Tuesday, April 4, 2017

A Chapter from The Dance of the Chi

The person who first taught me Tai Chi was an old Chinese man in his eighties. I shall call him AP in this book to protect his privacy. AP could speak English and that was important for me, as my Chinese was below average. My birth father was an Anglophile who worked for the British and we were raised to speak English even at home.

AP was 95% blind (cornea damage in one eye and Glaucoma in the other) and he couldn’t check my postures as we went about our Tai Chi. This turned out well for me as I didn’t have to endure the usual petty “correction of postures” that most students find disruptive as per the learning process. He was also hunched up due to Osteoporosis and somewhat infirm, and I couldn’t learn the postures properly from watching him play. Blind, hunched up, and infirm — not a good Tai Chi teacher by any standard — but he was perfect for me. He couldn’t judge me by my appearance, so he relied heavily on judging me by my personality.

Due to his condition, wannabe students didn’t have confidence in him beyond just following his play at the neighborhood park. Again, this worked well for me as I more or less had AP all to myself.

Update 2015:
In time to come, this would prove to be my preferred way to interact with others in all areas of my life. I thrive on one-on-one situations. I do not do well in group situations. Hence, in later years I would seek out one-on-one refresher courses for the Tai Chi sets that I didn’t remember, and when unable to get this exclusive interaction, I would back off. This applies whether I’m learning guitar, languages, or even in a songwriting situation when I need someone to accompany me on an instrument. I need the intensity and focus of the one-on-one. I also need the shared agenda. The project has to mean as much to the other person as it does to me.

AP would be at the neighborhood park by 5:30 AM to do his exercises and the followers would trickle in and surround him and learn whatever they could from him. AP didn’t charge a fee, for he knew no one would pay to learn from him. Besides, he didn’t need the money. He was a lonely old man and it suited him to have some company. Everybody was welcomed.

That was how I stumbled upon the group play. I saw them and I approached out of curiosity. I was not a morning person and I’m still not a morning person. However, that day, I was recovering from some emotional trauma and decided to do things a bit differently. I woke up early and decided to go for a jog. Serendipity was what it was. Around 8:30 AM, the group would disperse and each would go about their daily business, but I would stay on to talk to AP and to whoever also chose to remain behind. Usually, it was just AP and I but sometimes AL, his goddaughter (also one of his students), would be present.

I would always have my water bottle with me and most of AP’s followers would too. But I noticed AP didn’t bring a water bottle and that he would be dry-mouthed and tipsy by 8:30 AM. So I suggested that he should bring a water bottle but he said he was usually not thirsty. I explained that by the time he felt thirsty, it would mean his body was already dehydrated. I suggested that I would bring his drinks daily and I asked what he would like. He said he liked Chrysanthemum tea and that was what I would prepare for him every day.

And so began our one-on-one sessions. AP was quick to figure I wasn’t like any student he had experienced. No one before me even thought to get him a walking stick; the type that blind people need. I went to the local blind institution and bought a folding stick; the kind that AP could fold and stick into his pocket when unused. I next went to the local stationary store and bought some highlight color paper, the kind that glows in the dark. I glued the glowing paper on the stick so that the stick would glow in the dark. AP was so thrilled with this gift. He could walk from his house to the neighborhood park in the early morning darkness before the break of dawn in relative safety.

I showed him due respect and I also showed him I had a healthy respect for myself. He was perfect for me because he was flexible and savvy enough to think out of the box with me. Soon, I convinced him to let me learn at my own pace. I explained I was itinerant and had no idea how much time I had with him. AP agreed to teach me as much as I could absorb on a day to day basis. He had a good memory for the Forms 24, 48, and 88, all of which he taught me — plus some Kung Fu moves he included in my training. All in, we spent about eight months together. During that time I was doing nothing but Tai Chi. I helped type out the various Tai Chi forms for AP to distribute to his other students who, like me, needed the notes in English. The Chinese-educated students had lots of material (the classics as well as more recent) to draw from.

Update 2014:
I tried to take refresher courses for Forms 42 (that I had learned from teacher #2 who came after AP), 48, and 88, as I had more or less forgotten the choreography for lack of practice. However, I found I had to give up after a few days as the teachers were too bent on getting the little details right; details that I had already mastered but was unable to manifest due to lack of practice. I just really needed to remember the choreography and then to practice and I would be able to manifest the details. Had AP done this with me; had AP the eyesight then to correct my play like these teachers like to do, I don’t think I would have done as well as I did all those years ago. That’s why I said AP was perfect for me. Because he left me alone, I was able to learn at my own pace, using my own tools, references, and modalities. I was able to focus on the esoteric and not the itty bitty bits which just distract from the whole.

AP was very patient and generous with his time and knowledge, and he was good at teaching Tai Chi theory. He said I was his most intelligent and fastest learning student ever. We spent 8:30 to 10:30 AM together every day and then I would walk him back to his house, which was near where I lived at the time. After a while, I would use the car as the sun was just too hot for the walk back. To give readers an idea of the average timeline of individual tuition in those days, here’s a sample from an ad of that period (1987).

First Year – Beginners Class: Fundamentals of Qigong, Tai Chi Chuan, Bagua Zhang and Push Hand.

Second Year – Intermediate Class: Tai Chi Sword, Tai Chi Broad Sword, Tai Chi Fighting, Beginning Massage.

Third Year – Advanced Class: Free Sparring, Remedial Massage, Teacher Training.

I learned 24 forms in a week, 48 forms in two weeks, and 88 forms in a month. OPC was doubtful I was really learning so much Tai Chi in such a short time. He said he knew of people who took decades to learn just the 24 and would play just the 24 their whole lifetime. AP was perfect for me as he was happy to let me learn using my own tools and at my own pace.

Some of you may be wondering by now, what is the difference between these sets of Tai Chi practice? 24 is the choreography put together for beginners.

In 1956, the Simplified (or 24 Postures) Taijiquan was compiled by the Chinese Sports Commission. Tremendous efforts were put into promoting Taijiquan. The 24 Postures Taijiquan was derived from the traditional Yang Style Taijiquan long form. It was the result of many Taijiquan masters working towards standardizing and simplifying Taijiquan, for use as a health-promoting exercise. Many of the more complicated and repeated movements were deleted from the long forms for ease of learning and practicing. The sequence starts off with very simple movements and gradually becomes more complicated. Even though the 24 Postures Taijiquan sequence is a simplified version of the long forms, it is still a "traditional" sequence with the original martial applications in every movement.
It consists of 20 different postures from the Yang Style Long Sequence. Three of the postures are done on both left and right sides, and one of the postures repeats itself, making a total of 24 postures. Because this sequence is based on Yang Style Taijiquan, the training guidelines and principles of Simplified Taijiquan follow the characteristic "flavor" of the Yang Style.  – From a YouTube description

48 is a bit more challenging, as the choreography gets a bit complicated.

The Tai Chi 48 Postures form is ideal for those interested in experiencing the true essence of Tai Chi Chuan, because it combines powerful techniques from all styles into a sequence embodying the spirit of relaxation and softness with circular, continuous movements.
The Simplified Tai Chi 48 Postures form was created in 1976 by the Chinese National Athletic Association in order to promote the art of Tai Chi. While maintaining all the movements from the Simplified Tai Chi 24 Postures form with slight modifications, this sequence also incorporated other more challenging techniques from the Yang, Chen, Sun, and Wu styles of Tai Chi Chuan. The martial applications and Tai Chi Push Hands techniques for each movement are still intact in this shortened form, and it should be performed with Yang-style flavor. – From a YouTube description

88 is usually managed mostly by the older masters. The longer the play, the more memory, and discipline are involved.

Tai Chi Chuan 88 or 108 form, is the same form. Depending on how you count the steps it comes up to 88 or 108. This is also a Yang style choreography.

I believe for any relationship to work, there has to be a fair exchange of energy. So I made myself useful to AP and his old sickly wife whenever I could. They had grown-up children, but the children were all living away and the old couple relied on AL, the goddaughter, to help them when they needed help. AP bought me a gold necklace and asked me to be his second goddaughter but I politely declined as I didn’t want to create a triangle with AL. As well, I was itinerant and wouldn’t have been able to carry out my long-term duties as a goddaughter.

Before I left Penang and AP, I assisted with writing letters to all his children to get them to help him secure the operation(s) that would help him recover some of his eyesight. His daughter was a nurse then in Melbourne, Australia, working for an eye surgeon. She flew her father over to have a Glaucoma drainage operation by her boss. Not long after that, I was in Kuala Lumpur when AP had his cornea transplant at University Malaya Hospital and I visited him at his son’s house.

After AP regained partial sight, I was excited to play for him so that he might see the postures of his “favorite” pupil. (Many Tai Chi masters don’t like to use the word “play;” they prefer “practice,” but AP loved the word “play” so I use it often.) He suggested a few minor corrections, but overall he was distracted with the fact that he could see me after all this time. Once he could see again (albeit not 20/20), his life changed and our relationship changed as well.

About three years after I left Penang and AP, I returned to Penang and saw the need to study Mandarin to better understand the Chinese language, culture, and Wushu. During these one-on-one Mandarin classes, I would bring out my Chinese text Tai Chi books and Han Yu Pin Yu notes, and get the Chinese tutor to explain the meaning of certain Tai Chi related words, phrases, and concepts. This prompted the Chinese tutor to tell me she couldn’t explain that much to me as she was unfamiliar with Wushu and metaphysical concepts. She told me there was an old man who played Tai Chi in her neighborhood every morning and that she would introduce me to him.

Although I knew for some time that I needed a Tai Chi master to check on my postures, I couldn’t find the “right” one. For three years after AP, whenever I practiced in the parks and open spaces, masters would come up to me and invite me to join their classes, clubs, associations, groups, whatever, but I always declined as I knew classes were trouble for an outlier like myself. I just knew I had to wait for the right situation.

Teacher #2 was also an old retired Chinese man in his seventies and he could only speak Chinese, but by then I already knew the fundamentals, and all he had to do was perfect my postures. Or so I thought.

While AP emphasized on playing Tai Chi as “soft as cotton,” Foong Sifu aka Master Ang was more inclined towards the “martial” art part of Tai Chi. He was always dueling with me in training. He also imparted some metaphysical, philosophical, and physiognomy knowledge as it was passed down to him from his masters. Communication was hampered by my lack of classical Chinese, but I knew just about enough regular Chinese to connect the dots. It helped that I wasn’t really being taught anything new per se. It helped that my soul was being led to remember.

Both my teachers were with Wushu (Martial Arts) associations when they were younger but were retired by the time I met them. Both of them assumed an exploratory dynamic with me, which suited me immensely. This was highly unusual in those times when the norm was master-disciple interactions. I was thirty-ish and they were both eighty-ish. Yet they were able to treat me as more or less an equal. I felt comfortable enough with them to share that I was only learning Tai Chi for the health and metaphysical aspects. I told them that Tai Chi, the martial art, was invented during times when people did not have weapons to protect themselves. They had to agree since weapons were added to the Qigong martial arts later on.

Update 2017:
Both these masters were born and lived almost all of their lives in Malaysia. OPC and the medical doctor/shaman I write about in Different Realities were also born here but they lived parts of their lives abroad. I used to wonder why I was born in Malaysia as I obviously don’t fit in. Fate, fortune, and destiny are sometimes used interchangeably. Only in hindsight, everything becomes clear(er).

There was this Qigong master in Kuala Lumpur, the capital city of Malaysia, who was killed with a single gunshot wound to his chest when he was confronted by robbers. He asked them: “Do you know who I am? I am Mr. So and So, the Martial Arts Master, blah, blah, blah.” They promptly shot and killed him. These are not times for martial arts bravado. That said, knowing some martial arts can aid the self-confidence when we are out there in the scary world where one can be attacked and victimized for no reason at all.

To AP’s credit, Master Ang didn’t have very much to correct where my postures were concerned. The corrections were very subtle. Thereafter, whenever people watched me play and asked who my teacher was, I would say AP, and nobody could believe the old blind man taught me how to play the way I was playing; so I always had to add that I had two teachers. Master Ang corrected some of the postures, and then, they were like, Oh okay, now we understand.

Actually, Master Ang taught me Forms 42 and 55, on top of finessing the 24, 48, and 88 that I had learned from AP. 42 and 55 are just more different sets of Tai Chi choreography exercises. Later on, I came across 37, 58, and 103, and found all these confusing at first until I understood they were all someone’s choreography. The 103 is also known as the 85, 88, 108, 113, or 150 form. Like I said, they are confusing. Nowadays (2016), I see many postures created by imaginative masters/teachers. Some even mix the postures up with the different Tai Chi Schools of play. Innovative! Interesting! Challenging! Exciting! But … not for me. I like to simplify, simplify, as Thoreau coaxed us. Life is complicated enough as it is.

I also watched other masters at play whenever possible, to see if I had learned the sets and postures correctly. I attended international Wushu competitions held in Kuala Lumpur and referred to form books and videos — whatever was available pre-internet and YouTube days. In 1993-94 (I got on the Internet only in 1996), I visited China and played Tai Chi with the locals in the public parks. It was a delightful experience.