At Oberlin, I never had trouble finding things to do. From the sheer quantity of student clubs and organizations to the rigor of classes, it felt like I was always busy. However, for students at SAU, the situation couldn't be more different. The overwhelming majority of students complain about their incessant boredom and the incredible lack of happenings on campus. Schoolwork isn't very hard and few take part in events outside of those that they are specifically made to participate in. Though much of it comes from lack of institutional support, there are outlets for activity, so long as you know where to look.
As long-running leader of the Rubik's cube club, Bobby (middle, with a hat) has considerable sway at the school.
In early October, I unwittingly stumbled upon the SAU equivalent of Oberlin's ExCo Fair. Stands were set up along the intersection of the cafeteria and the college dormitories, large multicolored billboards were erected to advertise different student organizations, and club leaders spent the week manning tables and petitioning for student sign-ups. Among the interests represented were arts clubs (origami, knot-tying, paper-cutting), hobbyist clubs (manga, model making), sports clubs (ping pong, biking), and gaming clubs (Rubik's cube, cards, Chinese chess). There is an environmental group that is doing its part to reduce unnecessary trash burning with the introduction of giant recycling stations on campus. A film club whose members produced last spring's Campus Agents was also soliciting new members. But none was more enticing than the robe-clad men and women who were kicking and throwing each other to the ground.
It was the martial arts club, and before they could even finish describing the curriculum, I had already signed up and forked over the $1 tuition fee. Robert, the German teacher on campus, had practiced with the group after spotting them near his house, and I agreed to act as his translator if he helped me learn the moves. From the start, they didn't make it easy for us—practice was at 8am on Sunday mornings, and the weather was getting colder. At our first practice, we worked on doing falls and throws on cut-away foam boards. At our second, my instructor, a scrappy 3rd year with a history of sparring, handed me a pair of boxing gloves and told me to fight. It was a kind of initiation. It was only my second hand-to-hand fight ever, and I was annihilated. Wang Yulong never once cracked a smile as he buried his fist into my ribs and gave me a black eye. Evidently, I wasn't quick enough to defend myself. This, he said, he would teach me.
The promotional billboard for the "Energy Martial Arts Club," complete with photos of the club's members in action.
The fight instilled a certain drive in me. From then on Robert and I studied kicks, punches, dodges, blocks, and quickness drills, as we slowly got whipped into shape. Cue the Rocky sequence: together we practiced each move to exhaustion, a combination of sweat and rain lashed across our faces, the soft drone of getting stronger building slowly in the background. It was clear that our foreignness afforded us special treatment, but it was a double-edged sword. While the rest of the club practiced kicks and punches in pairs using brace pads, Robert, Yulong, and I spent each class beating the shit out of each other.
It was like our own private fight club. We couldn't tell if Yulong was doing it because he wasn't afraid of hurting us or if he was just more comfortable with foreigners. Moreover, I learned that what we were practicing wasn't actually traditional gong fu. The art can roughly be divided into three subcategories: one that stresses stretching and flexibility, another that utilizes weapons such as swords, wooden poles, and nun-chucks, and a third that emphasizes power and quickness. None of them involved putting on boxing gloves.
But it was just as well. Had it not been for playing the cello when I was young, I would have definitely wanted to take up martial arts or tai qi, and as recently as my senior year at Oberlin, I'd been interested in boxing if for no other function than as stress relief. Everyone has their reasons, and for me it was always the satisfaction of a release of tension, a show of force in overpowering a bully or a thief. Growing up, Yulong had gotten into street scuffs in his hometown. He was a long, lanky kid, and even today he wouldn't look that threatening unless you got up close to him. The fights left him with a huge gash running across his right eye that he usually covers with a hat. He later enrolled in a gong fu school where his master didn't let him stop practicing until his hands were bloody and raw. At our last spar, I saw this all written on his face, but I also felt the tenacity rising from the pit of my own stomach, ready to give it my all.