(To celebrate the release of our good buddy Matthew Polly’s new book Tapped Out, we’ll be sharing some choice excerpts from one of my favorite books – American Shaolin. Polly trained in China with the Shaolin monks back in 1993 – before it was cool, as the hipsters would say – and this book chronicles all the ridiculous situations he got himself into.)
(excerpt from Part 2, Chapter 6)
When Carlos arrived, Deqing volunteered to teach the foreigners, so he took over from Monk Chen, one of the older monks who had taken over from Cheng Hao. Two foreigners were better than one, and at least Carlos would leave relatively soon and give him a tip for his troubles.
Deqing’s success at Shaolin had been built on a relentless love of hard training, and as he’d watched me he felt that the Shaolin method for training foreigners—all smiles and encouragement— was too soft. He was going to train us like they train their own Chinese students: “To curse is to care, to hit is to love.”
Now, there was a good reason for the variation in methodology besides cultural differences. We were older and obviously self-motivated or we wouldn’t be here. A rough guess was that of the 10,000 or so teenage kungfu students in the Shaolin village, about half had been sent by their parents rather than volunteered. They were the type of hyperactive boys who refused to study and got into fights. Shaolin was China’s version of a reform school; kungfu was their Ritalin.
But I agreed with Deqing that at the very least it was an appearance problem, so I didn’t mind when he brought out the stick and whacked us. What did bother me was how he conducted stretching time. Deqing’s approach was hands-on and feet-on. When we were in the split position, he’d climb on top of our legs and bounce to the point of breaking us. Then he’d have us lie on our backs, pin one leg and push the other toward our faces until we screamed for mercy.
But it wasn’t the pain as much as the fact that we were objects of amusement for the other monks that infuriated Carlos and me.
After the first day of screaming, we began to gather a crowd. The younger monks would suddenly appear in the training room at stretch time, take a seat, and wait for the entertainment to begin, holding their breaths until we started begging for mercy and then laugh and laugh. Actually, only one of us begged for mercy.
(“Please, master, you’re going to break my leg. Please, God, I beg you!”) Carlos was tougher than me and therefore able to refrain from screaming anything coherent.
“They sure enjoy watching the foreigners suffer,” I said to Deqing once, after a session.
“They don’t have TV,” he replied, not catching my hint.
After a week of this, it occurred to me that none of them spoke English, so I switched from begging to cursing in my native language, running through the gamut of four letter words, spicing it up with Oedipal accusations and questions about Deqing’s parentage, and promises to commit an astounding variety of X-rated acts to various parts of his anatomy. I had to stop, however, when Little Tiger, following one of my tirades, yelled, “Fack youah, madafacka, fack, shat, madafacka, I kah you.”
As the banner in the performance hall said, “Cultural Exchange Mutual Benefit.”
After a couple weeks of this, when it became obvious the younger monks weren’t going to grow tired of watching our torture sessions, Carlos and I decided to speak to Deqing about it. I explained that we didn’t mind the tough training, but having the younger monks laugh at us “made us lose face.” Deqing visibly blanched. He explained that the monks weren’t laughing at us so much as laughing at the memory of when they had been beginners and their coaches had made them scream and beg for mercy. I explained that whatever their reason it still bothered us. He nodded, and the younger monks never showed up in our class again for stretch time.
After class, however, I did gain a constant companion. Once he had heard me curse in English, Little Tiger followed me around every day, begging me to teach him more.
He’d run up to me and say in English, “Fack, madafacka, fack.”
“Little Tiger, don’t use those words,” I said.
“Am I saying them correctly?”
“You shouldn’t use bad words.”
“But what do they mean?”
“I’m not going to tell you.”
“Because you’re too young and a Buddhist monk,” I said.
Who needs that kind of karmic debt?
After weeks of unsuccessfully attempting to cajole me into teaching him, Little Tiger finally hit upon a winning strategy: slighting my patriotic pride.
“Chinese culture is so much deeper than American culture,” he said one day. “I bet our curse words are worse than yours.”
“Oh, really, you think so?”
“Absolutely. Let’s compare.”
I sighed, torn between the choice of spending the next life as a dung beetle or letting one Chinese boy think his culture was better than mine.
“All right, all right, all right,” I relented.
Little Tiger gave me a crash course on Chinese curses. The lower-level Chinese curses revolve around dogs and eggs: running dog, stupid egg. Turtle’s egg was the worst and likely to cause a fight, although no one could explain to me why. The more extreme curses involve a sexual act performed on various members of your enemy’s family: mom, of course, dad, older brother, dad’s older brother, dad’s father, mom’s father, mom’s older sister.
Confucianism placed the patriarchal family at the center of society to serve as the model for all relationships. Much like the Eski-mos and the word “snow,” the Chinese had multiple words for each familial relation. They distinguished between older and younger siblings and relations on the mother’s or father’s side of the family. For example, there are five different words for “uncle”: father’s older brother (bofu), father’s younger brother (shufu), father’s sister’s husband (gufu), mother’s brother ( jiufu), mother’s sister’s husband (yifu). Even strangers are often addressed, usually when a favor is being asked, by a kinship term. At Shaolin, I learned to address old men as “grandfather,” middle-aged men as “uncle,” and males of a similar age as either “older brother” (gege) or “younger brother” (didi).
“The standard form is wo cao ni made ge bi,” Little Tiger said with South Park glee. “I fucked your mother’s pussy.”
“That’s pretty bad,” I said.
“And then you just replace ‘mother’ with some other relative,”
he continued. “Can you do better than that?”
“It’s not easy,” I said, preparing to pull out my trump card. “But those curses are not as bad as ‘motherfucker.’ ”
“Madafacka,” Little Tiger attempted.
“What’s it mean?”
The best I could do for a translation was: “You are the kind of man who makes love to his own mother.”
Little Tiger scrunched up his face, “I don’t understand.”
Have you heard the story about a Greek king named Oedipus?
A doctor named Freud? Do you understand how a husband and wife make babies? Now imagine the husband is the wife’s son and the wife is his mother—I tried several times before Little Tiger grasped the concept, a sure sign I was going to hell for this.
“That’s bad, really bad,” Little Tiger said. “But I don’t think it is as bad as this: ‘I fucked your eighteen generations.’ ”
Given Chinese respect for their ancestors, it was their harshest curse.
I had to give it up. “You’re right. That is worse.”
Little Tiger was triumphant. “I told you so. I told you so. I told you so. Chinese curses are the worst.”
It was a bitter defeat.
(That again was an excerpt from Matt Polly’s first book, American Shaolin. We’ll be having more excerpts over the next few weeks, and it’s all about letting you know how fricking good Matt’s stuff is. His new book, Tapped Out, came out this Thursday. If American Shaolin was ‘That time I trained with the Shaolin Monks in China’, then Tapped Out is ‘That time I had adventures through the world of MMA.’ Check it out. You won’t be disappointed!)