“Where’s that waste of a cunt, rat spilled disgrace for Kung Fu whose honor is worth less than a fuck with a toothless, one legged whore?” The giant threw a table against the wall, the food for the moon festival all spoiled. Drooling, with his unruly beard and barrel waist, the massive monster roared and kept moving in our direction, spitting vulgarities along the way. It wasn’t until he got so close that I could smell his stench of pee that Shifu stood up. Outside, Master Chan – he said, so strong the big man ate the words. From back to back, I moved along, I followed them till the street. There were chickens, noises, cakes being sold so loud. All quieted when they stepped out.
“Where’s my money Master Yang?” – screamed the giant.
“I’ve paid you already, Master Chan” – answered Shifu.
Liar! – he screamed. And attacked. Chan had the shape of furious ox, his steps so heavy the sand would jump at each stomp. Shifu waited, though. Waited. Quiet as if his opponent was just a breeze. It was only when Chan was an inch from his chest that he moved away. Whack! The big man hit a tree. Disgraced, Chan pounced once again. Threw a wide hand Shifu escaped from below. A mortal kick Shifu dodged by an inch. A precise rain of punches, each missed at the last instant. At each of the attacks, Shifu would dodge with no effort, his indigo robes waving like magic, as if he was a spirit from the final hour of the day. Elusive, inexistent. It wasn’t long until the drunk ran out of steam. His ire demeaned, his moves turned sloppy. Shifu lets him get closer, hooks the man’s foot with his and pulls it so gently. The ogre falls like a tree. Yet, in a gesture of love and compassion, my master held him from the fall, protecting the giant head from crashing onto a rock beneath. Gently, he places the foe against a boulder. Water! – he ordered. And gallons manifested at once through the hands of the astonished villagers.
“Master Chang. I paid it already. Perhaps I should have been louder. Your horses had been screaming back then .”
Demeaned and confused, the man embraced Shifu and cried.
Under such impressive deeds, there would have been a story with a learning to be shared. Unnecessary this time, though. I’ve seen what I had to see. A moment that was legendary by itself, one which eventually become their own tale, used to share learnings from other times and places.
Like right now.
It’s morning and George takes his shower after a long night shift at his residency. I got us some dumplings and turn on the tv while I wait, and it goes straight into one of those UFC replays. A black guy in yellow shorts, a Brazilian named Silva who turns out to be quite skilled, has his hands down, stance spread wide, and waves his torso and head escaping the flurry from the opponent as if it was a pro fighting a kid. Or a drunk. Nice to see technique still being used in this world of thugs. Made me think of the encounter between Shifu and Master Chan, but there was more to it.
“Do you like that shit?” – asks the soaked body behind me. He has a towel around his waist and shakes his head fast, on purpose, to spill water everywhere and me. He knows I hate it. I scream, he laughs. I take one more look. Not sure how, but for a man that doesn’t work out, he looks good naked. Pretty good, actually.
Kind of like it, I respond. I enjoy the technical ones. But liked better when there was no weight class, and competitors moved through many fights in a tournament. You could tell who knew their shit by then, although the whole thing seemed a little rigged for the Gi wearing Gracies and their Anaconda style. I want to see which of these guys can still fight when they turn 60 or 70 like Shifu did.
The black man on the screen dodges four more punches in a row and throws a sloppy punch that hits his opponent on the jaw. In China we say tension is who you think you should be. Relaxation is who you are. And what he was was a killing machine. The opponent’s chin shoots up and he dismantles at once. George’s face contorts. This is so gross and uncivilized, he says, and I agree. But martial arts need some action, otherwise it’s just dance.
“Like your Tai Chi” – he says.
I am not sure how to reply, so he continues.
“You can practice your technique without falling into the ugliness of violence.”
Violence isn’t all ugly, I push back. It’s beautiful when it’s a dance.
“Like your Tai Chi” – he insists.
No, like a person so in sync with another body that they move as one. “Weren’t you watching what that guy on tv just did?” I want to tell him the story of Shifu and the drunken giant, but he shrugs before I can open my mouth, the classic superiority of a son of Berkeley. Doesn’t deserve it.
“Don’t know, honey.”–he continues–“Maybe it’s the Buddhist in me.”
A Buddhist Doctor. Double cause no harm. Can’t stand it. Can’t even hear the sound of it. “But ok… if you want to watch it, let me know. I’ll go run or something. Hopefully this blood thirst of yours will be quenched fast.”
Fuck you, George. Fuck your intellectual prowess. I want to leave the room myself. Or dodge his arguments, be bigger than his crap. Though the Tigress takes over and I swing back at him. “Ooooh, so medical and philosophical. Did you know Socrates was a soldier, Plato was a wrestler? Have you ever seen Nietzsche’s scar, Mr. Enlightened?”
He stares at me, surprised and I hope he holds what he is thinking. I will punch him if he doesn’t. Thankfully, he does, so I can proceed. “Did you know Shaolin monks are Buddhist too? They kept things from going downhill. How? By learning to fight so they could both think better, and kick some ass when shit was happening. The Samurai? It was them that spreaded Zen and their no attachment mentality. Why? Because they needed to sever their bonds to life so they weren’t afraid to die! How about the ideals of chivalry and honor of the European knights? Ok, those are too chauvinistic. You guys in the east manage to get it wrong even when you get it right.” – Dodge that, prick.
Of course, he says. “Yes, because Asia is so feministic…”
From my side of the room I measure the distance. He’s my boyfriend, but I am going to punch him. Or throw a vase. Instead, I bite my own teeth and dive back into the argument. “What’s wrong with being prepared for violence? Why can’t people… why can’t girls learn Tae Kwon Do or Karate or this animalistic MMA thing as you say… isn’t it good that prey now can take a fucking predator and teach them a lesson?”
On TV, they switch to another old fight. A blond with a cute-face turned-mean. She’s so focused. Ronda, olympian, Judo medalist and shit. The boss at UFC said she is the female Bruce Lee and I am so jealous when I hear that. My finger stretches towards the screen and I feel all he sees is the finger. “See this girl?” I tell him there was a point Asians were bullied for being smaller than whites. Then came Bruce and suddenly we stopped being picked on, because every one of us may know some Kung Fu. Now there is her. So vicious and fierce, even men are afraid of those hands. Do you know what that does? Makes men wonder if the girl across from them is dangerous too. Since her, some rednecks see smaller women and wonder if they are prey or humiliation. It sucks that she lost her last fights cause a little bit longer she would have cause the same effect as Bruce. Maybe I will do that next.
“You mean you want to get into this UFC?! With… Taichi?”
“I told you, I don’t like the sport. But I care about the political act. You are from Berkeley. You should appreciate that shit.”
Breathe, breathe, breathe…
He tells me he gets it. There is a higher meaning behind the idea of violence. But prefers the way I do it. “Your Tai Chi reminds me a bit of Kung Fu.”
“You know Tai Chi is a kind of kung fu, right?”
“I mean the old TV show.”
Fuck George. You know how to infuriate me, sometimes. The racist series that replaced Bruce Lee with a fucking white guy.
“Calm down. Where did all that anger come from, babe? I mean the show with a wise Buddhist monk that taught philosophy and how not to fight. I loved that when I was a kid.”
“Until shit hits the fan.” – I repeat.
He agrees, only when it’s needed. Not blood as a trophy like in these barbaric fights. I counter. You can’t have one without the other, need to be able to fight to impose some fear; it’s called leverage. Like in a fist fight, I feel the excitement of a punch about to land. But he keeps frustrating me, making my arguments miss. A drunk fighting a master. Chan versus Yang. Will he pull my leg too?
“Bullshit” – he says – “this is training to crave blood. You program your body to hurt, so eventually you will need to hurt.”–and he catches me head–“Just because you don’t do it, it doesn’t mean the majority doesn’t.”
I stay quiet and try to hide the fact he has a point.
His phone shows up from somewhere, he types a few keys, shows me a photo of an old Japanese, kneeling, his sword resting aside and says, “see this master? Seating serene beside his weapon? Before that serenity, the fucker was an assassin, who found a way to justify his superiority over the less inclined to violence ones. Why do we need to support that kind of asshole thinking? Isn’t that what creates the predators you’re talking about? This guy is the violent white trash of the east. He pretends better. Nothing glorious about him, or these tv gladiators of yours. Just bullies. Enlightened bullies.”
Should I tap out? I think of Ueshiba, creator of Aikido. An assassin before his peaceful days, people say. Musashi, the wise, also a thug when young. Shifu… he could be nice with his friends but… he could kill too. Although, in his case, it was different.
“Come with me” – he says, still calm and relaxed as he was when he left the shower. He got dressed, somehow. I offer no resistance.
Inspired by Shifu’s spectacle of skill the day before, I take the first match I can to try the fighting without fighting. Put my hands back, use my footwork to dodge every hit. Shifu squints from a corner. I wait to move when necessary. It’s working! My eyes search for my teacher. Bet he’s proud as stallion. Then I get kicked on the liver.
On the floor, I feel my face twitch, the waist cramp. The ache drags my tongue inside and I can’t breathe. “It’s just pain.” – Shifu says from behind my head. No pride to be seen. He raises me with disdain. “That’s what you get for showing off.”
What? I don’t get it. Why is this any different from when he did it.
“You can’t fake compassion, Tigress. You have to learn that part first.”
Outside, it looked like any other little house in Berkeley. A porch hidden by trees baldened by fall, a door in the brightest color framed by a construction ordinary like everyone around it. Perfectly unassuming, including the ethnic chain of beads hanging from the door knob. A portrait of intellectual living. George rings the bell and I am struck by the heavy smell of incense. A skinny woman with brown skin and big eyes opens the widest of the smiles and gives him a hug in slow motion. Dr. Metha. Karishma, she insists. An Indian surgeon George met at the hospital. She invites us in.
Inside, her house is is so full of colors I can’t decide where to look. She serves tea. Smells good. Tastes even better. “So, you are Dr. Arlander’s feminist girlfriend. Nice to meet another one of us.”
A grin to disguise my confusion. Grab George’s hand and squeeze it hard. She stands and walks to the bookshelf on the back of the room. I never saw so many books together. Her hands go straight to a small volume she seemed to know quite well. “He asked me to tell you about a woman called Phoolan Devi, have you ever heard about her?”
My head shakes to the sides.
“We call her The Bandit Queen.”– she proceeds–“Because she ran away from her abusive husband, join a group of bandits, and when their gang was defeated by rivals, she was taken as a trophy and gang raped for days.”–the doctor clears her throat n a long, painful pause before she can keep going–“When they finally let her go, she took the remaining members of her old group, killed her rapists, mouled her husband and spent the next years taking money to the poor.”
The book on her lap. She brushes it with the tip of her fingers before her eyes lower. She opens as someone unfolds a holy cloth and searches for a holy image. A woman, multiple arms, each one carrying a different weapon. She rides a tiger. “People said she was a reincarnation of Durga, a warrior goddess who combats demons.” Under the image, a prayer she used her reading glasses to read, although I have a sense her eyes were somewhere else:
Sing of my deeds
Tell of my combats
How I fought the treacherous demons
Forgive my failings
And bestow on me peace
The words burn into my ears in a way I will never forget, then echo through my mouth in the form of a whisper. She reciprocated with a small grin of respect, placed her hair behind the ear and continued. Told me about how, after years running from the authorities, she finally negotiated her surrender in exchange for mild sentences for her people and a piece of land for her father. I wanted to know more, everything I could about her, except it didn’t make much sense. Why did George bring me there to hear this story against everything we had been discussing?
Then, the catch. After years in prison, Phoolan finally converted to Buddhism and put an end to her history of violence. She understood her fight against the patriarchy and the rigidity of the caste system had to continue, but if it ultimately came from the weight of personal expectations, it was only through peace and detachment that those problems could be fixed. As a result, she ran for the parliament and won with the promise of peace and solidarity to the poor.
Then they both went silent. Two tigers enjoying the sight of their defeated prey. Everything upside down.
She gives me the book. Gods of India. A gift. Hope it inspires you, in war and peace. That was the sign. George stands up, thanks her for her hospitality and we walk together to the door. We shake hands, I thank her and she closes the door. Her face, a monument to victory.
Then it occurred to me. A question. So I knocked the door, before George could tell me no. She opened quite fast, for she hadn’t had a chance to go too far yet. “What happened to her? Is she still in the parliament?” The doctor’s big eyes turned to the floor and her light faded a little. She was assassinated two years later, she said.
In respect to her clear signs of pain, even if George more than deserved, I refrain from celebrating with a “yes!” Besides, it would have been obnoxious, and dishonorable to the memory of a hero. My silence got him right on the chin, though.
He knew and that’s what matters.