Before coming to China, I was told a lot about how Kung Fu practice is about character building, conquering day-to-day challenges at every corner, and training both body and mind around the clock. OK, OK, I wasn’t told, I saw it in Jet Li movies. But you get the idea.
Well, it’s true.
For instance, in order for me to pass across from the dining hall door to the dinning hall counters where the food is served following a long day of training, I have to trapeze, skid and slide on a thin layer of the day’s soup mixed with slimy soap from the sloppy cleaning done earlier, all the while seeing fellow students fall right and left as they slip and fall prey to that Shaolin hidden trap – trays flung and flying in the air, and more food and soup splashing.
If that’s not unnerving when you’re at your weakest and most vulnerable, I don’t know what is. Jack, the Chinese-British Sanshou student who joined the camp recently, joked that it was “all on purpose, it’s part of the training, you know.”
Food counters reached? The frugal meal is still not guaranteed.
You see, hungry Kung Fu students don’t believe in queues. Queues are against the tenets of their faith, or at least they act like they are.
They also believe that elbowing your way to pinch a steamed bread bun, or to grab the same pair of chopsticks you’re reaching for, is a noble and essential part of the Xiaolong dinning experience. Many of them also don’t mind feeling the bread – their hands still unwashed and dirty after a few hours of training– before they take their pick.
They’re also firm believers in spitting. Everywhere. And yes, it happens while we’re all eating. They liberally regurgitate chewed food whenever they feel like it too, in case it doesn’t taste as they think it should.
No apologies. No warnings.
So even while eating, a Kung Fu student (or at least someone like myself who used to pick fights with people who talked a little while chewing their food) must learn to “zen” it, shut off the world, and let it fall away – at least for the duration of the meal, in order to avoid the thumping urge to vomit right then and there, or boycott food altogether and starve to death.
During the training itself, and in addition to the already complex moves and choreography of Taulo Kung Fu, I also get out of my way (and sometimes abruptly jerk myself out of it) to avoid all the mysterious gooeyness and dirt on the ground when say I’m flipping myself around during form, or jumping high in a kick, but noticing a split of a second before my feet touch the ground some sickly goo right where I should land.
I also have to make sure to keep away from tiny five or six-year old students hopping giddily around as I wave my staff or slash my sword in practice (often stopping clumsily midway through patterns, doing a quick surveillance then resuming). One time, and after almost, almost perfecting a difficult pattern, I flubbed it, and instead of doing an elegant pirouette, staff in hand, I ended up hurtling myself head first into the ground when a beaming kid appeared out of nowhere right in the planned trajectory of my staff.
As if that wasn’t humbling enough, the kid stood there pointing and laughing at me.
Character training, all of it. I mean imagine what brand of will and restraint it took not to throttle the giggling kid to death and bury him in the mountains?
Even in halls in the foreigners’ camp – where one should sleep, rest and supposedly find some peace – Jack, Chris, Tolik, and Zhuyan, the classmates living on my floor (all young men in their twenties, mind you) have suddenly decided that the grueling training, the Shaolin medieval weapons and all the jumping around during the day aren’t enough, and they must do something about it.
So they bought BB guns.
Now my floor endures sleep-disturbing rackets at night, and raging gun battles and guerilla wars during morning breaks. It’s literally Northern Ireland in the 80s right outside my door everyday. Sometimes the violence spills into my room, which somehow has turned into a safe-house for random guys who rush in to hide or reload their guns.
The gun pellets actually puncture small holes in you. I snapped pictures to prove it (I was in half mind to buy one of those navy blue war zone vests and stitch ‘Press’ on it so I could saunter out without fear of being caught in the cross-fire).
But what really turns the scrimmage into a full-fledged circus is Peevish Mrs. Knotts’ continuous shrieks every time she hears a rumble. The plump and sour-tempered matron would walk up from her room a floor below and in frantic Chinese, squeal and scream at the big boys to stop – while I, a mere mortal looking for enlightenment and a few hours of sleep, suffers on the sidelines squashing my ears with my pillows to shut off Mrs. Knotts excruciatingly high-pitched squeals.
Of course, realising this all can’t be a coincidence (you know, for the benefit of my personal sanity), and that it must, must be part of the bigger plan to make me a more able, adaptable, patient, composed, non-suicidal Kung Fu fighter, and after a few incidents of being too scared to step outside my room lest I fall victim to a stray pellet, I decided to up the ante and steal one of Chris’ shotguns (the most powerful of the arsenal) –– now resting beside my Dao sword, wooden staff, kindle, and my basket of moisturizing creams and nail polish bottles.
What else could a lone girl do? It’s a dog-eat-dog world on this building.
But now all I need to do to feel safe or to force a momentary lull in the action is to point the muzzle outside of my door frame. Then I hear the rush of people shuffling hastily into their rooms (to avoid the wrath of the crazy Arab girl with a big gun) followed by an earnest hush of beautiful silence.
And for what it’s worth, difficult as it may, I think I’m starting to wrap my head around the rules of the ‘Shaolin’ character training game.
Bring it on Xiaolong. Bring it on.
From Xiaolong’s Foreigners Camp:
Zhuyan (my Vietnamese Kung Fu classmate): Hey Pakinam, I’m coming for the shotgun. Can I take it please?
Pakinam: No, it’s my only protection against all of you guys. I’m the only girl here. I need my gun.
Zhuyan: But I really want it.
Pakinam: I can’t part with it. Why do you want it that bad anyway?
Zhuyan: To kill Tuhao.
Pakinam: The Shaolin monk?
Zhuyan (grinning): Yeah, yeah.
Pakinam: Ok. But give it back right after you kill him. Like immediately.
Zhuyan: OK, OK (runs off with shotgun)
This post was originally published on Cairo Scenario.
Art by John Spelling.