Have you seen the Karate Kid? Not the old one, but the new one with Jackie Chan and Jaden Smith. Do you remember that scene with hundreds of students practicing martial arts in sync? I would rewind that scene over and over because I thought it was the coolest thing ever.
My interest in martial arts was always radiant. I remember when I was a kid, I always looked up to idols like Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, and Jet Li. I used to love their movies and aspired to be as good as they were. I began my martial arts studies when I was four years old, but I was never serious about the sport. Karate classes became more like playtime with my friends instead of learning. It wasn’t until I was in the seventh grade when I became more serious about training to become like my idols. I would stay at my local dojos for extra classes because I was eager to learn more. I even received a black belt from the local schools, but it wasn’t enough. I still wanted to learn more.
So, the summer after my freshman year of high school, my parents sent me to China.
The Shaolin Temple
I landed in a small city in the Henan province named DengFeng. It is home to the famous Shaolin Temple, where monks train in the traditional martial arts, Gong Fu. Not familiar with the term? You are probably more familiar with the term Kung Fu, which is the westernized form of the Chinese pronunciation Gong Fu.
The Shaolin Temple is a monastery located in the mountains of Dengfeng. It is a place where traditional Buddhist monks would go and practice martial arts. The temple is rich in history as it has been through many wars and has been rebuilt numerous times. There is a story behind almost everything there. Some of my personal favorites include the room where monks would stomp the ground to create dents as they trained, the tree where monks would train finger strength by punching the trunk with one finger, and the bathrooms just because they were mere buckets.
On tour, we had the chance to walk on a prestigious path where only the grandmaster—or ShiFu—would walk. It was a great experience to see the strict disciplines that monks in training would follow. The Shaolin Temple has also been featured in several Chinese films; several martial arts celebrities have crossed its paths. Most notably, Jet Li filmed a movie here that increased the temple’s popularity. It was really cool to walk in a movie set! In addition to the temple itself, there were several other attractions. One of the most interesting attractions was the Pagoda Forest. It is a collection of tombs for the different monks that have passed and is structured to exhibit a monk’s status before passing. The higher the tower, the higher a monk’s ranking was.
After the tour, we went to watch a Gong Fu performance. The purpose of the performance was to showcase an introduction of Shaolin Gong Fu. It introduced the various “Quan” or forms that are native Shaolin Gong Fu, the weapons used, and the applications of the movements in combat. The fun thing about the performance was that they picked audience members at random to come on stage to learn some of the movements. I remember sitting there practically jumping out of my seat because I really wanted to try! Sadly, they didn’t pick me.
Tagou School of WuShu
After the tour, we went to tour the most notorious martial arts school in China. The Tagou School of WuShu is a boarding school for martial arts as well as an educational institution. This school has produced many of China’s most well-known fighters and performers. They have students attend national competitions and even students who competed in the Olympics. Fun fact, Jackie Chan performed with one of the performance teams from this school. How cool is that? At first glance, I got ridiculously excited because I saw my favorite movie scene in real life—hundreds of students practicing martial arts in sync. It was the highlight of my life to find out that it was not just a scene in a movie. My mom told me that this is where I would be staying for the summer, and I couldn’t have been happier.
The school is gigantic. It’s so big that they had to split the school into two separate campuses. They have the old campus located next to the Shaolin Temple and the new campus at the foot of the mountain near the city of DengFeng. I chose to stay at the old school near the Shaolin because I loved the mountains, and it sounded way cooler to train in the mountains versus the city.
Students of Tagou School of WuShu come from all over the world to study there. Some native Chinese students even use the school for their primary education as well. The school offers intense training sessions and education levels from kindergarten to high school. It was completely different than what I was used to in the states. The students have a crazy training schedule. The students started the day at 5 a.m. and were not done training until almost 10 p.m., six nights a week. I thought that was insane coming from the U.S. where I take an hour-long class three days a week.
Lifestyle as a student of Tagou
Before I agreed to start summer school at Tagou, I honestly did not know what to expect. I thought it was going to be a summer camp-like experience, but it was more of a culture shock and a humbling experience. Before becoming a student, I never realized how privileged I was to be living in the states where we have access to machines that help accomplish chores or technology for entertainment. There was a lot that I had to get used to as a student. My body had to get used to a new diet; my brain had to learn how to cope with limited to no internet. I also had to become less lazy and actually do chores by hand.
I remember my first year going; my diet consisted of eggs and bananas for the first few weeks because I was not used to the food in the cafeteria for the students. I don’t remember what about it made me so sick, but my body eventually adjusted to it, and I was fine by the end of the summer. I was not used to the way you had to grab food. There was not an orderly line to the different chefs. It was a fight to who can swipe their card first to get their canteen full of food. Yes, you read that correctly: a canteen. We did not have bowls or plates to gather our food; we had to stuff a canteen full to carry food. Of course, you could go back and get seconds, but that costed more money, and you would probably have to shove your way back to the front of the food line.
As a millennial, I live on the internet. I love surfing the web to see what the latest trends are, watching YouTube videos, and seeing what my friends are up to on social media. Having limited to no internet killed me. It was already annoying that China blocked a lot of sites like Facebook, Instagram, and Google, but you are able to get around that with a VPN. The thing that was troublesome was that, since we were in the mountains, internet from the town was not that great. Often, the internet would go out in my room and I couldn’t do the things that I wanted to do. Honestly, though, it was the best thing that happened to me. It forced me to get out of my room to explore the campus, talk to some of the locals, and hang out with my classmates. I learned so much about the different cultures in my international group and I learned fun games that the locals play to entertain themselves! My favorite game that I learned was called “Duel the Landlord” and it was a very competitive game once you got the hang of it.
After my first couple of weeks there, I remember struggling to find clothes since I burned through most of my clothes. I was asking around trying to find the closest washing machine or laundry mat just to find out that there wasn’t one. I was challenged to actually wash my clothes by hand. I was not happy about this. I am so used to throwing everything in a washing machine and calling it a day. Additionally, there were no dryers either, so I had to wring the clothes out and let them air dry. It was not a fun thing to do, but it became a part of my daily routine that I got used to.
The one thing that I got used to quickly was the training regiment. I was sore for the first couple of weeks. The workouts were really intense, but I learned a lot from the coaches. The coaches are very strict and everything we did had to be perfect.
Honestly, it was tough. It is not made for everyone, but I’m more than grateful that I had this experience. After the first year, I went back four more times to relive the experience. It’s something that I hope I get the chance to do every summer.