Light the Way

Driving down the street, I turned right and felt my car labor up the hill. I dropped the stick shift into second gear and sped up before I realized I had passed the house I was looking for. My tires crunched the gravel until they halted. I stepped out of my car and saw a set of stairs that led up to what I thought to be the front door.

This part of Oakland seems nice, I thought. I wasn't sure why that thought buzzed in my head. Maybe because I opened the trunk and brought out hitting pads and didn't want to start a fight. Not that I couldn't take care of myself. My car could be a good getaway vehicle.

I walked up the stairs and remarked at how quiet the street was. Once at the front door, I could see through the screen door an old Chinese gentleman sitting in his cushy chair. His trim hair was as white as the white marble rocks that paved the front of the home. His wife, I assumed, approached the door. Her hair complemented his, but permed. I think. What spurred in my mind was her impending accent. In fact, there was no doubt that she would greet me with an old thick Chinese accent. I wasn't afraid of not understanding her as much as not liking Chinese accents. Especially thick ones. Don't ask me why.

She smiled. "You must be Jimmy. Tony is waiting for you. Common in," she said in perfect English.

There wasn't a drop of an accent. If I closed my eyes, the last image I would expect to see was an elderly Chinese woman. The next thought in my mind was that her English was probably better than mine.

Tony's grandfather stood from his chair and shook my hand and welcomed me in. Also in perfect English. Was I in the Twilight Zone?

No. But this assignment was about to teach me three life lessons.

That was my first: What I see in contrast to what really is can and often be two different things.

Truth be told, I was a little nervous. Taking on a paying client was new to me. Not only that, but I had to figure out how to imbue this Tony with confidence while teaching him how to be a lethal weapon.

Down this narrow hallway that splintered off into bedrooms strolled a skinny thirteen-year-old Chinese boy, standing about five feet tall. His eyes were heavy and hair matted from his nap, which I eventually found out to be a daily habit. We greeted each other, and Tony led me down a steep set of stairs.

We had met once before at my best friend's going away party, Tony's former martial arts teacher. And mine. Penn was chasing his Hollywood dreams and was leaving for London to study theatre and drama at the famed The Old Vic. His departure had been dramatic for me because I was losing a close friend, and he gave me little guidance of how to continue the martial arts training of his clients he had gifted me. This added to my nervousness. Why? Both Penn and I had been throwing around the idea of opening our own school that not only delved into self defense, but also addressed issues that these kids might be facing. That of course went out the window when Penn had decided to go to London. Now, I didn't want to screw Tony up as a person. I had issues of my own with no concrete idea on how to solve them. So I had been trusted to solve Tony's? Good luck kid.

"This is where Penn and I would have our lessons," Tony stated.

We ended up in the basement that was filled with a lot of nick knacks that only an old couple who had been together for decades could collect. Toys from the past were stashed in shelves along side old books. Boxes and crates were shoved against the wall, and an old Chinese calendar hung along side faded pictures. There was so much stuff, I couldn't recall what color the walls were. What floor space we had was enough to run basic drills, which was fine, but when we shifted to movement drills, I would need more room.

"Oh, they can move their car from the garage if we need more space," Tony said, referring to his grandparents.

I didn't really know what to say except for, "Fabulous."

What peaked my interest was a door on the back wall. It just sat there, waiting to be opened. For some reason it looked ominous because nothing blocked access to it, despite all of the stuff packed into this tiny space.

Since this was our first official lesson, I wanted to spend time assessing his abilities, which helped lower any student's guard, so I could converse with Tony and try and figure out who this skinny kid was. I slipped my hands into my striking pads and held them up a little higher than his height. He struck the pads with pretty good efficiency and power for his size. His pad work filled the small basement with explosive sounds like firecrackers. I wanted to say he could beat up little girls now, but this was our first lesson, and I didn't know if he could take my sarcasm. Yet.

The door kept stealing my attention. It was a few feet off the ground. So to step inside, someone would have to climb in. And it wasn't a normal door like those that led into bedrooms or bathrooms. It was squarish. Why was that?

"What's behind the door," I asked.

A veil of coldness draped down Tony's thin face. His eyes seemed to darken and his shoulders tightened toward his chest. "I don't know. I don't go in there."

Images of dead bodies sparked in my mind.

"Where does it lead?" I prodded.

Tony shrugged. "Under the house?"

"Have you seen what's in there?"

Tony took a few steps away from the door and gazed at it as if he was seeing a long dead tormentor come back from the netherworld. "Someone might be living under there."

What was interesting was there had been no easy way of getting under the house other than through that door. So where did this poor kid get the idea that someone could be living under there like a troll?

As my weekly lessons continued, there was one simple truth I had found out about this kid. Fear was a very real thing that he had been living with for a large part of his life. It had to have originated from somewhere. Tony lived in a very safe neighborhood where the idea of a robbery was sinister. I mean, he attended private school. His parents were well-to-do. He had friends.

What gives?

Tony was close to his older sister who had Hollywood aspirations as well. Crystal had talked shop with Penn when he was Tony's teacher. She seemed well adjusted, aware enough to know what she wanted, and had a healthy social life. He often talked about her and had the normal brother/sister conflicts that all siblings have. During times of struggle, he would go to her for advice. It's heartwarming to know that he still does to this day.

His father was a restauranteur at a well known eatery. He was a tall man of six-feet, the shortest among his brothers. His demeanor was gentle and friendly and giving. I had never heard a harsh word come from his mouth. Except when talking about his daughter's then boyfriend. If anything, Tony inherited his father's temperament and eventually, his height. Yes, Tony would outgrow me. Then I met Tony's mother. Talk about ominous doors. I'm not referring to Norman Bates kind of relationship. But...

Tony's mother worked as an assistant D.A. for the City of San Francisco. She had prosecuted people that horror movies were based on. And like any civil servant, she was overworked and stressed. But both parents were on top of their kids' needs and education. The mother more intensely, like the military's Apache helicopter. To say she was overbearing was understating things, like saying Bruce Lee was some Asian dude. I understood, coming from a Chinese family myself, that overbearingness had come from a deep love and want for her kids to be successful in life.

This was when I learned my second life lesson: Children are people too. I watched Tony struggle with the constraints his mother placed on him. And I watched the struggle she had with her son, trying her damnedest to mold him into the man she wanted him to be.

All of this was to say that Tony had learned and lived with a lot of unnecessary fears that came from somewhere, and I inherited the simple job of showing him most—if not all—of his fears were created in his own mind. In other words, not real.

Another twist had shown up during one of our lessons. We were in the middle of a drill, and I slapped the back of his hand. He cradled that hand with the other, brought it up to his mouth like a mother would, and kissed it.

"What are you doing?" I asked.

"I'm kissing it to make it feel better."

"Are you serious?"

Tony nodded.

Lord. How does anyone teach toughness? The fastest way? By throwing that person to the wolves. Knowing his mother was a prosecuting attorney prevented me from doing this. Also, I was taking a shine to the kid. But an idea popped into my head. One that would possibly get me sued. Again, I reminded myself what his mother did for a living.

In our next lesson, I walked through the door and greeted Tony with a smile. He turned around to lead me to our training area. I targeted his back. He suspected nothing. "How are you?" I said. And slapped his back hard. Really hard. So hard that it could be heard a mile away.

"Ouch! What was that for?" he cried.

"What? It's just a friendly pat on the back."

Next lesson. I enter Tony's home, greet him with a smile. He turned around. Slap!

Next lesson. I enter. Smile. He turned around. Then looked back at me.

"How's school?" I asked.

Tony put his guards up.

"What?" I said, giving him the most innocent look I could muster.

"A lot of homework."

"Ah. Are you done with it?"

Tony turned around. "Not yet."

Slap!

The boy learned to have his guard up, to be more aware. But that didn't stop the slaps. Sometimes they would come during a drill. Sometimes after the lesson. Other times I would slap his shoulder because he would never present his back. In the end, he didn't kiss his hand when he got hurt. At least not in front of me. And hopefully Tony learned that he was a lot tougher than he gave himself credit for.

The ominous door stared at me.

I had been teaching Tony for around a year. The slaps ended. Naturally. But Tony still had irrational fears. So in the beginning of our lesson, I told him that he had to open the door in the basement.

"Will you be here?" he asked.

 "I'll be here."

Tony stepped up to the door and hesitated. "You're not going to trick me and stuff me in there? Right?"

"Would I be that mean?" I assured.

He gave me a look to remind me of the slaps he had received.

I found a flashlight from the piles of nick knacks in the basement and stood about a few feet away from the door.

Trembling a bit, Tony reached for the door handle and let a moment pass. He closed his eyes and took a breath, then opened them. He pulled the door open. Cool air entered the basement, bringing an earthy smell. The concrete foundation expanded under the house into the dark. More nick knacks were packed off to the sides. Some lumber. But there was enough room for a person to hide with evil intentions. That was what I read from Tony's eyes.

"Let's go in," I said.

"Serious?"

"Yeah. If there's anything in there, then you and I will handle it."

"You're not going to just lock me in there, right?"

I didn't bother asking if he thought I could do such a thing. "I'll be here."

Surprisingly, he climbed in first, trusting that I wouldn't shut the door behind him, forcing him to suffer alone. I climbed in after with the flashlight. There wasn't much height between the foundation and the bottom of the house. So we had to squat. We shined the light around different crevices so Tony could see nobody was lurking, hopefully dispersing his fear like a shadow.

"I'm gonna turn off the light."

"For how long?"

"Fifteen minutes."

Tony's eyes widened to almost round-eyes. And that was a feat. He had very slanty eyes. "Serious?"

"How long then?"

"A minute."

I smiled and agreed. I turned off the flashlight. And we waited, squatting like old Chinese men in kung-fu shoes, smoking cigarettes.

"You OK?" I asked.

"I think so."

"Nothing to be afraid of."

"But you're here."

"So?" A moment passed. "You could have done this alone if you wanted to."

"You think?"

"Don't you?"

Tony didn't answer. "Is the minute up?"

"Don't you?" I asked again.

"Probably."

"Want to try?"

Tony thought for a moment. "Next time."

I opened the door and stepped down. Tony followed.

We never tested that fear again. Maybe because I knew he could do it. Or that he had outgrown that kind of train of thought because he could reason it out, that most of his fears were fake.

Five years had gone by. I relished our time together because we became friends, much like how Penn and I had been. As all kids do, they grow up, graduate from high school, then move out-of-state to attend university.

He had been at university for a year or two. He was talking to his roommates who were going through their own growing pains. And he realized something. In one of the rare times we saw each other, he said that he had been thankful for having me help him through his issues. That he was glad he was beyond them. Truth of the matter was that Tony was more than capable of moving beyond his own issues. Sometimes people need a flash light to find their way.

And it's not like he would never have problems again, or that sometimes life shits on people. But it's how we handle it that shows how far we have grown. And it was at this moment that I knew Tony didn't need a person like me anymore. That was my third life lesson. I would have failed as a teacher if he did. But I hope he knows that I'll be here.

Why So Serious?

“Here...fix my watch. Your kind made it,” a bully had said, shoving his Casio watch at me. Thank tha lawd this wasn’t a recent event because sometimes my big mouth writes checks I can’t cash. This occurred during my junior high years. Obviously, what the bully said was racist.

Somthing's In My Ear
Somthing's In My Ear

“You will not be punished for your anger, you will be punished by your anger." – Buddha

A friend of mine watched The Wolf of Wallstreet, starring Leonardo Dicaprio, directed by Martin Scorsese. My friend said it was racist because one of the characters was named Chester Ming “The Depraved Chinaman".

Are you fucking kidding me?

My sensitive friend was serious. I stated that maybe in real life that was Ming’s nickname, and given how the movie ended, Scorsese wasn’t going to make the PC choice and rid him of his moniker. Shit. None of Scorsese’s movies are PC.

"Only if we are secure in our beliefs can we see the comical side of the universe." – Flannery O'Connor

“Learn to laugh at yourself,” I stated.

He argued that I hate my own culture because I mock Chinese accents, often greeting people with “Herro”.

“How important is your culture to you, buddy?” I asked. He rambled on with no clear answer.

“I know more Chinese than you do,” I said.

“And that’s the real shame,” he admitted.

When people spout about how important culture is, I usually never cry out against it. But I will analyze their lives and see how important it is; my friend talks the talk, but doesn’t walk the walk. He doesn't speak a lick of Chinese. 

It’s like anything in life. If it’s important, you’ll do something about it.

Why Are We All Bald
Why Are We All Bald

When my niece gave birth to her daughter, she had read books, blogs, articles on how to raise children, researched the potential causes of autism, and began cooking every meal so she could control what her daughter ate. Diet was a strong suspect as the cause of autism due to the chemicals in processed foods.

My serious pal, however, stood his ground, assumed I hated my own kind, and we moved our conversation topic to women.

“If you can make a girl laugh, you can make her do anything.” – Marilyn Monroe

Cultural Rant

I had gone to a happy hour with a whole bunch of Asian peeps. Most of us didn’t know each other, so the most common question was “What do you do?” I said that I had two jobs: one’s for money to feed my body, the other is my passion to feed my soul. Everyone else answered with some form of IT, engineer, or finance. In the Asian culture, we’re taught from the womb that we are to take practical jobs. I don’t know, but Tom Cruise’s acting career has proven to be pretty practical.

Where the slanty eyes?

Where the slanty eyes?

Back in my day when I taught kids self-defense, my teacher had taken on a new student, who had been on this planet for three-and-a-half years. He could barely speak, couldn’t remember the names of the techniques to save his life, but he learned the movement like he learned to speak, and became an amazing talent. As this young prodigy moved toward his black belt, toward adulthood, my teacher and I began to have pretty severe disagreements with our school and the prevailing arrogance and ignorance that bred within the limited bindings. It’s funny how arrogance and ignorance always seem to go hand-in-hand. And this school was literally the pure definition of this.

Tombstone of Fluid Man

Tombstone of Fluid Man

We finally left the school as we sought for widespread knowledge, much like Bruce Lee leaving the classical mess for something more open, taking what works and throwing out the rest. This was not something our former school understood, since they added more and more crap that only bred more ignorance and of course more arrogance.

Why do I bring this up?

My teacher tried to convince the parents that their son would be better off with him. They couldn’t, wouldn’t leave the school, despite the now adult having spent most of his life with the same teacher. The mother, especially, wanted her son to have earn his blackbelt from a Chinese martial arts school. And here’s the funny part. The school wasn’t even run by Asians. Sure, the system was Chinese; though, I’m not sure what that means (no slanty eyes to mark the school). Sure, there were Chinese characters imbued all over the school. Sure, they even had Chinese dignitaries and masters that would come by and teach seminars. But do those things make a martial arts, school, or practitioner Chinese? A freakin' punch is a frakin' punch no matter who throws it.

International Village People

International Village People

It’s that word: culture. According to my dictionary, one of the definitions is: the customs, arts, social institutions, and achievements of a particular nation, people, or other social group.

The customs of the school is Asian based, so not uniquely Chinese. The arts can be rooted back to Korea, Karate, some Kung Fu, but even the word Kung Fu is like saying Asian. There’s a lot of different Asians, and some of them Ajens don’t even consider themselves Asians. Most of the people teaching aren't even Asian. So when I heard that the mother didn’t want her son to be taught by my teacher because he wasn’t Asian, and she wanted her son to get his black from a Chinese based institution, I was beside myself, like I actually took a step to the side and was like “What? Get over yerself, lady.” And since the school had been based in the US, the achievements of that school, especially in international tournaments were considered US of Aye, not China, not any slanty-eyed nation.

The word culture has been on my mind since I started writing the 7th Province series because I’ve had to piece together the foundation of the society. A lot was drawn from my own experiences, a lot was invented, and a lot was used to help tell the story without giving too much away, through symbolism. Now, I’m not saying I’m an expert on what culture is, what it means, but I know this lady doesn’t really know what she was talking about. It’d be better if she had stated that she wanted her son to have the backing of an actual institution, and not by a single individual. As much as people see me as an American is how much I see this school as being Chinese.

My Dad Can Strike Your Dad Down

My Dad Can Strike Your Dad Down

Ultimately, she wanted to say that her son got her black belt from this school, not by an individual. And this is where culture and ego sort of mesh together, and it is from this place that I wrote the foundation of the culture of the 7th Province. Culture is very ego based. We see this in nations: America is the best country in the world. We see this in sports: My team won the championships. We see this in ethnicities: Blacks are the most athletic and can dance the best, or Asians are very disciplined. We see this in family: My dad can beat up your dad.

People throw the word culture around without knowing what they really mean. And some people love their culture so much, have so much pride in it, compare how much better it is than American culture that they’ve chosen to move here.

Just a Friday night rant.

Does Hard Work Need to be Hard?

I'd just got done rewriting my query letter (after many, many versions) and perused over to the magazine aisle.  And I ran into The Rock.

He'd written an editorial and said something that peaked my interest.  "Hard work always pay."  You can see the quote on the magazine cover.

I read the editorial, which was well written, and he mentioned nothing about hard work.  People often think of hard work as being difficult.  I've come to know it as being consistent and focused.  This is exactly what the editorial was about.  Showing up and being focused like a laser.  If you look at his career, he's attained what he's set his sights on.  No question about it.

As most of you may know, the 2010 Winter Olympics have started.  One of my favorite events to watch is figure skating, both singles and couples.  Tonight, China won first and second.  The focus has surrounded the gold medalist couple, who are married in real life.  Their story is well known in figure skating circles.

Oh!  My back hurts just looking at her.

Shen Xue and Zhao Hongbo have dreamed of Olympic gold for the past eighteen years, since they first were paired by their coach Yao Bin.  Yao Bin had dedicated 30 years of his life bringing couples figure skating to what it is today in China.  He'd suffered huge embarrassment during the 1980 World Championships in Dortmund, West Germany.  He recalls people laughing as the Chinese placed last.

So what's the point?

Yao Bin was determined to win gold.  And he spent the next three decades, away from his family, honing his skaters' skills, his coaching skills, studying video of championship figure skaters, doing everything he could to attain what he attained tonight.

Was it difficult?

I have no idea.  But as I watched him on TV, his mind was highly focused and fully present.  He had to trust that all the work Shen and Zhao had put in would come to fruition.  Keep in mind that this is the couple's fourth attempt, fourth Olympics.  That's sixteen years.  Zhao, the husband, is 36 years young, and his wife, Shen, is 31.  Age was not a factor as they competed against much younger couples.

Their physical strength, pure athleticism, and grace performed under the pressure of the Olympics.  Difficult?  Sure.  But the testament to their passion, which makes difficult work to others effortless (like being in the zone), was shown at how easy it was when they floated over the ice.  They had to have practiced consistently, concentrating on every minute detail.  Otherwise, the pressure alone would have torn them down.

The key here is doing what you're passionate about.  Because it's easier to get what you want when you're passionate and energetic about something.  Imagine having sex with someone you find ugly.  Difficult?  Yes.  Now imagine having sex with someone you find hot!  Effortless?  Hell yeah!  And you'd probably show up many times.

Did I mention the throws the female skaters completed were insane?

So with anything worth doing in life, show up and focus on exactly what you're working for.  For dreams are meant to be fulfilled.

It is possible to move a mountain by carrying away small stones.  -Old Chinese proverb.

Judmental Is Mental

One of the biggest things my character has to deal with is judgement from the people he serves to protect. They don't realize what he's doing is protecting them from a Hitleresque fate. I was at the gym and saw this girl. Cute. Then it happened. "Her eyes are too Asian," I said to myself.

Huh?

First off every one is perfect in their own way. It's why there isn't a perfect cherry blossom. No such thing. Because every blossom is perfect (From The Last Samurai). This applies to humans as well. Once we start comparing one to another is when this Eastern way of looking at things deteriorates.

When I was practicing crap martial arts, see my bio, we were given a special treat. Our teacher brought in a Chinese Kung Fu teacher to teach us a Chinese form. A form is a series of martial art movements against imaginary opponents. By the way, that in itself is not the best way to learn how to fight. And what makes a form Chinese? The slantiness of the movement?

As my friend and I practiced the form--we're both Chinese--we were marvelling at how different the movement was from the daily crap that we practiced. Keep in mind I didn't know I was studying crap martial arts till I was awakened.

One of the supervising instructors came to us and said, "You're too Chinese," referring to our movement.

My friend and I looked at each other. Then looked at our non-Chinese supervising teacher.

"Nooooo," I said. "Wouldn't want to be too Chinese." Were our eyes extra slanty?

Everbody knows not to be judgemental. Even those who are aware of why can place judgement on others. We are after all human. It's the conscious practice of being non-judgemental that's important. Not the mistakes of when we are. But if you're not aware that judgement is wrong, is the person still to blame?

I can't say. And neither does the hero of my book. So what does he do? Continues to serve despite the hate he gets from doing so.

In Bruce Lee's only filmed interview he was asked if he wanted to be thought of as Chinese or a North American. He was born in San Francisco. He said he wanted to be thought as a human being.

Here's an experiment: Spend an hour without placing judgement on others. If you do, no problem. Just start the hour over. See how long you can do it.

Crazy Hair

Once we had come in, the rain started to layer the Chinatown streets with deep puddles. It was 2 o'clock in the morning. We'd just come from a dark club and our eyes hadn't adjusted to the florescent lit diner. I threw up two fingers. "Choose any table," a waiter said in his fresh off the plane accent.

My close friend and I chose a table by the window. Layers of prior meals washed with soiled napkins and warm tea made the table sticky, dingy. The menus were well worn by repeated usage from drunk bar hoppers. The faint smell of the kitchen and the light clanging of ladles striking woks percolated.

An older waitress strolled to our table and grinned, turning her eyes to slanted slits. Cheeks healthy with the greasy foods the wait staff must eat every night. "Ready to ohdah?"

I nodded and ordered the Hong Kong style noodles, combination. Not the best to keep my girlish figure, but it was late and I was starving. My friend only eats kosher and just drank water.

Just then two men were seated directly behind me. One of them had gelled, brown hair that flared out like he jumped out of a plane. He plopped down and the back of his chair shoved mine forward. I thought I was going to tip over. So I leaned back against his chair. The waiter took their order and left. Crazy hair leaned back against the chair. I pushed back. This went on for five minutes.

Deciding I didn't want to do this anymore, I turned around in my chair, tapped his shoulder and was about to ask him to move his chair up.

"Why you touching me?" Crazy Hair said. He was Colombian.

"Can you move your--"

Crazy Hair stands up, throws his hands to the side. "Why you touching me? You want to do something?"

"You're hitting the back of my chair," I said.

"You hitting, too. It's not my fault."

At this point I don't remember the conversation much. My teacher always taught me to deescalate the situation. But once Crazy stood up, threw his arms to the side, deescalation went out the window. He took a position of power, standing up, and began to antagonize me. He was going to hit me.

My mind became silent. My body wanted to tense up, but it didn't. I remained calm. I was highly aware of my right arm, ready to launch. My legs were well prepared to leap up. My abs sat on the edge of clenching. I was staring right in to his milky green, brown eyes, watching for a flicker. The flicker that telegraphs movement. My peripheral vision kept a close watch of his hands. Any sudden, sharp movement made, and my body would have exploded. I could feel it edging closer and closer to attacking. My spoken words were broken because I wasn't listening to what he said.

"I'm just joking, man. I'm not from this country," Crazy Hair said, waving his hands around my face.

I put my hands on my chin to block anything he may try. "You're Colombian, right?"

"How do you know?"

"I used to have a close friend who was Colombian."

"Ah." He laughs. He looks over at my friend, who happens to be my teacher. "You look bothered."

I'd totally forgot my friend was there. His 6'2" frame was imposing. But it's nothing compared to his stare. When I looked over, my teacher was ready to pounce. "I'm not bothered," my friend said, and smiled. His eyes didn't.

"I'm sorry. I'm not from this country," Crazy repeats. "Sometimes I go crazy cuz of my blood. Come over, sit with us."

I looked at his friend who seemed calm. Why was he so calm?

"Come sit with us."

I said no.

"What? I'm apologize for this, but if you want to go to what we do before, let's do it."

Tsing Tao beers were served. Crazy's friend egged him to sit down in Spanish. After a minute, Crazy pulled his chair to the side and sat down. I've been in amateur full contact fights, but this was pretty intense. In a tournament fight, I know I'm going to fight. Last night, however, would have been my first real fight. Win or lose, I was ready. My friend/teacher was ready. With their drunken stupor and poor judge of character, I'm sure we would have prevailed and spent the night behind bars for doing so.