Wednesday, February 22, 2012

The Magic of Titles and Outfits

A little while back, I had a potential student contact me about training with me. He had just moved to the area and wanted to resume his Taiji training. Our first conversation was energetic and engaging. He appeared to have a solid grounding in Chinese martial arts and enthusiasm for training. He promised to drop in on our next class, but never made it. We talked again a couple of weeks later and he assured me again that he was coming to my class. Then we proceeded to discuss particulars of my training approach. All seemed to be going well until he asked about sashes. I politely informed him that while I do use a curriculum, I don't award rank and we don't wear colored sashes. "Well, what about uniforms?" he asked. "At my old school we wore the silk Kung Fu uniform." Again, I informed him that we don't do that either. At this point he was surprised. "No? Really? Well what do you wear?" "Um, I don't know--street clothes. In the summer we usually wear shorts and T-shirts; or sometimes jeans; or whatever one would wear to play basketball or go for a walk around the block. I mean, everyone is welcome to wear whatever they want. We just wear comfortable clothes fit to work out in." The other end of the phone got silent. After an agonizingly long wait, he asked if my students referred to me as Sifu, or Master. At that point I laughed. I know, I shouldn't have done that. It was extremely rude and inappropriate. But I couldn't help it.

I attempted to salvage the conversation by telling him that, while I really understand the cultural significance of those terms, I don't use them in my classes nor expect my students to. No Sifu, or Laoshi, or Master, or Mister, or Sir, or anything else. My name is Rodney. I teach in the US to American students. In that aspect of things, we follow Western customs. I do respect any Chinese teachers I have or have had, who wish to be addressed this way. The same goes for American teachers I have had who teach Japanese and/or Korean arts and have asked to be addressed as Sensei, Master, or Sir. I don't have a problem with the concept, in context. It just doesn't apply in the context of my classes.

The potential student never showed up nor ever called again. I suspect he found a Taiji teacher with silk pajamas, and possibly even an Asian-sounding name with a high-ranking prefix. I don't know. There are plenty around here. But, that will never happen in my classes. I have made rank with colored belts in other systems and the belts mean nothing to me. It's the knowledge that counts, and the humility that should go with the knowledge. Such humility has no desire for anything that pumps the ego and sets any of us apart from each other. I am no master. I know some things, and I share them with the folks who wish to attend my classes. At the same time, I am still a student. I am still learning. I hope I always will. And I endeavor to maintain the humility of a student. Beginners Mind and all that.

As far as the clothing, I say whatever works, works. For me, comfortable clothing works. I don't own any silk pajamas, but I do sometimes wear cotton Kung Fu pants. They are comfortable, durable, and practical. But then again, so are the blue jeans, basketball shorts, and athletic jogging pants, that I also wear. I also have a large selection of martial art T-shirts. I usually wear them to class as well. I also wear boxing shoes in the colder months. In the summer, I usually go barefoot or wear sandals. But I don't require my students to wear anything other than what they feel is comfortable. When I played Judo and Aikido, we wore the Judogi. But it is very practical in the dojo, and arguably necessary and preferable for those arts. There are no such requirements for Taiji clothes. In fact, since I emphasize the practical aspects of this art, everyday clothes are better and preferred, so one never has the idea that Taiji, Qigong, meditation, or defending oneself requires anything other than what one is wearing at any given moment.