Around this time that I started formally becoming a “martial artist”, my obsession only grew. Being only 14 at the time, my class attendance was limited on how often my parents were able to take me to class, so I spent the vast majority of my time practicing and doing the exercises given to me at home. Looking back on the experience, my instructors were more interested in monthly P and Ls than they were in producing top notch students, so I ended up taking their instructions and figuring out the best way that I thought I could do it (as well as a teenager with a desire to get revenge on his bullies could understand anyway).
Of course, I soon grew restless with this kind of learning. As we prepared for a family trip to see family in China, I asked to learn from a coach there. My vision for training there may not have been too different from what most stereotyped images of Chinese martial arts is, but I knew it would be challenging, coming from a Chinese upbringing and having an idea of the culture for education. Zhong Laoshi, as I was to call him, was fairly accommodating towards the westernized Chinese kid with the flat feet and the ability to “eat the bitter”, as he stated with mild surprise one day during training. Being in a class, and being able to interact with local kids and their families gave me some idea of how they approach their training, their mindset towards it, and their goals for it. There was no mysticism or delusional expectations. Their main thoughts were if they, or their kids, had potential to compete, if their Wushu training would lead to them having a better shot at a good college, or simply that their kid be strong, confident, and healthy. That summer of training, even though it’s been almost 16 years, still impacts me to this day. Namely, the emphasis on form, the targeted intensity, and the expectation that each and every session should be challenging in its own way.
What about Bruce Lee though? You cannot write about martial arts and stereotypes without mentioning the king of cinema action! For myself, Bruce Lee was not an influence until I was two years into my journey. At the time, it was the late 1990s and early 2000s, and Jet Li and Jackie Chan were just starting to make it big in to Hollywood. Rush Hour, Romeo Must Die, Kiss of the Dragon, and the Jackie Chan Adventures cartoon were all coming out in a very short few years. Finally, I watched Enter the Dragon. It was overpowering and underwhelming at the same time. The man’s charisma, physical abilities, and attitude were larger than life, but I had been spoiled by Jackie Chan destroying everything around him with reckless abandon, and Jet Li’s high flying athleticism with classical Wushu. It took me finding out more about his life, and his philosophy, to appreciate him further. He began to represent more to me, a shield and a spear against the bullying and the stereotyping that impacted me, and almost every other Western raised person of East Asian ethnicity. He was, in the words of Will Yun Lee, “The epitome of cool, he was James Dean, he was Michael Jordan”.
He was rebellion against conventional, seemingly antiquated way of thinking of the old country, while at the same time commanding acceptance, respect, and reverence by his adopted country, all the while expressing love and pride in both. Acceptance and respect things that we as ABCs or immigrants raised in the West, all crave on various levels, and this craving can manifest itself in various ways. Bruce Lee manifested it in ways that were almost completely on his own terms, and at no point was he not the magnet of the scene, even when you couldn’t see his face and he was supposed to be the sidekick. It took a little time for me, and my opinion of him has changed over time, but he was, and remains an ever present influence both in my niche area of martial arts, and in the way I view and approach situations in my regular life.
I am in no way trying to compare myself to the man who is the Godfather, John Wayne, and Fred Astaire to many Western Asians, but like him, my eyes began to become open to martial arts as a worldly and universal cultural set of phenomenons. Some of these awakenings were enjoyable, others were ugly, still others were painful. All of them are valuable.