Monthly Archives: February 2014

Dirty Streets, Clean Hands

I figured out about a dozen years ago that the more I or anyone else is sure about being right, the greater the likelihood of being wrong.  There’s no mathematical equation involved; it’s just a matter of open-mindedness.  It’s a matter of being able to see beyond one’s own point of view long enough or broadly enough to entertain its flaws.

This lesson was many years and emotional bruises in the making.  It had to evolve from a youth of frequently being criticized, through a  young adulthood of constant insistence on my near infallibility, through a lifestyle-changing early motherhood that required I let others be right, because mine and my son’s well-being depended on it.  So for the last twelve to seventeen years, I’ve caught myself learning more and arguing less when one of the top three questions I ask myself in a conflict is: “Am I wrong?”

I’ve asked that several times this week in multiple ways, including right here.  I reached out to the other side of the world to find out from one I was sure would tell me that my side of the street is dirty if, in fact, it is.  And tell me she did.

My side is dirty because it is culturally unacceptable to criticize one’s superior and potentially make him lose face.  It was incumbent upon me, in an East/West cultural clash, to accommodate the customs of his culture when in his school.  So I apologized to him for a second time.

The challenge now is to make my dirty hands matter more to me than his.  Odds are high he hasn’t entertained for a moment whether his side of the street and/or hands are clean.  No.  Correction: he’s certain he’s entirely in the right.  I have to just accept that, and frankly, that’s hard.

It’s hard because he grew up in a major northeastern U.S. city and is every bit as Western as I am when he chooses to be.  It’s hard because the attitudes and behavior of almost every instructor in the building – including the Chinese American ones who are older than Sifu – don’t reflect our leader’s strict philosophy.  The school’s teachers – Sifu’s choices – are casual, communicative, friendly and warm, with very few exceptions.

I don’t understand how the lines are drawn by Sifu or where, but for as long as I’m in his school, I have to accept that they move.  I have to follow the culture… though it appears to be a culture of one.

I’m Still Here

When I walked in the door last night, I bowed to the room, took off my coat and shoes, slung my sword over my shoulder and headed for the basement… right behind the beginner class just back from break that I should have been teaching.  Sifu was covering for the missing green sash instructor, and I bowed to him as I passed.  He returned it with a smile.  It was a smile I’d seen before and precisely the kind I would have expected to get from him upon telling him of my tournament win.  It was a smile of genuine happiness mixed with a hint of pride.

I was there, head held high, despite the devastating dressing down on Tuesday.  I was there at a time that required I face the teacher who’d replaced me, knowing they’d been told of my removal.  And Sifu appeared to be happy about that, though I certainly didn’t do it for him.

Once downstairs, it did my heart good to see one of my favorite students not only light up when he saw me but lightly clap his hands and hop up and down a couple of times.  I winked and smiled at him without saying a word and took a spot in the corner to stretch and warm up.

I noticed Sifu come downstairs while I was practicing front and back sweeps as far out of the way of the class as I could manage.  His presence in the basement meant he’d left a bunch of sparring pre-teens to their own devices.  I’d never seen him do that before.  It made me wonder if he’d come down just to make sure I wasn’t lending my two cents to the class.  I know that’s paranoid, but at this point, looking over my shoulder seems appropriate.

I can’t wrap my brain around all this, try as I might.  The more hours that pass, the more I find myself feeling sorrier for him than myself.  If I hadn’t angered him with my comment about his reaction (or lack thereof) to my win,  I might never have known that he’s considered it disrespectful every time I’ve taken whatever empty space was available to practice staff while another class was going.  Never mind that the sanshou instructor has explicitly told me I’m welcome to practice in the empty space during his class; never mind that Sifu himself has told his tai chi students to move down and give me room when I’ve come looking for it.  Sifu’s explanation is that it was easier to just make room for me then to call me out in front of a class and embarrass me with an order to move.  It was easier to just avoid conflict.

What conflict? I didn’t even know we had one!  When I have a conflict, I say something so it can be resolved as quickly as possible – which is exactly what got me into this mess.  Call me crazy, but I don’t like to be uncomfortable if I think I can do something about it.  I don’t understand preferring to stew.  It seems like such a waste of potentially precious moments in a life that’s doesn’t last forever.  And I refuse to be robbed willingly.  After all, I’m a black sash in kung fu!

From High to Low

Last night I was called into Sifu’s office, stripped of my teaching post and threatened with expulsion from the school.  So much for being on cloud nine.  The punishable offense was telling Sifu that my feelings were hurt by his response to my tournament win; I thought I would at least get a “good job.”

I am now crystal clear on the following:  he’s had problems with my level of respect for years (I’ve admitted to being a pain in the ass for a host of life reasons when I first started kung fu – see “Let Up Already!” from 12/8/13 and “Everything I Paid For” 12/11/13 – but I thought that was long behind us); and he believes I have a problem with authority.  Additionally, I’m clear that my feelings don’t matter; my expectations of him are irrelevant; and it is totally unacceptable for me to “tell him what he should say.”  Lastly, he owes me nothing more than the classes I’ve contracted to take (and irony of ironies, the family contract is up in two weeks).

I was under the impression that lunches with his wife, babysitting his infant daughter at the school while they’re both in class, and various personal exchanges with the man himself, through black sash training and since, had added a thread or two of friendship to the hierarchical relationship.  I was apparently very mistaken.

Were I permitted to speak, I would say the following:

“Dear, Sifu.

I’m writing to simply explain myself and hopefully have you understand me better, if you care to.

I respect authority a great deal. But I’ve spent my entire life working in collaboration – TV production, making a legal case or defense, publication of news articles, theater production‎ and restaurant work are all collaborative endeavors. So I have never had a boss that I wasn’t permitted to disagree with and make suggestions to. Doing those things with you has therefore never been something personal, designed to question or undermine your authority. That’s always been quite secure to me. We just seem to see interpersonal relationships that involve hierarchy differently. Mine have never been completely dictatorial – not even the one with my ex-Marine father.

I was taught to see questions and explanations – communication in general – as positive things that better most situations. I’d be surprised to find myself in the cultural minority with this trait. But I also get that tradition is important to you, and that tradition means silence.  I will therefore do my best to leave my life and personality at the door.”

But should I have to?  Is that what he should expect?  My tae kwon do sensei, who’s in her late sixties and started teaching martial arts the year before I was born, permitted both conversation and criticism. But she is also not a Chinese American.  So perhaps I’m comparing apples and oranges.  I have no idea.  I’m not really sure which end is up.

Get On With It

Question:  What’s a woman to do when her joy is muted by sexism and insensitivity?

Answer: Make the case that what was awarded was earned and not erroneously given.  Then, sit with the anger without saying, doing or writing anything insensitive in return.  Lastly, shake my head one last time, put a smile on my face and get on with the next day.

‘Nuff said.

Warmth, Peace & Pleasure

I spent the day enjoying congratulations for the win at Saturday’s tournament, with memories of my mother interceding at intervals.  Much to my amazement, there hasn’t been a single moment of anger or sadness over the inability to call and share the good news with her.  I didn’t even have to fight off daydreams, while in Fort Lauderdale, of having her drive down I-95 to actually watch me compete.  I just had one wave of nostalgia for the family vacations that used to be.  I felt it Friday on the long drive from the airport to the hotel, while passing one pastel-colored cement building after another and feeling a hazy humidity only rivaled in my experience by Houston and New Orleans.

There’s a distinct feel to being in Florida for me.  An aura of warmth, peace and pleasure that comes complete with a flood of almost exclusively happy memories – years of Easters, summer weeks and Christmases filled with watching my mother and formerly small children have fun together.

“I just realized that I didn’t give any thought to how it would feel to be back in Florida,” I told my better half on the phone, once I reached the hotel.

“I know.”  There was a hint of surprise in her voice.

I had a quick cry then for what was and for all that’s happened in our lives that Mom hasn’t been here to see.  And that was that.  On to the competition the next morning.

It’s been more than six years since my mother’s death.  Before this tournament weekend, it had been more than six years since my last trip to Florida.  I’d wanted to go back, to revisit the places I’d enjoyed with Mom and my children and make new memories.  But at the same time, I hadn’t been able to imagine setting foot in the state again without being able to see her.

It took kung fu to get me back in the state.  I didn’t even think twice about the venue when planning to go.

Though a mental health professional would probably have a field day with these facts, something about it all seems right.  Something about it feels like the powers of the universe doing for me what I could not do for myself.

Not Today!

‎I’m spoiled. This is not a revelation, actually. I’m an only child, and my mother was loving, though critical. Today, however, I learned that I’m even spoiled in the context of kung fu tournaments. Though I know they are all-day events that are often chaotic in their administration, I’m used to doing my thing and being out the door in no more than two hours. But not today.

For reasons that only God and the tournament organizers understand, youth, teens and adults over thirty-six were all competing out of the same ring for both traditional and wushu styles. Each style and age group had open hand, short weapon, long weapon and “other” weapon categories, and each was divided by gender. And because they put the old folks, traditional style and weapons all last, I spent just shy of four hours watching the competition before I was finally in it.

At one point I was irritated. At another, my muscles were completely cold. But when the moment of truth arrived, I felt my nerves in my throat for the first ten to fifteen seconds of the form – much too long not to make a mistake because of them, and still banged it out like I love it, because I do. Either the judges didn’t notice the flubs, or they liked the rest of my minute so much‎ that they didn’t care about a spin being too wide and a stance being too high.

I took first place for advanced women over thirty-six and got the highest score of all adults, men included! I’ve said before that I never seem to be able to show my kung fu abilities when it counts, only when it’s me and a mirror. But not today.

Not today!

Touch Down…

One of the most beautiful sights in recent memory was that of two long, black casings sliding onto the floor in the baggage claim area of the Fort Lauderdale airport. They appeared after almost ten minutes of watching the conveyor belt spin suitcase after suitcase to its waiting owner. They appeared when only two other travelers remained to stare intently, along with me, at the hole in the ‎wall withholding what we needed. But they did appear, finally, and my heartbeat returned to normal. Hopefully, the only drama left is a performance that gives me a score I’m happy with…and maybe a medal to go along with it!

Back in the Building

I had a great, fast-moving interview this morning, followed by no traffic to the airport.  So rather than spend two and a half hours waiting in the airport, fretting over whether the flight home would be as delayed as the flight there (90 minutes), I thought: why not see if I can get moved to the earlier flight?

An hour of hair-pulling craziness later (all because of antiquated computer software and conflicting rules of different airlines that are owned by the same mother company), I was running onto the plane with the gate door closing behind me.  I have to publicly acknowledge the best customer service by the most helpful set of airport employees I’ve ever encountered: Logan Airport Southwest employees, here’s to you!

And so with an additional two hours to work with, my four days of non-stop movement needs a little less adrenaline.  Just slightly less, actually.  With a load of laundry in, I’m about to happily stretch for my first dose of kung fu in three days.  I thought I could get something done in the hotel room, but there wasn’t enough floor space to do stretching kicks, much less forms!


I hope I don’t have to spend any time getting back into a groove with the form.  With less than forty-eight hours until showtime, this is no time to be cold!  Every nuance must be remembered… and will be.

The Old Friend

I’m in the office today for the taping of two episodes of the weekly program I produce.  I’ll be leaving shortly before the end of the second taping, handing the escort out over to a production assistant, and jumping in a cab to the airport.  After about forty-five minutes of rainy-day, capital city traffic, I’ll get to lumber through the airport with equipment I don’t dare check, for fear it will either not make it to my destination or be damaged when it arrives.  I’ll practice a little Lian Huan Tui, if there’s room in the room, grab a bite, go over my notes for tomorrow morning’s interview, chat with the family by cell and hit the hay.

Tomorrow morning, I’ll check out, head to the home of the March guest for our monthly program, interview him about how he writes in the space where he writes, and thank him profusely for his hospitality.  Then, I’ll dash to the airport, again lumber along with equipment I don’t dare check and hope beyond hope that I don’t damage any upper body muscles needed to execute my long staff form to the best of my ability.  

I’ll fly home, get a cab to my house, drop the equipment in the entrance way, change into kung fu clothes, and double check to make sure the family hasn’t left at home anything I need to practice with.  I’ll then head back out the door to meet up with my better half and children, who will already be in sparring class at our guan.

I’ll get in my last practice in comfortable, familiar surroundings on Thursday night, get in as much conversation as possible with my children, in between each of our showers, replace the work clothes in my overnight bag for the kung fu clothes and jeans, and sufficiently pack up my weapons to prevent damage.  I’ll grab a bite, hug and kiss the kids goodbye – again, get in some conversation with my spouse and hit the hay.

Friday morning, I will rise pre-dawn, head to the airport with my sweetie, check the weapons and pray the staff arrives in one piece.  I’ll kiss her goodbye at the security checkpoint, then turn into a walking wall of nerves until my one “perfect” (hopefully!) minute of long staff form execution is over on Saturday morning.

I’m exhausted.  Right here, right now.  And I still have it all to do.  It’s a good thing adrenaline and I are old friends.

It’s What We Know

“Her mom says she needs a little positive reinforcement.”  He looked at me like I was speaking in Greek.  “You know how it is, when you’re the same sash color for longer than average and you start feeling like you’ll never move up, because you do everything wrong… you know.”  He finally blinked.

“Well, you know how to get over that?” he asked with an undercurrent of sarcasm.

“Yeah, I know, do a better job.”


“But sometimes it’s like a catch-22: you keep hearing that you’re not doing well, so you lose your enthusiasm, and you don’t try so hard, so you get worse – and then you never stop hearing that you’re not doing it well.  Come on.  Just a compliment or two.  She feels like she’s being picked on.”

I knew that feeling well.  It’s where I lived when I first started learning Shaolin Fist, and that picked-on feeling stayed with me each time I got a correction from the instructor who taught me most of that form.  That relationship has long since changed for the better, but the memory of being in the same place as the eleven-year-old girl in need of positive reinforcement was vivid.

I needed Siheng to find his empathy, for her sake.  Even I had once told him with a small measure of pain in my voice, back when I was testing for black sash: “Just once, can you start your critique of my form by telling me what you liked?”  It brought him up short at the time, and it did again Monday night.

“I hear what you’re saying, but I guess that’s just not the kind of person I am.  I mean, coming up in a Chinese family, that’s not what you get.  You bring home an A- and they want to know why it’s not an A,” he said with a chuckle.

“Yeah.  Some black folks are like that, too,” I answered, remembering what was expected of me – particularly by a father who could only appreciate academic success.  Other accomplishments were nice but ultimately just decoration on the only part of the package that mattered.  It often felt like the exclusive reason to have children, in his mind, was to give him a great report card to brag about.

My children know I love and appreciate them for a plethora of reasons that have nothing to do with whether they make honor roll, but they’re also annoyed by the tabs I keep on their school work and my insistence that they do their best.  To some extent, we all copy the behavior we were raised with.  It’s what we know.  But once we notice the duplication, we have a duty to assess, I thought, as I watched Siheng look over the requirements card of our student.

Is this learned behavior something I should keep? I try to ask (though, perhaps, not as often as I should).  Should I change it entirely?  Slightly alter it at appropriate moments?

I hoped Siheng was wondering something similar.  I hoped he would suspend how he came up, just for a few minutes, just for the esteem of a long-standing yellow sash hoping so hard to become green.

As luck would have it, he didn’t need to.  She gave us her best pre-test performance to date.  And we told her so, gleefully…before telling her what she needs to correct.

Murphy & Mother Nature

For those following the weekend’s storyline, our contender came in fifth overall, which makes him third runner up.  Given the quality of the competition I saw, that is a more than respectable outcome and a great first shot at the national team.  Here’s Sifu having a last practice with the Boy Wonder before his final performance.


And so a busy and tiring weekend has come to an end.  Now begins an even busier week.  Once again, I’m keeping my fingers crossed that the weather will cooperate and not close the school again – neither my children’s respective junior and senior high schools nor our collective kung fu school.  It would be classic Murphy’s Law, of course, having only two available evenings to practice for my tournament on Saturday, to be denied one or both by Mother Nature.  But I’m going to do my best to have faith in the powers of the universe that I’ll get what I need.  I am fond of saying that God has a sick sense of humor sometimes.  Now’s not the time to find out firsthand that payback is a bitch, as they say.

Worry will get me nothing, I know.  So I think I’ll decide to stop.  Okay… done.

A Clear and Personal Idea

The sports fan that I am, who’s waiting anxiously for baseball season (and the last year on the diamond for Derek Jeter), has been checking in on the Olympics faithfully, though none of the winter sports are of interest to me at any other time.  What I’ve seen every time I’ve watched is at least one competitor hit the ice or snow or wall when falling down was certainly not supposed to be part of the program.

I feel for these athletes in a way I never have before.  It’s the difference between sympathy and empathy.  The last time the Games were on, I had never before publicly competed.  Now, I have a clear and personal idea of what it’s like to train for something for a long time and essentially disqualify oneself in the moment of truth.  Devastation seems like an understatement.

My kung fu family yesterday wasn’t disqualified from anything, but they did spend a considerable amount of time in preparation for naught. The Chinese school’s New Year’s celebration was cancelled for weather-related reasons.  Two months of choreography, giving up chunks of one’s Friday night and Saturday mornings, went out the window with nothing to show for it.  The disappointment in class yesterday was palpable.

More importantly, the Boy Wonder’s performance at the trials came in under par.  While the heel held up fine and he apparently hit the split, he lost points for other parts of the performance and must fight back hard today to stay in contention.

Me and mine are off shortly for the hour-long drive to dispense love and support.  His place on the national team requires stronger prayers than yesterday and near perfection on his part today.

Regardless of the outcome, the effort alone must be applauded. The time, the dedication, the love and desire is what all of us have felt and given to a lesser degree for this art that consumes us.  He can fail to make the team, but he can’t let us down.  That outcome could never be part of the program.