Martial Art of Life: Way of Foot and Fist

The Best Experience of a Young Person’s Life
What I heard college was supposed to be.

Sleeping and Hiding
What I did during the first five semesters of my college life.

When it was snowing, and snowing seemed to be the default weather in Ithaca, New York, I would turn the heater to “suffocate,” draw the blinds of my single dormitory room in Dickson Hall, and sleep for ten to fourteen hours at a time, usually during the day. Hard-partying college frats slept off hangovers; I slept to avoid people.

Helen Newman Dance Studio
Where I practiced Tae Kwon Do during the last three semesters of my college life.

The closest I had come to martial arts before Tae Kwon Do was taking “Self-Defense for Women” during my first semester at college. I could have enjoyed the class more but I was distracted by the ominous padded attacker that was supposed to incite my adrenaline and increase my confidence. What if my attacker was unpadded yet equally ominous and lived within me? What if it held my adrenaline in one claw and pointed the sharp end of the other at the eyes of my heart? How should I evade it, how could I disable it, how would I pluck out its eyes before it gouged mine?

I saw a Tae Kwon Do demonstration as part of a campus event. Crisp sound of fists breaking wood. Clear cries accompanying a punch or a kick. Control of high arcs in kicks I had never seen. The “Art of Foot and Fist”, also called the “Art of Kicking and Punching”, embodied strength, power, and an intensity of will that gripped my attention. I remembered consciously holding myself back from leaning too far forward, almost leaping with excitement at what I was watching in front of my eyes. I was surprised by the yearning and the desire in my body to do what I had seen.

I signed up for Tae Kwon Do class before my mind could wave away this impulse.

The grade in physical education (P.E.) my father gave me explicit permission to get when I was young, as long as I get A’s in academics.

I was relieved to be allowed to get a B, because I was afraid of getting hit in the face in P.E. class, especially from sports involving any object that lifted off the ground, like a ball.

I was afraid of getting hit in the face because I didn’t want to break my left front tooth yet again. The first time I broke my front tooth, I was maybe ten years old. We lived on the second floor of an apartment. One day, instead of walking down the stairs and then putting on roller-skates, I decided to first put on roller-skates and walk down two flights of stairs. I’d done it a couple of times before. I slipped halfway down the second flight of stairs. My mouth hit the metal staircase railing and I cracked my left front tooth.

I was worried about the appearance of a broken front tooth until I lifted a glass of cold milk to my mouth. I almost dropped the glass of milk; I was unprepared for the pain of exposed dental nerves touching cold. The intensity of pain shot stars into my eyes and I was unable to speak or breathe for what felt like a long time. When I could breathe again, I realized what living with a broken tooth was going to feel like. I learned that exposed dental nerves were sensitive to everything: cold, hot, air. And my front teeth were the first to be exposed to everything.

When school photographs came home, I was horrified to see my cracked tooth: it looked like a misshapen fang. So I stopped smiling. My parents brought me to a dentist, who glued a composite resin to my broken tooth to make it whole. I walked out of that office feeling whole.

Shortly after my tooth was mended, my parents took us to a friend’s house that had a swimming pool. I was eager to show my dad that I could do a handstand in the water. I dove underwater, hit my tooth on the bottom of the pool, and broke off the resin that had made me feel whole. Like the first time when I had broken my tooth, I was too shocked to cry. I couldn’t find the piece of resin at the bottom of the pool.

Even after the broken tooth was emptied of the nerves that made eating or drinking a constant nightmare of searing pain – even after it was sanded down to a small size so it could be fitted with a permanent cap – even after I learned to smile again: I get scared of getting hit in the face and risk breaking my front tooth.

I have lived almost three decades since I had first broken my tooth. But I still become hyper-vigilant whenever I see a game involving a ball nearby: children playing soccer at the park or softball in a nearby field. Fear never forgets.

B (Just Barely)
The final grade of my Cornell education.

If I plotted on the X-axis the courses I had taken over time and on the Y-axis the grades I earned for these courses, the lines would spike up and down like an electrocardiography signal that said, “Your heart’s not in this!” if only it could talk. My baseline of B grades were punctuated with D’s in Recombinant DNA Technology & Application, Genetics, Physics, and Chemistry; a poor prognosis for a biological science major.

Chem 207 was a required chemistry course when I had declared myself “pre-med” during my freshman year. This was a vow of an aspiration to apply to medical school. When I got a D in Chem 207, this was a failing grade and I had to repeat and pass Chem 207 in order to graduate. The course had a reputation to weed out and separate those truly worthy of medical school and the “wannabes” who fancied themselves as doctors or whose aspiration were what mom and dad wanted.

Wannabes who couldn’t fake academic performance in Chem 207 should annul their pre-med status and opted for Chemistry for Poets instead. They’d spare themselves that drop in the pit of their stomach that they’d feel when they received their failing exam scores.

Fall Break
The mid-October respite from classes that Cornell instituted as part of its response toward preventing student suicides.

One morning as I prepared to slog through the lecture on electron orbitals in Chem 207, I heard students next to me chat about the pending Fall Break. One said that Cornell gave its students extra days of Fall Break because of past suicides from those who cracked under its academic pressure. Another said that she had friends at Harvard and MIT and said that Cornell was easier to get into compared with other Ivy League universities, but once admitted, the course-load was heavier and its academics merciless.

Still another said that she found the work load here no more overwhelming than what she was used to when she attended boarding school; I turned to look. She needed not fake her way through chemistry like I was trying to do (and failing). Her perfect Asian skin showed no stress spots, clear bright eyes betrayed no dark circles of late-night study or sleep deprivation, straight glossy hair threw the lecture hall’s fluorescent light back in my eyes: this one belonged to the truly-worthy, the class of blue blooded pre-meds.

I looked at her and thought that I should be in Chemistry for Poets.

The pun used to describe Cornell’s landscape because of the gorges dotting the campus.

My 1992 copy of the Student Handbook for Undergraduates said that if you were asked for a kiss at midnight on the Suspension Bridge and refused the request, the bridge would fall into the gorge. Maybe nobody tested this legend. Or at least, the bridge looked to me like an original. I never saw bits of bridge past or present lodged between the rocks below. Or bits of people who’d jumped. “Gorgeous” had its share of suicides.

I would cross the bridge every time I had to get to class from my dorm room, when I used to live at Balch Hall and then Dickson Hall. I would look down at water rushing around shiny-brown green-speckled rocks. I thought about plunging into the water but I had too many questions that begged for resolution. Would my head land first and be crushed by one of the large, smooth rocks? Or would my skull be pierced by a jagged rock? What if I landed feet first and broke a foot instead of receiving a mortal wound that ensured life’s quick departure? Then I would have failed and would be incredibly embarrassed and forever branded with inspiring the school legend of That Girl Who Tried to Kill Herself But Broke Her Foot Instead.

One-Inch Pine Board
What I had to break with my fist (straight punch) to earn a yellow belt (first promotion after the beginner-level white belt ranking).

The senior students rounded up us neophytes and told us that the secret to breaking boards was to punch beyond the board. Imagine the target is behind the board, they said.

On the first try I didn’t aim correctly and punched too high off center. On the second try I shoved my fist past the board. My knuckles didn’t break, which I thought was going to happen. The wooden board split in two.

Exposed Dental Nerve
What undiagnosed depression felt like.

Depression stripped me of reasoning and logic. It exposed me, raw and naked to every look, every word, every action or inaction of everyday life. Depression hid itself from view while taunting me with how broken and ugly I was. Depression made me believe that I ruined lives and beautiful things. It flogged me as the agent of pain; my wounds pulsated with self-consciousness and throbbed with self-loathing. I was scared that I would infect people with my contagion.

I retreated, seeking safety from stimuli, hiding from changes in temperature or condition that could open my wounds. Isolation was my cocoon and coffin.

Eight Years
Time that would pass between getting a D in Chem 207 and finding out that the unpadded ominous attacker within me had a name.

I would not know that I would be first misdiagnosed with Type 2 bipolar disorder before getting the correct diagnosis of depression (of the anxious sub-type). I would be put on a series of drugs that treated none of the depression symptoms but added new side effects to my life.

I would find out about the drug that dropped my blood cell count to a dangerous low and could threaten my life if the psychiatrist didn’t call me to stop taking it. And the drug that loosened strands of hair from my head every day, making the foot of my chair look as if I were starting a haircut. And the drug that marked me with rashes and lifted skin with itchy welts.

But I would not know about any of this – not yet.

Forms; a series of blocking and attacking movements against an imaginary opponent.

When I began learning Tae Kwon Do, I was drawn at once to the forms or poomsae. Was I attracted to forms because of the old fear of being struck in the mouth? Although I would indeed avoid sparring if I could, I was drawn to the forms’ beauty, symmetry, and order. I had to learn a form in each promotion test for a belt level.

I started as a white belt with “four directional attack”, which wasn’t technically a “form”. I would begin this series with a right forward stance, distributing sixty percent of my weight on my bent right leg in front of me and forty percent on my left leg locked straight behind me. As I stepped out into a right forward stance, I blocked down with my right fist and punched straight out with my left fist, aiming for my imaginary opponent’s solar plexus. I pivot ninety degrees to my right, maintaining the same forward stance with my right leg in front, and perform the same downward block-punch. I pivot another ninety degrees with the same movements, then another ninety degrees, until I complete downward block-punch facing North, East, South, and West – the four directions.

Once I earned a yellow belt, I learned the “Taegeuk” forms, which are the official forms of the World Tae Kwon Do Federation. There are eight Taegeuk forms of increasing complexity and number of movements. During a promotion test, the instructor would orient some of us in a different direction before allowing us to begin performing our forms. This ensured that we couldn’t copy our neighbors and that we had learned each form by heart. We were responsible for knowing all the forms we had learned up to that point, which meant we could be tested on any of the forms we had learned up to our belt level.

I liked how practicing forms helped me become aware of my body – where and how I held it in space, and how far my body can stretch. I was surprised that I was able to balance on one leg while holding the other leg in a side kick – that I was able to do this in a slow and controlled motion – which I learned was harder than fast, undisciplined kicks. The balance from my body gave me evidence that I was capable of at least the physical form of balance.

Performing forms was my way of dancing with my body and dancing with life. Maybe doing forms was how I tried to exorcise and defeat an invisible enemy within: an enemy that I felt but could not name.

The word describing the sound that was supposed to rise from my gut to help me breathe, give me courage, and scare away enemies.

Beginners are most self-conscious not by their awkward punches or clumsy kicks, but by the sound of their ki-up, especially when they are surprised by a request to perform in front of their peers and demonstrate a technique that ends with a ki-up.

Senior students have a developed their own style of ki-up. One blue-belt said “Aiees” and he drew out the “s” like a snake hissing. Another red-belt said, “Argh!” the way I imagined I would sound like this if I were pulling staples out of thick stacks of paper with my finger nails.

At first, my ki-up would catch itself before everyone’s ki-ups completed in case it drew too long and was in danger of being heard.

My ki-up didn’t even know what to be: should it be “Ah!”? What about, “Heeah!”? Or, “Ki Ah!”?

My ki-up said, “Eep!”

Like most beginners’ ki-up, my ki-up was wary and weak and as wobbly as my stances.

What my ki-up became when it was no longer afraid and did not cower within everyone else’s ki-up.

The person I was most timid around when I first learned Tae Kwon Do.

Stephanie was a red-belt-with-black-stripe and one of the senior students in class. She had dark wavy hair that she tied in a ponytail and a spray of light brown freckles over her pale face. Her eyes held your gaze and even when they smiled, they would pierce through you, trying to see what you are. When Stephanie kicked, the sound of her feet cracking the leather target was as loud as the sound made by the male black-belt students.

One evening I was assigned to Stephanie’s line for kicking drills. She strapped on the chest protector, held up the kicking shield, and signaled us to start. People ahead of me executed their side kick and then ran to the back of the line for the next round. It was my turn. I kicked. She barely shifted in place.

Don’t be afraid to kick me, she said.

She signaled me to kick again. I kicked. She swayed a little. All I could think of was the people waiting behind me. But she wouldn’t let me go to the back of the line.

I am protected. See this gear? Don’t be afraid! she said.

I kicked. I felt the blade of my foot lash against the shield and she shuffled a step back to adjust her balance. She nodded and I was allowed to go to the back of the line.

Stephanie earned her black belt and graduated with the rest of the seniors in the class of 1992. I became a senior and I went through the succession of promotion tests: yellow belt, yellow with green stripe, green belt, green with blue stripe, blue belt, belt with red stripe, red belt, red with black stripe. Months later, in the fall, graduates returned to visit Cornell for the annual homecoming. Some in Tae Kwon Do stopped by to practice for old time’s sake. Stephanie visited and worked out with us. She recognized me and smiled. I smiled back and held her gaze.

Three One-Inch Pine Boards
What I had to break with my foot (jumping side kick) to earn the red belt with black stripe.

I wasn’t rounded up by senior students to receive tips on breaking boards. I was a senior student now. I was on my own and on the spot, in front of the class while other students (including a fresh cohort of neophytes) sat and watched and waited for their turn.

I broke all three boards on the second try.

My kick had power. (My aim still needed work.)

Beating Heart
What the character “Kano” in the Mortal Kombat video game ripped out of his opponents at the end of a fight.

Robert Purcell Union was the closest dining hall to the Helen Newman Dance Studio where we had Tae Kwon Do class, beyond the Dickson Hall dormitory where I used to hide. I’d avoided eating at RPU with its long dining tables because I’d be eating by myself and I’d be seen as alone and out of place and it would be obvious to everyone that I really didn’t belong here, that I must have gotten into this school by a fluke.

Tae Kwon Do class ended at dinner time. After working out and before we dispersed to the locker rooms, people rallied potential dinner companions. Somehow my name got carried into the wave of the dinner crowd and I heard people asking if I was joining them for dinner. Yes, yes, I’ll come.

I got waffles topped with fruit, syrup, whipped cream, and ice cream. I took my tray back to a busy section of a long table filled with people whose faces I recognized, and a seat was saved for me. I ate waffles for dinner and listened to chatter about who was dating whom in class and how all the boys in class were in love with two particular girls. I smiled. I wore my red and blue Tae Kwon Do jacket. I laughed. I looked like a natural member of this group.

After dinner we went to the game room where the boys took turns playing Mortal Kombat. I hung around and watched the characters fight and execute their signature “Fatalities”. I liked watching the losing opponent’s beating heart that pulsed “Ba-bump! Ba-bump!” after being ripped out by Kano whose deep roar was an ominous, “Ha Ha Ha!”

What I gained from Tae Kwon Do class that may have saved my life.

When I was invited to a party I would know the Tae Kwon Do classmates there: they invited me! When I walked to class, I would recognize Tae Kwon Do classmates on campus: they waved at me! When the university’s Asian American student association sponsored an event, a few Tae Kwon Do students wrote a skit based on the Streetfighter video game and asked me to play a female fighter character called Chun-Li. I had a part in a skit. They clapped at my Chun-Li jump!

On the last day of classes of the last year of my university life, Cornell’s Library (“Libe”) Slope was a confluence of warm spring weather and students and beer and shaving cream and loud music emanating from everywhere. I approached the sea of people and spotted some of my Tae Kwon Do classmates. I sat with them and we watched the animated expanse of Libe Slope. We laughed. We took pictures. If you asked me today the names of these classmates, I wouldn’t be able to recall all of them, but I remember being a part of them; I remember feeling that I belonged.

My Final Year at Cornell
When I became a student of the Way of Foot and Fist, and when I began to believe that this body was powerful, strong, and alive.

[Originally written in 2011]
Note: I wrote this back in 2011, one of 3 pieces of “serious” literary pieces I’d done. I submitted this, along with 2 others to a few literary journals. I received rejection for everything I’d submitted everywhere, but this piece received personalized comments from the likes of the prestigious Missouri Review about how much they enjoyed reading it; I take this as the piece is not good enough, but good nonetheless. That “good nonetheless” should be worth something to me.

I’ve shared it on my personal blog some years ago but removed it in 2012 when I decided there was no point in pursuing the creative nonfiction genre. Maybe I’m forcing myself to take this out again so I can’t “hold onto” this writing — to force myself to “start” writing. Start writing again.

This piece is an experimental form, my favorite sub-genre, of Creative Nonfiction.

Standing Out Amid a Sea of High Achievers: College Application Edition

For the past few months, I had been very active meeting with prospective college student applicants to my alma mater, as part of my volunteering with its alumni admissions ambassador network.

I met with graduating seniors from 7 area high schools. I wanted to meet as many of these young people as I feasibly can, partly because I wanted an insider’s perspective on life as a high school student in today’s extremely competitive times.

Students I’d met with, were a select group: I knew that for me to meet with them, they would have a level of achievement and maybe confidence to apply to an Ivy League institution. I knew that I wouldn’t be meeting with slackers, or young people who were new to goal-setting. In other words: I knew that these students would be among the best students in their graduating class.

If I had to distill for myself what impressed me the most about the students I’d met, I’d say it wasn’t embodied in any one specific person, but are commonalities among the young people I admired most. These commonalities are:

1. Courage.

One student who started out fixated in engineering, decided she wanted to go into animal science. She met with a tremendous amount of resistance, because she was good in math and science, and as a female applicant, she would be “preferred” as a gender minority in STEM careers. She also had long term peer relationships who were set on the engineering path. Her courage to stay on her new decision, and her courage to admit that she really did not know what she wanted to do with her life, stayed with me.

Being courageous isn’t a dramatic act of rescue or revolution. In real life, courage takes more subtle form. You are courageous when you are honest about who you are, instead of pretending what people say you should be. You are courageous when you think for yourself, and make decisions about your career and life, even as you listen to many unsolicited opinions of people who barely know you.

You are courageous when you admit, “I don’t know enough to know the answer to this question, but here is what I do know, based on the work I have done exploring.” It is not easy to live in unknown; we humans prefer certainty and declarations. Society also mistakes declarations with intelligence, when declarations are decisive and does not necessarily come from intelligent decision-making.

But young people feel tremendous pressure to act as if they already know what they want to be, and have their futures planned out. Guidance counselors regularly discourage high school seniors from entering “Undeclared” or “Undecided” as their majors, cautioning that this would make the students less attractive to top universities. It makes me question what the actual purpose of a university is to be: attractive a bunch of people who think they already know everything, or people who can say, “I am not sure, isn’t this why I am here, to learn and explore, so I can make more informed choices?”

2. Self Knowledge.

When I speak with some of these students, I almost forget these are 17 year-olds who have just begun their future and I am more than twice their age. Some of these young people have spent time learning about the person they are. What made one high school’s valedictorian particularly memorable, is his strong sense of self-knowledge: he has put in effort and time to learn about the person he is, and given much thought into the person he wants to become. This came about because of leadership retreats that his high school provides its students; I wonder how common these leadership retreats are among high schools. I suspect, not very common, and only limited to particular organizations or clubs that aren’t part of the school’s core curriculum.

Young people with deep self-knowledge are the ones who show depth in thinking. Their self-knowledge allows them to question premises they receive from their environment: they are conscious of their own biases, limitations, and mental filters. As a result, they have learned to take alternative perspectives, to imagine how people unlike them may look at the same situation and draw different conclusions. These young people show high levels of empathy towards others. One of the things they had to learn is “boundaries”, where they have to draw lines between their empathy or sympathy, and moving forward in the bigger picture. This type of balance is not easy to achieve for most adults, when we have to learn to say “No” when we fear emotional consequences of saying no.

The students who have self knowledge also were able to give me the most specific descriptions of their decision-making. They share detailed stories about a time in their lives when they were somehow changed. They could tell me specific people who influenced an aspect of their thinking, and why their thinking changed. If they went along or against the grain in their decision-making, they could tell me all the ways they had thought about their options, and how they arrived at their decision.

The students from the wealthiest background did not necessarily show the deepest self knowledge. One of the students’ parents was a “rags to riches” success story, living in an exclusive neighborhood. This student spoke in generalities about “helping people” in wanting to become a doctor, and it was clear that this mind set remained dependent on authority figures who may guide (or direct) the person’s path. It was a frustrating exercise for me to try to figure out this person was if this person did not seem to have a clear idea of one’s self, and this did not come from a lack of wealth and resources. (Moral of lesson: money does not guarantee deep self-knowledge, although resources certainly help in giving young people diverse opportunities that may cultivate depth and self-awareness.)

3. Multi-Dimensionality.

Including multi-dimensionality may be a “chicken or egg” problem: you become multi-dimensional because you are courageous and know yourself — or is it because of what you do on the whole as a person that creates opportunities for courage and self-knowledge?

There are parents who manages the career of their children, and in doing so, are smart enough to know that colleges want “well rounded individuals”. This usually means “extracurricular activities”. There are big ones of course: music, sports, academic clubs. The scientific people will try to get their kids into research internships. The creative people into apprenticeships. You either play an instrument or a sport. You volunteer.

Sometimes the parents are enlightened enough to take their kids’ lead when engineering environments for their kids to “lead from” or “grow into”. Sometimes parents are clueless and push their kids into clubs or activities because “this sounds good”. Even then, the clueless parents can get lucky, occasionally hitting on an artery of passion for the kid in the roulette of extracurricular activities.

I don’t think the type of activities matter. Otherwise, certain activities will be better than others at encouraging “teamwork”. One stereotype is that team sports encourage teamwork, and while this can be true, being a part of a newspaper club requires teamwork as much as individual contribution. Who says that you need to play team sports to understand what it’s like to work as a team? There are plenty of athletes these days who gain notoriety as celebrity “individuals” — not team members.

What actually matters, is how you weather and grow through the challenges inherent with groups of people with personal agendas get together to create or achieve. You can learn accountability and responsibility no matter what extra curricular, as long as you are conscious of your role within it. You may even be better equipped to identify opportunities of learning and growth in uncommon situations: skills that become important as you make your mark through life.

This is why I can’t say the kids who impressed me the most are all in a particular club or play a specific sport. Sometimes the most interesting thing about them is what they don’t mention in their personal statements, or how they have been taught to self-identify (as in, “I play basketball” or “I am a drum major”). Infusing your uniqueness through your activities and goals is what makes you interesting: not those activities or goals alone.

I can usually tell when some of the kids are in activities that they are forced into, or did it as a path of least resistance: they aren’t inspired by it, they are there because they have to, and their time is spent waiting for time to end versus learning or extracting value from time. Even if they don’t say “mom and dad made me,” I can tell.