Yut ngee sahm, no.1

Reflections on Wing Chun, in an occasionally recurring feature.

Two years ago, I was recuperating from a pretty bad illness. When Father’s Day rolled around, my wife gave me a great gift: she told me she’d pay for one month of martial arts, and all I needed to do was start looking around.

So I looked around.

I’d settled on Wing Chung because it was a style like what I had practiced before, internal, not predicated on overwhelming strength but angles and geometry and human kinesthetics. The animal styles are fantastic pieces of creation; but our bodies don’t move like theirs, and aren’t equipped like theirs.

There are two places that teach Wing Chun nearby, and I made arrangements to go to one first. The website was shiny, the sifu had written articles on particular applications or points of theory. He wanted to talk first. I made an appointment and I spoke with him for about an hour after work one day. It was a good conversation, wide-ranging, and—although I hadn’t really ever shopped for a martial arts instructor before—I didn’t feel like I was being sold something. I booked a trial class.

That’s when things got borked.

Don’t get me wrong, I liked the exercise, and I liked the experience enough to think I am doing this for sure, but there was a little nag in the back of my head the entire time.

Class started with a five-minute story about one of the instructor’s friends being a horrific jackass.

The moral, such as it was, had a little to do with not being a jackass. But it left a splinter. This is what the guy does with someone who’s never been here before? But I stayed, and I worked through class. I was stuck on a mook jong (the four-limbed wooden dummy you can see in Ip Man or other kung fu movies) for the class under the aegis of a student who’d been around about a year.

Again, it wasn’t really a negative experience. It just wasn’t great. And besides, there was another place that offered Wing Chun that I could go to.

I called up the sifu and booked a trial class. He told me to dress appropriately, because it’s a warehouse with no air conditioning. He actually wanted me to come that night, but with Little Bird being, well, littler, I couldn’t make it on short notice.

(Aside: I didn’t have any exercise clothes, either. And if there’s one thing writers and artists like, it’s buying new stuff for a hobby. So I wanted to get some dry-fit clothes and feel like it was more of an Event than just another day.)

I had a purple Furman shirt I bought on clearance. I stood out, being the guy without a uniform, but everyone there greeted me warmly, they asked who I was and what I did, if I’d done martial arts before, what style and how long, why’d I stop, et cetera. They were interested in me, as a person.

That first class was rough, yo.

Wing Chun pushups, on your fists, lined up at your pectorals, elbows tight to the sides, and you lower yourself down, count to ten in Cantonese (starting with yut ngee sahm, one two three, so now you get the reference), punch yourself back up to plank position. One-legged battle punches until your thigh burns, but guess what? You’ve got two legs. Pak sahts, kwan saos, tan das, and when I left my arms weren’t bruised, they were demolished.

I loved it.

In August, that’ll be two years ago. When I can’t make class, I feel it in my bones, like I’ve missed a dose. When I’ve had a terrible day and don’t want to do anything, at the end of the hour I’m clear and empty like cold water. It’s become part of who I am, and not just something I do.

That’s the long way of saying thank you, hon, for the best Father’s Day gift anyone could ask for.



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