Traditional kung fu movies invariably feature a training montage—a few minutes when the dénouement pauses to unveil the hardships that the protagonist must undergo in order to develop the fortified mind and body he or she needs to ultimately prevail. Though these moments generally contribute little to the plot, they are always my favorite, and I know others share my opinion. I recently watched The New Shaolin Temple, starring Andy Lau, with my mom, and she was most vocal during scenes that exhibited the monks’ training regiments. “Oh my god!” she would yell, “they are amazing—we need to go to China and do this!” But it’s not just the snapshots of the almost supernatural feats of strength; these patchworks of training clips are most compelling for their evocation of character. Altogether, the rigorous exertion proves transformative: the protagonist evinces dedication, discipline, resilience, willpower, drive, and confidence either before he commits to training or after all the hard work. It is then that he or she can progress from dispatching nameless henchman to confronting a notorious antagonist—the intense training clearly distinguishes the ordinary individual from the exceptional. In doing so, the journey inspires us with glimpses of greatness, but the path by which we arrive at such strength always seems to remain as unattainable as a dream.
Fantasize no longer. Academic Explorers seizes this dream and turns it into a reality; or maybe it’s more accurate to say that Sabrina Cohen’s Beijing-based martial arts program infuses reality with a dream-like quality. I landed in Beijing without ever having studied Mandarin Chinese or kung fu. The little I did know about Kung Fu had always made me reluctant to seek instruction in the United States—I wanted to learn authentic Chinese kung fu, not an Americanized derivative. Don’t get me wrong, I fully understand and appreciate the direction that most American Kung Fu schools have moved towards. They have their virtues; but I wanted something different, and that’s exactly what I got. I showed up for lessons on the first day and stared in awe when I entered the training grounds—it was a beautiful traditional Chinese courtyard, and I could swear that Jet Li had thwarted countless nemeses on the same stone pavement that I myself was about to tread. I met my Chinese instructors and quickly realized that they did not speak English beyond a few key phrases: “Begin,” “Again,” and “Faster!” I learned, however, that their English limitations were a blessing rather than a hindrance. Kung fu is about body-awareness, feeling—sure, you can understand the principles of a punch or a kick, but until you can synchronize your muscles and perform the motion with your body, you have not mastered the move. Kung fu is intricate, and words can often get in the way. When I screwed up a move, my teachers would chuckle a bit to add some levity and demonstrate it again. If I still couldn’t figure it out, they would clasp my arms or legs and physically take me through the motion. Furthermore, the language barriers forced me to take on Mandarin. The first Chinese word—and most important lesson—I learned with Academic Explorers, was gong fu.
Like the martial arts, I learned the meaning of gong fu with my body before I unwrapped the phrase within a familiar lexicon. I woke at around 5:00am every morning and rushed to an early session of kung fu. After two hours of practice, I ate lunch and made my way to a Chinese lesson. I headed to another three hours of kung fu practice immediately afterwards. Post dinner, I spent at least two more hours working on Chinese homework before crashing into bed. With such a rigorous schedule, I learned a serious amount of kung fu and Mandarin. I thereby arrive at my definition: gong fu means skill, acquired skill even. And its significance extends far beyond the narrow parameters to which most English speakers have confined it: the term applies to any aptitude acquired through diligence and persistence, not just martial arts. You can have cooking gong fu, hockey gong fu, or language gong fu, for instance. For those three months, I developed both my martial arts and Mandarin gong fu. I practiced both frenetic, aerobic Shaolin kung fu and the more rhythmic, fluid Tai Ji. All the while I engaged in linguistic acrobatics, struggling endlessly, but not futilely, to produce passable Mandarin phrases. Most importantly, however, I ingrained the principle of gong fu, the gong fu of gong fu even, into my life. What’s most appealing, most inspiring about the heroes from kung fu movies is that they are ordinary individuals turned drastically extraordinary via their own concerted efforts. That is the way of gong fu—unceasing, applied aspiration that overcomes all barriers in its pursuit of knowledge and excellence. And that drive, that confidence, is precisely what Sabrina’s program teaches its students.
I’ve incorporated a gong fu mentality into my everyday life. While in college, I continued to study Mandarin and kung fu, taking every available opportunity to return to China. Since my initial visit with Academic Explorers, I have been back to Beijing five times. I met with the kung fu teachers Sabrina introduced me to on each subsequent occasion. I formed bonds with the teachers and other students during my first visit that have been renewed and deepened into a community. Now I consider Beijing a second home rather than an unfamiliar city teeming with inscrutable inhabitants. Lao Tzu has an oft-quoted saying in the Tao Te Ching: “The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” For me, that single step was a semester in Beijing with Academic Explorers. Five years later, my opportunities have expanded to include life in China, and even U.S. employers are happy to note that I am highly proficient in Mandarin Chinese. The Academic Explorers’ experience was challenging and exhausting, but rightfully so. Embark upon your own training montage—the journey is only a dream for as long as you allow it to be. And the rewards far outweigh the rigors.