Tuesday, January 30, 2007


I've been thinking some about the nature of competency, lately. This is mostly due to events in my tai chi universe.
  • We had another visitor to the Wednesday night advanced class. This one we'll call the Wookie--Big dude. Bad posture. Nervous twitches. (What is it about martial arts that attracts these spazzes? The rumor is, this guy has some kind of genuine brain disorder, and is on medication for it.) The Wookie was very strong, but slow. He was like a big dumb bull, pushing through every exercise. He kept saying "uh-huh. uh-huh. uh-huh." like a parrot, to everything Sit said until I was ready to hamstring him. He clearly thought he was getting it; he very much was not.

    "Your technique is very good," Sit said. "But it's not tai chi. You do only the yang. You don't have the softness." The Wookie seemed irritated by this. Sit went on to say it was possible to study for "fifteen years," but if you don't have a good teacher and/or you don't practice, you'll never be good.

    I got to give credit to the Wookie; he seems to have practiced, but either his teacher wasn't setting a good example or the Wookie was disregarding it. He can't catch an attack, he can't do chin na or anything involving finesse: he can only bulldoze. With this guy, it's easy to assume that he's messed up in the head and will never learn correctly, but I wonder why Sit puts up with him. Does he hate to let a student go? Does he think that as a teacher he can still get through to him?

    The Wookie says he intends to come back and "keep learning"; we'll see.
  • On YouTube, I stumbled across some videos by a trio of guys who claim to be doing the Tai Hui form. Tai hui is Sit's style of kung fu. It's fairly rare. As far as I know, Sit's the only one in the U.S. who teaches it. But there's a former student of Sit's in Kansas City, who claims to teach tai hui as well. Those are three of his students on YouTube. Technically, they are my kung fu nephews.

    To my eye, they look pretty rough. Their shoulders are up around their ears when they should be dropped and relaxed. Their elbows are flapping around like chicken wings. Their stances are all wrong--a proper tai hui stance is weight on the back leg, front leg cocked so the knee is out, ready for kicking or trapping. These guys are extending their front leg out straight, and distributing their weight in the middle.

    Meanwhile their friends are posting comments going "Good form!" which just makes me groan. Now, we could get into evolution of form and the "right" way of doing things, but that's not really the point. Chinese internal styles all have the same basic principles: movement from the core of the body, rooting of the feet, dropping the hip, elbow, and shoulder. I see none of that in their videos. I see varying degrees of it in other videos that people put up on YouTube. Of course, what is visible in the form is not necessarily indicative of one's fighting ability, but that's not the point.

    I used to think form, and competition in form, was a waste of time. Sit admits that what looks good in form is not necessarily good fighting technique. But to me, it's like being able to speak both Cantonese and Mandarin. If you're really that good, you should be able to do either, as appropriate to the context. It's about having control over your body.

    Of course there are 10-year students in Sit's class who can't do a proper forward stance, either. And sometimes it irks me that they still come to class, treat it like social hour, and pass on the same bad habits to a new crop of students. Because Sit has given up correcting them, they think they're pretty good.

    But it's a fact of psychology that in order to judge your own competency of a skill, you have to have a fair amount of competency. In other words, you can't know how good you are until you're already fairly good. People who are low-level tend to judge themselves more skilled than they are, because they have nothing to compare to.

    All of which makes me worry about what my form tells people about my teacher.

  • As I'm mulling all of this, a friend directs me to a blog about weaving, where the author addresses the very problem I've been contemplating:
    I learned [weaving] in a context where praise is rarely given, and understated when it is; where praising newbie efforts the way we do in the US would be seen as insulting. When I first learned to spin, I was five years old and we’d just moved to Chinchero, Peru.[...]

    One day I braided my hair for myself, and I was super proud. I ran up to the first old lady I saw, and said, “Look! Look! I braided my own hair! Didn’t I do a good job?”

    “No,” she replied. “You did a
    waylaka [a lazy, incompetent woman] job. Here, this is how it should be. Do it like this from now on,” and she undid my braids, rebraiding them so tight they’d hold for a week, in about 2 minutes flat.

    This wasn’t criticism per se — this was caring, and ownership and community.[...] If she’d told me “You did good,” it would have carried with it the message that such work was all that could be expected of me; that I had no further potential; that I wasn’t worth wasting any time on teaching.

    If she would have spent a long, long time rebraiding my hair, going slow, making me do it, that would have been condescending, and again, sent the message that I was of little value, due to my clearly sub-par learning skills. Doing it right, at close to normal speed, telling me what to feel for and think about, would give me more time to go off and practice without making someone else drill it into me. Suggesting that I needed a grown woman to teach me, painstakingly and at length, would have been to single me out from my peers to treat me like a problem.

    This segment really appealed to me, because it's the way that Sit teaches. He hardly ever says "good job." I think I'd been there three years before he said it to me, and that first time I was so shocked I thought I'd misheard. He just says, "Yes," when you do it right, and "No," when it's wrong. He rarely singles out anyone for individual attention unless you're fairly advanced and ready for fine-tuning, or have a genuine learning disability, as does one of the younger students in our weekend class. But I like Sit's method. It means you either sink or swim, and it weeds out people who insist on doing things their own way--who then go off and start their own school.

I'm at a level now where not much more can be drilled into me. I'm learning the internal form, which is pretty much the Holy Grail of forms in our style--from here on out it's a matter of refinement and practice. Sit helps as much as he can, offering clues and tricks he's figured out, but tai chi is like writing; you have to find your own method. I have my good days and bad days in class; sometimes I think I'm getting it and sometimes I'm crushed by how far I have to go. And because I am competent enough to see my shortcomings (and I have a teacher who won't let me get above myself), I sometimes get depressed because I know I don't really have the single-minded passion that it takes to excel at something like martial arts. I started tai chi seven years ago; I've been in Sit's class for four. I should be much further along than I am, but my interests are divided, and my time has always been sacrificed. I tell myself that if I just keep at it, I can't help but improve, if slowly.

In a way, all this tai chi indignation is motivating. The SP and I are both getting a little surfeited with honeymooning--not with each other, just with the indolent living--and eager to step up training again. I feel obligated to pass on what Sit has taught me, and to do it in a way that respects the tradition. Furthermore, we've got a couple tournaments coming up, a local one in March and the big one in July. I don't want my peers wondering if I have a lousy teacher or if I'm just a lazy brat.

Sit may be thinking along the same lines, because a few weeks ago he watched me do MY internal form and said, "Look, either you want to learn this or you don't. If you do, you got to practice."

Thank you Sifu-- May I have another?


Abby Franquemont said...

I'm stoked that you read that, and that you related! Thank you.

Some things I learned in a scant few years, long ago, studying a small "hard-and-soft" Japanese style, have stuck with me forever; and many of these things are zen things and little parables, and they apply... just... everywhere. To my thinking, some of the most important stuff to really work through is the "beginner's mind" type stuff. When one chooses to call oneself a master, and go around proudly proclaiming that, the chances are, that one is exactly *not* a master; a master will have come full circle to again know the beginner's mind, and it is not necessary to be recognized for being such a thing.

You said: "Somebody's got to do it, because those jokers on YouTube sure can't be trusted to carry the flame."

Yes. That. And it's hard to know, sometimes: where to rail against it and denounce it and say, "That's not the flame; those of you watching, don't be fooled, there is more than this!" and when denouncing thusly is, itself, not carrying the flame. I sure as hell don't know. But I'll carry on what I can, teach what I can, and all the while, keep striving to be the eternal student.

And I'll be back to read more. ;-)

Holly said...

Thanks, Abby, for dropping in and for commenting! I definitely enjoyed your writing.

"hard to know, sometimes: where to rail against it and denounce it and say, "That's not the flame; those of you watching, don't be fooled!..."

Yes. And I wish I could say I am a master and above it all, but I'm still pretty reactionary. So that makes it harder--how do I separate my higher-brain desire to help from my primate-brain drive to disembowel?

Last year my Sparring Partner and I made pre-competition videos of each other doing form. I was aghast when I saw mine. "Why didn't you tell me I was flapping my arms around like that?"

"I didn't think it was my place to correct you," he said. (Which just proves my husband is a) very smart, and b) more Zen than I am.)

"Well if you don't then who will?" I insisted.

I still think we were both right. He's the closest peer I have, and slightly more advanced than I, and it's always easier to see someone else's faults than your own. Mote in the eye and all that.

So I thought long and hard about whether to post any comments on YouTube. And when I read your waylaka essay I realized that no one will ever get better until somebody tells them they suck. (Sorry if that was a misuse of your message. ;-) )

My opinion is, if one is putting oneself on YouTube and inviting comments, one has to accept all comments. It's like joining a writer's group--if all you want to hear are good things about your work, you won't get much out of it. People sometimes post nasty attacks on my blog, too, and as long as they're not too obscene, I generally leave them. Everyone's entitled to their opinion.

So then I'm left with, How do I tell them they suck? Do I be constructive, like I would in my writer's group? Or do I just slam them, like any other ignorant troll, so they can brush it off if they feel like it?

In the end, I tried to adopt a tone somewhere in-between. It probably will have no effect; someone will delete my comments in a few days and that will be that. Meanwhile I can attempt not to be a hypocrite, by turning the criticism upon myself. And in that way, at least, those boys did me a favor.

Abby Franquemont said...

The question of whose place it is to comment or question, and in what way, is a tough one. I've had many similar experiences to your video with the sparring partner -- and my response generally tends to be, "Why didn't you tell me?"

On the other hand, as you point out, there's the ignorant troll premise. The moderately comfortable medium on which I've settled seems to be, well, I'll try to comment as I'd want to be commented at -- and try to keep in mind that I'm not necessarily the right metric.

I had an online friend once upon a time whose standards for herself were very high, and who very much valued critique; and in that respect, we got along great for a while. But then there came a point when she and I had a falling out, that in essence boils down to the question of compromise and what's constructive. To make a long story short, she was unwilling to compromise her style of communication at a point when I reached the conclusion that a particular venue I moderated required compromise from people on all sides of an argument. Her reaction to proposed compromise was to create a huge flamefest and in the ensuing senseless melodrama, I shut the forum down (there's lots more history and a lot of it had to do with the particular individual).

I'm not in favour of never saying anything negative; but I'm also not in favour of saying negative things in totally counter-productive ways. I think there's a line between being able to say "You suck, and here's why, and how you can improve" and saying "You suck, you will always suck, your mom sucks, your nose is ugly, and screw you, plus all my friends say you suck too, but we're great, and you can't be in our club anymore!"

Even apart from the question of intent, there's how people interpret things. With the fiber arts stuff, for me, context matters, and how I communicate does tend to depend on the context, who I'm talking to, about what. I do give praise, and I do slam people. And I'm plenty bitchy and opinionated, at the same time as I really do care and strive to be helpful. I want to further the art and see the flame not die; but I also don't want it to simply smolder and leave nobody thinking it CAN burn for real.

I think a lot depends on how one presents oneself. If someone presents himself as a newbie, then even if he brings his work to the public eye, I'm going to react differently than if someone presents herself as a professional or an expert. The trouble is that there's a huge swath in the middle where you have no idea what people think their skill levels are, what people have for goals, and so forth.

In the fiber arts I feel there's a trend towards anti-excellence in some cases, and in other cases, towards excellence in achieving results which often simulate newbieness. So then you even get newbies who become masters of producing "newbie" product. Ooof! And to the untrained eye, telling the difference is very hard.

Okay, I could go on and on here... let me give you a link instead...


People react to this often by saying "Oh, you hate the new arty stuff!" or "You're just jealous you can't make the same kind of money for a 'traditional' handspun yarn!" But that's not so, neither thing. I just think that by playing to the notion that "handspun" looks like newbie work, one devalues thousands of years of artistry and craftsmanship and skill. I find this fairly unique to the fiber arts as compared to other arts/crafts/trades.

It's like if someone created a martial art whose primary purpose was to look like the movies; I'm not saying it wouldn't be an art, wouldn't be hard to learn, but it's not the same thing as an ancient tradition that's intended to make fighters.

So help me, I feel like this is nigh impossible to get across to a lot of people, but that you've understood *exactly* what I was getting at, so I hope you'll pardon me babbling on. ;-)

Holly said...

"It's like if someone created a martial art whose primary purpose was to look like the movies; I'm not saying it wouldn't be an art, wouldn't be hard to learn, but it's not the same thing as an ancient tradition that's intended to make fighters."

Er... some would say that's exactly what modern wu shu is.