When asked to write a piece on the martial arts, I realized I could go one of two ways: I could provide a general overview – it’s healthy, it’ll make you flexible, it’s fun at parties – which could just as well be an introduction to the Wii. Alternatively I could share my own specific story. I chose to share my own story in the hope that it will be of interest (and possibly benefit) to you all.
“When he started here he couldn’t walk.”
-Sifu Min Tran referring to me at a promotion ceremony circa 2003
Growing up I was always the slowest, clumsiest kid in my class, personifying the phrase “ben shou, ben jiao” long before I learned it. Initially I turned to reading and drawing, eventually taking up basketball and weight lifting, but none of that changed the essential fact that my body moved as a collection of parts instead of as a whole.
It was only after I began practicing tai chi chuan (taijiquan) that I began to build the connections between the parts of my body and mind that are necessary for fluid movement. It was painstaking work but, as slow as the progress was, it was still progress. I was building the connections that most people form in childhood, connections I thought I simply didn’t have. On top of that my teacher, Carol Heaslip, constantly reminded me to slow down, which was a nice change of pace.
Around this time, a Muslim friend of mine handed me the Tao Te Ching, adding that he didn’t think it contradicted the Koran. Reading and practicing opened up whole new perspectives for me and eventually brought me to Taiwan where my studies continue daily.
Every person has their own journey to make and lessons to learn. If you are similar to me, you might have a similar experience; if you are not, you will likely have a different sort of experience. No matter your background, if the martial arts work for you I expect that you’ll find you’ve begun a daily practice that puts a smile on your face.
If you should choose to begin a martial arts journey, the following advice will serve you well.
1. When you go to a class check out the teacher and senior students. The teacher is your model and the students are what you can expect to become. If you see in them something you would like for yourself this is a very good start.
2. Be wary if a teacher is too eager to get you to join. An overzealous instructor can be the sign of someone looking to gain face by having a foreign student, or a martial arts evangelical. You’re better off avoiding both types since they have agendas which are often not in the student’s best interest. A good teacher is happy to teach you and, at the same time, doesn’t need you. They also have a sparkle in their eyes.
3. Understand clearly the meaning of kung fu (skill acquired with time and effort) and be honest about how much you are willing to do. The other thing that Sifu Tran said to me at that promotion was said privately, and it was this: “You need to take this seriously and work much harder.”
I was his best student at the time and the comment angered me, but he was absolutely right. The rewards of this path are in direct proportion to the effort one puts in.
4. Be ready to encounter racism and sexism. One morning at the Science Museum a few years ago, a member of a large tai chi chuan group came over to me and told me that his teacher was a direct descendant of Chang San Feng (legendary Taoist master to whom tai chi chuan’s development is attributed). He then asked about my teachers. When he learned they included an American woman, a Vietnamese man and a Filipino man he reacted with a mixture of pity and disgust. Without bragging I can say that his teacher was probably my equal and that my teachers had reached levels of which he wasn’t even aware, but his deeply ingrained racism blinded him. The lesson for us is to take people for who they are and the ability they possess.
5. Be prepared for contradictions. The martial arts are a dance; the martial arts are not a dance. The martial arts are all about fighting; the martial arts are nonviolent. You will have to find your own answers here and they do not come easily.
Now I think I have said enough without saying too much. If you find yourself confused or bored, or you just skipped to the end of the article, don’t worry – the martial arts aren’t for everyone. If, on the other hand, you’re curious or intrigued then there may be something here for you.