My first contact with Sit was in someone else’s dojo—another of the belt factories, most likely, although I gotta respect any master who takes his craft seriously enough to want to learn from other masters.
I drove out to an unfamiliar, slightly creepy part of the city on a Saturday morning, alone and very nervous. I had no idea what to expect, but I was highly exhilarated and embolded by the knowledge that Mary Ann would be there, as well as Ralph and Berkley and Nancy, from the Tuesday night class. After three months I had already moved into the upper ranks of the class, but that didn’t mean much to me at the time. I just wanted to learn everything I could.
The dojo filled up fast. It was an adults-only workshop—Sit never was willing to teach kids—and it had been slightly overbooked. There were probably about thirty of us, which is a lot of people to cram into a fifty-foot long room, especially when they are all waving their arms around. Most of the attendees were men, but there were a fair number of women. One in particular made a big impression on me: about thirty-five, medium-height but seeming taller because of the way she carried herself, lean-hipped, broad-shouldered, muscular arms, a tanned freckled face bare of makeup, and a single long plait of dark hair down her back. I have to smile at myself as I write this, because I could be describing myself, now, nine years later. I thought that woman was the coolest thing I’d ever seen, in 1999, as a kung-fu infant, and now I am she.
Ralph came to join me, and Berkley, and we huddled together feeling insecure. Everyone else seemed young and tough and athletic, wearing uniforms and tee-shirts from tournaments with exotic-sounding names. I heard someone say that most of the attendees were instructors in their own right. There was one young girl there, maybe ten, the daughter of one of the dojo owners, I think.
Sit was almost the last to arrive. I don’t know if he meant to be, or if everyone was early out of courtesy, or if Sit’s terrible sense of direction—legendary among his students—made him get lost again. I don’t remember him making an entrance, I don’t remember the first words he said to us, but I’ve attended enough of his workshops since, I can probably convey the gist of it.
“Hello, hello, thank you for coming. I am Chun Man Sit, and this is the Phoenix Fan Form Workshop. It is a form I created, it uses moves from Wu style tai chi and Six Elbows Kung Fu, which is what I teach, it is a southern style kung-fu, from Hong Kong. And we’re going to do the whole thing today, it’s a long form, so we’ll do two hours, and then break for lunch, and then do the rest. Okay. So let’s get started—first we going to do a demo—these are my students, Mary Ann, Richard, and Tim, and we’re going to do the whole form to music. So don’ worry if you can’t remember all of it the first time.”
Nervous chuckles all around. Sit and his crew do a blindingly-fast rendition of the fan form accompanied by some loud Chinese pop music, after which the workshop attendees stand shell-shocked, wondering what we’ve gotten ourselves into.
“Don’t worry about it,” Sit assures us. “We do one section at a time. By the end of the day, you’ll know it.”
And astonishingly, he’s right. It’s amazing what the mind and body can accomplish under threat of humiliation. He positions his minions at strategic points around the room so no matter which direction we are facing—and the fan form has a lot of spins in it—we can always see one of them. Sit demonstrates three to five moves at a time, then we all stagger through them five or six times, then we do a longer bit with two or three sections strung together. It’s intense. Especially at first, when you’re still thinking OMG I GOTTA REMEMBER THIS! and trying to pack it in consciously. This leads to headaches, frustration, and the dojo owner’s 10-year-old daughter breaking down into tears.
“Don’t worry about it,” Sit says to her. “You’ll get it. You may think you don’t remember it, but your body will know it.”
Everybody else is too old and stubborn to give up, so we stagger on, spinning, blocking, thrusting, snapping the fan. Quarters are close and the room gets hot fast. There is a no-metal-fans rule in this workshop, everybody is using bamboo, but I still get light bloody scratches across both biceps by the slashing ribs of spinning fans. After a while your brain cannot consciously absorb any more and you simply start to mirror, and after a while of that you start to realize that it’s getting easier, because either you’ve bypassed your short-term memory and are pouring moves directly into your lower animal brain, or you’ve internalized the syntax of the form’s style and are no longer fighting what your feet know how to do. Maybe both.
I learned the whole fan form that day, in four or five hours or however long it was. Sit was right—I couldn’t consciously remember all of it—the transistions are particularly difficult on any new form—but my muscles knew it. And I had Mary Ann, who was beginning to be quite pleased with me, and who made sure I learned the whole thing over again, that first winter, in sections that were more easily digestible.
The following spring, March 2000, I competed in my first tournament, The Golden Dragon, in Kansas City. It’s a fairly small local tournament, but Sit and his crew always go to support the local network. He was judging that year, and he did a Master’s demo of the fan form during the opening cermonies, for which he borrowed my fan (I was so honored!!!!!). I competed with the fan form and the “Love is Blue” form, so-named because it is choreographed to the song. I had learnt it over the winter, too. I won both golds in the women’s beginner’s devision. Aside from that, it was a horrible experience. Tournaments generally are. They’re boring and tiring and punctuated by ego-fits and drama queens. And that’s just the judges (rimshot!). So that was the last tournament I did for six years.
I completed my BA in English that spring, too. I spent the summer job hunting, doing tai chi, and writing a lot. I got a job with a publishing company in September, and started paying off debts, making plans to get my own apartment. I kept going to Mary Ann’s class. I got the fan form down cold (or so I thought at the time) and started learning the “kicks form”. That was hard going, because nobody else seemed inclined to want to finish it. It’s a more difficult form, with a lot of leg-lifts, and many of the older folks in Mary’s class had a hard time with it. I was nearly the only one who finished it that year.
Meanwhile I was getting really curious about the practical aspect of things. Mary started hinting maybe I should go to Sit’s class, but I wasn’t ready for that. Sunday was my day to stay home and write, I was still short of money, and I was living with my parents, who (being fundy Christians) frowned severely on the idea of extracurricular activities on Sundays. There was some family trouble going on around that time anyway, and I had gotten pretty heavily involved with my new writer’s group, so I was spending more time writing and revising and tearing my hair out trying to impress my writer-friends, rather than practicing. Tai chi kind of fell back to a once-a-week exercise thing.
But eventually it became evident that Mary Ann couldn’t teach me anymore, at least not within the confines of that class. In October of 2001, I moved to a one-bedroom apartment of my very own, half a mile from work, and barely twenty minutes from Sit’s Sunday-morning class. I had a new friend at work, who was very keen on attending, and I was very bored with the blue-hairs in the Tuesday night class.
There was no longer any excuse for me not to go to Sit.