The Kung Fu Kid (and why it's OK the new movie isn't called that)

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I was seven when this photograph was taken of me attempting Daniel-San's crane technique in the sand. It must have been around this age that Karate Kid jump-kicked its way into my subconscious, sketching an outline for my life and my own incarnation of the American Dream: Focus your chi, beat up your enemies, win the trophy.

The new Karate Kid happens to feature Kung Fu. Although some have a problem with that literal misnomer (Karate is not the same martial art form as Kung Fu), I believe this apparent discrepancy speaks to deeper, common roots and philosophies shared by all martial arts. I'm cool with it.

I have three favorite films that parallel with important phases of my life.

The most recent phase pairs up with Seven Samurai by Akira Kurosawa, a period piece about the cost of glory, the strength of quiet character, and teamwork for the sake of common good. You could say this film defines the part of my life working at Gizmodo, developing it into a large group effort.

In my twenties and teenage years, Enter the Dragon taught me about the confidence a young Chinese man could have. With his Jeet Kune Do style of abandoning the confinement of style, Bruce Lee taught me to take what is best and avoid being bound to traditional limitations, and rigid, old sets of rules.

The film that pairs up with the earliest phase of my life is the original Karate Kid, about the dream of a young man's life-- and for me, naturally, the early dreams of my own life.

In a decade glutted with Van Damme films, this was the most human of contemporary martial arts movies. Apart from lacking Van Damme, it also, thankfully, lacked the overdramatized emotional displays common in classic Kung Fu films. We see fear and adrenaline on Daniel-San's face and in his body language in combat; we see his awkwardness when he flirts with the cheerleader; we see his embarrassment when he is thrown into sand by the Cobra Kai; we see his bruises and injuries after scuffles. All of these human shortcomings makes that little plastic Valley Karate tournament trophy so much more shiny, and his sweetheart's love more sweet, in the end. Sure, the fight choreography is great, but the story itself is greater for any young man who has found solace in the dojo, as I did.

I met my first bully when I went to school in Hong Kong for a year, not long after seeing Karate Kid for the first time. The bully was a big, 9-year-old Australian. He picked on me constantly for being friends with a sweet 8-year-old California girl.

I took karate, but no one taught me how to correctly tie the belt on my oversized uniform. My pants fell off at every punch in one sequence we practiced. The Australian giant had one last laugh before I flew back to America when the school year ended. There was no victory, only surrender.

I did not practice karate again until my teenage years, but my return to the discipline happened just in time, saving me from hormone-driven angst after I scarfed a bunch of Advil in a mock suicide/heartbreak maneuver. After hitting that ibuprofen bottom, I started up some Tae Kwon Do with my friends Mike and Pete. I wasn't gifted as an athlete or student, but it was pretty clear from the start that kicking and punching were what I did best.

Within a few weeks I could kick tops of doorstops with vertical sidekicks and full splits. We lifted weights, took classes, watched tapes and taught each other Kung Fu, Judo, Jujitsu and Shotokan Karate on cheap foam mats. My height and weight were identical to those of Bruce Lee.

Unlike Daniel-San, I will admit that I did not always use my gifts exclusively for self-defense. But in an environment of widespread juvenile vengeance and pride, each of my strikes seemed fair at the time.

The first person I ever punched was Shawnee Alexandri. You couldn't call him a bully, but he was an antagonistic motormouth. After asking him countless times to shut up, I gave him a right cross and put him in a headlock in the school weight room. Everyone turned around, surprised. I was surprised, too: at how pliant the human face could be when it swung around on a human neck, and how much being jacked-up on adrenaline made me lose fine motor skills.

As long as you don't hit teeth or the top of the head, you will not get hurt. The captain of the football team told me it was "kind of a good punch" before the room returned to normal. That move must have seemed shocking to onlookers, coming from a skinny little honor class geek with broken glasses. I had just broken high school cliché rules (and quite nearly some of Shawnee's teeth).

Before graduation, I would go on to threaten to drop-kick the captain of the football team for picking on my little brother, and would slide-tackle the school bully during gym class for kicking my shins one too many times. Anyone who picked on me once never picked on me again.

I never got in trouble, because kids in smart people classes just didn't get detention. Most importantly, I'd worked out the self-pity and when I clenched my fist, I felt a spark of self-worth. I believed I could will myself to overcome problems in life. Just like the Karate Kid.

I went through college in an an unspectacular way. I went to a mediocre school, got mediocre grades, and had a mediocre time. I picked up a few skills but practiced nothing. I expected to grow up, but it didn't happen. I got fat.

Like Daniel-San, I picked up my East Coast roots and moved to California. I found a gym, the Fairtex Muay Thai school in San Francisco run by boxers from Bangkok who had all come from poverty and risen to championships (the recruiters only recruit the poor, because, like Mike Tyson, they fight harder.)

When I was laid off after the first internet bubble burst, all of the people who were fired alongside me were upset. Some cried. I could only think of the gym.

I worked full-time there, mopping floors. In a few months I was training, teaching and sparring almost every day, and I remember how content I was sitting under a skylight drenched from the routine of exercise, about to start teaching class. I remember thinking to myself, "I will never be more happy than I am right now."

And although I have been happier, life was never more simple. The head instructors were all gentle, strong, hilariously perverted, and generous with their knowledge. They, unlike the Americans at the gym, weren't there because they were afraid of life. For them, this wasn't therapy to work out aggressive tendencies. They did this because they had the skill, and because they began with no better options in life. They were Mr. Miyagis who would grab your nuts when you weren't paying attention in order to teach you how to pay attention.

It ended quickly.

One June, three years into this part of my life, I had the perfect exhibition match. I could feel where every punch and kick were coming from, and I kept complete composure. I was far from the best, but I felt that day I'd reached the level I wanted to reach.

A few weeks later, I witnessed the owner of the gym get shot while chasing down a plain-looking guy who backed into his parked car out in the alley behind the gym.

That plain-looking guy happened to be a serious criminal who'd skipped parole meetings for a year. I tried to give the gym owner CPR, but as they took his body off the street, wrapped in my t-shirt (I remember it had a phoenix logo), something changed inside. I didn't want to live by the sword anymore.

Two days later, the murderer shot himself in a standoff with police after a widely publicized manhunt, and round-the-clock media coverage.

The gym closed.

I thought I could approach something more meditative. I took some Aikido classes to learn how to draw the sword and cut, but I didn't have the heart for it now. I had to leave it, and everyone in that world, behind. I no longer believed it was the way. I broke my leg in a motorcycle accident and although the metal rod in my left tibia makes the bone stronger, every time I kicked the ankle went numb. I was finished. I began focusing instead on writing.

It's been years since I've practiced martial arts. But having studied a few different types, I guess you could say everything I do is done with as much martial spirit as I can muster. From the way I think, or move, from cooking to writing to running Gizmodo, to surfing, I have practiced enough that the best and worst lessons have become part of who I am. When something runs this deep, and when you've observed and practiced more than a few types of martial arts, its hard to understand why some people on the internet would raise such a fuss over the new Karate Kid movie being focused around Kung Fu instead of Karate.

Muay Thai is a brutal art. It involves knees, shins, elbows, and gloves on the fists. In the old days, I was told, fighters would dip their taped fists into broken glass-- but today, it's more of a graceful and tough sport. There are rules: no eye gouges or groin kicks. Its square stance and blocks are mostly meant to deflect round strikes from the sides or quick jabs to the face and body-- and because of that, you could say Muay Thai has a weakness to strong spinning back kicks. They aren't an official part of Muay Thai, but no one winces when you do them because it is not as cultish of a sport as other more traditional martial arts.

Still, a Muay Thai practitioner wouldn't necessarily know how to use or defend against these kicks. I know this because of my experience in other martial arts. And I know this because of Jongsanan Fairtex.

Jongsanan Fairtex's nickname is "the wooden man." He was one of the most decorated fighters in the gym, and was ranked by some publications in Thailand as one of the top 10 fighters of all time. If I remember correctly, his record was 98-28-0, and he's best known for a match referred to as "the elbow fight", where he and his opponent traded elbow smashes to each other's crowns repeatedly, with neither man going down. One of Jongsanan's moves, which he'd throw in every couple of fights when he knew his opponent was on his heels or the ropes, was the spinning back kick. It was sometimes effective, but it's also demoralizing to see your opponent break a rule of Muay Thai and turn his back to you. As a master, Jonsanan knew when to break the rule of the system and throw some jazz into the equation.

So, with Jongsanan in mind: Okay, the title of the "new" Karate Kid title may be a misnomer in the literal sense. But I don't consider the title a mistake. Some may argue that the filmmakers are demonstrating cultural insensitivity to Chinese and Japanese martial artists. But I believe the Karate/Kung Fu discrepancy can also be interpreted as masterful perception. Because a master, like Bruce Lee or Jongsanan, knows that at the core, there is no real difference between any of the martial arts. In fact, this is the very sort of provincial distinction Bruce Lee fought against throughout his life.

All martial arts operate on the same fundamentals, more or less. Each has a different emphasis on legs, feet, hard crushing or soft flowing styles, feints and slips or direct blocks. Each art has strengths and weaknesses. But the principles within each art are the same: efficient movement, focused minds, and strong spirits. When you understand that, there's no sense in fussing with the rules just for the sake of the rules.

Was Jongsanan, one of the defining fighters of this last 100 years, not doing Muay Thai when he did spin kicks? Or did he just reinvent Muay Thai when he threw that move in, during a few of his fights?

The correct title of the martial art in question hardly matters when your enemy is sprawled at your feet, knocked out by an attack with no name.


The Karate Kid, released as The Kung Fu Kid in China and Japan, opens today in theaters.
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