To heal. To forget. To breathe. Or just to have fun. People have different reasons to dedicate themselves to Kung Fu. This is the story of seven international students in Kunyu Martial Arts Academy in northern China.
Published in: Kung Fu Magazine
“I want to become a good fighter, one with a clean mind.”
Andronikos Evripidou (22) from Cyprus. Arrived 3 months ago, staying 2 years. Style: Traditional Shaolin Kung Fu
Andronikos is here because he wants to change. He’s done bad things in his life. There are people he’s hurt and they hurt him too. He doesn’t want to live like this anymore. That’s why he’s here, far away from his life in Cyprus. In a peaceful place where he can learn to become a good fighter. One with a clean mind.
“Back home I trained with the special forces. In Cyprus every man is conscripted. The training was hardcore. Undergoing interrogation methods was part of it. It was a tough time. I’d rather not think about it. After militaryservice I worked as a barman and lifeguard. But I always felt angry and out of control. I went out almost every night, got drunk and ended up in street fights for no reason. Because of the hatred I felt, I couldn’t see clearly what I was doing. My mother and sister thought it would be a good idea to come to this place to get my life back together.”
“As a kid I dreamed about going to China to learn Kung Fu. I watched almost every martial art movie. When I was fourteen I started to practice Ninjutsu and later kickboxing. I became my teacher’s best student. So when he brought a cage to Cyprus, he asked me to spar in it. My teacher is very important to me. Without him, I wouldn’t know how to fight. I was one of the few students who said yes. I wanted to know what it felt like. There are not many rules during a cage fight. I was scared, but less scared than the guys I fought. I won every fight, but I didn’t like it. It made me feel like an animal.”
More in Control
“In the beginning nobody here talked to me. I think they didn’t like me because I was aggressive in the ring. I just couldn’t stop punching and kicking. Even after the master told me to stop, I would continue. All I could think of was how to finish my opponent. But now I am different in the ring, friendlier and more in control. And I’ve made friends. Slowly I’m becoming a different person. Especially Tai Chiand Qigong help. I don’t feel as nervous or angry as I did before. There are less aggressive thoughts in my head. But I still have work to do. It’s not always easy to get up so early every morning and I miss my friends and also my mother’s kebab. But I have a mission. After my stay here I will go to Thailand to learn Muay Thai. When I go back to Cyprus I want to open my own mixed martial arts school. Here, I’m learning traditional Kung Fu, Wing Chun and Chinese kickboxing. We don’t have those types of martial arts in Cyprus, I will be the first one to teach them. And when I do, I will tell my students that they should never start a fight or fight without a reason.”
“I’m here to get my soul back. I lost it in Iraq.”
Michael Rivera (31), veteran from the USA. Arrived 4 weeks ago, staying 3-5 years. Style: Mantis
Michael is here to get his soul back. He lost it in Iraq. In September 2006 he joined the US army as a combat engineer. He signed up for four years. Before he went on this mission he was told that he would either get brain trauma, PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), or both. He got both.
“Due to my condition I was taken out of the mission after seven months and sent to a military base in Alaska to file a subsequent medical discharge. After this I fought hard for a medical pension. Thankfully I had a good veteran representative. I went to live in Wisconsin with my son and wife. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to live a normal life. I was always nervous and had a lot of flashbacks. People with PTSD get numb and cold; it’s hard to be affectionate. My marriage fell apart. After getting wrongly accused of being a dangerous person, I couldn’t deal with my life in the US anymore. I wanted to get as far away from my country as possible, and that literally is China.”
Time to Heal
“I thought about spending time in a Kung Fu academy when I was in Iraq. I already knew then that I wasn’t the same person as before and that I needed time to heal. Making plans for the future was one of the things that kept my spirit up. I’ve been practicing different martial arts since the age of five. The adrenaline kick, the feeling of being able to defend myself and the intense concentration you need for each exercise. This makes me feel peaceful, in the moment. I love it!
“Since I’ve been here I haven’t had any flashbacks. The brain injury is almost healed now. It’s still hard for me to feel positive emotions, but I have hope. Intense practice and meditation help me focus. Tai Chi and Qigong are wonderful. The movements and meditation techniques help me get in touch with my spirit again. My body and mind are getting stronger every day. I start and end every day in a deep state of peace, which makes me feel like a totally different person. I don’t believe I can become the person I was, but I’m moving forward and getting as good as I can be, with my life experiences. After my recovery I want to be a good father to my son. Warm, caring and gentle. And I want to teach him the Kung Fu style I ‘m practicing here: Mantis. I chose this style because of its practicality. It’s the most effective style and, as I said before, I like the feeling of being able to defend myself. Mantis was invented in this very mountain range. The legend tells that a martial artist lost a fight with a Shaolin master and got depressed. He then saw two mantises fight over food and got inspired by their fighting style. He created his own style, challenged the Shaolin master and defeated him.”
The Future Martial Artist Movie Star
“I want to be the next Jackie Chan.”
Kyung Ho Yoon, alias Jackie (16, but 15 according to the western calendar), from South Korea. Arrived 11 days ago, staying 1 year. Styles: Wing Chun, Baji, Tai Chi and Sanda
Jackie’s here because it is his dream to become a martial artist movie star, just like his father. He wants to go to Hollywood and become as good as Bruce Lee or Jackie Chan. Therefore he needs to learn as many different martial art styles as possible. This place gives him that opportunity.
“When I was young I watched a lot of action movies. They inspired me to become a martial artist movie star. I love the thrill these kinds of movies provide. I want to be the one who gives people that thrill! After generations of talented and famous Asian martial artists like Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, Jet Li and Donnie Yen, there is a stop. Who will take their place, once they are retired? I want to be their worthy successor! I’m still young and have enough time to become worthy of that.”
From Hapkido to Wing Chun
“At the age of eight I started to practice Hapkido. After Taekwondo, Hapkido is the most popular martial art style in Korea. The meaning of Hapkido is together, energy and way. It consists of a lot of kicks, grabbing and takedowns. You use them all together. It also includes weapons like a staff, hook or nunchaku. I also studied boxing for three years. Here, I can learn all sorts of Chinese martial art styles like Wing Chun, Baji, Tai Chi and Sanda, taught by some of the best Kung Fu masters in the world. Wing chun is my favorite style, I practice it the most. In battle you attack your opponents from the center of your body, which is very useful during close combat. It is the best style for me to practice, because Hapkido doesn’t include boxing. Wing Chun helps me improve that skill.”
Martial Arts and Acting
“My father brought me here. We chose this school because it is far from the city, which makes it easier to concentrate. I really like this place. It’s great to learn so many different styles. I can follow the techniques well, but have to improve my fitness. It’s fun to have friends from different countries like the US, Switzerland and the Netherlands. They call me Jackie, because my Korean name is hard for them to pronounce. Sometimes, when my father gives me permission, I can go to Yantai City during the weekend with my friends, to do some shopping or see a movie. The only hard part is getting up at six o’clock in the morning. After I have experienced the martial arts here, I will go to an acting school in the US or Korea. I hope to become a Hollywood star, because those movies are better than the Korean martial art movies. Korea doesn’t have many different martial arts styles. My father used to be an action actor in a Korean television drama. He mastered Kendo and Taekwondo. His wish was to become a very famous martial artist. Unfortunately he didn’t become world famous, but I will!”
The Brick Breaker
“I’m almost thirty and I want kids. Breaking a brick in a Kung Fu school in China is now or never.”
Laura Carroll (29), software engineer from Ireland. Arrived 5 weeks ago, staying 2 months. Style: TraditionalShaolin Kung Fu
Laura is turning thirty next year and she wants a family. So now is the time to do the things she’s always dreamed of. Things that are difficult once you have five kids (yes, she wants a big family). One of them is traveling. The other one is breaking a brick in a Kung Fu school like this.
“I never traveled and I wanted to see Asia. And as a martial arts lover (I’ve been practicing Taekwondo since I was sixteen and I loved breaking wood), I had to stop by a Kung Fu school in China to see if I could break a brick. So instead of signing another twelve month contract at my work, I bought a ticket to Shanghai. And now I’m traveling through southeast Asia and Australia for four months, spending two of them in this school.”
Dream Come True
“Being here is a dream come true. There are martial arts all around. And new things to learn every day. One lesson we concentrate on fitness, the next on conditioning or sparring. That’s what I love about martial arts; it’s so dynamic. I also like training six hours a day. Think of how fit I will be when I leave this place. I’ve been working so hard the last few years and haven’t had time to train. This is a good way to get back on track.”
Breaking a Brick
I was really into Taekwondo when I was young. Around my twenties I was pretty good. I joined national and international competitions. I even won gold forbreaking wood during the world championship (for women without a black belt). Breaking wood is so cool! It is a combination of power, focus, concentration and belief. You have to be physically strong, but if you can’t imagine that your hand snaps through, you’ll mess it up. I really want to break a brick here before I leave. That’s why I’m practicing Qigong. I hope it will help to build up energy in my hand. I can feel the heat on certain parts of my body during meditation, but I don’t get how it works. It’s kind of a mystery. So is Shaolin Kung Fu. I choose to practice this style because it’s the most similar to Taekwondo. But the movements are so sweeping and circular, I don’t fully understand yet were the power comes from.”
“After spending time here, I’m going to Vietnam to meet my girlfriend Elaine. I met her two months before I left. We’ve only been together for a short time, but I really think this is someone I could have a family with. I’d like our kids to at least try martial arts. Although, imagining them Kung Fu’ing each other, I might have to rethink! At least I want to continue practicing Taekwondo myself – being here really reignited my love for martial arts. I might even start competing again and finally get my black belt.”
[Note: Laura managed to break a brick before she left.]
The Sports Fanatic
“I can’t breathe without martial arts, literally.”
Laurens van Ooijen (27), communications coach from the Netherlands. Arrived 6 weeks ago, staying 6 months. Style: Wing Chun
Laurens is here because sports and traveling are very important in his life. Without them, he can’t breathe. Literally. He’s actually an asthma patient. Practicing intense sports like martial arts opens up his lungs. It is one of the things that makes life without an inhaler possible.
“That and traveling. As a child I moved 28 times. There were problems in my family. My father drank a lot. I believe I developed asthma during this period because I didn’t feel safe. Suffering from asthma was a way to receive extra attention from my mother. After my parents divorced, I moved around a lot with my mother. She had several jobs and relationships. Moving around became part of my system. In the Netherlands I’m a communications coach. I work a couple of months, then travel again. Before I came here, I was at boot camp in Malta. My next plan was to go to a meditation retreat in Japan. But when I found this school on the internet, I changed my plans. Here I could meditate and practice martial arts. Meditating makes me feel grounded. There are less thoughts in my head; it gives me a peaceful feeling. Knowing martial arts makes me feel independent and confident.”
Fit and Healthy
“I started practicing martial arts at the age of fourteen. I was a very thin kid, and got bullied by my classmates. I wanted to learn how to stand up to them. Every martial artist has something he fights for. My martial arts history started with Judo. After a while I switched to Karate. I preferred kicking above rolling. Eventually I chose kickboxing and reached competition level. The last couple of years I’ve spent a lot of time in the gym. I really like the feeling of being fit and healthy. But with muscle mass comes stiffness and slowness. I hope I can retrieve flexibility and speed here.”
Letting Go of Desires
I chose to practice Wing Chun, also known as snake-crane style. It’s a close-combat martial arts type with harmonious hand and footwork. Wing Chun contains a lot of defense tactics, but you’re supposed to get the upper hand as soon as possible. Because it is a close-combat style, it’s easy to achieve this without wasting too much energy. I’ve never practiced this type of martial art before. It’s interesting to experience a new style. I love this place. Back home it’s all about achieving goals and making money. In here material things aren’t important and it’s easy to let go of desires. I believe if you let go of your desires, everything you need comes on your path without effort. Just like the story of Buddha who meditated under a tree for months without eating. He waited and waited for something to happen. Finally he stopped waiting, and at that moment an apple fell out of the tree.”
“I’m here to experience an ancient Indian wisdom, cultivated in another country. My wife wanted to come with me.”
Veena Singh (37), artist, and Sushant Singh (35), operations manager in the Indian army, from India. Arrived 4 months ago, staying 1 year. Styles: Tai Chi, Wing Chun, Baji and Mantis
According to an old Chinese legend, Shaolin Kung Fu originally comes from India. The man who taught it to the Chinese monks was an Indian called Bodhidharma. But Kung Fu was lost in India, and preserved in China. Sushant is here to experience that ancient Indian wisdom. And his wife wanted to come with him.
Sushant: “I wanted to learn Kung Fu since I was a kid. But we have no prevalent Kung Fu schools in India. Such irony; according to a Chinese legend, Shaolin Kung Fu originally comes from India. So I practiced Taekwondo and Judo. Unfortunately, I never had time to learn martial arts that well. My job in the army was very demanding. But I kept dreaming about learning Kung Fu and I wanted to dedicate a good amount of time to do that. So I quit my job in the army. It’s not easy for an Indian to quit his job. It’s a gamble, but it’s a risk I was willing to take. I saved enough to get us through a year. We will see what we’ll do when we go back. Being here is what I’ve dreamed of for a long time.”
“What I like about Kung Fu in general is that it leads to all-round development: physical, mental and spiritual. Unlike boxing and various other techniques which harp on physical aspects and aggression, Kung Fu emphasizes self-restraint and peace of mind, making you physically very competent and powerful. I practice Wing Chun, Baji and Tai Chi here. Original Shaolin Kung Fu had a lot of impact on all these styles. I like Baji; it’s very explosive, practiced by bodyguards during the imperial rule in China. And Tai Chi, it is the most demanding form. It looks easy, but it’s very difficult. The movements are slow and therefore very visible. The person who masters Tai Chi, is the most complete martial artist.”
Veena: “It was Sushant’s idea to come here. It’s nice to have such an adventurous husband! We’ve known each other since primary school. A few years later we fell in love and now have been married for ten years. I follow my husband wherever he goes. I’m enjoying this place a lot, but I’m especially enjoying Sushant. He was in the army for twelve years; I didn’t get to see him much. But here I do! During the week we train hard, but in the evenings and the weekends we are together.
“I started with Traditional Kung Fu, but changed to Mantis style. Shaolin is too physical for me; it includes a lot of high kicks. Mantis suits me better. It’s more free flowing, the movements are slower. I love the mountains here, but not the mountain run. When I arrived, I wasn’t so fit. Thankfully my master Chu had a lot of patience with me. I’ve already lost three kilos. Learning Kung Fu is a lot of fun. I have never practiced any kind of martial arts before. But now that I have, I really want to continue. Even when we get back home.”