by Jerry Waxler
Every week, the television show “Kung Fu,” opened the doors of a magic kingdom in which the hero, a peaceful warrior named Kwai Chang Caine, avoided violence except when he needed to save innocent people from persecution. Then, he crushed his opponents. Dreamy flashbacks showed Caine with his teacher, Master Po, in an exotic oriental temple. When the student was ready to go into the world, he lifted a kettle of red hot embers between his forearms, forever burning the Shaolin Temple into his skin and my mind.
Recently, I saw a memoir “American Shaolin” by Matthew Polly, a young man who dropped out of Princeton to study Kung Fu at the Shaolin Temple in China. I was stunned to learn the place was real and even more astonished that it still existed. At first I resisted reading the book, afraid the real world might ruin my fantasies. Finally curiosity won. I jumped in to “American Shaolin” and kept turning pages to the end.
Matthew Polly left his Ivy League school, and traveled to a small town in China, where he moved into a small sparsely furnished room, took a vow of celibacy, and began his studies. The memoir contained many interesting themes: a search for identity, for spiritual meaning, for the soul of China, and it was a book about men and fighting.
What are men really like?
I’ve never understood girly-girls. Their world view seemed as inaccessible as say, inhabitants of the planet Venus. That was before I started reading memoirs. Now I can see into the mind of anyone who takes the time to write about themselves, expanding my insight across gender lines in a way I never considered possible.
It turns out, I don’t know much about gender-drenched men, either, having lived a watered-down version of masculinity. I never played sports, never was in a fight, never served in the military, never hung out in bars. Matthew Polly’s book has taken me inside a more masculine world than the one I inhabit, and now I know more about that half of the world, too.
From Polly, I learned that some things about men remain consistent across drastically different cultures. For example, after a hard day of strength, agility, and fight exercises, Shaolin monks went out drinking. Talking shop about their day’s practice, their conversations also included that favorite male topic, women, demonstrating the influence of lust across cultural lines.
Write a scene when you were attracted to or repelled by a stereotyped male or female trait, such as “too macho” or “too cute.” In the same scene, or another one, write how you felt about your own gender traits?
Wooing and Other Bargaining
Despite his vow of celibacy, Matt Polly did occasionally try to woo a Chinese girl. His attempted liaisons were complicated by four decades of Communist party propaganda that taught Chinese citizens to beware of westerners. The girls were suspicious of Matt and at the same time attracted to him, providing a weird, intriguing mix of politics and sexuality.
On one occasion, he had a hot date the night before an important fight. During dinner, his coach created such an embarrassing scene the girl walked out in frustration. Afterwards, the coach said to Matt, “It’s just as well. If she stayed it would have made your legs weak.” When Polly did finally sleep with a Chinese woman he described the scene with lyrical tenderness. But then she expected him to marry and he fell back to another famous male stance, fear of commitment.
Trying to get a girl into bed was not the only maneuvering going on. One-upsmanship occurred in a variety of situations. Of course, in fighting, the opponents must constantly try to get the upper hand. The focus on strategy set the stage for all sorts of situations of bargaining and maneuvering. For example, he had evidence he was overpaying for rent and tuition, and he tried to negotiate with the temple managers to lower the price. The maneuvering on both sides demonstrated the business-like mentality of the place.
Forty years of hatred for capitalism did not stamp out the Chinese instinct for bargaining any more than it stamped out sexual attraction. Polly’s description of Chinese bargaining strategies helped me understand the expression “inscrutable oriental.” The men were employing a technique known in the west as a “poker face.” To beat your opponent, you must hide your feelings.
I used to think it was tacky to write about money, but I have since come to realize the stuff keeps showing up in real life as well as in good stories. In “American Shaolin,” Polly uses money to show the power struggles among people, to offer insights into his own circumstance, and to provide another window into the Chinese culture. Strangely enough, the tense negotiations between Polly and the managers of the Temple did not ruin my impression of Polly or the Temple. It simply helped me fill in additional aspects of their world, proving once again that the mundane side of human nature, when told well, can breathe authenticity and tension into ordinary situations.
Bargaining is a common activity, when we try to get what we want through arguing, or pleading, or strategy. Write a scene when you had to get something from someone, whether for love, or money, or power. Show your plan. Or show how you acted impulsively, without a plan. How did it work? How well did the other person defend their own needs? What did they do to resist your request? Who was the better strategist?
More memoir writing resources
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