In Which I Learn How to Throw Big Rocks For Fun
I came back to the park the next morning just as I had promised the shifu. I was again dressed in a loose sleeveless shirt and calf length pleated skirt. This time there were two people practicing on the uneven ground that comprised piece of park they’d claimed as training space, the egotistical shifu from yesterday and a younger man, who was equally hard to understand, but seemed to have a different sort of accent. I quickly categorized him as the Short Guy, because he was a few inches smaller than me. I could easily have filed him away as the Handsome Man, for his smooth golden skin, broad cheek bones and perfectly shaped nose were handsome, but there were plenty of good looking people around. To think of him as the Balding Man seemed mean and to call him the Incredibly Skilled Guy was too flattering for a complete stranger who was glaring at me with an intensity that could set paper on fire. So the Short Guy he became.
I learned Chinese sword that day. It seemed stupid, full of counterproductive flowery gestures and posturing, but I came back again the day after that anyway. Of all my options, these fellows are the most willing to teach me and I need acclimating somewhere. On that third day the group had multiplied again and a tall man looking to be about the same age as my parents had arrived. He had blazing white hair, humongous almond shaped eyes bluing at the edges from age, a narrow upturned nose like a fairytale princess and a thin lipped mouth stretched in a perpetual smile. This person seemed to like to laugh. He observed my pathetic attempts to wave the jian in one hand with my other hand behind my back while standing on one foot with merriment. I couldn’t understand him too well either, but about half of what he said was clear as opposed to the small fraction of the other two guys’ speech. I gave it an hour; at seven o’clock I bowed to the shifu and I went back to my apartment to start my day fed up with all the amusement at my expense.
I returned the next day. I am nothing if not stubborn. The same crowd was still there and I continued my less than exciting sword lessons. The Tall One continued to laugh at me, he was a much more noticeable audience than all the random people milling in the park who had congregated around me merely to stare. I can’t say he motivated me to keep practicing. I decided to take a break. While I was resting, I saw The Tall One grab one of the six foot staves and do a form, clearly pre-choreographed specifically for the staff. It looked totally different from the sword. The sword seemed to be all about posing with your hand out in front and your blade placed behind your back. There were a lot of kicks and splits and other things that seemed amazingly impractical in a fight involved. The stick was not like that at all. It was a series of clean simple strikes arranged in a pattern that had you hitting people attacking from all directions. There was no leaping or placing your weapon behind you. It looked serious.
Of course, I wanted to try. I was all about practicality. If I wanted something where the highest value was beauty, I’d go find a dance class. There was more than one staff, so I picked up another one and started to mimic the Tall One’s movements. This made him laugh harder. He had a surprisingly high pitched giggle for a person of such imposing bulk, though the mocking undertones were becoming all too familiar. He let me follow him through the form. Strike, step forward, strike, step back, strike, turn around, strike, forward, strike, side, strike, forward… When we had finished it, he said to me in strongly Shanghai accented Mandarin “Good job. Come back tomorrow and wear pants.”
I did come back the next day. I came every day to learn how to use the Xiao gun, commonly referred to as the gunzi, and I wore pants. This man was not the shifu. I wasn’t sure what I should call him. When I asked what his name was he laughed like I had asked the rudest stupidest thing in the world, but eventually conceded that his last name was Yang. He was 59 and he had a daughter my age. At a loss for what I should call him, I referred to him as da xiong, because that’s what everyone said he was to me. Pan was unsure whether they meant he was my big brother or my big bear, the words being homonyms.
He was the one who really taught me. The shifu mostly sat and watched and would correct me when I forgot what I was doing or did something wrong. My da xiong on the other hand, would go through the form with me 20 or 30 times. He never seemed to tire of it. He would smile and say “zai lai bian”, which I quickly learned meant ‘one more time!’.
The more he talked to me the more I understood. I started to realize that he dropped any ‘sh’ or ‘zh’ sound. That my ‘sou’ was really my shou, hand, though he would sometimes lapse into Shanghai hua and it would become my seau. In fact, whenever they were speaking amongst themselves everyone used Shanghai dialect. I heard very little Mandarin. Unlike my new da xiong, the Short Guy was totally impossible to understand. His ‘r’s became ‘z’s and even the simplest of sentences sounded like gobbledygook in his throat. I understand he didn’t like me though.
After my first week of coming to the park the Short Guy turned to me and said something that sounded like “weirhaweoir fajing aaoeheoi fadong aodoie liqi.” I thought he was saying that I lacked skill, strength and fajing. To illustrate his point he got up and did the stick form I had been struggling with. He moved with the grace of a feral beast and the ferocity of a cornered one. The moves were barely recognizable as those I had been performing. The stick whistled through the air and flexed like it was made of rubber. He said something else that I couldn’t understand, but the meaning was clear. “This is what it should look like. You suck.”
My shifu seemed less concerned with my apparently slow progress. He seemed pleased that I was coming and didn’t make any comments, such as others did, about the inappropriateness of a young lady learning how to use a gunzi. I desperately wanted to learn his name, but when I asked him to write it down, he professed to being illiterate. In the end he presented me with a business card I could barely read, but the characters of his name were simple enough Lei Ping: Lightening Peace. So from then on I referred to him as Lei Ping shifu.
Lei Ping shifu was a very particular man. Despite the fact that I bowed good bye and said ‘thank you’ after every lesson he one day told me I was quite rude, because I never greeted him.
“What do you want me to do?”
He got up from his habitual seat on the bench, walked a short distance away, came back to his seat, bowed and said “shifu nihao”. So ever after I would greet him as I would say farewell, bowing over his place and saying “Lei Ping shifu, ni hao”. I am not sure it occurred to me at that point that calling him by both first and last name was rude. He never corrected me in any case, I think he thought it was cute.
My father had suggested that I get business cards made up with my contact information so that I could pass them on to potential contacts. Pan had them made through her company. I wanted 50 and they gave me 200 for free hoping that Pan’s company would patronize their shop again. The cards were simple; English on one side and Chinese on the other. There was no title, just my name, e-mail and cell phone number. My da xiong had one of these, which is where he learned my name and had passed it on to his daughter. He wanted me to teach her English and I had agreed. I wanted to meet other young people. At this point I knew no one my age, except Pan, who was too busy, and Wister, who I did not know well. My da xiong would bring me gifts of old clothes to the park as a form of down payment for teaching his daughter. Such generosity made me nervous as I had yet to actually perform any services for his family, but I accepted the clothing out of politeness. Most of it was awful stuff, ugly pastel sweaters, skin tight blue sports pants and the like, I could only conclude that this daughter had very different taste from me. Most of it ended up winging its way to the communal dumpster, the Chinese version of Goodwill.
* * * * * * * * *
My stick form was steadily improving, but I was still woefully weak. They loved to make fun of The Girl, by insisting I practice spear shots. They would hand me a large spear far too heavy for me to wield properly and then laugh as the spear wobbled through space, bells jangling as I grimaced under the weight. After one of these “amusing” sessions, I took my leave abruptly and started walking home when my da xiong came running after me. I couldn’t make out all his words, but I understood he wanted me to follow him. I’m curious and easy going, back then I’d say “hao de”, ok, to anything, just to see what would happen next. It is easier to say yes than no, so it wasn’t hard to get me to follow him.
We went to a part of the park I had not seen before. We wove our way through crowds of ballroom dancers, past a taiji group and over a small bridge, before coming to a gated little field. The grass was stumpy and the ground bare in many places. A few trees had been artfully placed on the perimeter and the far end had a grove of palm trees and aggressive ground cover. It was full of old men, mostly drinking tea, and a bunch of carved stone things. They looked like large blocks with handles attached to one side. My da xiong opened the rusted green gate and led me inside the enclosure, he picked up one of the larger stones, one with a 70 inscribed on the side. He deftly tossed it in the air with a single hand, caught it again and placed it on the ground. The next words he spoke I did not fully understand, but it sounded like an invitation. I bent my knees and picked up the thing. It was wicked heavy. By straightening my knees I could get it off the ground, but my arms could lift it at all. Not that I had chance to try.
As soon as the rock had air beneath it, the yard exploded with male voices telling me to be careful and to put that thing back down. I was quite confused, I just sort froze, legs straight, back still bent and stone thing dangling from my right hand. After a moment, I did what they said, though I felt in no danger.
Crisis passed, my da xiong escorted me to a bench near a couple of stained card tables where the men were drinking tea. They made room for me and even got a plastic cup full of hot water and some green leaves for me to drink. I think some of them tried to talk to me, but I couldn’t understand what they said. I smiled vacantly and blew on my steaming beverage.
Just as I was starting to get a little bored and tried to make conversation, my da xiong called me into the middle of the clearing. He was holding a small stone that I was to understand was 12 jin, whatever that meant. He told me that he was going to throw it, I should catch it and throw it back at him. I laughed. He must be crazy! Me? Throw that thing? It looked awful heavy. I thought I was going to fall over when he threw it at me, but I managed to catch it and throw it back again. We did what seemed like endless rounds of this, with da xiong shouting simple instructions at me. “gao yi dian! Zhong yi dian!” “Throw it higher! Throw it harder!” I worked up a good sweat and it was fun. We stopped when my arms were shaking and I was so drained of energy that I couldn’t even catch anymore. Unlike when I practiced stick and people would walk by, stop, stare and laugh at me, no one here seemed to be venturing an opinion.
My da xiong could see I was done and decided to let me take a break by introducing me to his friend, a talkative, cheerful fellow by the name of Yang. Just like my da xiong. They were both Yangs. The new Yang gave me to understand that he was called Da Yang, because he was a year older than my da xiong, whom they referred to as Er Yang. He welcomed me to come again, which I did on every subsequent weekend and steadily improved. After a month I had worked my way all the way up to 24 jin! This was roughly 25 pounds and I was quite proud of my progress.
I never became very close to Lei Ping shifu, but looking back now it is hard to believe I would later call my da xiong “father”. After all he was the person who spent the first weeks of our acquaintance simply laughing at me and when I ask him about it he doesn’t even remember me prior to that first day he took me to see the throwing stones.