November 10, 2012 | Mandarin
Chinese Field Trip: Kung Fu Class
In which Brandt and I try out a Chinese martial art.
I have been plugging along with my Pimsleur Mandarin lessons, but also, more than with any other language to date in this project, I am undertaking some complementary cultural explorations.
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A Chinese Interpreter Was Available to Voters
Two nights ago, for example, my husband and I went to a kung fu class at USA Shaolin Temple, on Broadway near Canal Street. I have been doing bikram yoga since July, but the heat in those 105-degree classes has been getting to me, so I am looking for a replacement activity to maintain flexibility and strength and to help my running.
To be honest, I am looking for something to help with the aches and pains that have plagued me since, oh, right around the time I started this project back in 2009. (Though I do not believe there is a causal relationship!)
Kung fu seemed liked a promising activity.
The USA Shaolin Temple, according to its website, “teaches Chan Philosophy through the core Shaolin disciplines of martial arts or action meditation: Gongfu (Kung Fu), Taiji Quan (Tai Chi) and Qigong (Chi Kung). Students of all backgrounds, religions, ages, and athletic ability can train at Temple. Students come to the USA Shaolin Temple from all around the world to learn and grow from traditional Shaolin training. ‘Heart to Heart’ and ‘Mind to Mind’ is the essence of Shaolin Chan Philosophy—and this system of training spans the differences between language and culture as a direct form of growth and understanding.”
I am not yet in a position to explain what that last sentence means, but the goals sound positive in any case.
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When Brandt and I arrived, we found ourselves in a huge, mostly carpeted loft with high ceilings, pillars, cheerful decor (which I can no longer remember well enough to describe, but it had a clearly Asian flavor), and two small changing rooms, one for men and one for women. We were there for a beginners’ class.
Or so we thought. It was billed as Level 1.
To my surprise, the founder—Shifu Shi Yan Ming—was not only there but also instantly greeted us with a big smile and words of encouragement. I had read online that he is a 34th-generation Shaolin Temple warrior monk who came to the United States “to give Shaolin Philosophy to the world.” The website continued, “Shi Yan Ming’s message, as he frequently states, is quite simple: ‘Life is beautiful’ and ‘Be honest with yourself and train harder.’”
Noble ideals, though not always ones people find so simple!
The shifu (I believe this term is used to refer to Buddhist monks, among other things) was nice-looking and witty and freakishly fit. He can kiss his own foot when his leg is straight. I know that may not sound like something to aspire to, but my point is, he is extremely flexible.
As we stretched before class, Brandt and I could not help observing that some of the people who were warming up around us were manifesting signs of what seemed to be rather advanced skills. Kicks were being kicked. Flips were being flipped. Swords were twirling. More and more people arrived, until there were about three dozen students.
There is no such thing as a true beginners’ class in New York, it seems to me. That has been true in my yoga classes, my gymnastics classes, my random kickboxing class I tried, and anything else I might be forgetting. Sink or swim, swim or sink.
I am happy to report that I did not sink, but ow, my hamstrings. We lined up at one end of the room and the workout began. A healthy portion of the class involved one drill after another of various kicks, jumps, flips, twirlings and whirlings, and other activities. Back and forth, back and forth, across the length of the room. There was a lot of repetition of skills, which is something I rather enjoy, though I generally enjoy it more when I actually have skill.
People often yelled out stuff that sounded like Chinese, but I couldn’t yet understand it.
Brandt and I and one other woman were very conspicuous as new people, since we were the only ones not wearing robes and white kung fu shoes. With polite little bows, blue-robed people kept asking to cut ahead of me in line as they went ahead and cut (at least I think that’s what they were asking; I couldn’t understand them). I didn’t always understand why they were cutting, since I wasn’t aware of really holding up the line, but my hamstrings were happy to oblige.
The maneuvers got more complex, and then there was some really complicated whirligig move that I simply couldn’t follow—and then, to my relief, came some cartwheels.
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Cartwheels I can do. I got a little burst of applause for my cartwheels. Then we went back to doing a bunch of stuff I couldn’t do. Like (1) remembering and (2) actually executing a series of choreographed movements: not among my strengths. At all.
This, as I said, was billed as Kung Fu Level 1. On the website, in a Q&A section, one question I had seen was, “Do I need any prior training to attend classes at the U.S.A. Shaolin Temple?”
The answer: “In martial arts, especially my philosophy, there is no age…you can be short…you maybe are tall, you can start training Shaolin Temple Martial Arts or Chan Buddhism. Your prior life experience doesn’t matter.”
While it was clear that they would have accepted and supported anyone who showed up, that class would have intimidated the hell out of me if I hadn’t had some pretty solid basic fitness going for me. You are doing confusing, strenuous things you’ve never tried before in front of a bunch of of other people who are doing the same things, only way better. There is absolutely no hiding. And the class lasts two hours!
Before class began, I asked the shifu what languages he speaks besides English. Mandarin, he said. Fabulous!
I tried my Mandarin on him. I told him in Chinese (this is my nonstandard, unprofessional transcription): Wa hway shweh ee-tay-ar poh-tong-hwa. That means, “I speak a little Mandarin.”
Then I informed him in Chinese, “I am American.”
Next I told him, also in Chinese, “I am not Chinese.” This clarification was clearly unnecessary, but it was one of the few sentences I could remember in that moment.
He praised my pronunciation. I think he meant it. I was so excited that someone was there to speak Mandarin with, even if it was Mandarin in its infancy.
The health aspect of kung fu and other Chinese traditions—tai chi, acupuncture, herbal medicine—is very interesting to me. That’s a key thing I want to explore through this Chinese unit, right alongside the language.
In the temple website’s Q&A section I had noticed this question: “What if I have injuries or health concerns, can I still train gong fu?” (Gong fu equals kung fu.)
The answer began as follows:
First you must understand how to be a doctor to yourself. For example, foster happiness, eat good food, sleep good, understand and trust yourself. Don’t confuse yourself but truly try and enjoy your life. Life is so beautiful you must understand that life has the best of everything. I believe you like to kiss your girlfriend- that’s sweet, but when relationship becomes a little bit of a problem, then it becomes sour, bitter, a little pain- what’s difference, our physical compares with this? That’s life. I believe that many people are not physically injured so much as they are truly mentally injured. Spiritually injured. Come on, get up!!