Technician Essay by Tina Garcia
People gravitate to a martial art like Wing Tsun for a variety of different reasons. For some, they witness spell-binding techniques in movies and on television and are immediately captivated, craving the opportunity to chain punch and craft their own make-shift wooden dummy. For others, they may have worked their way through multiple arts and identified Wing Tsun as an ideal fit based on its fighting principles and approach to instruction. And for some, finding Wing Tsun could be completely by chance – walking past an enticing storefront or seeing an online ad and deciding to take the plunge.
For me, starting my Wing Tsun journey began with a single idea: Growth. Though I had a brief stint with Karate during my first year of college, I was by no means a dedicated or experienced martial artist (or athlete for that matter). I wanted to do something that was completely new and challenging. But more than that, I wanted to learn in an environment that was engaging and supportive.
And that is what I found. My experience learning Wing Tsun has confused and inspired me beyond measure. Wing Tsun is a continuously humbling experience. Just as I have grown more comfortable with a particular drill or technique, there is almost always a new, frustrating mystery around the corner.
Because of this unique constellation of emotions, I have come to view learning Wing Tsun as comparable to repairing sections of a house.
With a house, at first you may focus on the most pressing of projects. A leaky second floor toilet. Faulty wiring in your kitchen. A broken garage door. Some of the most frustrating and potentially costly matters. But then as time goes on and those projects are completed, you have time and space to focus on other things and ask new questions. How can I make the most out of the storage in the pantry? Why does the bathroom have two different shades of blue on the walls? Wouldn’t it be nice to open up the kitchen to get more counter top space? These are the types of questions that you wouldn’t have the capacity to ponder if you haven’t already addressed some of the basics.
The same can be said when it comes to the study of Wing Tsun. At first, it took an incredible amount of mental and physical energy to remain in the appropriate stances and breathe – let alone to coordinate my arms and legs during a lat sau drill. But as time has gone on, I am able to ponder new questions: Why do I feel cramped after landing that strike? How can I close the gap between me and my opponent more quickly? How can I keep from carrying my opponent’s force for too long before moving in to strike?
And exploring these questions does not happen in isolation. It happens in practice and more importantly: it happens in community with other learners. Based on my experience learning Wing Tsun with members of my Wing Tsun family, I have identified two distinct yet interrelated elements that have made up my experience: Remaining Present and Reimagining Trust.
Training Wing Tsun has taught me how often I disappear from my own life. For example, early on in my Wing Tsun journey, I would regularly struggle with a move or technique. When this would happen, I would pause and try to discern where I had made the mistake but might linger in that space for too long. Inevitably, one of my Sifus would prompt me to try again. Internally, I would grow frustrated thinking: “But how can I try again if I don’t know what I did wrong? Won’t I just keep making the same mistake?”
What my Sifus knew and that I didn’t was that the complexities of Wing Tsun are so great that, yes – sometimes verbal guidance is necessary to correct an error but the key part is to keep trying. Slow things things down so you can catch where you are making an error but the important part is to remain connected. Disconnected analysis is not the way to ensure you perfectly execute a technique but rather: countless, mindful attempts. After years of training, I of course still have these moments but am grateful that one of my Sifus has devised a shorthand of sorts to remind me of this idea, regularly reminding me: “Remember, this is not a spreadsheet.” It is a way to quickly prompt me to drop my calculations and analyses and simply be.
And I recognize, remaining present and connected all of the time is impossible. This has been more obvious to me as I recently transitioned to a new professional role with increased responsibilities and what feels like a myriad of moving parts. It can be simpler to disconnect and remain stuck in “analysis paralysis” when there is just so much to understand. However, I have come to take my experience with disconnection in learning Wing Tsun to heart and remind myself that some issues or challenges are best solved by remaining present. That inevitably if you keep moving forward and remain connected, you will be able to work through a challenge and find yourself on the other side.
I’m reminded of a sentiment from Robert Frost’s poem “Servant to Servants”: “The best way out is always through.” I have found that to be the case. That no matter how daunting an experience may seem – be it grief, heartache, or a particularly troubling section of chi sau, with enough time and connection, you will find yourself on the other side. In this sense, Wing Tsun has helped me to more concretely understand the importance of remaining present not just in training but in all areas of my life.
One of these areas that has been the most surprising to me has been related to my interpersonal relationships and how I view trust. I train with my Kung Fu siblings each week in varying capacities. I see them more often than I see some members of my own family. And training, in all its repetitive glory, requires a certain level of trust.
Prior to learning Wing Tsun, I thought of trust building in a fairly restrictive way. I viewed trust as being comprised of two major ingredients: communication and experience. I thought that trusting someone came from lengthy conversations over food or going through various challenging or even life altering experiences with them. After all, how can you trust someone when you have not seen how they react under pressure? How can you trust someone with what’s most important to you unless you know what drives them or what they care about?
Though my friends and colleagues would likely describe me as a caring person, it is only a trusted few that I get physically close with. This is for a number of personal reasons but I have come to realize that my level of trust with someone is typically best measured by my willingness to allow them into my personal space.
But training in Wing Tsun has required me to reframe how I forge trust with someone entirely. Running complex fight drills and scenarios requires me to be vulnerable to a degree. I have to trust that my partner will demonstrate control and restraint. Though they need to show me where I may be “open” to attack, in delivering their strikes they also need to demonstrate care and restraint so as not to harm me. And likewise, I need to do the same. As a partner, I need to remain present and responsive, striking when necessary while still exercising care.
In these moments, we are both wary opponents and trusted friends.
And most bizarrely, some of the folks that I feel closest to and trust most when I train Wing Tsun – I have not spoken to at length outside of class. It is not until this reflection that I realize that if you were to ask me their favorite food, color, or how they take their coffee, chances are I likely wouldn’t know. Yet in our school – in that context – without history and experience, I know I can trust them.
Now that does not mean that because you train martial arts with someone that you should trust them implicitly – that’s absolutely not the case. But rather, learning Wing Tsun with my training partners has broadened my understanding of how trust can be built – that it does not have to fit into the narrow box I had constructed for myself. That it can be fluid and context specific. That just as we are trained to perceive and calculate risk when it comes to personal safety, we can do the same in our non-life threatening interactions with others without closing off the parts of ourselves that make us human.
In that sense, learning Wing Tsun has allowed me to more directly visualize my own growth and that is by allowing myself to lean into my own humanity.
In closing, I cannot stress how much I have learned and continue to learn from Wing Tsun. I am able to reflect on my journey so far and see how I have grown – particularly in some of the ways I previously mentioned. But more than that, I am invigorated by the possibility of what lies ahead.