Curing writers block with martial arts

Recently I got stuck on my next novel (a story about kung fu and artificial Intelligence). First I blamed how busy I got at work and adjusting our lives to the East Coast. But truly it was because I got so into my survival journey as a white belt in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu that, despite my thirty years training striking arts, writing about non-grappling ways of fighting just wasn’t happening. Not surprisingly, like so many things in the process of writing this book, the answer was hiding in the challenge. On not resisting the threat, but using its own energy against it. Suddenly, it all clicked. I made one of the characters be a BJJ fighter who helps the main character develop her ground game, just like I am doing with my own skills. And voila! Writing is furious again.

Frame, Force and Flow

I’ve been thinking a lot about the similarities and differences between different styles of #fighting. Not only their signature moves or their compared efficacy, but mostly how they structure training. After trying #martialarts from so many origins, and approaches so distinct, it occurred to me that all that those systems try to find is their own version of a balance between three elements:

1) A FRAME, that allows their body to take the most out of its structure and physics so it can take on opponents with more muscle power;

2) a method to extract the most FORCE (power in movement) through alignment of the body and timing to generate more impact a general person would; and

3) FLOW, which is a way to connect one move to another into a continuous stream of motion.

Of course, some systems do better on one part than another. I love how #boxing and #taichi train you to FLOW (and in very different ways) for example, or even how #mma is finding new ways to seamlessly transition between striking and grappling arts. Others, like #wingchun or #Bjj put so much emphasis on FRAMES that it’s worth learning them at least to understand the body better. On the other hand, #karate or #muaythai really dig into FORCE in a way that gives you a different perspective of how powerful someone’s body can be.

Each school manages their limited training time a different way. By choosing how much they want to invest on each, martial arts define their own version of that balance. That strategic decision determines the strengths and weaknesses of each art, as well as creates opportunities for innovators to rebalance this tripod from within.

But that’s just a feeling. Something I’ve been investigating recently. If you have practiced multiple styles and have an opinion about, leave a note on the comments.

Hashtagananza

I learn so much when I start a new book. What other activity would allow me to have, on the same month, a conversation about 1) soul alchemy in daoism, another on 2) thought suppression on the brain’s neocortex, one about 3) antagonist algorithms in artificial intelligence, one on 4) the differences between playing and non-playing characters in Minecraft, one on 5) the different rooms at the White House, one on 6) take down defense in mixed martial arts, one on 7) intersectional feminism, one on 8) the similarities between the i-Ching and the divination systems in Nigeria?

Just think of the hashtags alone: #Wudang #daoism #neuroscience #minecraft #whitehouse #artificialintelligence #mixedmartialarts #taichi #literature #feminism #intersectionalfeminism #iching #yoruba #china

Crazy, but fun!

The meaning of Kung Fu

Let’s go Wikipedia so you Westerners understand: “In China, it refers to any study, learning, or practice that requires patience, energy, and time to complete.” That’s right, the term actually refers not to martial arts but to extreme skills adquired through very hard work. Which is the kind of work ethics the old fighting masters always imposed to their pupils. Hence the confusion.

Now, since we are on this theme, it’s interesting how old school and new training is becoming so similar. Take a look at the photo above, then the video below:

This is the kind of shit an old Chinese monk would do to their students if they had the equipment. Repetition, conditioning, unbalance… until excellence is second nature. Kung Fu. #kungfu #mma

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Video is a Repost @paigevanzantufc

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@coach_dave_wl making sure I keep that punching power without irritating my forearm. UFC I’m coming back!!!!

Taichi for real fights?

I grew up doing Taichi under the shadow of Wudang. Shifu never explained why or how, but he would make us perform the slow forms with precision and power, then when we had to fight, he pushed us away from trying to use the moves and positions. “No fantasy,” he would say.

It infuriated me. Took me a flight to America and being in a cage with bigger men to understand the training. How fighting is timing, form and power, and how my slow and precise Taichi allowed me to move and hit with more strength and speed that my outside body looked it could do. Because of Taichi I learned to put my entire body, and gravity and momentum, on any different part of my body. If on top of that you know how to deal with someone coming to crash your skull, no matter how big they are, you can always knock him down.

In a fight, yin is difficult, yang is way more exciting. I am far from being balanced. Very far, in fact. But if there is one reason why I can put men to sleep when few girls my size can, it’s because of the inner power I developed with Taichi.

#taichi #taichichuan #mma #femalefighters #femalemma #internalmartialarts

* this account is fictional, for details check the link on the bio

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Instagram Repost @taichi_universal

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Thanks to @georgethompson.uk for his amazing video. 🙏

The Inner Power that we are said to get by practicing an internal martial system such as Taijiquan or Baguazhang gives us a much more subtle and potent power; not for fighting a physical attacker, but for fighting off disease by keeping us in a constant state of balance and to enable us to cause ‘things’ to happen in our lives! This may sound mystical but it is quite a natural thing. The human brain is tremendously powerful with the ability to make us ill, make us well, make us happy or sad, and enable us to gather wealth or to change our circumstances in some way. And this is the Internal Power that we gain by doing for instance Taijiquan. But by doing Taijiquan in the manner it was invented, lends itself to an excellent way of self defence as an off-shoot of training to gain inner power.

By erle montaigue

Fighting, for women

For a woman, fighting is different. Technique matters more, intelligence matters more. We can’t rely on our weight and muscles so much. Need leverage, footwork, speed instead. But more than anything, we need inspiration. Not everyone is lucky to have been born in a family of fighters like me, to have been raised by one of the greatest Shifus to ever live. For everyone else, redemption comes from examples of other girls who show we can all be badass in our own way. Build our body the way we want, and kick any fucking ass that dares to mess with us.

The lady on the photo is Ronda Rousey. She had a couple of tough, painful losses, but she still did more to grow interest for female fighting that anyone I’ve ever seen.

Xiexie, Ronda.–

#femalefighter #femalefighters #judo #mma #ufc #rondarousey #femalemma #unitedbyblood

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Instagram Repost @rondarousey

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Favorite picture of my judo career, en route to winning my first World Cup at 19 – pic by David Finch

Insurmountable Mount of Balance

From everything, balance is the hardest. Yin, yang. Soft, hard. I know it’s possible and worth it. I’ve seen it in action. But I was born with too much yang. Can train both ways, but when I’m fighting, still have trouble letting go. The beast in me always wins.

#femalefifhter #taichi #mma #yinyang #unitedbyblood

Feat instagram photos by @paigevanzantufc and @taichi_universal

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* This account is fictional.

The Lesson of the Drunken Master

drunkchinese

“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.

 

Dragon’s Gate

dragon's gate

Almost midnight and the bell rings. A giant cold steak on my face, an ice pack on the shoulder and I wish there was something for the crushed pride. Not because of the fight I lost, only athletes care about stupid records. I’m no athlete, I am a fighter. Broken because I tried to call George. Shouldn’t have. Now he thinks I want to… I won’t. This is my life. If he wants to get back together, he needs to… The bell, yes, the bell. At fucking midnight.

Who is that?—I shout.

Silence.

Damn. If those two nerds followed me here, I’m going to kill them.

It isn’t. In fact, it’s nobody. Just a hard paper box. Red with golden details, Chinese pattern. Couldn’t they have left it there for tomorrow? I rush to the window. A red fishtailed car, golden wheels, drives away and turns right on the first corner. Doesn’t seem rushed.

Back to the box. Whoever sent this took the time to make a very traditional wrap, with layers and layers of paper until I get to… The gift: a green stone. Sculpted and carved in the shape of a leaf.

No, a feather!

I rush to my side table, open the drawer. At that point, the pain is gone. I know it’s there. The i Ching book, no. My coins, no. A little blob wrapped in old Chinese newspaper. That’s it. I haven’t looked or even thought about that thing since I left landed here.

I flash back in time. A few years. In my memory, I am at the airport. Beijing. The air is so thick, I cannot tell if the orb in the sky is the sun or the moon. Going there soon, the sky. But now I want to feel the arms around me a little longer. It’s awkward. Sifu isn’t a hugger. “Do you want me to stay?” He seems so weak. The embrace is gone, and gives me a little jade sculpture over a piece of newspaper. A badly carved… leaf?

“A phoenix’ feather”—he says. I wrap it and shove into my pocket.

“When you arrive, look for my friends. In Chinatown.”

Wake up next day with the plane hitting the floor in San Francisco. Face swollen like a jujube from all the crying. My phone, Sifu doesn’t use one, but there are a few other students I can reach to let him know I am ok. He worries about me. And doesn’t trust planes, either. I turn it on and the screen shows two messages. I swipe the little window. “Sifu is gone.” The note says.

The Earth went so dark I could hide in there forever. Felt my skin melting, my head dissolving into the air I can’t breathe. In my head I was screaming at the pilot a mile forward. “Turn this shit back!”

“Don’t come,”—read the other message—“He said you should stick with the plan.”

Nobody ever answered my replies. None, ever. Like I didn’t exist.

Flash. Back to my apartment, the day I lost the fight. I look at the jade feathers. They aren’t a perfect match. Carved by different hands, that’s for sure. But the drawings, the shapes… seems as if they had both been copied from the same source. I was being summoned. By the folks I didn’t have the guts to contact, then felt too embarrassed to do, then finally forgot.

The problem was, all I learned about Sifu’s friends was that they were in Chinatown. I wonder if master knew that neighborhood is nothing like our little village near Wudang.

Next morning, I take the first BART from Oakland and drop out on Montgomery Station. From there to Dragon’s Gate, just a few blocks. The smell of dumplings, roast duck, incense. Hadn’t been here for a while. Almost forgot how hectic it is. Tiny shops everywhere. Harsh screams the whites misinterpret as fights, cars honking and the soothing notes of an Ehru somewhere afar. From all corners, a different cat waves, always that stupid happy face. I have a problem with smiles.

I walk, seeking some sort of sign. But everything is red and gold, like the box, the fishtailed car.

I walk more. So many people. So rushed. What kind of life is that?

I keep going. At times, I stop, show the jade feather to a street vendor, a shopper that seems local, ask if they know… they all titter and disappear inside. “Hey, what’s funny?” The old lady scorns, hits her head with a palm, calling me dumb. Then rushes in, locking the door behind her. I’m left outside, no answer. That’s when I see it, and it all makes sense. On the corner of Sacramento and Hang Ah, a tea house like every other. Except this one is called Fèngmáo. The Feather of the Phoenix. It has to be that.

“Nihao.” The old man serving a guest greats me and show him the jade feathers. He chain bows, “Yin Sifu, Yin Sifu. Xuéxiào.” and points at the little martial arts school across the street. Right behind the tailfish car, camouflaged among all that gold and red.

Dragon Scale Kung Fu School, says the window decorated with red curtains and carved wooden trims. Bodies overflow through the door. Tourists, locals, white people with cauliflower ears. I push myself through them. The place buzzes like a bee hive.

Inside, an old man does some clown shit. He moves his hands in circles as a bunch of idiots wave their heads in the same rhythm. Then he palm-strikes the air and they all fall on cue. The old fart defeats all his fake enemies without placing a single finger on them. The Chinese part of the audience applauds. This has to be in some sort of touristic parallel universe.

All on the floor, in fake pain, someone hits the gong. A young kid that behaves too serious for his age. The circus disbands in fear. Before the sound is over, there’s only the old man standing on the mats. Glorious, superior, fake. In Mandarin, he talks to the crowd.  The gong boy translates.

“Today is another chance for ancient art of Chinese Kung Fu to be seen by America. May the challenger say his name?”

“Mark Landers”—says the redhead. He doesn’t look very smart. A white Japanese grappling kimono covers his torso and hangs over the orange board shorts and open fingers gloves. No dignity either. Hard to say who is the bigger joke at that point.

The old man and his translator continue: “Mr. Landers answered the challenge to anyone who dared to face Master Yin’s chi. In victory, the school will pay him five thousand dollars. In loss, Mr. Landers agrees to tell the world about the superiority of the Chinese arts.”

The American nods. They shake hands. Bow. Shake hands again. Bow. So awkward. The two build distance, then another gong.  I can hear the kid’s feet brushing through the matt, slow, cautious. There is no buzz anymore. Like a crippled boxing, he faints a silly attack. Too far to be of any threat. Yet, the old master stumbles back, throwing one of those “vicious” magical hand moves. Unimpressed, the young man winks at his friends on the first row. They bark, the idiots. An island of amusement among a sea of insulted Chinese kids, all wearing the school’s uniform. Embarrassment everywhere..

One more faint and Landers attacks for real. The owner tries another hocus-pocus monkey crap, but instead of throwing his foe back, like he did with his zealous students minutes before, he gets hit with a punch, square on the face. “Oooooh!”—exclaims the crowd, in fear and shame.

A few in uniform rush to attend the master. They surround him, frenetic, loud, speaking an odd mix of tongues and throwing accusing looks at the challenger. The American walks in circles, chest up in a brag, the eyes skipping between his friends and the angry gathering around the host.

Gong! The master is raised back to his feet. Nose bleeding, inner tips of the eyebrows almost touching his frown. He signs and the students give him a pass, no chi needed for that. “Again.” Says the sifu, pointing at the gong boy. Reluctant, the kid thumps it one more time.

This turn, it was the Sifu’s initiative. A kick in the air, and a double hand strike onto nothing. Lander widens his arms and trades glances with his peers. They can barely stay up, so much they laugh. The master pauses, jerks his chin. The kid twists his neck back at where I am. We make eye contact. For only a second. He charges again at the owner of the Dragon Scale and throws a sloppy roundhouse kick on the ribs of the old man. He bends. Then a knee on his face. The kid was diving, fist up, body falling to finish the fight, when a startled crowd leap between the fighters. The white guys on the corner no longer laugh. They push, scream, point their fingers. But there are too many students there. A brawl, ugly in blood and honor, is about to break. Oh, the bravery of the fools. Unless the jocks are much better than their friend on the mat, they are about to get killed. A voice interrupts them all: “Stop!”, commands the Sifu.

We Chinese are good on respecting authority. A river of silent emptyness widens between the fighters. The host now stands ahead of the winner and his friends. Chin high, head tall, eyes wondering to the sides in uncontrollable betrayal. Behind, the eldest student shakes his head in disgust. He raises three overstuffed red envelopes, hands them to the winner. The ultimate humiliation.

With defiance and scorn, the outsiders accept the prize. I would have slapped them right there. Honor and manners you test in victory. But I am not there, have nothing to do with them, so I watch the brawlers depart, pushing the crowd with their vulgarities. So toxic, their path remained empty even after they were gone.

“Leave.”—begs the master—“All of you.”

His eyes are distant, the voice unsure. Nonetheless, the audience abides. I follow. Sad to witness an elder face his end. I think of Sifu, how heartbroken he would be the day he couldn’t defend himself anymore. In a certain way, I’m glad he departed before the fall. Someone holds my forearm. A short, bald Chinese man. He has the dark and rugged skin of a fisherman, the hands feel like stone. His rich silk robe says something else though: a man of possessions. So confusing. Behind him another elder also in silk, long white hair pulled into a pony tail, aristocratic moves.

They close the door. The window. It’s only the four of us there now. The bleeding host, the men in expensive robes and myself.

I say nothing. If anyone is to talk, it must be them.

“You have something that belongs to me.”—says the owner of the school.

I’m not ready to respond yet.

“I told you. She doesn’t know.”—says the short one. “Do you?”

In silence, I say no.

They take my backpack. So sure of themselves I don’t know how to react. Before I could, he is already pulling his thick fingers back out. The bag drop on the matt and his hands expose the two jade feathers I brought.

“My name is Chee Yue.”—says the tall one. He reaches his pocket and opens his hand. A green feather.

“Mine is Ho. Sam Ho.”—says the dark skinned fisherman. With the other hand, he shows his own feather too. “The ones you carry belong to Master Yin and… your father, I believe.”

“My Sifu.”—I respond.

They all bow in respect, and the host points to the back of the room, where a small octagonal table surrounded by richly adorned Chinese chairs await us.

“So you must be Yinyin.”—Says Master Ho—“Your father…”

This time it’s master Yue who corrects him: “Sifu.”

They all grin, I am not sure why. Sifu Ho continues: “So you came here to finish your training?”, then waves his hand in a circle towards my face, his expression lost between pain and disgust.

Having been raised to respect the elders, I avoid voicing my thoughts. I had just watched an unimpressive MMA thug defeat the so called master and they are mocking my bruised face? Saying they would train me? Sifu must had been senile at that point he ordered me here.

“I came to…” I give the host his stone feather. And you know what the mother fucker does? He grins again. Then he claps twice, above his forehead. Like a drunk rich monkey.

It didn’t take a second, and a blur rushes from behind a curtain. A pale young man, carrying a tray with tea for four. He bows to the masters, then me. That red hair… he rises. The MMA dude?!

“Sifu?”—says the flaming headed servant, still wearing the top of his Brazilian Jiu Jitsu gi. The impostor fighter leaves and Master Ying asks: “What? Do you think that was real?”

From grins, they evolve into a loud, obnoxious laughter. The clown seems to be me. I stand up, trying to save face, just to be sat back by their kind hands and gestures again. “Wait, young girl. You are one of us now. But you have to complete your training.”

“Us?”

“Us, the Phoenix Society”—says Master Ho.

“I never liked the name”—interrupts Master Yue.

“Sounds like Harry Potter shit!”—continues the short one.

More loud drunken laughs, even I am disarmed. What do they have on that tea?

He proceeded: “There used to be more, but so much got lost after the bomb. Hiroshima. Something changed, lots of things our parents could do… wouldn’t work anymore. We were the only ones left. The Shadow Leap, you haven’t been able to do it yet, have you?”

“Me? I… I did… I mean…”

No deep wisdom needed to see through my stutter, yet I double down on my stance.

“No way. Too much yang.”—says Hue, and points at my face again. “And… this.”

Master Yin agrees. He turns my way: “No need to worry. You are young. And a woman. Women learn slower.” I must have gone red as a pepper cause the bald one had to jump in “But then become very good. Better than men.”

I try to stand up again. The pony tailed master holds me. This time more serious. “Listen, we all hold secret and traditions.” He points, first at himself—“his Iron body can hold almost any hit”. At the short one — “Water hits back allows him to absorb any blow and redirect back at the opponent”. At Master Yin — “his Storm hands let him project chi beyond his body”. 

Then he pointed at me: “And then there’s your family Shadow Leap.”

So I say, “If my Shadow Leap is like your crazy magic spells I think I’m better off with my own training.”

“Not magic. Pure physics. Otherwise the bomb wouldn’t have disturbed us.” — he insists.

“You really want me to believe there is any science behind that shit?”—Yes, I actually said that, on their faces. And immediately regret. They are now quiet, somber. Trading looks, communicating in a silent language I can’t comprehend. I close my fists waiting for darts to come flying into my head, or a giant with a machine gun to turn me into a noddle drain. Too many mobstesmovies? Maybe. Nothing happened. I calculate my chances. These three old hacks, barehanded, I can take them down. My jade leaf is still on the table though. I reach, as slow as I can. Maybe they won’t see it.

PAK! The tall one slaps my hand. They are laughing again. Three deranged, senile kung fu frauds. No time for dotards.

I grab Sifu’s gift and storm to the door. Why would he send me to these people?

“Yinyin.”—says the owner of the school.

Not sure why, I turn. He has his palms facing each other, ahead of his protuberant belly, as if holding an invisible sphere. His weight shifts back to one leg, rather elegantly, I must say. Then the hands move to the side of his waist and I can swear the walls bent three or four inches. It can’t be. Did they put something in the tea? He shoots the imaginary ball of chi my direction, with so much poise I have to leap not to get hit. Immediatelly regret such foolishness. But then I feel it, crossing the air. Hot and cold, straight and fast. And BANG! The door busts open right behind me.

They stayed where they were. Staring with their friendly yet challenging smile. “If the bomb couldn’t destroy our secrets, attitude won’t do it either.” They bow, but I keep hearing them in my head: “Women learn slower.”

I storm through the exit, determined to never come back until I have mastered the fucking Shadow Leap. They will see.

The butterfly and the black eye

butterfly

A long time ago, in the province of Meng, in China, there was an honorable philosopher called Zhuang Zhou. He once wrote about his dream of being a butterfly. As such, he flew through the woods, enjoyed the perfume of the flowers and the sound of the rivers. All was wonderful with his colorful flying-self, as he knew nothing about his times and desires of men, only the wants of the most beautiful of the insects. In his ignorance, he didn’t miss human life. Happy as he has ever been, he glided among the trees.

Suddenly, he wakes up. His pale skin and pointy fingers are horrendous. His shadow has no wings. Desperate, Master Zhuang runs to the lake to check his reflection. Who is that creature devoid of colors? So confused he became, for a while he couldn’t tell if he was a butterfly dreaming of being a man or a man taken from a dream of butterfly. Zhuangzi was a wise man though, and through dedicated meditation, he finally understood.

“I am both!”

Yes, he was. The man and the butterfly. “But I shouldn’t have been awaken that abruptly, for the walls between the dreams and life should have no windows to peek.”

I hear the story, wondering why Sifu chose that particular one among so many others. After a full day training of intense Tai Chi forms, the connection wasn’t the clearest. Then he calls me to spar.

My legs can barely hold; my arms are heavy as if they had carried a pig for a mile. “Be light like a butterfly” – I think. That’s what he meant! He’s always scolding me for my hard moves, after all.

We fight. Soft and gentle, I watch myself floating around him. As if I had wings made of rice paper, painted with colors of all kinds. My Tai Chi shines. So precise, so beautiful. I enjoy in pride, until I get hit. A punch, right on the kidney, makes my chi leak, rapid. Inside, a coiling pain slithers up my body and hooks onto one of my eyes, the one on the opposite side of the blow. It twitches, rolls into my head then gets dragged towards the injured organ below the ribs. I fold. One knee first, then another. My hand touches the floor, hoping for a landing more gripping than sand. I feel everything. See everything. I think, what is going on? Is this what the allegory was about? Do I need suffering to… transform? To wake up? Is this the only path to enlightenment? I turn to Sifu, begging for relief and an answer.

Behind a chuckle, he gives one: “The wall. Never lose the wall.”

Is that the best he can do?!

He extends a hand to help me stand. The problem with kidney shots is they don’t cause the sharp pain of a broken bone or the dizzying effect of a head hit. It’s so deep it makes you feel dark in the chest, praying the world leaves you alone. That is me. I hold the hand.

Leg limps. Chest refuses to open. Guts are loose, like watery noodles soup. In a protective Tai Chi stance, I wait for his move. He launches, faster than a man his age should. And his fist is inside my stomach. Not a full punch though. Just strong enough to knock me down.

Despite the agony, I can still think. What I can’t is breathe. He seats me up, hits me three times with an empty palm on the heights of my back. Clock, clock, clock. Darkness fades.

“The wall”—he repeats, with a grin. Sifu knows my beast. So I hold it. Not allowing him the pleasure of a double lesson. Instead, I wait, quiet, until he says whatever he wants to say. Hurts less this way.

“Life and death; forms and fight; man and butterfly. The different sides of life must not recognize the other. Or they will never be full on what they ought to be.”

Master twists his beard and raises to a beautiful Tai Chi pose. Head tall, weight on a single limb, arms pointing forward and back. From below, his indigo robe, deeper than the indigo flower itself, looks like an armor of dusk. He presses with a hand as the opposite leg takes a gentle step backwards. “Repulse the Monkey”—I say,  the name of the position. Perhaps it can unravel the mystery he taunts at me. Nothing. Damn, he is so light when he does Tai Chi! Maybe that’s it? He is telling I’ll never be weightless?

He says: “forms.” Then shakes into another pose. Elbows down, legs rooted like a tree, chin tucked, face hiding behind the fists. He jabs, crosses, hooks, dodges, kicks, leaps. “Fight”—he finishes. “They must not know of each other.”

After hours training forms and a devastating sparring session, that’s something really fucked up to say.

Took me a lot to let the anger pass, even more to comprehend. Not just time, new ideas and methods too. I mentioned I love Bruce Lee, right? How I even moved to Oakland because of him? Influenced by his writings, I started to cross-train. A sponge, absorbing everything I touch. That helped.

One day, I am in a judo class, learning to unbalance people by breaking their steps mid-move. Oh, and throwing them on the floor too. Next, Muay Thai, BJJ, Eskrima… Fighting styles for the entire world. My Boxing instructor adjusts my stance: sideways, right arm horizontal and low, covering the entire waist; shoulder forward, a glove to protect the chin. “Philly Shell”, he explains. The punches come from all angles, and I try to stay calm, but I’m getting close to the wall. His flurry continues: up, down, side. My elbow covers a kidney shot without too much effort. The shell is an interesting guard indeed! I have a vision: Sifu and his Repulse the Monkey. Not the full move, more like a flash, and do a Boxing version of it. Leg back, spinning the body, connecting to a cross from the other side. It shoots fast, sharp, precise onto my instructor’s face. I touch the wall behind me, give him a black eye.

Intriguing, the wall thing. The butterfly one. You teach your body to operate with flowery forms, hold them on the other side while you fight. Then one day, a flash of a form crosses time and space and possesses your swing. All of a sudden, your instructor learns he can’t mess too much with you.