Recently someone told me that they were intrigued by my strong spiritual connection to China, and they wanted to know more about it. I said that would be cool, but I needed them to ask or say something so I could figure out a starting point.
Their question: “What is your first memory of being attracted to China?”
Well, the initial attraction did not seem like an attraction at first. Not to the country as a whole anyway. Just to one facet that I think is a pretty common entry point for most people, at least for white teenage American males. I am tempted to say “leave off the white part,” but I don’t think I should. First of all, that is the way it came out so it is unedited and pure. Second, I think it is accurate because, if it weren’t for what I am about to describe, I don’t think a lot of white males would give China a second thought. Hell, even WITH this one thing, not many bother to go on and investigate the country and its culture as a whole like I did.
I’m talking, of course, about Bruce Lee. Most white males see him doing kung fu moves, think it looks “cool,” and they want to look cool too…so they might investigate enough to know Bruce was from China, but that’s it. They don’t pursue like I did.
Anyway, I have this memory from sometime during my junior year of high school. My d*ckhead stepdad was still around, so I spent a lot of time in my bedroom writing. At the time, Cinemax and HBO were offering some special feature where you could order both channels for a reduced introductory price. Mom decided to invest in it. On the first night we had it, they showed three of Bruce Lee’s movies. For the record they were THE BIG BOSS, FISTS OF FURY and WAY OF THE DRAGON. Needless to say, I was immediately hooked. I went out and signed up for a judo class. (This was not what Bruce studied; he learned wing chun from a gentleman named Ip Man, who is the father of MY teacher’s teacher. Why did I sign up for a style that Bruce didn’t take? Because it was close…only about a 5 minute drive from my house.)
Junior prom came around. Two of my friends and I (who also had no prom dates) decided to have a “loser’s night” and went to see the Bruce Lee biopic DRAGON: THE BRUCE LEE STORY. During this movie I learned that Bruce had authored a book called THE TAO OF JEET KUNE DO. (Side note: unlike what the movie shows, Bruce DID NOT publish this during his lifetime. The book was assembled from notes he wrote and then published posthumously.) The one word in that title, “Tao,” was familiar to me. I’d heard of Taoism before, but never really looked into it. I did not go looking for any more literature about it at the time, but it wouldn’t be long.
Freshman year of college: 1994-1995. By this time I was studying at a place called the Capital District Tai Chi Kung Fu Association. (Still no wing chun? No, simply because the night I went looking for it, I stumbled across the Association first.) When I looked through SUNY Albany’s course catalog and saw they had Chinese literature courses, I immediately signed up. I went wild with learning about Chinese culture. During my freshman registration, it slipped past my attention that the school offered the language; I vowed to make up for missing it in my sophomore year.
Shortly after New Year’s, I located the wing chun school and went to watch a class. I immediately liked what I saw, quit the Association and joined wing chun. The minimal movement was more ideal to me because, after all, I am not a loud, flamboyant, flashy character. I like keeping to myself. Plus I am more laid back than most people, and an effective wing chun practitioner is always relaxed. All around, the style fit me like a glove.
I think it wasn’t until sophomore year when I read TAO TE CHING. (I remember being exposed to the second most important Taoist text, CHUANG TZU, in freshman year.) It talked about following instead of leading, the ruler who is like a shadow is the best, and (most importantly) about being like water. These philosophies seemed to live and breathe in wing chun. Together, they had a synergistic effect in solidifying my love of the culture from which they both came.
Sophomore year, I started taking the language. Maybe it was due to my musical ability, but I adapted to the pronunciation and inflections of the language with ease…making such an impression on the main professor and his assistants that they remember me TO THIS DAY. That really cemented my love of the culture, and it was the last brick in the wall for that attraction.
Actually, that isn’t true. I remember one time in 2013 when I was in Vegas, riding a bus up and down the Boulevard. I met this Chinese guy, and we started talking about whether the language was hard to learn or not, traditional versus simplified writing characters (he was amazed I knew the difference), Mao Zeong, the Cultural Revolution (he was amazed I knew about this too!), and other things.
Eventually he said to me, “I get a very Chinese vibe from you.”
I laughed and said, “Okay. Is that a good thing?”
He said, “Well, Chinese people don’t like a lot of excitement. They like things to be calm, and you are very mellow.”
I said, “Okay, so you are saying I’m an honorary Chinaman?”
(Yes, it is normally an offensive term, but I had a feeling I could get away with it.)
He said yes, and we high fived. That was a pretty cool interaction, and especially to hear that from an actual Chinese person instead of just some white boy being a smarta$$ and saying, “Damn, dude, why you so into this Chinese stuff? You think you a Ch*nk or something?” (Believe it or not, I HAVE heard things like that before.)
And so that, ladies and gentlemen, is the history of my long spiritual connection with China.
The title didn’t lie.
It all started with Bruce.