Shaolin sojourn

The writer outside the gates of the shaolin academy

BY the time anyone reads this, I would have spent a month and a week at the Maling Shaolin Kungfu Academy in Jiangsu Province, China.

I took an overnight train to get here, propped upright on the hardest chair imaginable for twelve hours straight and receiving looks of fascination from the five other people at my booth. The school is situated about a half-hour bus ride away from the nearest city centre of Xinyi. The setting is rustic; training takes place five days a week in a reasonably-sized backyard, or on top of a small, breezy hill nearby.

Since I have been here, the weather has drastically changed from 40-degree heat and unbearable humidity to dry, chilly air. I will be here until winter, when I will be living in minus 10-degree weather – and snow! - for the very first time.

Before this, I had an amazing boss who understood and supported my burgeoning acting career. But working in her event management company for nine years had me yearning for change. I didn't know what that change was going to be, but I knew it had to be big.

The thought of signing up for kungfu school had been swimming around my head for about three years. A good friend proposed it as an interesting alternative to a post-grad education after I failed to raise enough funds for a Masters degree in Theatre.

 I had a dream to pursue martial arts as a teenager, but my father at the time didn't encourage it. I've finally figured that at 30 years, I'm as old as I’ll ever be, but I’m also as young as I’ll ever get. And something as physically insane as Shaolin kungfu isn't exactly an idea that should be sat on for too long.

Right now, I am nursing a sprained toe, a weak knee, a pulled hamstring, sore hip flexors and more bruises than I can count. I punch trees and beat myself with bamboo sticks. I do wheelbarrows on pavement so hot that it makes my palms blister. I am pushed to my limits and I hide the agony until it escapes my lips in a guttural roar. If my mother were to witness what I am actually putting myself though, she would demand for me to take the first flight home.

But this is a golden moment for me, while my body is still able, to experience what regular people in a conventional urban environment would never think of putting themselves through.

My repressed tomboy adolescence is out in full swing. In kungfu school, there are no such thing as boys or girls– just a bunch of people eager for self-punishment.

My classmates are from the world over, mainly Europe. They work hard and play hard, and together we create a home away from home. Their company forms one of the most extraordinary parts of this choice of education. Some students stay for a month, others a year. The number of students is small enough for us to feel a huge difference in group dynamics whenever someone comes in or leaves.

Each of us made a decision to dedicate a speck of our lifetime to abandoning our comfort zone and escape to a random corner of the world to try something new. The chances of a kungfu school being our meeting place, only to have us eventually leave and probably never see each other again (together at least), must be truly minimal. It makes every one of these relationships unique and precious.

After my job resignation, I received two very distinct responses to my intentions of going to China. One was the gobsmacked disbelief, quickly followed by “Why?!” The other was the knowing smile and something along the lines of “That is so 'you'!” I acknowledge either reaction, grateful to have managed to establish myself as someone who does not hold back – the 'random' sort of person whom you get warned about making friends with.

Adrenaline kicks aside, the daunting process of learning new things is also a process of humility.... Of constantly breaking down and reconstructing one's reality to make way for new knowledge and ways of being. I can give a dozen reasons as to why I have taken up Shaolin kungfu, and boy, have I given my dozen.

But my main motivation is honoring the fact that at any age, we are all beginners at life. If you think about it, it is how much we embrace this advantage that defines how we will be remembered.

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