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What is a Sifu?

Some people ask me what my typical day is like?  Nothing about my life seems very typical, but I do have a routine.  Usually, my routine is filled with the thought of show planning, trip planning, or scheduling for the Temple.  However, on the ‘off season’ (who am I kidding, there is never an off season at Wah Lum) I do have some conventional days.

A normal day would be waking up around 8:00am, doing some exercises, making a fabulous breakfast,  (have I mentioned I cook?), and then getting started on my ‘work’.  A lot of people think all I do is teach kung fu.  If it were that simple, I would be a stress free and happy individual.  For those of you that own your own business out there, you know how much this entails.  Looking at the bigger picture, I also have meetings and collaboration with the other schools in the Wah Lum system.  Sometimes this includes traveling to different schools and doing seminars, shows, events, etc.

I could ‘complain’ about all the boring business work I have to do, but instead I thought I would share some of my reflection about the Sifu Test a couple of weeks ago.  A lot of people think that the test is just showing your physical capabilities.   The test is more than just an evaluation of your skills.  Yes, we do a LOT of forms, weaponry, and application, however a deeper part of the test experience is the camaraderie, the philosophy sessions, and spending time learning more about one another.

I highly recommend anyone in the Wah Lum system read the RED philosophy book of translated lectures by Grandmaster Pui Chan. In this book, he reveals the SECRET OF KUNG FU!  Just kidding.  Well, not really.  I’ve read the book several times, and each time I read it I learn something new.  Whenever I read about the traditions or the philosophy of kung fu, I take away something new.  When I read it in preparation for the test, the main passage that struck me this time, was the definition of a Sifu.  Here’s an excerpt:

“It is possible for you to get married and get divorced several times in your life.  However, once you become a disciple of your Sifu, the relationship is binding for the rest of your life….We know a lot of incidents in the karate circle where a guy get his black belt, then he leaves the school, has a quarrel with his instructor and open up his own school…. to the Chinese the relationship between a Sifu and his students is binding for the rest of his life. When you become a disciple, you promise to take care of your Sifu for the rest of his life…The same way as you would treat your own parents, that is how delicate and involved the relationship is between them.”

I’ve read this several times over the years, and each time I read it, I am a little sad.  This was a lecture from the 70’s, and at that time, my father was just starting to develop advanced students.  In the 1970’s, he had only seen examples of other styles that had disrespected their Sifu, and became self proclaimed Grandmasters of their own style.  The worst part of the ‘creation of the own style’ isn’t just the disrespect and lack of true understanding of what being a kung fu practitioner is, but that they don’t actually ‘create’ anything.  They are still using the teachings of Wah Lum and even doing the exact same forms.  Some people think once they learn Wah Lum it is ‘theirs’ and they have the ‘right’ to do with it as they please.  Kung fu is personal.  Each practitioner has their own relationship with kung fu.  While one certainly has the right to develop their kung fu or tries to be a better practitioner and person, one does not have the right to propagate and teach kung fu without permission from their Sifu.  My father structured what was already an incredible kung fu system with the ability to grow.  However, being as open as he was in teaching all who wanted to learn (many of you have seen this part of his story in the documentary Pui Chan: Kung Fu Pioneer) he also encountered those that would disrespect the system, the teachings, the lineage, and worst of all their Sifu.  It is interesting to me that those that leave their Sifu think they know more than their teacher to the extent that they are now the Master!  How little they seem to understand about traditional Chinese kung fu!  Everyday we recite the teachings on the Wah Lum kung fu altar.  I try to live by these principles in the classroom, but also in my daily life.  And yet, there are some who just throw it all out the window and try to preach to others what they do not practice.  I get so frustrated, and never understood how or why my father would continue to be so open, and how he could continue to share his beloved art after the repeated disappointments by students.  He told me, “I know who I am, and what is right; they know who they are.”  I am learning to accept this as ‘the way’ and the right way…but the other side of me wants to yell to the world who they are, and what they are.  I am still learning.  I am still a student.  I will keep trying to practice control.

So, what does it mean to be a Sifu?  My father always says, it is more than a certification, and more than just having students call you Sifu.  I listen to his teachings and I learn more as time goes on.  To me, being a Sifu is living by the principles instilled in me by my Sifu, and trying to uphold the true tradition.  I will treat my Sifu as my parent and take care of him for the rest of his life.  However, I know I am lucky, because I have the best Sifu of all time that actually is my parent.

 

Disclaimer: Remember, I do not claim to be a writer. Ignore and excuse grammar issues! Thank you!

Podcasts, blogs, and media

I’ve been thinking about media a lot lately.  Especially after starting this blog and my new Culture Chat Podcast. Anyone who knows me knows that I have always been opposed to ‘social media’.  I miss the intimacy of getting a personal call from a friend with big news, instead of an announcement on Facebook.  I appreciate the personal touch of a hand written postcard, versus an email, although don’t get me wrong, I love email!  I am still reluctant to completely embrace social media, but see it as a necessity.  I have been slowly adapting to the changes of the way the majority receives information and have tried to see the positive in this inevitable change. (hence @sifumimichan on twitter and instagram!)

Over the Sifu Test weekend, my social media consultant Lei Ann R. (aka @leiannoffduty), told me something that resonated and helped me open my mind even more.  Instead of seeing it as a chore of hoping to get more viewers, likes, or comments; I should just enjoy documenting the journey and capturing the moments.  For example over the weekend, sharing on Instagram our moments of laughter, pain, or serious kung fu work.

I am grateful for the feedback I have received in regards to this blog, and I have truly enjoyed my conversations on Culture Chat. The main reason I started the podcast was to find another creative outlet, share others’ stories, and connect with old friends. I wanted to subtitle the podcast ‘the most interesting people you never heard of’.  I’ve discovered that everyone has an interesting story to tell, and that we can all learn from each other… or just simply be entertained by true stories.

So instead of seeing it as a chore, podcasting has been something I really look forward to doing.  Maybe I’ve found my favorite media outlet.  I will also begrudgingly admit I used to make fun of husband, O, for constantly listening to podcasts all day every day.  Now, I am an avid listener and a podcaster myself! (In case you are interested, some of my favorites: The Ezra Klein Show, The Tim Ferris Show, Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History, Malcom Gladwell’s Revisionist History)

screen-shot-2017-04-14-at-3-06-32-pmI’ve enjoyed talking to my friends on Skype or in person, and sharing it through the podcast.  The best of both worlds!  I’ve been able to reconnect in a traditional way via a modern method.  There is a time and place for all the media madness, but I still love direct communication, and don’t think it will be a lost medium.  Especially since we are now finding ways to combine the best of both worlds.  I spoke to 3 friends this week that I haven’t spoken to in years!  Maybe we email here and there or text, but an actual conversation?  It’s been forever!  Using the podcast to reconnect has been a fun and fulfilling experience, and I am really enjoying it.  I am not spending all my time thinking about likes, and ratings (although it does help to have an audience… so please rate and like it! 😉 … instead just reconnecting with friends and having great conversations, while sharing these interesting stories with others.

While I still think social media can be a distraction, I am learning to see how it can connect us in a new way.  In short, I try to use it for good, and not evil.

Check out my podcast if you like this blog – you’ll meet some really interesting people from all around the globe!

Sifu Seminar

Test Prep

Every 3 years all Wah Lum instructors take the Sifu test, even if they have previously certified.  Why?  Standards.  In order to maintain the highest standards and quality of instruction, we are all required to test in front of Grandmaster Chan and our peers.  Yes, even I have to test!  This weekend, my kung fu brothers and I will be testing in front of Grandmaster Chan to ensure that we are teaching in accordance with the high standard of the Wah Lum System.  In 1 week, all of the instructors from around the world will be coming to the Temple and will be doing the same.  Some instructors will be testing for the first time, while for others it may be there 10th test!  For those of you who are good at math, that is at least 30 years in the system as a Sifu!  Why would we require someone who has been in the system for 30 years to test?  Standards.

Personally, I enjoy the test experience and use it to hold myself accountable.  I speak to my kung fu brothers often, and believe we all feel the same.  There is no pressure from Grandmaster Chan, but rather for us to hold ourselves accountable, to continue learning, and to be a student first.  Each instructor who intends to certify writes Grandmaster Chan a letter of intent.  In my letter, I outlined the reasons I intend to test.  Beyond being certified to teach, I strive to constantly learn and improve.  It keeps me humbled, helps me be a better teacher, and reminds me that I am a student first.  As many school owners will tell you, it is a treat to be a student again.  As a Sifu, you spend most of your time attending to your students needs, and our own training becomes second priority.  Although being a teacher is fulfilling in so many ways, it is important for me to continuously learn and be challenged.  Believe me,  the Sifu test is a challenge.  The test lasts 3 full days, and covers everything in the Wah Lum System.  We test forms, weapons, self defense, applications, philosophy, and teaching methods.  It is also like a family reunion for us, and a wonderful weekend of camaraderie.  I truly look forward to it every 3 years, and wish we could do it more often.  Wah Lum is one of the few kung fu systems that has instructor certification every three years, and I feel we are stronger for it.  Those that do not renew their certification are no longer licensed or sanctioned to teach Wah Lum.  Why? Standards.  If an instructor does not maintain the Wah Lum standard, we do not feel they are qualified to continue representing the style.  Grandmaster Chan has set high standards, but I feel that we should strive to always improve.  (see full listing of qualified instructors here)

How does a Sifu prepare for a test?  The same way a student does.  Practice!  As the test is only every 3 years, we have 3 years to prepare.  I am not certain everyone uses the 3 years for test prep, but I can tell you that one year out, they have already begun preparing.  Many instructors start coming to the Temple for private training… and to get away from their students ;).  Since the instructors come to the Temple to do their reviews, that means the Sifu Tu and I always have to be ready.  Although we are ‘ready’ year round, we still value our own training time to

Sifu Seminar
Sifu Seminar

work on our personal training growth and goals.  We also teach a seminar during the test weekend.   Last year it was an honor for me to teach the seminar.  I taught an advanced form to the group (it has my signature move: the butterfly), and although it was a lot of fun, it was exhausting after three 12 hour days of kung fu!

It is challenging for me to get ‘my time’ being a student.  So I end up going on a 27 day trip to train! Sometimes it seems like literally leaving the country is the only way I am able to practice my kung fu.  I will leave my test prep training tips for a future Kung Fu POD episode, if anyone is interested let me know.  In the meantime, I have to go prep for my test.  Wish me luck!

 

 

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The Butterfly, the Hurricane, and the Cow Hands

Sifu Antonio’s wife, Suelen told me that the students requested that for the grand opening show in Brazil, I do at least 1 butterfly kick.  It seems to be my signature move.  It makes me laugh because the very few films I have worked on always involve this movement. Mulan, Mortal Kombat Conquest, etc.

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Growing up I always called the butterfly kick the hurricane kick.  Why? My father called it hurricane, so it was the hurricane kick.  Fast forward to when I was 16 and trying to learn Cantonese.  I started dissecting words and expanding my vocabulary.  The Chinese for the movement I was so famous for was Wu-dip-tui, which translates to… Butterfly kick.  What!?! For 16 years of my life I called it hurricane and now it’s a butterfly?  I was so frustrated!  Why would my father call it hurricane?  I am not sure really, but the tornado kick in Chinese is a jumping crescent kick, so I am guessing he confused tornado, hurricane, and then the whole thing got jumbled.  Either way, it was crazy to have that discovery after so many years.  I also have an affinity for the butterfly kick, because it was a move I absolutely could NOT do.  I could do gymnastic aerials before I could do the butterfly kick.  So what did I do?  I practiced and did thousands of them.  Maybe 10,000 (DYK: 10,000 is the number of hours for mastery according to Malcolm Galdwell, but before that book came out the number of days for mastery according to the Wah Lum Handbook states… you guessed it, 10,000!)

That’s my short story…

Oh, wait. Cow hands.  You are probably wondering why I have cow hands in my title.  My mom is the chief tai chi instructor at the Temple. She is a master of tai chi and has been studying extensively for decades.  Around the same time of my butterfly epiphany, she also had one of her own.  She would teach the students cow hands, because that is what my father taught her.  One day she decided to print out all of the moves of the form for everyone and translated the Chinese.  The Chinese translation for our ‘cow hands’ was actually cloud hands!  My father had been pronouncing it cow hands, but meant cloud hands.  Ah, communication.  So much fun! I can only imagine how many things have been lost in translation, or pronunciation through the years.

Oh, wait, wait.  Did anyone get my title comparison?  Hint: any C.S. Lewis fans out there?

Kung Fu at Sea

Kung fu at sea is challenging. Even though we are on a relatively large ship, the movement of the ship can be felt while walking, sleeping, and most notably while training. I have always loved the sound of the ocean. It is calming to me. When we are on cruises, we usually get up in the morning to work out on deck. The sound of the ocean, the img_2351endless horizon, and the fresh air make a nice training environment. I’m a pretty private person, so I dislike the gawkers that pass by and watch or even try to take photos like we are an exhibit. I ‘politely’ let them know that it is impolite to do so, and then we resume our training.

One of the biggest physical challenges at sea is doing bai fut sow. img_2357
Holding your horse stance and rooting while the ship is moving is a special challenge, but it is fun. O and I mostly get laughed at by my father, who is often on the sidelines stretching or jumping into 360 img_2295
sweeps as his ‘warm up’. It may seem odd that I get some of my best kung fu training in when I am not at the Temple, but there are no distractions here…. No phone calls to take, no one to ask questions about the ‘karate’ we teach, or even those that still think we are a Chinese restaurant.

We used to bring our weapons on board, before all the strict security measures. Now we aren’t allowed to bring our swords with us, but we img_2341did smuggle in a fan and a retractable stick. Since the Sifu test is around the corner, we are using these few weeks to prep for the test while there are no distractions. The Sifu test is always a stressful time for all of the Sifus in the system. Every 3 years it is mandatory for all the instructors to re-certify. It is an extraordinary weekend of kung fu, fellowship, and fun. I enjoy getting together to brainstorm and share ideas, but mainly it is a family reunion. Since most of us live far away we don’t stay in touch as often as we like, and the test is the perfect opportunity to catch up. This year the test is the largest in history. I’ve been preparing the schedules, seminars, and test format while I’ve been away. It’s funny to be on ‘vacation’, but working as much as I do at home. I have to admit, I’ve gotten more kung fu training done in the last week than the last month! So I guess in order for me to get more training in, I will need to go on more 27 day trips 😉

Any suggestions where I should go next?

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The Rio Experience

I wanted to take a moment during my day at sea to recap the weekend that I had in Rio de Janeiro. Being in Rio was an eye opening experience. The entire trip, although only a few days, seemed like a week. Probably because we were awake over 27 hours the first day we were there, and it was nonstop as soon as we landed. Upon our arrival into Rio, we quickly met up with the rest of the Wah Lum group and went to lunch. In classic Grandmaster Chan style, he already started to gather fans at the Chinese restaurant we ate at for lunch. Before we knew it, there was a congregation of people waiting to take photos with him. He is a people magnet. After lunch, we went to the school and taught a kung fu fan seminar.   The students worked very hard, and we enjoyed teaching them since they were so full of energy and excitement. I am so happy that we now have a full time school in Rio.

img_2240I have heard rumors of the poverty, bad economy, and crime in Rio de Janeiro, but do not usually judge anything until I experience it myself. I have seen many movies that portray the favelas and criminal activity, but I used to think they were exaggerated. Although many of the locals informed us of the tough economy, everyone still seemed so happy. Perhaps it was the fact we were there to celebrate an exciting occasion, but it seemed more like it is a part of who they are. I often write about gratitude and positive attitudes in my blog, but I always find it admirable when people in far more challenging situations are happier than we are in the US. The students there are

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The beach!

grateful for having kung fu in their life, they have positive attitudes, and they try to stay optimistic. As I walked around the streets of Rio de Janeiro, I said to O that many of ‘our kids’ back home would feel uncomfortable. It’s a big crowded city, and our suburban kids would likely feel intimidated there. Since we have traveled the world, we weren’t uncomfortable, but we were cautious. Although the weekend was positive, we did witness crime while we were there. Cell phones are often snatched out of your hand in the streets if you aren’t careful; but this is a small crime compared to what occurs on a daily basis. We were extremely cautious; we stayed in groups and always had a local with us. The students were such gracious hosts, and helped keep an eye on us foreigners. We practically had bodyguards with us wherever we went. I’m always extra wary if I don’t speak the language in a foreign country. One of the positive results of submerging myself in other cultures is the feeling of appreciation for the luxuries I have back home. The first time I went to China on my own and stayed in a local village, I came home really appreciating my toilet! Ah, the ‘little’ things.

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Carnival Time!

The camaraderie over the weekend was overwhelming. I watched the students interact and help each other with every detail of the event. From helping each other prep uniforms, warming up, loading equipment to transporting us everywhere and buying us treats. Seeing them in motion was like watching a familiar dance.

(Random share: Speaking of dance…after an incredible Tipica Dinner (typical local meal) I was snatched up by a senior local and danced Samba with him. This was to the ‘old style’ samba 3-piece band. We saw many different bands that night as we walked around, but naturally I gravitated to the traditional one. Our attraction to that area was because of these seniors who obviously were maintaining and reviving the ‘old’ ways.  Check out our Forró dance here: samba (note it’s not the samba it is the Forró!)

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Carnival performer

For a moment it felt like we were back home at one of our shows. The Wah Lum way is strong, and no matter where you are, the spirit of Wah Lum always comes through. It didn’t matter that just outside the theater there were thousands of people getting ready for Carnival. We were preparing for a show, and it was a great show! I’ve already talked about how overwhelmed with pride I was with the show in my previous post, but it really made me realize that kung fu and our Wah Lum family really stretches across borders. It doesn’t matter where in the world you are, Wah Lum is Wah Lum, and we are keeping the tradition alive.

PODCAST: O and I discuss our time in Rio and more in my new podcast on Culture Chat. Check it out and let me know what you think.

Pre-show performer selfie
Pre-show performer selfie

Performance Training

I spoke with Sifu Antonio a couple of weeks ago, and he told me how excited his students were for the Wah Lum of Brazil Grand Opening.  It was a special treat for them that Grandmaster Chan and other Wah Lum Sifus were attending.  He was wondering what we would be performing at the show, and I confessed that because of Chinese New Year, we had not planned out our performance.  As much as I loved performing growing up, I am actually fine if I do not perform these days.  I can’t pinpoint exactly why I don’t often feel motivated to perform, but part of it is that I enjoy seeing the next generation step up.  I am excited to see what the youth and newer generations put together creatively and how they execute their forms.  Throughout the CNY celebrations I sometimes considered performing if we were short on help, but then I would see the kids really flourish and push themselves to the limit. (we call it CNY pride)  So, I opted not to perform during CNY.  I learn a lot from observing and it helps me become a better teacher.

Of course it will be an honor to perform at the Grand Opening in Brazil on behalf of the

Sifu Tu with the double edge sword
Sifu Tu with the double edge sword

Temple and to be a part of this great celebration.  Sifu Tu will be doing his famous double edge sword, Sifu Oscar a mantis form, and I still hadn’t decided what to do. I will also begrudgingly admit that I often don’t decide what I am doing until I am on stage!  Improvisation is a big part of my repertoire.  Good or bad, it definitely keeps me on my toes.

Do I recommend this route?  Certainly not!  My method for training students is to drill and drill and drill their performance routines until it is engrained in their brain. It may seem odd that I do not want them to do as I do, just do as I say!  I worry that makes me a hypocritical teacher, but then I realize I had to create my own system for performance training.  Although my father was always there to guide me, I had to do the majority of my performance training on my own.   I had to drill and drill and drill until I got it right. I was also fortunate that we had a lot of live shows to gain experience. I’ve spent entire summers performing kung fu shows daily at theme parks. Not many other martial artists have had this experience. Ultimately another reason I have a flare for the dramatic, is I take after my teacher, Grandmaster Pui Chan. No one performs like he does! I have seen masters through the decades from all over the world, and while many have incredible kung fu, none of them have the showmanship like my father. Even the other masters always comment on his performances. In addition, he is always performing. On the streets in Brazil, or on the cruise; he starts talking to anyone who fish-pondshows interest, and immediately he is on stage. If they are lucky he does some kung fu moves for them too. Through these experiences, I learned the art of performing, and
not just the art of kung fu.  They really are 2 different animals!  (I never had animals growing up, except for the fish at the Temple, but they hardly count as pets right?)

 

My students are fortunate that I developed a system for producing entertaining shows.  I don’t often compliment myself, but I do believe I can put on an exciting show.  Instead of having to discover these techniques on their own, I am there to guide them and essentially give them short cuts.  Some might say it isn’t good for them, and that they should discover things on their own, but then I see them perform and realize they are much better performers at this stage of their training than I was.  In having to figure it out on my own, my progress was slow.  My hopes for my students are for them to surpass me by trillions and gazillions!  In order to do this, I combine my experiences to give them what I hope is the best system of training for their progress and growth.  Although I have been doing this a long time, I am still learning.  I am pleased that the crowd is always happy at our shows, and my goal is to always improve and challenge myself.

 

Watching the kung fu show in Rio de Janeiro that was led by Sifu Antonio was such an inspiration. I was thrilled the moment they stepped on stage. img_2316The music, the uniforms, and the performance resembled shows I have produced in the past. I was so happy to see that this has carried over all the way in Brazil! Sifu Antonio and his students captured the essence of my Wah Lum kung fu performance style, and it was excellently executed! Kudos to everyone who performed!

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It is such a unique thing to realize that all over the world, Wah Lum students are doing the same classes we are doing at the Temple, and now to see them perform the same, was a special moment for me. It makes me unbelievably proud, and it was pleasure to share the stage with my Wah Lum of Brazil family. Congrats again to Sifu Antonio on a successful grand opening and for all of the hard work these past 20 years to make the school what it is today.

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Lions and Firecrackers and Kung fu, Oh My!

We are almost  finished with the shows for Chinese New Year (CNY).  It’s hard to believe in 2 days we didcny over 30 performances.  I’m not sure why I am always surprised, because this has been our tradition… this is our culture.  I only know how to celebrate CNY one way: with lion dancing, kung fu shows, and firecrackers.  Lots of firecrackers.
When I was younger and the Temple would go out to perform, we had a lot less participants, which meant a lot more kung fu for the few of us that performed.  It didn’t matter.  We loved it.  As much of a ‘mysophobe’ as I am, CNY was one time I didn’t mind the germs or dirt.  Rolling in firecracker dust on the parking lot floor was expected.  Exciting even!  What is CNY without hearing the drums play over and over in your head before you go to sleep, or coming home and finding firecracker remnants in your hair?  No cuts or scrapes?  That just means you didn’t celebrate properly.
Ask any performer what the shower at the end of CNY day 1 is like, and they will all tell you the same story.  You watch the girlsdirt literally go down the drain, you feel the burn from scrapes you didn’t know you had, you feel amazing to be under the warm water, and could probably fall asleep right there in the shower.  That is the essence of CNY.  The lunar calendar marks the ‘new year’ for us, a new beginning.  We wash away the dirt and negativity from the past, recognize the hardships that will soon be in the past, we embrace the warmth of the new beginning, and we feel the challenges of being tired from hard work…  But then we get up and do it again.

This is me running into the lion tail this year!

I remember telling my students this year after the floor was wet from the rain, “you don’t need to split and roll on the ground.”  Sure enough, they get out there and did the split and rolled around on the ground.  At first I wondered why they are doing it, I just told them they didn’t need to do it!  Why are they getting all dirty?   Then I remember how I was at their age, and what I did as a young performer.  The excitement of the shows, the adrenalin, and the fun of just getting messy for CNY.  Why would I try to stop it?

It’s part of the tradition, part of the culture.

 

 

Photos: Courtesy Karl Simpson and Hao Nguyen