This place looks just like a Kung Fu dojo should look. It’s in the seedy section of town,1 egg-rolled2 between a Chinese restaurant and a 7-11. Inside the students are moving in slow motion; the T’ai Chi class is right before the Kung Fu class. The sifu — that’s Kung Fu for sensei — is a big guy, with tattooed forearms and a ponytail, and kind eyes that (I’ll learn) look right at you but not through you.
When I open the door everyone’s heads turn, and they give me a chipper chorus of “Hello, sir!” That should be cheesy, but instead it feels welcoming, a relief. I didn’t expect to be this nervous. They are all ages: some early teens, some twenty-somethings, some middle-agers.
T’ai Chi ends and the Sifu gives me the tour: changing room, bathroom, practice room, lockers. “Well,” I say, “I sure am looking forward to watching a class!” “Watching!” he says. “Why watch when you can join in?” Crap. “Of course!” I say, not really unprepared for this — I wore athletic pants — but maybe hoping I could escape this time. No such luck.
Pre-class stretching. The students chat in loose groups. Unconsciously I steer away from the group of guys my age and land next to a middle-aged man who looks friendly. Tactical error: will they peg me as timid already? But no, of course not; they’re not thinking about me at all.
Stretches. On my other side is a fat girl. Maybe I won’t look so bad next to her? But then she spreads her legs out impossibly wide in front of her, and brings her left shoulder sideways till it touches her left knee. “Wow,” I say, gaping like an idiot. “You’re really flexible.” “Don’t worry,” she says kindly, “you’ll get there.” I don’t mind.
Class is underway, and somehow I’m already not thinking about how I look compared to anyone else. The effect, possibly, of the endless leg lifts and bicycles and pushups and crunches and twists and squats and — sheesh, I can’t remember the last time I’ve sweated this much. But I didn’t know I could kick that high in the air.
Sifu Gary is a good teacher, in that he doesn’t explain too much: he demonstrates a move a few times, then trusts us to learn from each other, walking around with encouragements and corrections. There’s something warm about him, and I can see that it’s rubbed off on the others. I look around: where do these people come from? If you scattered them in a typical Massachusetts crowd, you could pick them out by their glow.
I begin to see how the class works, everyone learning from those above, everyone building up those below. A good system. You would expect the men my age to be embarrassed by the yes sirs and the high fives and the general cheerfulness of the place, but they’re not. Nobody’s being ironic, nobody seems guarded. What is this place?
I’m exhausted. I look at the clock for the first time all night — it’s been over an hour! We are lining up and bowing. It’s not until I leave — after ordering a gi and signing up for the rest of the month — that I feel my face relax. It hurts from smiling.
Granted, I also smile when I’m nervous, but still.