained that. A lot of my job entailed coordination and liason type stuff with the South Korean military. Once I retired from the navy past summer, I decided to stay.
Why did you choose the military path?
CB: First off all, I wanted to get out of New Hampshire, where I went to high school. The other factor was that I had two older sisters. My parents had helped them both through school and college, but I was never that… studious (laughs). So my parents weren’t as willing to help me out in the same way. They kind of pushed me to take the military route. My dad had served, both my grandfathers had served, so it was a natural thing. All those factors together led me to join up. And obviously the G.I. Bill was a big part of that too. I did twenty years of service. Now, I’m a 39-year old retiree (laughs).
Twenty years? That’s bananas!
CB: Yeah. My plan was to do six years and then get out and go to college. That didn’t quite happen the way I’d imagined. I spent the majority of my career here in Korea, and I fell in love with this country. Now I’m using the G.I. Bill to put myself through college. I’m studying statistics.
Where do martial arts fit into all of this?
CB: In the service, you go through boot camp, but there’s no focus on fighting physically. The chances of getting into one-to-one combat on a ship are pretty small, so we learned more about damage control and firefighting. When I was in language school in California learning Korean, I got really into the Korean culture, and Tae Kwon Do became a draw for me. So I trained TKD for most of the time learning Korean. But when I got to my first station in Hawaii, around 2001, I didn’t really stick with it. It wasn’t until early 2010 that I got back into martial arts.
How did you find BJJ?
CB: In the summer of 2009 I went to Korea to visit a friend that was stationed here. He introduced me to another guy, Joon. He was a blue belt at the time. So one day, over a few beers, he gave me the classic ‘conversion talk’ and urged me to give it a shot. He put the thought into my head, so when I got back to Hawaii I made it my New Year’s Resolution to get on the mat. I ended up at Team HK under Todd Tanaka, and I trained there for about four months. I fell in love with it right away.
What do you remember about your first class?
CB: Not much, besides being like fish out of water and feeling a sense of crazy claustrophobia. At one point my friend Todd put me in a rear naked choke, and the only defense I could come up with, was to tuck my chin. His squeeze on my jaw was just incredible; it felt like my face was going to explode. I had no idea that was humanly possible. It was surreal.
Why did you leave Hawaii?
CB: I had to go to DC to prepare for my deployment to Korea. When I finally got to Korea I reconnected with Joon and I joined the place he trained at, Korea BJJ, under Hee-Sung Lee. I got my blue belt and trained there until the spring of 2015. Then, there was a bunch of drama at the school and a lot of my training partners left. A friend of mine I’d met at the embassy – he was an NCIS agent (Navy Criminal Investigative Service), started a BJJ club on the army base in Seoul. He had gotten Kris Kim to come and teach there. He would always harrass me to get back on the mat, and finally I gave in. I’ve been there ever since.
Good thing you didn’t become one of those disappearing blue belts…
CB: Well, it was hard not to come back, I guess. Because I really enjoyed my time in Hawaii, and I knew that BJJ was something I had to pursue. Even though that first experience of getting manhandled was a bit shocking, I could see small people using the art to control larger opponents. Once I realized that, I was hooked. And Kris turned out to be an awesome instructor. He’s a black belt under Tony Passos, and he’s been a great mentor and coach.
You seem like a pretty cerebral guy, did that mindset help you in BJJ?
CB: I’d like to think so… My job in the navy involved a lot of methodical, analytical thinking, and currently I’m going to school for statistics. That’s the stuff I’m into. So it does affect my approach to BJJ. The art is all about using high percentage moves in a systematic way.
What were your first weapons, when you got to a reasonable level?
CB: I was very big on getting to the back position and finishing from there. And attacking from the closed guard. I relied heavily on that. Once I started training with Kris, he definitely got me to open up my game. So, I started experimenting with open guard and De La Riva, Butterfly and X-guard stuff, and I added a lot more inversions. Last year I sort of rediscovered my old school, tight closed guard game. It’s funny how some moves are cyclical.
What’s the jiu-jitsu scene like in Korea?
CB: When I first got here it was a fringe thing. You had John Frankl and Hee-Sung Lee teaching, and there were only a couple of schools. Then recently, there was a tournament that had over a 1000 people competing. So there’s been a massive explosion in the last few years. It’s gotten huge – and I have no idea how that happened.
Do you compete?
CB: Yes, but not as much as I’d like to. About 3 to 4 times a year. That’s mostly due to the fact that it’s hard to find matches in the local scene, unless I drop down in age, or go up in weight. I tend to save up and travel to the larger tournaments instead. My first competition was back in 2010. It was mental. I was completely unprepared, got swept and mounted, and then desperately tried to escape for the remainder of the match. Afterwards I got a huge adrenaline crash and I left the tournament in a crazy, deranged state (laughs). It was just an insane experience. But the next week I was back on the mats, and looking forward to the next one.
What was the biggest hurdle in your evolution?
CB: After I got my blue belt from Hee-Sung Lee I developed severe migraines, which were pretty debilitating. The medicine they put me on took care of the migraines, but took away all my enthusiasm and passion for things. It was a very strange experience. There were no peaks. I just didn’t want to do the things that I’d liked to do before, and I had absolutely no drive to do anything other than the basics of living. The rest was taken away. So, after a couple of months I threw that medicine out. I was done with not feeling like myself.
CB: Yeah, I did go through the Blue Belt Blues after that. Even when I got back into training, it didn’t feel the same as before. I think I spent close to five years at blue belt because I was so inconsistent. I would train hard for a little while and then break equally hard. Especially after all my friends left my gym, I didn’t have the desire to train anymore. Changing gyms definitely helped to get that fire back.
Do you think there’s an overlap between learning BJJ and learning a new language?
CB: I think so. My approach to learning Korean was based on saturation and immersion. I listened to Korean pop music, watched Korean TV-shows and just dove into everything Korean. I took a similar approach to jiu-jitsu; buying all the books, watching all the videos. Even when I wasn’t actively training, I was thinking about jiu-jitsu and I tried to analyze the positions. There is definitely some overlap with learning a new language. First, you need a basic framework and an understanding of how to structure a sentence, and then you plug in certain words to create meaning. BJJ works in a similar way.
Tim Ferriss wrote a blog about using judo manuals to teach himself Japanese. He took something he was familiar with as starting point…
CB: Yes. I think that works really well early on, when you have to get an affinity with the language. But at a certain point, you have to switch and level up. You need to study something completely new in the native language. I’m not sure how that would translate to jiu-jitsu. Maybe once you have the basics of your own game down, you can venture into new areas where you’re not that comfortable. You can only go out on a limb if you have a foundation to fall back on.
How did you come to teach BJJ?
CB: Kris always put a lot of faith in me, and would often get me to cover classes when he was out of town. As a veteran, I still have access to different military bases here, and I was asked to teach at one of them. We have a small but excellent group of guys training here in Seoul. The only downside is that this particular base is heavy rotational, so people are only there for 6 to 9 months, and then they have to move on. So it’s hard to develop a core group. But it’s been great so far.
Who are your most inspirational people in the art?
CB: Todd Takana, for being my first instructor and introducing me to the art. Kris Kim, for expanding my game and giving me a jiu-jitsu home. Then, Kris’ professor Tony Passos, who’s also been a big influence in the few times that I’ve met him. His knowledge of jiu-jitsu is really impressive. And then, Christian Graugart of BJJ Globetrotters. Reading his book got me through a few difficult times in my life. It also inspired me to go to my first BJJ Globetrotters Camp in the USA, and later I went to the Austrian Camp too.
Can you expand on those rough times?
CB: It was a totally unexpected, bad break-up. Just when I was about to propose. I had bought the ring, and we were planning a trip together, so yeah… When that happened it left me in a kind of weird place mentally. But my friends really encouraged me to throw all that negative energy back into jiu-jitsu. So that’s what I did, and I managed to get myself back together.
What attracts you most about the art?
CB: The fact that it’s real time problem solving. Jiu-jitsu is physical chess, truly. The combination of the sheer physicality and mental problem solving keeps me coming back for more. No two rolls are ever the same. It’s an endless challenge, just like life.
Charles Brissette is a brown belt under Kris Kim and teaches in Seoul, Korea. Follow him on Instagram @cbjiujitsu.
Daniël Bertina is a black belt based in The Netherlands. Follow him on Instagram @ashiorigami.