Why I Don’t Study “Traditional” Martial Arts In America

Overheard at a recent expat party, a young professional with that superficial “Hey, how are you, I think you’ll do great things in life, you’ve got a lot of talent and passion” schpiel he’d say in one way or another to everyone in the room caught my attention when he said, “Everything that’s wrong in America can be found in Los Angeles and Las Vegas.” Normally, I would have made a decision to give him the finger or walk away because he was likely some sales and public relations hack, but when the conversation jumped into the subject of martial arts styles and where we studied, I had to agree that there is something fundamentally wrong with the structure of many schools. From the attitude of “I can learn faster than the Karate Kid and kick anyone’s ass” students, and the whole belts and certifications nonsense, all of that gets in the way of learning martial arts.

I’ve studied multiple styles in the Philippines, Indonesia, and in the United States, which include Muay Thai, Silat, Jeet Kune Do, Brazilian Jiujitsu, Judo, Kali, Shooto, Aikido, Savate, and Wing Chun. Don’t get me wrong, there are many schools that are good in the U.S.; it’s just the structure and the fast food drive-through mentality for learning that I call to attention here.

When I think of how everyone from my old Muay Thai crew in the Philippines was always eager to push me to prepare for potentially being part of the competing team members (because I trained under the national team, believe it or not), I remember when I first started training in America that people called me a liar and that my form “wasn’t proper”, but if I trained under (insert school here), I “would become a human weapon”.

Training under those schools with egregious hubris, I’m thrown into a bog overrun with twats, bums, and know-it-alls, afflicted myopia, apathy, and complacence, and generally stuck in a shithole of stagnant mediocrity. There are newcomers and whitebelts who have no self-control during practice, unable to control themselves, getting too excited and choking someone out saying “Sifu/Sensei! Am I doing it right?!” and punching full-force in the face to “prepare for a real fight” while never giving you a chance to practice the same technique for the same reason, who brag how they “kicked so many asses” during training on the phone to their imaginary girlfriends after class. There are the half-assed instructors sleeping in the back or chatting with the attractive pupils, who encourage everyone to learn from their peers, essentially getting paid to teach while having students teach themselves, forcing you to try to be in closer proximity to an older student to grab and learn from them before someone else does or get stuck with another hack who has no self-control. Imagine a tiny room overcrowded with these cunts and ask yourself why some people pay as much as $200 a month.

Then there are teachers who get on a plane from Korea as third dan black belts in Tae Kwon Do and arrive in America as seventh dans, who then go on to found their own school that teaches a supposedly superior style that has transcended the original. They can be as lazy as the ones above, but they use their whole “This is the tradition! Respect your master and the tradition! I will not adapt to America to preserve the purity!” threat to get people to kiss their feet, pay more fees for every belt and sash test to signify “progress”, and get those students to teach below them. You get asked to make a payment on the first of every month, but if it’s late by one day, you are forced to pay a fixed penalty sum not for that month, but for the rest of the calender year. The alternative is constantly paying fees to be certified by American organizations for each your levels of training, because foreign training doesn’t count to them, an ironic result of countering the previous example.

One of the best martial artists in America has the worst business model, teaching style and has just about all of these problems: Dan Inosanto, one of Bruce Lee’s students. I have a lot of respect for Dan, in spite of the fact students from the other JKD lineage of Ted Wong showed me why they shared Ted’s disdain for him–they even showed me how Dan’s name was excluded in one of the books Bruce Lee wrote, gave me a long list of reasons why JKD from Dan is wrong since there are too many people learning in a class at a time (over twenty at a time I’ve seen before) for a style not meant to be taught to over five people at a time in a class. To be fair, he has his own interpretation of JKD, and let’s face it: all styles can be adapted to suit the individual better and be empty form. However, even as styles can evolve and be adapted to individuals, in general, large classes with a mix of advanced students and beginners who mostly have the attitude of personal gain rather than helping everyone grow, the bullying of the instructors and other students, and the ridiculous price to pay to wear uniforms ($25 for a tank top and $45 for MMA shorts), I know better places to learn more without feeling humiliated, robbed, and generally disappointed.

I’ve gone to multiple schools outside America as mentioned earlier, and even in a class with twenty or more students, the attitude of the instructors and students was both encouraging and generally laid back. We all wanted to learn and we went hard on each other because we wanted to be ready for the real thing, but we also had self-control and focused on learning, not showing off in class or to friends later. The biggest pain in the ass was everyone having to chip in cash to buy Sifu a birthday gift and dinner; the soreness from training was nothing because the next morning, you knew you were making progress and your peers would see it too. In plenty of American schools I’ve gone to from San Francisco to L.A. to San Diego, everyone was focused on whether or not he could actually kick the ass of everyone else, and L.A. was the worst of them all.

There are many good American schools I’ve gone to (you can even ask me for references), but by and large, most of the ones I’ve come across are inadequate and inexcusably negligent. I don’t need to be around wannabe tough guys who have taken one step ahead of couch potatoes who watch UFC and suddenly think they know how to fight. I definitely don’t want to be paying to be around them either just so I can print out a piece of paper that says some school says that I can fight.

The only fights I ever won in America weren’t with sticks and stones, but with knowing my rights and legal knowledge. True story: a white bigot wants to fight me in a parking lot in Orange County because I supposedly cut him off. He tears off his shirt, claims to be a Navy Seal, knows MMA, and that he’ll “kick the shit out of my chinky ass and pathetic Chinese Karate” [sic] and even offered the first hit so that he could claim self-defense. I told him first, by calling me a chink, it’s hate crime if he hits me; second, by egging me on to hit first, it’s not self-defense; and third, if he tried to run away, I had already memorized the details of his face, car, and license plate. He could walk away and leave me alone after apologizing, or he could continue to threaten me, and hitting me or not, he could deal with the police officers that the security guards were in the process of alerting. Moral of the story: a black belt in stupid loses to everything in a legalist society.

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About JohnnyC

Johnny C is a self-described Accidental Asian American: born in California and raised in Hong Kong and Manila, he spends his days traveling as a freelancer for various NGOs in development and human rights. An idealist and adventurer, his travels are both for work and fun, while sharing stories through his pictures, videos, and writing. When he's not dance-walking to indie rock songs on his iPod in cities around the world, he's usually got himself engrossed in a science fiction novel traversing the portals of reality.
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