The Australia Chronicles 1 –
A reflection on the experience of an exchange student from Sweden
“Hobbits all around the place at Clifton Hill.” – Chris Arnott
One of the things that were alluring to the notion of being in Australia was sports. Australia, as I believe, is big on sports. It has its own version of rugby which I never really understood, but more so, it has plenty of MMA gyms. Whether that is because of the fame that came with Alexander Volkanovski in the UFC or New Zealand fighters like Israel Adesanya or because Australians seem more competitive is not really something that irks me at night.
I’ve been away from combat sports for the past five years, part of that was because of my transition from Egypt to Sweden, part because of COVID-19, and part because I’ve been lazy enough not to thoroughly look into gyms and dojos in Sweden. However, when I arrived in Melbourne, I found a completely different culture when it comes to combat sports. By my estimation, one in every three pubs has a sign with the UFC logo and “watch it here live.” That was a very interesting change of scenery from the lack of competitive sports nature in Sweden.
Five years ago, I had practiced MMA and boxing for a good third of my lifetime. So, when I stumbled upon a booth with boxing gloves, my instincts kicked in and I asked about the dojo. The person standing by the booth directed me to the free tryouts which I was pleased to go to, until I was there. I was not pleased with the gym, the pricing, or the coaching when I went to the tryout. So, for the following day, I decided not to check anything. The moment I came up with that decision was the moment I broke the decision and checked anyway!
After nearly twelve minutes of online research, I found a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu dojo nearby. The page read, ‘A$5 a session, free for Purple Belts and over’. Alas, I knew instantly that it was outdated and probably closed down. But I decided to send a message and inquire regardless and within five minutes, someone responded to me. They told me that the dojo was open on Mondays and Wednesdays. They sent me the address and told me to ask them if I had any questions.
So, I did the reasonable thing and went there thinking that it was probably a scam because nothing in Melbourne is that cheap. I got there and I was greeted by a white gentleman who started talking to me with a thick Aussie accent – the thickest I’ve heard during my one week in Australia. It is hardly a thick accent thinking about it after a couple of months. He was joyful, and he was setting the mats on the floor, telling me all about his rock band when he was younger. I had no idea who the gentleman was until I asked if he was the one who responded to me, and he confirmed my suspicions. Ten minutes later, there were a little over 20 people in the dojo, and the gentleman came out of the changing room with a blue Gi and a black belt.
The place was far from a scam, with some of the friendliest people that I have ever met. As it turned out, the white gentleman is only half white, and half aboriginal. He is the first aboriginal Black Belt in Brazilian Jiu-jitsu and his name is Chris Arnott, the founder of Clifton Hill BJJ.
When I started the training, the coaches quickly noted my wrestling background and Chris told me that he wanted to show me a few tricks. Of course, I was happy to roll with him, only to be put in an Oompa Loompa armlock that was as bizarre as the name. Chris laughed and told me that he invented the hold: “If you make a move, you get to name it, and I decided to name mine the Oompa Loompa!”
Then I met Ian – Christian Ampongan – a Filipino brown belt who coaches alongside Chris. The two coaches exchanged jokes throughout the class, all while retaining a mindful sense of professionalism about them. They were very instructive and helpful.
After my first day, I decided that I would go back to the dojo as much as I could during my exchange. And when the next session came, Chris started explaining things about Australia to me. The friendliness of the coaches and the dojo was something that I had not experienced before, even though I retained a friendship with some of my previous coaches. However, it brought to mind a concern of mine since arriving in Australia.
To be frank, there were a few concerns that I dreaded before stepping foot off the plane, concerns that developed right before leaving Sweden. One of them was racism, which I will touch on thoroughly during the next part of this reflection. Another, a more severe concern, was the inability to form meaningful connections and friendships in Australia because of the short amount of time that I would be spending there. A former exchange student told me that during her four months in Australia, she couldn’t establish a meaningful relationship because people were concerned about her departure and how they would fall out of touch.
That previous rant is meant to demonstrate the goodness that I’ve met in that small dojo. Chris and Ian did not have to be so friendly and welcoming in order to keep me around as a person who pays A$10 a week. Despite that, the two coaches decided to help me both in the dojo and outside. I met Ian for one of the matches of the Women’s World Cup ‘23 at a bar along with some of his friends. Chris took me for a bushwalk to see kangaroos in the wild.
When I told Chris that I could easily pay double the amount of money to practice at Clifton Hill BJJ, he told me that he wouldn’t charge people more than A$5, which baffled me. So, I questioned the idea. Every business owner would like people to pay more for their services or products, but Chris had a much deeper thought in mind.
“When I founded the gym in 2006, I based it on other programs such as the Rocinha Jiu-Jitsu in the slums of Brazil.” And then he said, “I’m training people so that when I’m 80, I would have people to roll with.”
During the first weeks of my training, Chris convinced me that I should wear a Gi and try it out. He told me that he had a spare one to lend me. In the following session, he brought with him the Rocinha Jiu-Jitsu Gi. There aren’t many people who would lend you a Gi that is so meaningful to them. At that time, he hadn’t told me about how meaningful the Gi was to him, or how it was a last of a kind. He didn’t tell me that he was the first Aboriginal black belt, either. In fact, he didn’t brag at all about any of the things that made that dojo so special. I found those things out through an article that he had in his house.
Ian and Chris are brilliant coaches, but it is not just the two of them that made the dojo so special. It is the people in there. It felt like the energy that Chris and Ian had inhabited the place. It was to the point that no other place in Australia made me feel more at home than the place where I physically suffered the most. There isn’t a person in the dojo who did not offer help with one move or one thing. And despite knowing that I am not staying for very long in their country, they have opened their doors to me.
For Clifton Hill BJJ, its coaches, and trainees, this is a thank you for a most welcoming hospitality – and for the nasty locks and hold that you put me in.
Read The Australia Chronicles 2 here.
Written by Amr Abbas.
Photos by Amr Abbas.