An academic attempts to take up martial arts, again

One day, walking to my usual bus stop, I bumped into an old high school friend who I’d not seen for years, and was by all reports something of a recluse. We chatted a bit and it was like old times except he seemed to be in a bit of a hurry. Finally he said he had to go, he didn’t want to be late for his wing chun lesson. It’s a martial art, he explained, pretty popular nowadays, especially after the Ip Man movies came out. Then he hurried up the street.

A few days later, we met for coffee and I asked about his lesson. He wasn’t overly enthusiastic, or maybe that was his manner, unable to work up much enthusiasm for anything. Nevertheless, that night he sent me the name of the school and added that he could introduce me to his “sifu.” I went on my computer and found the website. It looked pretty good, with positive reviews, a minimalist layout, and no schlocky logos or trademarks.

Yes, it looked good.

I didn’t email the place straight away, though. I clicked around a bit more, then went to sleep.

It was like that for two weeks. I clicked away, umming and awing with the mouse, wondering at times whether had I gotten too used to the search, too used to the comfort of indecision…


At the beginning of the third week, I gave in. I booked a trial lesson.

Alighting at the second floor, I was greeted by a fairly young, beaming man, who led me past a clinic and some offices until we reached an empty studio. There were wall-to-wall mirrors on the far side, curious wooden trunks with protruding limbs, a stack of red-and-black punching pads, three long poles, and training paraphernalia I couldn’t identify. Above the mirrors hung crossed knives and, in the center, framed Chinese characters.

The room was dimly lit. A faint beat pulsed. We sat down on hard benches, and he offered me some tea.

It turns out we were about the same age, him hitting the pads enough years (as opposed to my hitting the books, haha) to be called “sifu.” I’d expected a much older man, although I really shouldn’t have. I had spent years teaching undergraduates sceptical of my age, suspecting at any moment I’d be revealed as an imposter.

I warmed my hands and sipped. He asked me why I had come, what I was expecting. I didn’t really know, but I said I was looking for something I could do for a long time. A practice that would last me till old age.

He smiled and said: you’ve come to the right place.

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