Musings 052911: The Role of Martial Arts and Masculinity

– Note: this post will highlight the Asian American community and the years following World War 2 to the present day. I understand however that the sentiments are applicable to any and all martial arts from around the world and any person from anywhere around the globe.

Is martial arts the key to being a man? I can only imagine it being one of the many routes to becoming one. You can’t however deny that evidence of how in the past, forms of martial training were considered a big part of the “rite of passage” for most if not all young lads growing up.

A friend a while back wrote an opinion piece regarding the movie Fearless starring Jet Li.

In the Eastern perspective, a man’s strength should be used to support and protect the greater communal good, as opposed to the Western, where a man’s strength is used to obliterate and defeat the forces preventing him from reaching his personal goals and/or moral imperatives.

Which is where my journey for this post begins. So basically it all starts with a different mindset of the “ideal” form of masculinity between East and West. Back in the days before the modern era (pre-1900s), martial artists at least in China were held in high regard by their local village or town. A man capable of defending himself and the people who he cares about is on the manliness pedestal in that area.

So what does this have to do with masculinity? My personal theory is that martial arts has been one of the few ways that Asian men in particular have been able to “prove themselves” as having made the transition from boyhood to manhood. That and/or academics.

For those of you don’t know, the transcontinental railroad was built from both ends in the 1860s: California and Nebraska. The Union Pacific Railroad started the work in Nebraska using a primarily Irish workforce while the Central Pacific Railroad of California used a primarily Chinese workforce that began in California. Due to the racism during that time, the Chinese workers with their white team drivers didn’t fare very well (lower wages than their white counterparts, more hours, etc.). It didn’t come to a surprise then that stories of Chinese workers fighting back (against anyone) who knew Kung Fu and winning were the stuff of legends among the work camps and abroad.

Conditions depicted here are worse than they were in real life.

These men were usually married, leaving their families in China, and traveling by boat all the way to California, only to suffer extremely poverty, social and lawful discrimination in the US. To top it all off, their chances of going back to China alive were slim. The ones who fought back (for whatever reason) were considered mini-heros and were held to high regard.

Has this trend continued to this day and translated to the scale which those brave, individual Chinese workers have attained? Not really.

As far as martial arts never got too much mainstream exposure (in the USA at least) until Bruce Lee came on to the scene, first as Kato in “The Green Hornet” TV series and then his starring movies such as Enter the Dragon. As the status of Asian males in the US went up, the correlation between martial art and man was blurred. The stereotype of Asian men (regardless of country origin) being the “Karate Master” was lovable at best. Mr. Miyagi from The Karate Kid movies come to mind. Did it really help the status of Asian and American men of Asian ancestry? As my Sensei put it – and I paraphrase:

When Bruce Lee was around yes…From the 60s well into the 90s definitely with guys like Jackie Chan and Jet Li. But from the turn of the century till now there have been no icons of their caliber.

~ J.Wada Sensei, 6th Dan

My Sensei forgot about Donnie Yen of the Ip Man and Ip Man 2 fame, but whatever. In accordance to what we’ve discussed so far, many icons using martial arts eventually use their skill to the betterment of the community that they are in. Movies such as Ip Man, Fearless, Enter the Dragon, etc. show the protagonist martial artist using their skills for good – the betterment of their cause. Which is in many extents defending the rights of people other than himself. Was this manly, oh hell yes it was. But is it sexy and brought your personal glory? Yes but not so much.

Before I continue – Jackie Chan, Jet Li, Donnie Yen, Tony Jaa, and other Asian male action stars don’t count as Asian American icons. That is because that they are not American born. Bruce Lee counts because he was born in San Francisco.

I’m making this distinction because although someone will state that someone of Chinese ancestry myself, shouldn’t I identify myself with such great action icons? To be honest not really because as I mentioned, the majority of them (minus the great Bruce Lee) are not American born.

Currently in the mainstream media you do not see many strong American-born men of Asian ancestry, even fewer are in positions of power and none with protagonist power. There’s a joke among my peers regarding Asian American men. We are usually regulated to five roles in the mainstream media and they are 1.) the guy who dies early 2.) the guy who is gay 3.)the guy who never gets the girl 4.) the scientist or engineer and 5.) Any combination of the four.

Now I am who I am and I really don’t care what “the media” thinks so long as I am continually growing and becoming a better man day by day. But seeing how there’s such little to no positive representation is disheartening to say the least.

Can martial arts be used as a vehicle towards masculinity in the Asian American community? Of course; however my gripe is that it is considered “not favorable” or “not economical” as compared to the professions that most of my peers are in (accounting, doctor, lawyer, etc.). And that is the problem; too much emphasis on how to blend in and no enough emphasis on social mobility. I remember my Sensei (who is a Sansei 三世 – a third generation Japanese-American) mentioning that when Bruce Lee was around, his presence in film instilled great pride in him as a young man growing up as among the White Caucasian majority in his hometown. In fact he did mention that Bruce Lee was one of the reasons why he picked up Aikido as his career and passion – as oppose to what his parents wanted him to be which was a Ph.D in languages.

There needs to be more of my peers who are willing to stand up for what needs to happen: social mobility. Like the unknown Chinese railway workers who stood up for their comrades, like the kung fu masters in films that we all so love and idolize, like Bruce Lee himself who toke on not only his own challenges but the racism found in Hollywood at that time. There needs to be more done.

This is obviously a much deeper and complicated topic than a post can handle but this is my two cents into this matter that has been a growing hobby of mine since my undergraduate days. For those of you who are finding hard to relate I thank you for your quiet patience and ears.

As always, till next time ladies and gents!

Tips on how to Choose the best Martial arts school for your Child(ren)

There is only 6 munchkins here, imagine having 25!

So it’s almost the end of summer and from what I hear kids will have lots and lots of free time. Which also means that martial arts schools all over the country will have kids (with their parents) swarming to sign up their children to classes so that they may have something to do other than play video games in the living room for 3 months.

With that in mind I’d thought it’d be a good time to put down a train of thought that I’ve had for a couple of months now: a small list to guide parents on how to choose the appropriate martial arts for their kid(s). This comes from having been a children’s instructor since May of 2010. This also comes from my memories from taking Shaolin Kung Fu as a pre-teen. This list is by no means a “bible” on which is the “perfect fit” for your child, just some mannerisms from my personal observations.

1.) Instructors matter more than the art. For most kids they usually don’t stay in their first martial art. Although some arts are more geared toward self-defense rather than “classical” (i.e. MMA vs. Okinawan Karate), pay attention to how to the instructor teaches the kids. Teaching kids is an endeavor in itself and requires more than just patience. There’s something of a “magic” that’s required to teach kids and few instructors can reach kids in order to not only teach the art, but also teach the kids discipline, respect, attention skills, etc. I will say from my personal ongoing experience that it does require a “fun”mindset. So walk into the school and just observe the kids instructor(s). Ask yourself questions such as:

– How do they connect to the kids?

– What activities/exercises do they do?

– What style of teaching do they do? (rout memorizing vs. relaxed style or a mix of both, etc.)

– Is there even “play” time, to balance the time spent memorizing katas, practicing techniques, etc?

– What is the experience of the instructors? (be nice to us, some are still in training – myself included)

2.) Don’t get caught by McDojos! Watch out for schools that seem to ask for money upfront or lock you – the client – in a long term contract. Though the term “Mcdojo” has multiple meanings and does not have specific perimeters, read this article regarding this phenomena (go down to the last 1/4 of the article) and this article. The point that I’m trying to make is save your money! Be wary of schools which ask you to make a down payment of X amount in order to “lock in” your child for a certain amount of time. Personal example: I remember my dad mentioning to me way back that he had put a “down payment” of a NON refundable amount of over $3,500 for 3 years of instruction from the Shaolin school that I was attending then (doing the math that’s at least $97.20/month). Withholding my opinions, my current dojo’s rate for kids and teens is $60 and $70 respectively and are on a monthly basis only (we do accept donations however). Try and look for a school that does monthly – or at the most a bi monthly or tri-monthly plan. Ask yourself will your kids be training for a long time? Things come and go and change and life happens; your child might not like the place, you move, etc. You don’t want to make any unnecessary holes in your wallet, drama, or uneducated financial decisions.

3. Availability: Check and see if the main instructor of the school teaches the kids class and/or someone who works closely with the main instructor. A good sign would be that the they (the head instructor) would be present during the class even if they are  in the office. This denotes that the head of the school cares enough about the people who are learning the martial art. A sign that a school is a “Mcdojo”? Usually the head instructors are not present at all and leave the kids (and some adult) classes to a 2nd or even their 3rd point person because they are too “busy” running the school.

4.  Make sure the school has a policy that requires adults/guardians to be present during class. Cases of child abuse/molester relations in schools are the stuff of parents’ nightmares. I had walked in on a meeting of various heads of Aikido schools in my area and there is a policy that if there is a child that is under 16/17, they must be accompanied by a parent/guardian that is over 21 years of age. Ask if there is such a policy at the school that you want to enroll your child(ren) in. As a children’s instructor I’m actually comforted that there is such a policy like this in place.

5. What do you want for your child? Self-defense, a place for them to “exercise”, a potential passion, overcoming shyness, all of the above? Some kids really do gain confidence through martial arts, others not so much. Some kids really do learn how to keep themselves controlled, others will find it a little distracting. Are they getting bullied in school? Are they having confidence issues in general? For this question, I would go back to #1; it really depends on the teacher(s)/master(s). This sort of goes into the argument of traditional vs. modern/MMA. Personally I’d throw out that whole argument and just go for the school and people who are best for your Johnny or Jane. A Wing Chun Sifu could do wonders to one child whereas another could find the same result with the Brazilian JuJitsu master down the street. The Aikido Sensei in the apartment block in one corner could be perfect for the bullied kid whereas the shy girl could find her niche in the Capoeira Mestre (master) in the next.

6. Window shopping: Last but not least, don’t be afraid to shop around. As emphasized in #1 and #5, it’s mainly about what you want for your child and what your child is naturally drawn to. You might like a certain place for its X self defense skills yet if your child does nothing but scream and pander even after 6 months there might be a conflict of interest. Likewise a teacher who emphasizes self-defense for children yet teaches it with an iron fist might not be great for a shy child. As a side note, you’ll be amazed as to how little  skill it takes for a child to throw a heavy punch!

Not a complete list by any means, but just some personal tips for you parents out there. Good luck and my hope is that these will come in handy at some point. Till next time ladies and gents!

Kung Fooled!

This is what really goes on in the minds of martial artists!

Wong Fu Productions is an independent film company based in Los Angeles, California and have been active since 2004. The company was created by three undergraduates from UC San Diego: Wesley Chan, Ted Fu, and Phillip Wang. WFP as it is known, is internationally known and frequently showcases short films, documentaries, music videos, and personal blogs. Their works have been featured on CNN and at the Sundance Festival.

On a personal note, it also should be noted that they are one of the few film production companies of its reputation and reach that is has roots to the Asian American community here in California. It works well since this month is Asian Pacific Heritage Month. Please support their work if you can. They aren’t martial artists, but what they do is truly an art.

Tips on how to Advertise your School with Little to no Budget.

So next weekend on the 30th, my dojo will be demonstrating at the local Cherry Blossom Festival here. This will be the 2nd year that we’re at this event and I fully expect this to be fun since I was present last year and I had also gone to this festival in the past as a visitor.

Even since appointing me as the “Community Liaison Officer”, Sensei and the dojo have been receiving a steady stream of beginners both in the adults and kid’s classes since April of last year. I remember when I started, we didn’t have another beginner until almost 5 or 6 months later. When assigned my wonderful title I was given the task of recruiting new members (“You’re the fresh face we need to get the word out!” ~ Sensei) and also to do some advertising (“Young people are attracted to young people like yourself, not so much to older guys.” ~ Sensei). Still wondering how lucky I was, I set out to put up an advertising campaign from scratch for the dojo.

In the past 10 months, we’ve had over 20 new beginners come through our doors that I can remember and almost the same number of kids. The kids tend to stay longer, not so much the adults. I’ve also been in touch with organizers of local cultural events, festivals, and even schools. The demonstration on the 30th I had originally asked the head organizer last year, and was brought back this year.

I’m by no means a public relations guru, nor do I have any professional – paid – experience, but what I guess what I do have is my brains and balls. So now I thought I’d share some of my insights, experiences, and tips on how to get the word out.

Advertising

1. Most public libraries have what is unofficially known as “community boards” or “sections” where people advertise their services, usually academic tutors, yoga gurus, etc. Go around to these and place your school flyers here. Be sure to get permission from the head librarian or whoever is in charge of these as to not to have your material(s) taken away immediately or confiscated. Each library usually have different policies regarding these.

2. Coffee shops. I use to consider myself a coffee shop nomad because whenever home got too boring I’d go “coffee shop exploring”. Anyway, most independently-owned shops usually have a section of the store appropriated for local businesses to advertise their services, and most are more than happy to help the community out.

3. Speaking of coffee shops, Starbucks! (I’m actually writing this in one at the moment). Like their non-corporate counterparts, most (but not all) Starbucks stores have community boards you can post a flyer or too. Be forewarned however: they only accept non-profit advertisements so you might want to do some smooth talking some research into what your dojo considers itself – or you can always ask your teacher. I’ve been able to post some of my dojo’s materials on some Starbucks and some no.

4. Knowledge of local events. Cultural events that pertain to your art’s culture and history is a bit obvious but I feel that I don’t feel that schools aren’t “getting back to their roots” as often as they should. My dojo has a wonderful history and relationship with the Japantown here and has an annual demonstration in October, continuously keeping in touch with the locals here. But not so much outside of the area. That’s why this Cherry Blossom festival is exciting because it’s outside of the area in a different side of town and so far the reception has been positive. If your martial art is culturally tied in some way, you can also around community centers or your local athletic clubs. It’s just a matter of walking up to the front desk and asking for the information of the person in charge. If they are busy email is the preferred way of communication. I was a newspaper editor while in undergrad and this was the way of getting in contact with business owners who were busy.

5. Persistance, yet patience. It helps that you are in the presence of the areas and people who you wish to make connections with, and this goes for any of the places that you advertise. I happen to have gone to and am a regular customer at the places that I place my flyers. I don’t know whether the owners/employees like me, but I can only speculate that they like me enough to the point that they allow me to put my dojo’s stuff. Ask politely, don’t be a space hog, and be sure to let them know that you’re appreciative of their cooperation. Personally I just buy my favorite coffee.

6. Word of mouth. Ah the oldest trick in the book. Unfortunately I usually don’t tell strangers that I practice martial arts. Usually when you’re handing out flyers selling classes it’s a dead give away. My close friends do know of my life style and have invited some to a try-out class in the past. Use this sparingly and only use it when someone “throws you a bone” – inquires what you are doing.

7. Know your audience: These days MMA is the craze and every other martial art under the sun is compared to it in terms of “martial effectiveness” and “street effectiveness”. That being said Aikido – in my case – is not MMA and I realized early on that comparing Aikido to MMA would be fruitless – and dishonorable – endeavor. Instead I chose to highlight the strengths of Aikido in several short blurbs (see my “about Aikido section” at the top). People my age (20s – 30s) are drawn more the rough-and-tumble MAs and therefore realized I can’t advertise Aikido as such (though I have received my fair share of injuries from the art). What I’m saying here is tailor your message to put out the strengths of your martial art. That way you allow the reader to make the decision – and judgements – of you and the other MAs that they’ve encountered. Once you start comparing it becomes are war of words, egos, and worst case scenario – fists.

Materials

8. Flyers & other materials: I have some working knowledge of Adobe Photoshop so when I was building the campaign from scratch I set out make flyers that reflected this. After 5 prototype designs I got one out that was 8×5. Bigger doesn’t necessarily mean better, but often when you have a bigger flyer the reader can see more material, you can put more information, and the readers get drawn to your flyer just by the shear size of your flyer. Bigger flyers usually are the ones that grab the attention of passerby-ers.

9. If any of you don’t have anyone who have the tech know-how available to create custom-made flyers, here are some suggestions. I’ve only used one but just so that the audience here has some variety I’ve also dug up some others at the last-minute.

Vista Print – This was where I got my business cards for my free-lance position. 20 bucks gets you 250 business cards, though you can’t create your own. They also do calendars, brochures, mugs, and almost every office advertisement material on the planet.

My Brochure Maker – They look pricey but there is an option where you can use it for free. 10 MB of free storage of pictures is more than enough for the flyer that you’ve been wishing to put into the public domain.

MS office flyer templates: I remember seeing these in my MS office 07 version. I haven’t tried these but I have to say that MS office has come a long way since the dull and uninspiring days of Windows XP.

Domestic Sale

Advertising for your school is an ongoing process – a journey (*laughs). It’s something you have work on constantly and consistently and where the message is just as important as the messenger. I only hope that I’m doing a good job at the meantime and that I’ve been presenting myself an honorable and truthful representation of my dojo and for the martial art of Aikido. So far my journey has had few glitches; my dojo is frugal (I’m not getting paid for this) so my journey had been one of getting the most returns will the least amount of materials as possible. It is also a constant process, I can only imagine a year from now, I will headed to bigger and better things with the skills and experience that I’ve acquired here using different strategies.

With that said, till next time ladies and gents.

Update 040811: The Life of a Writer

It’s been almost two weeks since my last post and am in need of a small break. Nothing too much to update on. Basically life in the land of the accidental aikidoist consists of three things:

1.) Aikido (4-6 times a week).

2.) Graduate school, studying for my Master’s in education and teaching credential for elementary schools students (once a week, 6 hours for that one day with the occasional Saturday class. Again 6 hours).

3.) Being jobless.

#3 took a backseat for a while because of the homework load but since finishing a major project this past week. I’ve feeling the pinch of nothing being productive to the rest of society! My story is a rather long one but among other things there’s a certain need of earning your way through life. Call it my “need to work” or whatever but finding a job nowadays is a rather depressive venture given the fact that people (and/or their respective industries) won’t hand out experience without experience…nor will people look favorably on people who wish to start over/change careers!

I have the urge to venture to other martial arts, however that requires money. No job = no money! Currently that’s what has been keeping me from experimenting. At the moment though I have a sweat deal with my current Sensei where I am co-teaching the kids classes in exchange for a significantly reduced rate and am grateful for this. In addition there’s been a lot of “pressure” brewing in my life both on and off the mat, most of it very personal. But my feeling is that they will play a very significant process of dividends in the long run (I hope!).

You can almost say that I am going through a transitional phase. An ongoing theme in Aikido is the ability to cope with changes in situations – be it in a fight, classroom, work, what not. The statement is that when there’s pressure in the situation, that is a sign of transition; a “gateway” to a new level where you can cope with the situation and act with the appropriate action given the circumstance.

I can only hope that I will act in the appropriate manner and (in my case) grab the opportunities that present themselves for me to get out of my blues!

This is the dragon warrior - when he's not eating.

In other news, I’m officially a freelance writer! You can find me at yflproductions.elance.com. Now don’t bum rush me yet! I’m still fixing stuff around and I’m not taking assignments yet!

Finally, look to some form of martial themed posts this month. I have big plans for May and am looking forward to writing the material!

Musings 020811: Street Creds

Just now I’m shaking off the experience (horrors) of a seasonal retail position and a nazi for a professor. More on the professor and a month’s worth of homework for another day but for now I’d like to bring up something that I believe isn’t brought up too often. Something that I don’t hear many martial arts instructors talk about: Getting yourself in a “real” situation.

I am of course talking about fighting on the street; where you’re minding your own business when suddenly a mugger(s)  jumps your ass to steal something from you – be it your life, your money, your significant other, drugs, your virginity, or your pride (among others).

Now my question to the world out there is this: To be a “bone fide” martial arts instructor – or even a martial artist, do you need to have been through a real fight?

Now I’m no expert, but just saying: everyone has been in some sort of scuffle in their lives at one point or another. I’ve never been in any fights in my life – yet. But I did punch a kid in 1st grade in the face and got sent to the office. One punch and that was all (funnily enough I forgot why I did that but it wasn’t anything serious – that I remember). I’ve also been punched the face and ears a few times in training – my left ear is ringing right now from the two-minute mini-concussion that followed an impact there a year ago (proof of muscle memory?). And lastly I’ve been kicked in the diaphragm region via a training partner’s heal. I remember this because of the two-minute paralysis that followed – while I was laying on the mat motionless and having difficultly breathing.

I guess I really don’t know. Now understandably no one really wants to get into fight – whether it be the neighborhood punks, your significant other, the enemy on the battlefield, etc. But experiencing a physical fight could only be an asset in one’s martial journey I imagine. One reason of my decision to take up another martial art at the moment is not only that I feel like using my fists and feet (Aikido has little to no punches and no kicks), but also something that would allow me to experience that adrenaline rush/dump in a controlled environment that usually happens when some punk is squaring off on you.

I think about the two martial artists who I look up to at this point and I can only see that they started out from having to deal with people who really wanted to beat the crap out of them. Morihei Ueshiba, better known as O’Sensei (founder of Aikido) went through a period in his youth where he beat up people for self-protection and (some aikidoists are going to hate me for saying this) just for the hell of it! This is not mentioning the fact that all the way up to his 50s there were Japanese martial artists who were challenging him to duels (akin to the gunslinger duels of the American wild west) where they really, really wanted to kill him. O’Sensei walked away (literally) from all of these and usually without a weapon too (in most of these he purposefully never requested one). Most of  his challengers (if not all) ended up hurting themselves – but that’s a story for another time.

Bruce Lee lived in the gang-infested streets of Hong Kong in the 50s and probably lost count of all the fights that he got himself into (and some that came to him!) as a teen. In fact according to some biographers he got into Wing Chun when at age 13 or 14, he had his ass jumped by a group of boys wanted to make an example of him. After that encounter, bloodied and beaten, he asked his mom if he could learn kung fu (which she in turn asked his father, had a discussion, and through him met Ip Man). The rest is history; this is not mentioning the fact that he was also a boxing champ.

So the issue whether these two had “street cred” as martial artists is self-explanatory. Here I come back to my question: Do I need “street cred”?

And for those of you who don’t know, it’s short for “street credentials”. I’m sure it’s a different term nowadays but that was the one that I grew up with.

Christmas musings from a young martial artist (Customers are only right half the time)

Finally I have a day off from the madness of being in the retail world! Now I can actually sit down and update this blog.

As I have mentioned before, being in the retail business while training in Aikido has been a kryptonite/superman relationship. The whole environment of people trying to save $5 on a $100+ purchase really can drive you (and them) nuts and some decisions that customers have made fall in the insanity category! I remember seeing one woman had raked up $12,000 in DEBT on her credit card and only wished to pay the minimum of $50…

Now I know why our country is going downhill!

During this time I’ve surprisingly been able to attended Aikido on a regular basis 3-4 times a week. Before this holiday position I was afraid that the work schedule would be a hazard to my health without Aikido, but alas not so much. It is good training however; having to deal with people who have absolutely no reason to treat you fairly – or nicely and you need to be as nice as situationally possible. Not a good situation in my book but all for the dough I suppose.

Some thoughts:

1.) The season of giving and donating has given way to the season of consuming and bargaining for consuming (going back to the saving $5 for $100+ purchase)

2.) Working in retail is hazardous to your health! Unless you are doing something productively and helpful to your sanity after hours.

3.) Most retail workers’ lives revolved around retail and that’s it (going back to point #2). Which is sad…

4.) Mark ups are a reality. Most people either know this and don’t care or most people just stay ignorant! A good pair of Levi’s will 90% of the time go as far as a pair of $150 Diesel Jeans.

5.) 20% employee discounts count for little especially since most items amount to over $50.

6.) People need to STOP and realize that saving $10 on a $100+ purchase (or $200+) will not matter in the long run! You spending your way into debt is NOT the answer to getting out of debt!

7.) Customers are only right half the time! Take it from the people who help you in the stores! As customers we will try to exploit the system and attempt to get away with as much as we can. That being said, stop trying to hound us that the sticker price is the true and only price. As associates it is our job to know the prices of our products. We will be as honest as possible and will not (purposefully) lie to you!

8.) Being understanding and receptive as customers will go a long way! If we (the retail associates) know that you are genuinely concerned about our sanity, we will be more inclined to go the whole 9 yards to help you than if you are an asshat!

Phew! I think that covers most of it. Well that’s it for now. Merry Christmas or Happy Holidays to all of you! Stay safe and continue training!