Although still early in his journey, it was becoming apparent to Andrew that this trip was more for mental growth and learning under the guise of physical training. This is not to say Andrew had nothing to learn about Kung Fu and its applications. He would certainly apply the principles he gathered along the way, particularly the need to include some form of movement pattern training to enhance his coordination and balance.
He wanted to be forced out of his comfort zone. He wanted to experience isolation and a type of solitude where he was separated from close relationships. He would learn how to be content with himself without leaning on others or things.
His comfort zone was quickly expanding. He had begun to utilise airplane mode on his phone for large portions of the day to limit interactions with the outside world, after Forde had mentioned this tactic during one of their conversations. Try to create separation between you and where you’ve come from or it will make the transition more difficult, he had said. Already he was feeling a difference.
With developments occurring at speed, Andrew wondered how quickly the academy setup would become too comfortable. After all, he could remain confined to the school’s walls all day every day with food and shelter provided. He had his books and his training. While he still had much to learn about the martial art, this was turning out to be a by-product of the trip as a whole.
Maybe, he thought, this is what accounted for the lengthy stays of individuals at the academy. Comfort. Martian, for one, rarely trained and instead spent most of his days in his small room.
He would continue to develop here, fostering patience, independence and contentment with himself, but would he mature faster if he pivoted on this adventure? Was a change of course what he needed or should he stay true to his original journey?
The process. Presence. Call it what you will. This was an area Andrew was determined to improve on.
They say depression results from dwelling in the past while anxiety is caused by thinking of the potentialities of the future. Working only on the task at hand did not come naturally to him, after all, lessons lay in past experiences and goals lay ahead, did they not?
He had begun to find ways to become more present. He would remind himself of his core values first thing in the morning along with his overarching goals. After that it was a matter of becoming absorbed in the present whether it be sweeping the yard or following what he deemed to be complex Kung Fu instructions.
His mind continued to flicker. Anxiety rose as he thought of the hill run he had to complete later that morning. No, he thought. There is no value in wasting valuable processing power on something that he could not influence. The only time he would dedicate energy to the hill run, would be during the process of the run itself.
Step by step. That is the only way forward
There is no semblance of a working week in rural China. Farming requires daily contribution in order to get the most out of the land and minimise waste. Other industries follow suit, with the familiar sounds of a construction yard heard even on a Sunday.
Paradoxically though, Andrew thought, the entire system is full of inefficiencies. Today he caught the bus into town for the first time. As he went to hand over the fare, the driver palmed him off, indicating payments are to be made to another man sitting further back in the bus.
While it’s true that the ‘work-life’ balance is a Western construct, Andrew found it interesting that the principle hadn’t made its way to the East. Or perhaps it was still permeating its way from the main cities to the countryside? Is this why countries like China continue to languish behind developed nations in many ways?
Furthermore, their shortsighted approach becomes apparent when it comes waste management. With the government pouring endless resources into creating tourist attractions, such as the irony of modern temples, they fail to educate people of basic waste disposal. Instead, trash heaps can be found everywhere and anywhere.
In saying that, the locals seem happy. As Andrew rode the bus back to the academy, a small child smiled and waved at him playfully and the whole bus was drawn into the interaction, smiling too.
Andrew knew the importance of a good night’s sleep. Rest enabled the body to recover and adapt. He had driven hours of research into how to optimise this part of the training cycle.
As he began to drift off, meeting the odd state between sleep and wakefulness, Hugo and Henry began to bark in chorus. Andrew was yanked from rest and began to feel agitation well up inside him. The two continued for a number of minutes before resting, allowing their vocal chords a chance to freshen up, before commencing a fresh bout of barking.
Andrew was frustrated at their timing. This would hinder his sleep and training progress. Just as quickly though, his attention was brought to his current reading, The Obstacle is The Way by Ryan Holiday. The premise of the book is based on stoicism, a philosophy made popular by Marcus Aurelius, the Roman Emperor.
The basis of the philosophy is centred on clarity of thoughts. That is, not allowing destructive emotions to interfere with the objectivity of a situation. When confronted with a crisis, rather than seeing it as an impedance to progress, view it instead as an opportunity for growth by practicing virtues such as humility and resilience.
With this in mind, Andrew brought his attention back to the barking. What could being angered achieve in this situation? Certainly nothing positive. The stirring of such emotions were more likely to keep him awake than the noise itself. He approached the situation trying to separate his emotions for the objective facts. His options were to practice patience, waiting for the dogs to cease on their own accord. Alternatively he could get out of bed and find the target of the barking in an effort to curtail the dog’s efforts.
Before he was able to decide, he was asleep.
He had begun to lace up his shoes for an afternoon training session when Forde confronted him, “Hey man, what are you up to?” he asked expectantly. Andrew explained himself and Forde responded with “Oh…I’m heading to the restaurant across the road to hang out with some Chinese buddies. I was hoping you’d come along so I wouldn’t be the only one who couldn’t understand what was going on”.
Andrew managed to override his default response of ‘no’. He reminded himself that he was writing his own adventure. Perhaps something could eventuate from this situation, a lesson at the very least. Forde was elated when he said he’d tag along. He’d try anything once.
Andrew and Forde made their way across the road to the house-cum-restaurant, the set-up of which was unlikely to pass the most lenient health and safety inspection. Escorted by a Chinese man in his thirties, communication was made possible thanks to the wonders of Google Translate.
They made their way up to a small gazebo where a group were conversing and passed a boy with bandaging around his big toe. Andrew recognised this to be the child whose toe had been inadvertently shortened by his American buddy. The remnants of lunch, including chicken and various soups, sat on the table. Immediately they were offered beer and tea. An odd combination, Andrew thought. The tea was pleasing while Andrew feigned drinking the diluted beer.
He hung about for half an hour, battling to communicate, before calling it quits. Forde pleaded with him, “Dude don’t abandon me!” Andrew was resolute however. He had acquired an experience and recognised it wasn’t for him. The gathering was centred on drinking and smoking, neither of which Andrew found particularly appealing.
He returned to training proud of his ability to be flexible with his plans, try something new and subsequently not get drawn into anything that didn’t meet his values. This, was a small win.
Without the rigidity of the weekly schedule, students were left to their own devices on weekends. Some commuted to the nearest city where they would teach English, helping sustain their stay at the academy. Others traveled to nearby towns to stock up on supplies or simply escape the confines of the academy.
Being his first weekend, Andrew decided he would remain at the school, perhaps walking to the closest village if boredom became an issue. Thriving on a routine, he set himself small tasks like writing and practicing the techniques he had covered over the first week. Also, he had his first experience with a Chinese washing machine leaving him with a soggy batch of clothing, having selected a setting that did not involve a rinse cycle.
The day rolled by at a lazy pace. By late morning, he was alone at the academy and this was the closest he had been to complete isolation. It dawned on him. Perhaps his China adventure was a lesson in personal contentment. He had to learn to be happy and fulfilled by himself, without the crutch of material possessions and a support network. If he could master this scenario, going back to a world with friends and family would be a cinch.
At the academy he could read. He could write. He could train. He could contribute to the upkeep of the school. There was no reason he shouldn’t feel satisfied with this lifestyle. After all, he was living the life of a Kung Fu student of years gone by, albeit with modern supplementation.
He vouched that by the conclusion of his time here, he would develop a greater appreciation for the simplicities life had to offer.
As if the roosters and flies had conspired with one another, Andrew was unable to sleep in. A faint whistling noise could be heard just outside his room. Making his routine toilet trip, he walked past the senior Shifu practicing.
If the rumours are true, the Shifu is 62 years old, but doesn’t look a lick over 50. It is said he has trained every day since he was 6.
Andrew, not wanting to make his intentions obvious, began to pick the chestnuts that had fallen overnight in a guise to watch the man. He thought it remarkable that the Shifu followed the same format that the student’s partook in during the week.
He warmed up by skipping followed by the basic kicks and punches. Next he practiced forms before moving on to technically demanding techniques involving weapons such as the chain whip and spear.
It was no wonder he was so proficient. The formula to mastery was truly that simple (but not easy!) – practice, practice, practice. Of course this would have to be combined with relevant criticism to ensure mistakes were corrected. The senior Shifu no doubt received such feedback during the earlier parts of his decorated career.
Daily practice would need to become commonplace for Andrew if he wanted to achieve mastery. He had the discipline to put this into practice; all he needed now were goals and the right coaches to guide him.
The first week had come to an end. It had gone quickly too. Friday’s session included a long hike to a temple atop a mountain. In total the trip took more than 4 hours. In fairness, playing tourist along the way slowed progress.
His body was beginning to respond to the training rigours. Soreness was subsiding and movements were becoming more fluid. It will only be a matter of time before I’m a Kung Fu master, Andrew thought with sarcasm.
The beginning of the week had been a battle of coordination, which Andrew thought was going to be a major stumbling block. If he couldn’t string together the basics, how would he go with more complex forms?
Though, just like in the movies, with consistent practice coupled with guidance from the Shifu’s, he was improving at a reasonable rate. The young Shifu had told him that next week he must choose a style to learn. Andrew was at a loss. Being a newbie to martial arts, he had no idea what he wanted to learn. Maybe he would ask the Shifu to pick for him.
As he reflected on what he had absorbed over week, it became apparent that his time at the academy could yield serious gains if he could remain injury-free and consistently apply himself. Although the other students were of a higher ability, it was not relative to the time they had spent at the academy. Forde being a classic example. Nudging on 9 months, he has some nice moves but often misses practice. One wonders where would he be if he trained with more diligence.
With the day at an end Andrew told himself, forget others actions and behaviours, control what you can control. Comparing yourself to others is also an exercise in futility, he contemplated. He made a promise that he would maximise his time here by never missing a session and applying himself fully.
He slept poorly and the pronounced bags beneath his eyes confirmed this. For whatever reason, negativity plagues ones thoughts when in a fatigued state. Today he felt lonely. Not the type of loneliness of being alone, but the type that arises out of relationships that lack.
At home, although not perfect, his relationships offered depth. There was love, knowingness and familiarity with his family and close friends. Such understanding was nonexistent at the academy. Instead it was replaced by niceties, which he supposed were better than nothing.
He had taken his relationships for granted. They help to provide assurance and support among other things. Upon returning, he told himself, he would make more of an effort to develop his existing connections, strengthening them rather than allowing them to stagnate.
To do this he knew he would need to be more vulnerable and express himself with greater ease. The existing walls of stubbornness and impenetrability would need to be broken and replaced with a willingness to share. He would begin rewiring himself while at the academy. The anonymity it offered should prove useful.
His body felt like it had been hit by several freight trains simultaneously. He knew it was cliché but every muscle in his body ached. He moved like the Tin-man short a few squeezes of his oil can.
Today, he experienced hard Qi Gong for the first time. The practice is centred upon strengthening and hardening the outer part of the body. He had struck sand bags over and over, practiced combinations on wooden poles and even managed to break his first brick (and possibly his hand in the process). He chuckled to himself at the end of the day knowing that he was surely at his maximum level of soreness.
Bjorn is a Danish student at the academy. It has become apparent he matches Forde when it comes to being the centre of attention. It was interesting to watch him vying for others attention, particularly the Shifu’s who he respected most.
He would constantly do tasks for their approval, including extra repetitions to prove his worth. This behaviour annoyed Andrew until he realised why. It was a reflection of his own behaviour, albeit to a more subtle degree. He too hoped others noticed the hard work he put in.
Having been commended by the young Shifu following a session, Andrew was met with disappointment when he wasn’t singled out for his efforts for the sessions which followed. Why, Andrew thought, is it so important to receive approval from others, particularly those we don’t know and like?
Is it a consequence of a childhood where commendations were abundant, like a dog that receives a treat even after the most mundane actions? Perhaps it’s centred on a lack of self-worth. If one doesn’t feel they’re valuable than they hope others will provide validation that they are in fact good enough.
The day finished with dumplings for dinner. Andrew inhaled 30 with ease. That’s 20 too many, Andrew thought in hindsight. As he drifted off into a dumpling-induced sleep he told himself he would make a concerted effort to do things for himself, not to prove worth but to develop the skill at hand or complete the task for the sake of it. What he does has no bearing on his self-worth, nor does he need the words of others to make him feel a certain way.