Sunday, January 11, 2015

Practice, Practice, Practice.

 "Mastering others is strength. Mastering yourself is true power" 
Lao Tzu

    The day was an unusually sunny one. The smog had been brushed away by the gentle breeze, which caressed my face as I stood in the stadium’s stands. My friend Chuanchao had invited me to one of his kungfu practices. I had asked him about two weeks ago if I could take some photos of him doing taichi—he taught taichi, as well as assisting the kungfu class which I take. Actually, as part of his program, he competes in kungfu, taichi, and Chinese fencing.
    I held up a hand to block the sun from my eyes as I surveyed the field before me. The red track was covered with runners, both soloists and groups. The field had a horde of students—mostly young men—who were either stretching or practicing their footwork with soccer balls. Along the outskirts of the track, on the packed dirt, were several fierce games of badminton played by older folks. They appear to be all white hair and smiles, until you put a racket in their hand and suddenly they become the Serena Williams.
    There was one group, however, which didn’t fit in with the rest. They were on the outside part of the track, on a section with the same rubbery material as the track itself. A perfect medium to practice martial arts on. Heedless of possible injury, I picked up my feet and skipped down the concrete “seats”. As I drew closer, a figure detached itself from the main group and came to meet me. It was Chuanchao. He greeted me with his usual smile.

    I first met Chuanchao in one of the red brick class buildings, in the dingy hallway. The classroom I had been searching for--A610--was still in use by the political science lecturer. A young man, about my age was also in the hallway, presumably waiting for the same thing I was. He kept glancing at his phone, checking the time. He was lean--although solid--, with a square jaw and black-framed glasses. Awkward as usual, I leaned against the wall and fiddled with the strap of my shoulder-bag. Was he my teacher? He seemed too young, not too much older than me. After a few minutes, his phone found its place back in his pocket and he took a few, long, steps towards me. Unsurprisingly, he towered over my small 5' frame.
    "Are you waiting for kungfu?" He asked, his voice gentle in the silent hallway. I nodded, and, a little to my surprise, gave me a warm smile, which I shyly returned. "We'll start when they," he gestured to the classroom, "finish. What's your name?"
    I found out later, after that first class had ended, that Chuanchao was a grad student, studying kungfu, taichi, and Chinese fencing. I was right when I'd thought our ages were close; he is twenty-four years old. He competes in tournaments, and at the time of our first meeting, he and his classmates were training for one such competition. Twice a day, for three hours, they would gather in the gym to practice together. 

    It was to one of these aforementioned practices that I was joining.
    “What happened?” I asked. Those black-framed glasses were taped at the hinges with what appeared to be white medical tape. He laughed ruefully.
    “It happened just today,” he said, taking off his glasses to show me, “in kungfu practice.”
    I whistled. “Wow. Were you hurt?”
    He shook his head, then motioned for us to return to the rest of the class. As we walked, I thanked him again for letting me impose on his practice, and he returned that it was no trouble. He explained that his teacher could not be there that afternoon, but the students had to attend regardless. He introduced me to his friends, who all, obviously, studied kungfu, taichi, or Chinese fencing.


    The atmosphere of this practice was relaxed. The students started in a single group, moving through a taichi routine for warm-up. From there, students would practice whatever they needed to. Chuanchao and another student broke off to practice kungfu—she was teaching him the last few movements. Once in a while, their peers would pause their practice and watch them, giving advice or teasing them gently.

    As is common in groups of martial artists who also happen to be friends, play-fights erupted once in a while. The participants casually cuffed each other; laughter pulsed through the air. Just as quickly, just as randomly as they began, the fighters shook each other off and returned to their practice.

Handstands were also wont to appear.

    I perched on the closest seats, alongside the various bags and discarded jackets of the team. I kept tapping my feet, not from impatience, but from nervousness. I’ve always been a little shy, and while I was comfortable with Chuanchao, his teammates were new to me. I wasn’t quite sure if they were okay with me taking photos. So, for the first quarter of the practice, I took notes, describing the day and the students themselves. For the record, there was someone behind me whistling the theme song from Luigi's Mansion.
    Finally, I gathered enough courage to pull out my camera and take a couple of surreptitious photos. When no one objected, I shook off the last vestiges of shyness and preceded to take a ludicrous amount of pictures.

As I mentioned, the field was used by various groups that day. Including the army. The contrast between the jogging troop and my friends' graceful movements was sharp, to say the least.

    At the end of the practice, Chuanchao offered to perform a full taichi routine for me. Naturally, I agreed eagerly. Their movements during practice, while not perfect, were still incredibly elegant. Of course I wanted to see what a "finished" routine looked like.
    I was not disappointed.

For my fellow fans, waterbending (Avatar) was based on taichi. You're welcome.

He looks a wee bit smug, but then, if I was as talented as he is, I would be smug too.

Nothing brings people together like traditional Chinese martial arts.

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