“You really ought to try Sit’s Sunday tai chi class,” Mary Ann had been saying to me for months. “They do a lot of application in there. Or even the kung-fu class--it’s all young guys, so you’ll have a lot of people to practice on.”
I chuckled at that, but I had some reservations about being in an all-male class.
“Oh no, they won’t give you any trouble. Sit won’t let them give you any trouble, and besides, they’re such nice guys. Zack, and Tim, and… Oh and Tony’s there now. You’ll like Tony. He wants to teach, so he’s taking it very seriously.”
So I finally girded up my loins and went to Sunday tai chi. I was a coward about it, and talked my friend Shara into going with me, but I went.
Then as now, the kung fu class met before tai chi, and me and Shara got there deliberately early. All the guys in kung-fu looked at us long and hard from the other end of the room, in between a deadly-looking set of cutting elbow/ double-block/ roundhouse kick.
The kung-fu students always look at the tai chi students like this. The long-timers glare at them for the interruption, the new ones look in relief, because the arrival of the tai chi students means their suffering is almost over, and when the newcomers are young and female, there’s a certain amount of conflicted scrutiny from all parties: Are they here for the class? Are they serious about learning or just hunting for men? Are they single?
Sit has a particularly intimidating dead-eye gaze when newcomers arrive. He does not stop class and greet you. He does not register your presence at all. You may as well be a cat that wandered in. He is in his zone and you don’t matter.
For my part, I was shaking in my Keds. The only contact I’d had with Sit up to this point was that workshop a year and a half earlier, and he scared me to death. It wasn’t that I feared for my health or safety. It was a fear-of-failure thing. Sit is so serious about his craft, and I’m the kind of person who doesn’t want to do something unless I know I can succeed at it.
Also, to my untrained eye, all the guys in kung-fu class looked very serious and accomplished—which just illustrates the point that you can’t judge competence until you, yourself are fairly competent.
Still, there is something about sweaty men doing martial arts that really does it for me. I told myself I was only looking for artistic reasons, because I had a photographic/multimedia project going on at the time, and I needed models. There were two decent prospects in that class: one was a tall lanky dark-haired guy (irrelevant to the story, I never saw him again), and the other was a medium-sized young man who reminded me of a chunk of firewood—thick and corded. He had terrific arms and calves, although he wore his shirts too long so for years I thought he was stunted. This, as I would learn, was the afore-mentioned Tony. I didn’t know yet that he loved chocolate and science fiction, or that he would ask me to marry him five years later.
Right then he was just incredibly intimidating. They all were. I was grateful when Mary’s sister Kathi arrived for class and greeted me warmly, thus proving that I belonged there.
I was determined not to be a timid shy girl in that class. Shara was starting out new, so Sit started at the beginning for her, but I did all the forms I could with the class. I bullied my way to the front, ursurping a position in the front row behind Sit’s right hand, and kept my eyes glued on him. I mirrored every move he made, listened so hard I forgot to breathe sometimes. He was pretty intense compared to our mild Tuesday night class. He was a crackling live wire, talking constantly, full of coiled energy. He demonstrated moves on the guys, things I had seen before but never with such power. Things I hadn’t seen before that made me wince and gasp in exhilaration. He was often very funny. He was also deadly serious.
I found him very difficult to understand, then and for years after. His native language is Cantonese, so his accent is quite thick, but what’s harder is the way he puts together sentences. His vocabulary is impressive even for a native English speaker, but he’s careless with verb construction. He says, “you do this,” and you have no idea if he means, “hey you, go do this now,” or “you must do this” or “you are doing this and you shouldn’t.” Also, there is a fair amount of jargon in tai chi that he explains haphazardly or not at all—peng, jin, fa jin, gong, sung—and for a long time I had no clue what it meant. I decided to simply listen without trying to analyze or remember; I was old enough by then to understand that a complex puzzle needs to be absorbed for a time before I can begin to dissect it.
And meaning did come, with time.
I started attending Sit's class either in late 2001 or early 2002; I can’t pin it down more than that. We were still indoors at that point, at St. Mark’s Lutheran, in their grand old choir hall with beautiful, crumbling wood- and plasterwork. I had to relearn all the stances that first year; turned out I’d been doing them wrong and the wrongness became apparent in the rigors of Sit’s workout. My knees ached for months until I learned how to keep my toes aligned.
The year turned. The weather got warmer. We moved outside to Loose Park, among the pine trees. I still staked out my spot on Sit’s right elbow. He was beginning to put me among the more advanced students who were learning the kicks form and the new fencing-sword form, a bastardized shortened version of the Wu style sword. There was a very nice, friendly guy named Tim who worked at the art institute and was awe-inspiring in his wiry muscularity. There was friendly-in-a-condescending-way Richard, who clearly thought himself above the rest of us but wasn’t above chatting up the new girl. There were the young guys, Tony, and Matt-n-Casey (it took me months to determine which was which, although they looked nothing alike; they were just a package deal), and sometimes Zack, who weighed one-twenty soaking wet, sported an emo-Beetles moptop, and was twelve degrees of badass.
You notice I only mention the guys. There are two reasons for this. One is that the women there were all a good deal older than I, and they had a sort of clique that, while welcoming to me, was not really to my taste. They talked about massage and self-help books and meditation and a hundred bits of quasi-new-age folderol, whereas I wanted to talk about postures and stances and fighting techniques. Furthermore, by the time I went to Sit’s class I was already on a level with the majority of those older women, and I quickly surpassed them. That meant that all of my classmates were the guys.
I found out much later that the young guys tended to be scornful of anybody coming out of Mary Ann’s class. I can’t really blame them; most of Mary’s students were there for a little exercise and some social life. That’s fine, but it wasn’t what I was after. I wanted to learn, and I didn’t want special treatment for being a girl.
Nevertheless, when one is young, female, and keen on a sport that is primarily a male dominion, there are going to be complications.
To be continued....