I’d help Sifu into my car, easing him in by supporting him from his arm. He was elderly, but far from frail. It was an honour to drive him back to his flat after my Wing Chun lesson, which he taught from his daughters garden in London, England. The conversation in my car was always muted, his understanding of English limited and my skill in Mandarin, non-existent.
Any language barrier resolved itself after several years under his tutelage. As I progressed in Gung Fu I learnt to read his subtle gestures, facial expressions and body language. I became so adept that he often asked me to convey what he was attempting to communicate to newer students.
I studied my Sifu’s movements. It allowed me to pick up on the subtler aspects of his Gung Fu; the flicks of the hand, the way he held his fingers, the tension of muscles in his forearms.
During the drive from Tottenham, through Bruce Grove I would play some music at low volume to kill the monotony. We’d stop at various traffic lights, pass by parks and sit patiently waiting for traffic to subside. All the while I would watch Sifu from the corner of my eye as he sat quietly.
Sifu was never truly at rest, even when we were trapped motionless in a car. I’d observe him as he brought the gnarled tips of his fingers to his hairline, deep in thought. He would press his hand into his head attempting to recall a particular fighting move like a violent version of Rodin’s thinker. His eyelids would lower and his eyes squint as he thought back to his own training as a younger man.
Sometimes whilst sitting, his hands would dart from one position to another, tracing movements from Gung Fu. I would recognize patterns from mantis, eagle claw, tiger and dragon. His hand would jerk and he would shadow box with varying hand shapes such as the fist, palm, fingers and ridge. Sifu died 8 years ago, yet I still remember those journeys with fondness.
Yesterday I arrived home late. I was still dressed in a shirt and tie as I subconsciously darted my hands out for several minutes. It made me realize how similar to my Sifu I have become, tracing his hand movements as I practiced. By observing amd mimicking him over so many years, his dynamics have become interwoven in the fabric of my body.
Two decades ago I was a naive and wholly incompetent student. But I persevered. As the teaching unfolded I slowly became competent but only to the extent that I had to consciously think about what I was doing. As soon as I stopped thinking deliberately, I would fumble. Nowadays I am like Sifu, struggling not so much to remember the moves but instead to recall the steps that it took for the patterns to become subconscious.
Each day I find myself tightening the seams on my muscles and stitching new neural pathways. And as time slips further away from me I become more like him, journeying ever closer to being a natural Gung Fu man, with each flick of my hand.