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Year of the Little Dragon: One
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Year of the Little Dragon: Two

In the second part of her CairoScene debut, Pakinam Amer rolls up her sleeves and gets stuck into her new life as a Kung Fu student.

Problem solved, I thought cheerfully, I’ll just go back to my old life. No one will call me a wimp or a coward. No one will be disappointed. You see, my dear parents and friends, I was forced to leave, I had no choice, I would say.

Five minutes later, a young Chinese man in a uniform of a black jacket carrying the school’s emblem, and black pants came knocking on my door. Little did I know that I’d see that face every single day for most of the day for my entire stay in Shaolin Si Xiaolong Wuyan, which is the Shaolin Temple martial arts boarding school I was to attend for the next few months, and in whose dorms I was staying. Xiaolong means Little Dragon, so the name literally means: “Shaolin Temple Little Dragon School.”

…I was woken up by a loud army-like horn. I thought may be it’s my luck, and China is declaring war, and then I’d have to be evacuated. The man introduced himself as “Li Yong Hui,” Li being his family name and Yong Hui his given name. He will be my Kung Fu teacher, he said, and he came to give me an orientation, and to ask if I’m ready for training. Tango, my travel agent gave me a call, a few minutes later, and I wondered if the entire country wakes up at 6:00 am. He confirmed what Li Yong Hui said, “but of course, you won’t call him by his name. You can call him Master, or teacher, or Shifu (meaning Kung Fu master),” said Tango.

I gave my “master” a snide look, studying him for a moment as I held the phone to my ears; he was relatively handsome, with a shaven face, and very young. “But he’s so young, how can he be my master,” I breathed the words into my cell phone, moving away from Li Yong Hui as much as possible so he wouldn’t be offended by my protests. “Are you sure he’s good? How old is he? 23?”

I heard Tango laugh through the receiver, “No, no, Miss Pakinam,” he said. “He’s 26, but he’s a Kung Fu expert, he has 15 years of experience under his belt. He has been training since he was six years old. He’s an excellent teacher.” I gave my so-called “master” another desperate look. “Ok, ok, I’ll try him,” I said, ending the call.

Shifu Yong Hui, Pakinam's Kung Fu master, in action in the Pagoda forest of the Shaolin Temple

I was given a uniform – red jacket carrying the school’s name, red shirt, and two pairs of black pants and a pair of light Kung Fu shoes– and was taken to the dinning halls. The food is served on metal trays very much like in prison, the halls lined with long identical metal tables, and metal chairs.

Cold, heartless metal.

Who am I kidding? It was exactly like in prison.

I was also told that the horns were Xiaolong’s equivalent of “bells.” Instead of ringing bells to announce waking, class times, eating times, and sleeping hours, they use horns, “like the army” my new teacher said with a wide, almost proud grin.

Ah, the army. Such a warm, welcoming atmosphere.

When the horn was sounded, I sat among the students, all dressed in identical uniforms, and ate a medley of cooked vegetables which I couldn’t recognize, weakly grappling with a pair of chopsticks and nibbling at some steamed rice.

Everything smelled.

But it was how bare it all was that made me lose my appetite halfway and get up when my tray was still half-full.

This is it, this is when the rubber meets the road, I told myself. And there’s no turning back. A river of calmness suddenly swept through me (people in near death experience recount similar sensations by the way) and I decided I’m OK, I’m making peace with this shithole. It’s all part of the experience. Tomorrow, I told myself, I’ll visit the temple, which was a 40-minute hike away and only a few minutes by car, and meditate. And all will be fine.

Immediately following this zen-like moment – and as if the Temple listened– I ran into a small miracle. An American student. John. He was among four other foreigners staying at the school. Finally, someone I could speak to and compare notes. I was almost in tears when I saw him, and I think I scared him a little bit.

A couple of hours later, I would see the thousands upon thousands of students filing out into the training grounds from every corner of the school, cheerful, gung-ho, lively as they started Kung-Fu-ing in groups and in flawless formations. Suddenly, it all seemed like a dream, and days later –after settling in – I wondered why I hated it all so much upon arrival.

I was told later that Dengfeng is home to more than a hundred Kung Fu or Wushu (martial arts) Schools, but there are only a few schools/camps that are sponsored by the Shaolin Temple, among which is Xiaolong, one of the best four schools in town, besides the main Wushu Guan, two minutes away from the temple, Ta Gou (the largest camp in town with 30,000 students) and Epo (the Ritz of Dengfeng Kung Fu Schools mainly because the well-to-do students can get king-sized beds in their dorms, and hotel-like room service, and –rumor has it– western  options for food).

There are two types of Kung Fu taught in Shaolin: Taolu and Sanda. Taolu is aesthetically beautiful, graceful like a dance but deadly when executed with finesse, and power. It is quite choreographed consisting mainly of forms with bare hands, and/or an array of weapons that include chain whips, staffs, knives, swords, and spears. It’s the version we see in movies like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Hero and House of Flying Daggers.

Sanda or Sanshou is a bare-handed free-fighting technique, incorporating elements of boxing, kickboxing and taekwondo. Both are very powerful.

Naturally I chose  to train in Taolu, mainly because of the aesthetics (and the movies), but also because I underwent two surgeries in my left eye shortly before I came to China and I was afraid warnings of “please avoid hitting my eyes” will be lost in translation and from what I saw among the Sanda guys there’s a whole lot of vicious hitting to the head, and face during training.

Pakinam with her Shifu

In the days following my arrival, I was to meet Chris, the painfully handsome Aussie hunk who introduced me to his “smashing walls” wisdom, Tuhao, the Shaolin monk who sells merchandise to tourists and robs them blind, likes to party KTV-style and who often sleeps over in Xiaolong on weekends, Zuyan, the bored (and very sweet) Vietnamese, who happens to be the son of a drug dealer, and my class, a motley of interesting characters and some very uncoordinated wanna-be Kung Fu fighters. And finally, the “other Shifu,” macho, aggressive and loud, and so bloody strong … and who incidentally became the object of my obsession for a few weeks, and eventually my ultimate Kung-Fu crush. (You can laugh at me, it’s OK).

As I began training, testing my limits and “raping” martial arts and desecrating some forms beyond repair, and as my circle of friends and acquaintances (I even made an enemy) grew bigger, everything changed.

Or may be I changed.

But the fact remains: the past few months were unforgettable; full of pains (loads of ibuprofen and Deep Heat), laughs, discoveries, culture shocks, reflections, warrior monks, steamed rice and stir-fried tofu, and a whole lot of badass, supercool Kung Fu.

And despite being nothing, nothing like Batman Begins, and more like the first half hour of the first installment of Kung Fu Panda, believe me, you want to hear all about it.

Amituofo.