A Stellar Flare of Young Adult Writing and Visual Art
by Judy Luo
In my eight years of Kung Fu training, I have always enjoyed the attention. After a performance, the audience would clamor, “She’s so great! And a girl, too!” But this sort of acclaim belongs to the category that also contains praise for a clown. “Oh, wow, look at the way he pulls ribbon out of his nose. He’s so…good at that,” they would say uncomfortably as the clown fixes a prying and eager gaze upon them.
Because martial arts lack gender balance, I believed I was superior due to the fact that I was of higher skill level than most of my male counterparts. Under the mild teaching style of Kung Fu in America (various laws prohibit the practice of beating your students with a wooden staff), it was inevitable that I developed a firm and unashamed ego.
So in the months before my training at the Shaolin Temple, my excitement built up in a parabolic form. The escalation: a cottony month of dreaming about, ironically, the harsh and demanding lifestyle of Shaolin students. The vertex: a solidification of plans thanks to the corporate connections of my dad. The decline: when I realized I was not going to be in the 12-to-a-room local division, but rather, be forced to frou frou around with a bunch of fat ABCs (American Born Chinese).
Upon hearing that last bit of news, my face dried up quicker than a dead frog on concrete in July. The coaches would not recognize that I was special. I would be one of the incompetent many.
When I first arrived at the Shaolin Tagou Martial Arts School, I was immediately met by a frumpy advisor named Linda. Her polka dot Hello Kitty shirt and Halloween Hello Kitty lunch box and plastic blue Hello Kitty slippers reflected the incontrovertible fact that she does not, and will not give a damn about you—there is better time to be spent on purchasing more Hello Kitty attire. After an uninterested attempt at telling me about my daily life for the next month, she swung her orange and black lunchbox as a gesture for me to follow her into the training room.
Ferociously ugly green carpet covered the practice space. I would soon learn that the green carpet has two main purposes: protecting your body from falls during practice and sticking onto your skin better than flour does to wet dough. On the right half of the room, a herd of small, loud, Russian children clicked and clacked against each other as visible pockets of energy rebounded off their spears. On the left half of the room stood the most unexpected assortment of people:
After a gummy stretch of time, the cigarette man dutifully stepped forward and introduced himself as the coach. He asked some standard questions about my past experience, but I wasn’t really paying attention to him. I couldn’t wait to show these saps who the real alpha was.
We lined up to show off our forms, one by one. The gangly white guy and Korean boy went first. Their movements were choppy, flimsy, and frankly, plain ugly. It was no shock—I was used to watching herds of students butcher Kung Fu in every way possible. Up next was Rotund Boy #2 and local boy. RB2 did the Ape form with confidence and accuracy, even managing to execute a butterfly kick at one point. Not bad. Local boy followed suit. He flew through the Long Fist form with acute speed and agility. After he closed the form with the standard bow, I began to feel nervous. What if they weren’t useless slobs who kicked like stumpy-legged caterpillars? What if they weren’t chumps who couldn’t run 200 meters without stopping and panting like fat-hooved pigs? What if they were…better than me?
When Sportsy-Chinese boy began his rendition of the Eagle form, all my questions were answered.
And they weren’t the answers I wanted.
Leaping into the air, he started off with an air-bound backwards somersault and landed elegantly into the crouching stance, his claws and eyes sweeping the room with unwavering focus. After a couple of tense seconds, he suddenly lurched up and drove into a tornado kick followed by an aerial. He continued on, as if each seamlessly executed punch, kick, and flip was a direct attack to my ego. When he finished, my original poised stature was reduced to that of a simpering spider.
The final blow: the coach turned away to take a call on his tablet.
It was an iPad-sized phone.
My room was a damp, ill-lighted chamber haunted by starved mosquitos. The bathroom was groomed with a fine layer of mold, each crevice creepily smiling its green-black teeth at you when you walked in. Every night, the hot water would turn on at 8 pm for one hour. Well, at least it was supposed to turn on. Most of the time, we would be forced to take toe-curling ice rinses or stand naked in the bathroom for 30 minutes due to the time consuming process of boiling water in a tea kettle, mixing it with cold water, and dumping it over your head repeatedly with a bowl. After the first few days, I learned the trick to living in my new environment: to strategically angle my body parts away from the dirty, whether it be the soiled edges of the toilet, crusty cracks of the floor, or grimy part of the mattress.
I woke up at five every morning to run before the roosters started to croon. The local students would long ago have started grunting and yelling, their uniform footsteps like a thumping metronome. We lethargically gathered outside of our quarters, scraping our shoes on the ground. Then, Coach would simply say, “okay,” and off we would go in two lines, running down the path to the temple.
In that one-kilometer stretch, I would always feel a cartoony rush of optimism. It was hard not to when it was sixty degrees and your insides were still frosted over from fatigue while the sun slowly breathed on your skin. The willow trees dipped their fingers into the languid river as the old garbage man swept up trash from the dimpled ground. The scenery wasn’t breathtaking, but it was present and real. There was something special about seeing a place that is normally smothered with tourists in its most tranquil state.
Each day, we trained for seven hours, and it was hard. To put it in perspective, every student did at least 600 kicks, 800 punches, 300 sit-ups, and 400 pushups in a single day. Not to mention the most energy consuming activity: relentless repetition of long and strenuous forms that were either open-handed or with weapons. Stretching had a different meaning at the Shaolin temple—not a method of relaxation, but rather a tragedy where your legs were forced down into impossible positions until you could physically feel your muscles teasing apart. There was no slack or excuses, no sympathy for soreness or petty injuries. Those who chose the route of laziness were met by humiliating and exhausting laps of frog jumps or, on a bad day, swift kicks and staff lashings.
This was one way to view Shaolin: a cruel, horrifying hellhole that suckles the youth out of children through physical and verbal punishment. But, it’s also one of the most uncomplicated places on Earth. You wake up with the sun and work hard. You eat your breakfast and take a nap. You work hard again. You eat lunch and take another nap. You work hard one final time. You wash your metal bucket that holds your meals and your clothes in the small sink that is provided. You pour warm water over your sore muscles. And in the moments before slumber, you think about humility slipping quietly into rigid routine. Between all the smells, sweat, and pain, you paint the dull cracks with friendship and mischief.
It was the last day.
A gold Buick corporate van pulled up, glinting a rude flash of light into my eyes. I climbed into the AC induced cold while uncomfortably smiling at the artificial queries of my father’s coworkers. As the door slid closed, I waved good-bye to the friends I had grown so close to in the past month. The car started rolling, rolling quickly past the thousands of practicing students who were infinitely better than me at Kung Fu.
Judy Luo is a student of the United World College of SEA in Singapore. She believes that writing is a medium in which one can find him/herself, explore relationships and reach out to others. To her, writing should be more than the selfish act of clarifying one’s own mind. Writing can be seen as a legacy. We write in hopes that one day, someone will read our works and see a part of the self reflected in history and in fantasy and imagination, and feel all the more connected to humanity for it.
An excerpt and announcement of this story’s place in the contest was also published here, on Hypertext Mag, the site that hosts this contest and sister site of Hypernova Lit.