Sifu? I Barely Know ‘Er!

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.

1 One of them. I think seediness is this city’s primary export.
2 Ha, I was gonna say “sandwiched” but egg rolls are more Chinese. Get it? ‘Cuz…meh.

14 Comments on “Sifu? I Barely Know ‘Er!”

  1. Liz says:

    I spent 7 years studying martial arts. Was very profound in many ways. There is a dark side to it, but not until you get up to about 4th degree blackbelt. 🙂

  2. Liz says:

    Btw, I didn’t get that high, just knew some people who did.

    1. Well, very long ways to go until I see the dark side, then.

  3. Liz says:

    Yes. Enjoy. I learned some very valuable lessons. It went much deeper than block, kick, punch.

  4. Matthew says:

    This is not about this article; I just read a piece you authored which was cited at

    I want to say: you have my respect and admiration. Your honesty – intellectual and emotional – is fantastic.

    Thank you.

  5. Martha says:

    Never underestimate the fat girls! We always surprise you!

  6. Sounds like we have a bit in common, friend. Being same sex attracted and celibate tends to throw people on both sides of the issue into some sort of in-depth confusion. Sad on some levels, humorous on others. But always misguided at best.

    I too have found my refuge in Christ and through Him, the Catholic Church of my roots. I think I am a bit older than you, in my mid-50s currently, but I have been everything from an evangelical/charismatic minister (Assemblies of God), heterosexually married, both for 12 years, and then “out” for the next 15 before finally heading home towards Rome.

    If you or your readers wish to check out my page, please do so at Like you, I am “doing just fine.”

    And I get the same reactions in the confessional too, by the way! And the same occasional pity from people who think I have given up on love, mostly people who are cohabitating or doing serial monogamy, I might add.

    And in one sense I did leave a certain element of earthly love behind–but in the Holy Eucharist is a grace I never dreamed of obtaining. And it is worth it. Every moment is.

    God bless you in your work here and elsewhere. Peace.

  7. Greg says:

    Also unrelated-
    I just read the article that Matthew cited and wanted to offer my praise as well. People with their own ideas about us evil Catholics will still take their own predispositions when reading it, but you said what i get too frustrated to say. I struggled with SSA, but I feel that mine was more of a sexual addiction as opposed to real homosexuality. Looking back, I realize that I was just trying to push the envelope further because I became bored with “normal” sexual quirks. So why not have sex with guys?
    I’m happy to say that I am in a newly convalidated Catholic marriage with a woman that knows all of my dark secrets and still loves me. When we decided to get our marriage convalidated, we also chose to abstain from sex. It was the most rewarding experience and I feel that my wife and I grew closer in that time than we had in our entire relationship.
    I think people don’t understand that when they get up in arms about “being able to have sex with whoever we want”, they fail to realize that they are really demanding the right to belittle the act of sex as well as themselves.

  8. Matthew says:

    Richard, Greg

    Reading your words, and Steve’s “testimony” on the page I linked to, I feel deeply grateful to you, and I would like to express that. Thank you for your strong personal honesty and for your general love for life and truth and goodness which shines clearly in what you have written.

    Your “testimony”, if I can use that often awkward word, is humbling, edifying and enlightening. Many people around the world – particularly young people like myself – would benefit from hearing what you have said on this page. (If you ever have the opportunity to say these things to large numbers of people, please take it; you will do an immense amount of good.)

  9. Matt says:

    Steve, my name is Matt Fradd, I work for – would you mind getting in touch with me? I couldn’t find contact information on your blog. –

    1. Email on the way. If others are wondering, it’s steve-dot-gershom-at-gmail-dot-com.

  10. Matthew thanks so much! Speaking of “” my story was featured in “This Rock” in September of 2008 and I was interviewed by Gus Lloyd on Sirius in 2009.

    I also have a revised and updated version of it on a website by the name of “Why I’m Catholic” which was placed on their site in the spring of 2011. I have had some great opportunities since each of those to minister to others. So I would thank you for your prayers.

    The currenly posted update is at the following link if you or other readers are interested–and I apologize for picking an unrelated thread to share this, Steve! That was not my intent!!! Anyway it is:

    In any case thank you for your story and for allowing some of us to share ours too in the process. God bless!

  11. Steve: Also saw the article referenced. Actually, I saw it the first time when it was posted on Leila’s blog in July — even recommended it on FB — but I was taking care of my younger brother through his final days, so I didn’t follow the link back here. Great to meet you!

    I had to read this article because I took some kung fu classes back in ’84 (every now and again, I can still look like I know what I’m doing). About the only thing that bothered me is that my sifu did broach ancestor-worship. Even though I was a “cafeteria Catholic” at the time, it still made me nervous. Have you had to deal with that at any point in your martial-arts studies? And how did you deal with it?

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