The next chapter in my story, when it becomes apparent that it is time to move on.
I am far from what you would call a spiritual person, and as a happy agnostic I feel that there must be something greater than us that started it all, but until I feel certain of what that certain is I will keep myself open and accepting of most possibilities (except Scientology). But when it comes to fatalism, I do pick a side – as a big fan of the concept of ‘free will’, I put my faith in the belief that although we are born into circumstances out of our control, we are still able to make our own choices throughout our lives and influence our future. The idea that we would all be subject to a predetermined fate irks me. When astrology claims that my ‘Leo’ personality is defined by how the planets were aligned at the time of my birth, it feels like an insult to my ego and independence (which, ironically, is very much typical Leo behaviour).
Then again, sometimes I get the feeling that there is something behind the scenes that is subtly indicating what one should do. A slight nudge in the right direction if you will, or having the wind in your back. Going with this intuitive feel seems to work in my favour, so I tend to pay heed to it – as long as I feel like it’s my own choice, of course.
Which is how I happened to find myself talking to Kung Fu instructor. Meeting him as a friend of a friend, we took the opportunity to ask him what options there were in terms of Kung Fu in Sydney and he gave a good account of the different schools and what their styles were. It didn’t take me long to make up my mind, as he explained how his own school put a significant focus on the traditional Kung Fu weapons. That had me sold, and after that I was mainly listening to him to see if he was trying to make his own style seem superior to others (he wasn’t, which showed good character). I also didn’t want to rush my choice and go with the first school I’d visit, as I had occasionally done so in the past.
Not long after that I visited the school, and it was like stepping into a scene from a Kung Fu movie! Inside a large training hall, most of the floor space was covered by a dark red carpet and the walls were lined with weapon stands as well as decorated with the big fanciful heads used in Chinese Lion Dances. One wall was all mirrors, and the corners of the hall had complimentary training equipment such as a wooden dummy and a punching bag. Completing the picture was a darkwood shrine with pictures of the schools founder and a statue of the legendary General Kwan, patron saint of all warriors with integrity – a kind of eastern King Arthur. The Sifu (Master) of the school was African-American man that had moved to Sydney in the 80’s and had been teaching ever since, and seemed a very reasonable man. The kind of person that you would respect by choice, not by demand. After a quick tour, he had me try some basic techniques on focus pads but I had trouble focusing, as the other students were practising their forms right next to us. The thought of learning how to handle all sorts of weapons was intoxicating, and judging by the wide variety on display there was plenty to learn. Also, the guy that I had spoken to in the first place turned out not only to be the school’s head instructor (as the Sifu had retired from teaching), he was also one of the most talented martial artists I’ve come across.
So I joined, and it was great. Taking up a new martial art took me out of a comfort zone that I had spent the better part of a decade in, and brought with it a whole new slew of challenges. It was oddly comforting to go back to learning patterned forms again, and also refreshing to throw myself at aspects that were new to me. In particular, the footwork was surprisingly intricate – but even familiar techniques were revisited, as minor variances sometimes made all the difference. As expected, handling weapons proved to be a great challenge as every weapon had its own character and required you to express yourself with a different approach for each instrument.
However, all physical aspects aside, the biggest change was to be a white belt again. I was considered a fresh student and there were no expectations on me; no obligation to teach, partake in demonstrations, be a role model to other students or live up to any kind of reputation. As almost no one knew what I had trained in the past, I was just a new kid at the far back of the room that kept cracking jokes and was always asking questions (admittedly, not much has changed). Thanks to my previous experience it was pretty straightforward to pick up the new teachings. And as the school offered an opportunity to try to grade for the next belt once every month, I couldn’t be happier. Another refreshing change was how there were far less ‘politics’ in this new school than what I was used to from Capoeira – I had gotten so used to group rivalries, internal power struggles and backstabbing gossip that the absence of it all was like a gust of fresh air. Now and then I’d catch a whiff of its ugly scent in my new school, but it was still almost non-existent among us lowly students.
The only real negative aspect I experienced was how some of the school’s senior students distanced themselves from the newer students. Rather than reach out and welcome the newcomers, they tended to stick to themselves and mostly practise with each other. It all created an underlying us-and-them feeling that somewhat tainted the training atmosphere for us lower belts, to a point where it made Pipoca (who had signed up with me) lose interest and go back to training Capoeira. It’s not the first time I’ve noticed this exclusive attitude in a school, and it’s a pretty natural consequence in any environment where you have a number of loyal diehard students that over the years have seen beginners come and go. For my own part, it didn’t affect me that much – whereas Capoeira is strongly focused on the group mentality, Kung Fu is in comparison much more individualistic. So, as long as I could keep learning and the instructors were giving all students a fair share of attention (which they were), I couldn’t care less. In hindsight I should also mentioned that nowadays that cliquey culture has all but vanished, as a fair few of the older students moved on.
So there I was, learning new skills, growing as martial artist and rising through the belts as well as gaining new friends. At the same time I also kept in touch with my old Capoeira friends and still went to the acrobatic classes, where I was now also trying out some of the flashy Kung Fu stuff. I even tried my hand at competing and was toying with the idea of filming a fight scene, among other things.
Then came Chinese New Year, and everything changed.