My boy picked up a gash across his eyebrow in a sparring match tonight, and I took it in much better stride than I would have predicted, given the animosity I once had for the martial end of the martial arts.
“Is there any way I can just do forms and keep getting promoted without sparring?” I asked then-Siheng Kevin in an email, when promotion to green sash meant I had to learn to spar. The request came after a surprisingly painful first month of my face meeting many a fist in completely involuntary introductions. In the heat of a round, I regularly forgot to keep my hands up. It was a really good way to practice getting hit. The short answer on whether I could skip sparring all together was no.
One would think the objective of taking kung fu is to become a good fighter, and for most of the men I’ve met in the school, that objective is completely accurate. But I joined kung fu to learn the forms, to commit to muscle memory the choreographed fight moves that are executed without the contact. It amounted to wanting to look like I could fight without actually being able to. Why would Sifu have a problem with that?
Then one day, I discovered it: power. The kind of power that tore my son’s skin along the eye line without weapon or nails, the kind that can take someone’s breath away or snap his head back like the top of a Pez dispenser. I thought being strong and punching hard would be my saving grace in the endeavor that I didn’t want to do and keep me from hitting the floor. I was wrong.
Power enabled me to win a match or two against those my own size or smaller, but I could still be leveled by one kick from any skilled opponent with at least as much power and significantly more speed. And let’s face it: most of my opponents were half my age and had no problems with movement. I may have been heavy on the power, but they all had more speed! It felt like the odds were rarely in my favor.
But a funny thing happened on the way to my black sash: I stopped trying to win. In effect, I accepted that the odds were against me, particularly when fighting experienced Sihengs. I wanted only to show in my final tests that my various teachers had taught me how to fight. That alone, it turned out, was enough to keep me from hitting the floor and give me peace with the martial end of the art.