Tuesday, February 20, 2007

My childhood martial arts experiences

Some years ago when I was living in Philadelphia, an American I had recently befriended asked me what was Asian about me. Nowadays, I could point him to this blog to find out for himself. Back then, being the anthropological-minded person that I was (and, actually, still am), I regaled him with details about the kinship system and associated "naming" formalities which I adhered to.

However, if I had wanted to be stereotypical, I guess I could have easily told him "I know Karate". Which I do; having studied it for a few years in my youth. And is something that I've sometimes found that -- thanks in large part to the various Asian martial arts movies which have made their way into Western hands and the Western imagination-- many Westerners think is the case for pretty much every Asian who hails from a territory to the east of the Indian subcontinent!

Of course, the truth of the matter is that not everyone in East and Southeast Asia knows Karate. Heck, not everyone is an exponent of some form of martial arts! As it turns out though, my father is one of those Asians who has spent some years training in and practicing the martial arts; in particular, Karate.

This fact notwithstanding, my decision to study the Japanese martial arts form known as Karate was not one which was all that automatic. Instead, I was taken around to check out a few different martial arts forms, schools and styles before making my decision as to which I would go ahead and pursue. (Still, I must admit to having had next to no interest right from the start in such as Tai Chi (because I associated it with the elderly) and Judo (because that martial art's de-emphasis of punching and kicking made that which translates into English as "The Gentle Way" look "girly" to my untrained eyes)... ;S)

Although I used to enjoy going with my father to the dojo where he regularly trained one-on-one with a Karate black belt, I decided that what I wanted for myself was to train with others -- kinda like, you know, at the Shaolin Temple which featured in many a Chinese Kung Fu movie (e.g., Mainland China's Shaolin Temple and Hong Kong's The 36th Chamber of Shaolin)!

As it so happens, there's a Shaolin Kung Fu outpost over here in Penang. So, one evening, my father took me through the doors of what had looked on the outside like your conventional row house in the old part of George Town (Penang's capital city) and straight into a scene that looked like it had come out of the training sequence of a classic Kung Fu movie!

Perhaps an overactive imagination has made my memory of that occasion more colorful than it actually was. But the abiding impressions I have retained are of the place having been full of sweaty, hard-bodied male youths and manly men, most of them stripped to the waist and focused on improving their physical condition and martial artistic prowess.

Of all the training techniques that I was privileged to observe that evening, by far the most impressive -- but also most downright frightening looking if you're viewing it from the viewpoint of someone who is contemplating whether or not to subject yourself to it! -- was "the sand pan method" aimed at developing the Shaolin"iron fist" (or fabled "iron palm"?).

As the section on it on the official Penang Sao Lim (i.e., the Hokkien rendition of the Mandarin "Shaolin") Athletic Association website takes pain to caution, "this method is very unpleasant and destroys the nerves of the hands". So it would be understandable if those of you who haven't actually seen someone thrusting their hands into hot sand inside of a big and deep as well as broad-rimmed wok that's being heated by a charcoal fire don't believe that people actually do this kind of thing in real life.

But believe you me when I state that I truly did witness some men doing precisely that in order to toughen their hands, fists and forearms that night! And also be equally assured that after doing so, this then preteen female child emphatically -- and surely understandably? -- decided that Kung Fu was not for her!!!

At the same time though, I wasn't about to abandon my quest for a martial art that -- and school where -- I would like to learn. Hearing this, a Korean friend of an aunt of mine decided to introduce me to the Korean martial art of Tae Kwon Do and took me to a local Tae Kwon Do centre to watch a training session which I found to be pretty impressive. But for some reason that I no longer can remember, I didn't become a Tae Kwon Do student like Collecting Tokens' Alejna did.

Instead, I ended up at the Budokan Karate (an international school of Karate with Malaysian origins) classes that were held at the local YMCA (which appears to serve primarily as a hostel these days but, back when I was a kid, offered lots of extra-curricular courses, ranging from art classes to language lessons to, yes, Karate training sessions). And then, when the instructor decided to move the venue of his evening classes to a presumably low-rental charging local churchyard, I really did end up learning and practicing Karate while surrounded by the final resting places of more than one Christian individual!

Looking back now, it all can seem like a somewhat surreal part of my childhood. At the time though, my twice weekly Karate lessons, whether they took place at the YMCA or the grave-filled churchyard, seemed normal enough -- since I was by no means the only kid learning karate in Penang -- as well as regularly were the highlights of my weeks.

Even funnier was the fact that even while my parents and those of the other children who were taking Karate lessons along with me talked about how it seemed like taking those lessons had calmed us down (and we affirmed to our parents that we would regularly end our sessions with "breathing lessons" designed to instill calmness in us), the best part of the sessions as far we were concerned were those devoted to "free sparring": i.e., effectively chances for us to try out , in one-on-one pairings and bouts, the martial arts moves that we had learned on one another!

All in all, it's a wonder that none of us seemed to ever have gotten seriously hurt amidst all the hijinks. Sure, one time, someone actually sent me flying through the air with a punch. (In mitigation, the thrower of the punch was an adult who, to rub insult to injury as far as I was concerned, was told by the instructor that she shouldn't use her full power with me since, even though we wore the same colored belt (brown), I was still a child after all!)

And another time, I ended up with cracked ribs. (This time at the hands of a fellow child -- only he was male and a few years older than me!) But I generally felt that I usually gave as good as I got. And, in fact, once -- accidentally, of course! -- broke someone's tooth. (Fortunately, it was a milk tooth since she was my age and thus, at that time, a prepubescent!) As well as caused another girl to sprain her wrist... ;S

Nonetheless, and in all seriousness, it really did seem like fun was had by all for the most part! So, really, if I could turn back the clock or, even, was fit enough, yeah, I'd go back to taking those Karate lessons again in a jiffy... :b


eliza bennet said...

Greetings from a fellow karate ex student.

My story is that since my sister used to beat me very often (in fact everytime I visit home) and I couldn't beat her back (since she was really very skinny so I was afraid to hurt her) my parents decided that I should enroll a martial art course to learn how to defend myself without causing serious harm to others (yeah despite my petite figure I have a rather heavy hand, as we call it here) So I ended up liking it and training hard and was encouraged by our teacher (who was also stunt man/fighter in Turkish action films) but I only went for one month! My going there was enough to scare my sister and as soon as my mother saw my feet she called it quits - apparently the area below my toes hardened and had a yellowish colour which my mother found unlady like. Even though I was 14 then I still remember the stances and "katas".

YTSL said...

Oooooo, Eliza! Thanks for the disclosure (re your being a fellow ex Karate student) and also the fun story.

Also, it's amazing that you remember the "katas". For my part, have to confess that I can only remember the first three that I learnt... Ah well, chalk it to my older age and, as well, that I studied Karate at an earlier age than you. ;)

alejna said...

What a fun post. I loved your description of the Kung Fu school. Amazing that people actually were doing the hot sand business. That would not be for me, either!

My experiences with martial arts have been pretty different. For one thing, I'm really not great with the sparring. I'm actually really not aggressive, plus even when I was training regularly, I'd get really winded. (Happily, my school is not a full contact school, too.) I was most partial to the drills and the forms (we didn't really call them "kata," nor did we particularly use the Korean term "hyung" either.)

Anyhow, I really enjoyed reading about your martial arts past! It sounds like you were a pretty kick-ass young girl.

YTSL said...

Hi alejna --

Glad you enjoyed reading about my childhood martial arts experiences. In all honesty, didn't realize that I had written such a lengthy entry until after I put it up and was checking for typos!

And yeah, I do have my aggressive moments. From my late teens up until about three years ago, these have come to the fore out on football playing fields. These days, however, I tend to have to voyeuristically make do by watching action-filled movies -- the grimmer and grittier the better; and, of course, preferably ones that have kick ass women as well as men! ;S

sbk said...


where are the pictures of you and your group???

YTSL said...

Hi sbk --

Believe it or not: There's not a single photo of me and my karate group. (I guess it was such a normal part of my life that it didn't occur to me to take photos documenting it.) And just a couple of photos of me in my karate gi (outfit) which I'm not prepared to share with the whole world! So, sorry but you'll have to use your imagination to conjure up visuals to accompany the words that I provided... ;)

dailyStrats said...

It is never to late to start again!
I have been practicing on and off for many years, and can tell you that it takes some courage and will power to come back, but it is well worth it!

YTSL said...

Hi dailystrats --

Am not sure about getting back to doing karate. However, I've been thinking for some time now that I'd like to take up tai chi. Now that I am living in Hong Kong, it'd seem that opportunities'd abound to do so. The only problem is finding the time and energy to do so! ;S