I was on my back being strangled by a very sweaty 250-pound man. I knew what I had to do: loosen his grip around my throat by snatching away one of his hands, bridge onto one shoulder to roll him over, end up with him on the floor and me rising up from one knee to deliver a series of debilitating kicks (groin, solar plexus, back). Unfortunately, I was failing miserably at all of the above. He was an immovable object, and I was the antithesis of an unstoppable force.
In a wuxia story, the odds would be in my favor. I had a combined 15 years of martial arts practice under my colorful assortment of belts; this guy just happened to be huge. And wuxia fiction, adventure narratives centered on the learning and use of martial arts to navigate a world of danger and intrigue, typically set in a historical era of China, is refreshingly equal opportunity in one respect. Anyone can be a great martial artist, regardless of age or sex or size or disability—what matters is putting in the training and the effort, and apprenticing yourself to the right teachers. (Falling into a cave with a legendary martial arts manual buried within it is also helpful.)
That, at least, was my takeaway from a dreamy, impressionable childhood in Singapore spent captivated by the wuxia dramas that ran endlessly on TV, a mix of Hong Kong imports and local productions, adaptations of popular novels, as well as original scripts. Wuxia taps into a deep-seated fantasy of ours—that we can keep ourselves safe out in the world, and look badass while doing so. And although much of wuxia may be supreme wish fulfillment, there is a tether to reality. Martial arts do exist, as does Shaolin Temple; historical martial artists such as Wong Fei-hung and Ip Man are familiar figures in Chinese popular culture (thanks in large part to the many wuxia dramas and films about them). Perhaps some version of invincibility—not in the face of large-scale threats, but in the basic sense of being able to hold your own against other people—might be achievable after all.
I started with judo, at the age of 12, after pestering my parents to enroll me in a martial art. There was a dojo near where we lived, and my sister and I were ferried there weekly to don suffocatingly hot gis, practice rolling back and forth, and be flung repeatedly across the floor mats. I’d anticipated I wouldn’t get to learn the exciting, destroy-your-opponent stuff right away—but this was much too tedious, and too painful. The wuxia shows skipped over this aspect of the process; within a few episodes, characters went from practicing the same five basic strokes to blasting through walls with the force of their qi,
Onward to Tae Kwon Do, which I practiced for much of high school, together with both my siblings, who were collateral victims of my martial arts mania; my mother made them join the classes as well, to build character. Tae Kwon Do was more in line with my wuxia-mediated notions of what martial arts should be, kicks and strikes and sequences, although I had the nagging feeling that it might not be my pathway to martial mastery, not when my seven-year-old brother was the same level as I was and he still couldn’t tie his belt properly.
In college, I discovered capoeira, and I knew I had found my dream martial art. Forget the skeptics who dismissed it as dance-fighting, or questioned the utility of breaking into a ginger during a street fight—look at all the YouTube videos of capoeiristas executing flying kicks with lethal speed and force, then taking each other down with backflip-scissor maneuvers. Capoeira could be dazzling the way in duels wuxia shows were, fluid and acrobatic, and, unlike wuxia duels, here were actual people doing these things to each other. It was possible!
I also had the privilege to learn from an incredible teacher, the first-ever female mestre of capoeira (who held a fifth-degree karate black belt on the side). She would have made a wuxia martial arts master proud: relentless in how she pushed her students, demanding perfection in every technique, expecting devotion to the art. In a wuxia drama, how else could the student hope to master the Eighteen Subduing Dragon Palms and achieve greatness? But in real life, it turned out I could only disappoint, both her and myself. Being constantly critiqued and exhorted to perform beyond my ability was exhausting, and as I progressed through the ranks, I increasingly ran up against my limits. My reflexes were unreliable—problematic in an activity where spinning kicks were regularly aimed my way and ducking in the wrong direction could mean I’d get smashed in the face—and I could never muster the aggression required to dominate in the roda, A decade in, I was still training primarily out of obligation and a sense that I would be giving up otherwise. It was almost a relief when a torn wrist tendon meant I had to take a break, and after my wrist healed, I didn’t return.
I couldn’t stay away from martial arts for long though. I tried (and still practice) yoga and Pilates, where my subpar reflexes and utter lack of killer instinct weren’t impediments to progress. But I missed the dynamism and camaraderie of martial arts, the ways it taught me to interact with and respond to other people, and also the idea, dimmer now but still persistent, it could be my armor against the world.
Which led, a few years later, to me flat on the floor during my level-two Krav Maga grading, desperately trying to hoist a man more than twice my size off of me. At last I did, not due to any merit on my part, but because he was concerned he would crush me into oblivion if this went on any longer. I also passed the grading. (The instructor’s feedback: I needed to be more aggressive.)
Capoeira made me confront the limits of my skill and my nerve. My experiences with Krav Maga—where the focus is on real-life attack scenarios, and the majority of my drill partners are larger, sturdier, thoughtlessly strong men—have, finally, pummeled me into accepting that physics and biology will trump most of the time. Martial arts can’t assure my safety; it would be hubris to think so. The unexpected outcome of this: I enjoy martial arts that much more now. I learn what I can, take satisfaction in how I can improve, continue to deepen my understanding of what my body is capable of. At some point, I know my joints will start calling for something lower-impact than Krav Maga, and then I’ll switch martial arts again. Aikido sounds fun.
Jane Pek is the author of The Verifiersout now through Penguin Random House.
This content is created and maintained by a third party, and imported onto this page to help users provide their email addresses. You may be able to find more information about this and similar content at piano.io