Monday, November 23, 2015

Interview with my martial arts teacher, part 1

Let's start with this real-talk letter to the editor of the Economist newspaper from their November 14th issue.
A human army 
As a serviceman I read your article on the problems for army recruitment in America with interest (“Who will fight the next war?”, October 24th). Through games, movies and political pandering, we have cast the average American soldier as a hardened commando. This gives politicians leeway to make extreme claims about our military effectiveness while cutting our fighting strength. The result is a smaller force with higher expectations.
America’s troops should combat their status as idols. Perhaps making us seem a little more human will bring in more recruits who “don’t like the violence”, and undercut the idea that our military should be our primary instrument of foreign policy. --- SHAWN COOPER, Enterprise, Alabama
I've always been the idealist in every group I can remember. As a teenager I refused to buy new products and take car rides unnecessarily, patching clothes and biking to school. I want to document the unique and fleeting phenomenon of a martial arts club I trained with from '07-'09, in which I began to learn not only how to use my changing body and male presence but to avoid violent situations and to de-escalate street violence. Here is the first part of this month's interview with my teacher.

[begin interview]

Q Introduce yourself, who are you?

J I'm Jacob Fisher, and, let's see, how long have I known you?

Q Wow! Okay, this is a story I did want to tell. We met in 2008, in the beginning of the summer I think. When Triangle Martial Arts Association had a self-defense seminar at the LGBT Center for trans people. [Note: The reason for my excitement is that Jacob is one of only two people I've known for eight years, not counting family, who is still a regular part of my life.]

J Ah, that's right.

Q Yeah, and it was big! It was a really big room, it was full of trans people, it was really awesome!

J It was. Yeah, we had a few people come up and you came up afterwards, didn't you?

Q Yeah.

J And then you went away... and then you came back.

Q Yeah, I went to Camp Trans pretty much right after meeting you. It's funny because I remember Grand Master Ken Craig saw my Swarthmore t-shirt and pointed out that you had also gone there! ... and we never brought it up again so I actually forgot about that connection until this year. [Ken Craig was the founder of Triangle Martial Arts Association.]

J [laughing]

Q At Camp Trans I decided that I was going to do medical transition and started T pretty much the same time that you started Eureka Valley Taekwondo Club. How would you describe Triangle and Eureka Valley to our readers?

J Triangle Martial Arts Association was a club that was founded after Matthew Shepard was murdered. And it was specifically to provide a safe space for gay people to train in self defense and martial arts. I joined in 2001, and started with taekwondo and then, after I got my black belt, I started training in hapkido with Triangle, got my black belt in hapkido, and then I took over the hapkido club. 

I also started a taekwondo club within Triangle Martial Arts Association focused on trans people. It was open to everyone, but I wanted to have a space that felt safe and welcoming and open for trans people. The reason was because I transitioned before joining Triangle and no one knew that I was trans. Then I had a friend in the club who transitioned while he was in the club and things didn't go smoothly for him. It was a very difficult experience for him. And I think that a lot of the people didn't realize that they were making this other person suffer by how they were treating him. I didn't want other trans people to go through that with Triangle because the whole idea of Triangle was to be a safe, welcoming space. So that bothered me that that was happening. 

So I had many talks with Ken about it, and argued about it a little bit because he didn't think it was necessary, but after talking about it with him more he understood how it could feel unsafe and how comments that he saw as innocent could be very hurtful to someone who was trans. And then of course he was incredibly supportive and ... he came to class occasionally [laughs] and worked out with us and was a visible presence. So that's how Eureka Valley started. And it went on for a couple years? a few years...

Q At least two years.

J Yeah, and the goal... Ken, I think, sort of saw it as a feeding ground to the regular Triangle classes and I didn't see it that way at all. I wanted it to be its own thing, and of course in my fantasies there was a large group of trans folks who were incredible martial artists coming and having big huge demonstrations which... it didn't quite work out that way... but that was my fantasy.

But it lasted for a few years, which is good for a martial arts club. It was always pretty small and had a low student-instructor ratio, which is nice. We did do some cool things. We did more than one self-defense seminar for the trans community. I think the one you went to was the best, it was the biggest one. And it's always nice to have a large group -- it was very large even for the -- we would regularly do seminars just for the LGBT community, not specifically trans focused. But that was one of the larger, more successful ones. One of the things that makes them work is when people are open and contribute; they don't just sit there. People were engaged in it, which was fun and nice to see. And then we were at a couple of the Trans Marches at Dolores Park and we had a demonstration one year.

Those things were all really cool and good for [trans] visibility. The other thing I thought was important was to get trans people, regardless of whether they joined or not, thinking about being safer and self defense.

[See my comment at the bottom.] 

Q Something you said made me think about risk. It was a risk for you to come out to Ken in order to point out that there was a real injustice being done. And we think about risk in a really deep and a really real way in conversations that we've had in the middle of figuring out techniques. I'm just wondering if you have anything to say about that, like whether your attitude about risk has changed through your martial arts practice or what the role is, in your life, of martial arts training and your assessment of risk.

J I think, for me, the biggest thing about Triangle's approach to martial arts, the thing I appreciate the most, is that the physical stuff was secondary, the primary thing was the student and helping them to become more of who they are.

Let's say you have someone who is overly aggressive. The instructors as a group would actively work to help them to control some of that within class. And also sometimes, some of the senior instructors would talk to them: "Hey, so is that really working for you?" outside of class. And we have had several people who were able to see that connection of, "Oh, I changed how I was behaving in class, and it was better. It worked better. Now I'm going to change, make those same changes to how I'm behaving outside of class," not in a physical situation, but just interpersonally.

Q Wow.

J And "Oh, that was a positive change, too." So that's what I think was the best thing, most powerful thing about Triangle.

Q Are you talking about... at the level of arrogance? Or like, what kind of behaviors?

J No, bigger than that, like substance abuse.

Q Okay.

J So yeah! [laughs] there were some people with some really big problems that came to Triangle. And many who were helped significantly. And it wasn't something that maybe most students would be aware of, so that would be something quieter, behind the scenes and a lot of times it was Ken specifically working with someone because people would come to him. They would come to me sometimes. Because you start to become, sometimes... an authority figure, a parental figure, as an instructor, and sometimes people bring you personal problems. You have to have good boundaries.

[Note: Jacob had very strong boundaries as my instructor in Triangle. He was one of the toughest teachers I've had, including Chinese ones. I don't remember ever exchanging any small talk. In fact, I'm not sure I ever saw him laugh. At the time it was helpful for me to see strong boundaries modeled. Now, I'm exploring my classical Chinese-influenced relationship with student and teacher roles.]

It can be tricky sometimes with boundaries and knowing where and how to effectively draw them. So I kinda got off-topic there, but [laughs] Triangle was more interested in the person as a whole than a lot of other schools are.

Q Hm. Yeah, I do think of Triangle as a tremendous resource, and because martial arts touches on so many aspects of the practitioner's life.

J Yeah. And the other thing I want to add to that is that, you know, that's my take on it, and a lot of other students didn't see those layers and those layers weren't what was important to them, and in effect, that didn't exist for them. But for some people, it did. So it's kind of a weird thing, that's the other cool thing about Triangle for me was that it *was* what you made of it.

And your original question was about risk, and so I think that for me it was always about becoming more of who I am, and that always involves a risk, right? ... I think. So that's how they're related. [laughs]

Q Thanks.

J For me, starting a new club is a big deal. I don't believe it would have happened if I hadn't asked for it; certainly it wouldn't have come from above. So I'm glad I took that risk. I think it was worth it. [laughs]

Q It was worth it for me.

Also on the topic of risk... when I worked for TRANS: THRIVE, a local trans resource center, we had a documentary at the Frameline LGBT film festival. So I got to introduce the film by saying a little bit about TRANS: THRIVE. And one of the things I said was that we had support groups including a support group for trans men of color. And in this theater of I don't know how many hundreds of people, there was shouting and cheering and clapping, and it was a huge show of support, and ... almost no one showed up to this support group month after month.

J Yeah... That's how I felt with Eureka Valley Taekwondo Club. It was like, "Surely people must be excited about this!" They would be, but then it's hard to get people to show up.

Q Do you have thoughts about what is going on?

J [laughs] Why that should be? Action is always... you know, it's easy to clap and cheer for something and it's harder to get people to follow up, no matter what it is, I've found. There's a lot to do...

Q [laughs] [Note: I think this is a common, weak excuse for indecision and poor self-care. I've used it plenty when I was sicker, and now I am much clearer about my priorities and intentions. Let's live this one precious life like we mean it.]

J ... in the city. People are busy. There aren't that many people who are willing to give up that much of their time on a weekly basis, ongoing. And then some people try it, and they're like, "Oh, it's not quite what I thought it was," and then they stop... and... yeah.

Q I mean, Triangle had their own version of this challenge, right? There wasn't enough support because it... Oh! We should point out that this was a volunteer-run club. No one was paid for any of the time. Right?

J Yup, that is correct. In fact, Ken spent quite a bit of money out of pocket to run the club. Yeah, nobody made any money. Money went to renting a space and buying supplies for tests, things like that. Yeah, running a martial arts club is often not a profitable experience.

The club I'm in now, the same thing. The instructor, who is, in fact, the head of the system, so not only does he lead the club, he is the head of the entire art, pays money out of pocket to pay the rent each month. You would think that the head of a system would have people flocking to come train with him. [laughs]

Even though Triangle, I thought, and from what I've seen from the martial arts world, placed a very strong emphasis good teaching, so the instruction was pretty good, I'd say, removing myself from the equation. [laughing]

Q Although you were a student as well.

J That's true, I was a student as well. Good instructors teaching solid stuff. The other thing is that there are plenty of martial arts clubs here. Triangle was one of the very few that was specifically self-described as gay friendly. But it's not like you couldn't go to another club and be gay, although, when Triangle first started, that was not the case, even in the Bay Area. And there were even people who would exclude people... if they found out you were gay you couldn't train with them anymore, because they were afraid you were going to "give them AIDS". [His quotes]

Q Wow.

J Specifically, I mean actually, literally, people got kicked out for that.

Q In the nineties?!

J Yes.

Q Wow. That's... disgusting.

J Yeah. Ignorant and disgusting. But, you know, at the same time, you do have to be aware that we did have HIV-positive people within Triangle. You do bleed -- occasionally. Much less than in the club where I'm training now; we bleed a lot more often.

Q Oh my.

J And no one knows *anything* ... you start bleeding, you're bleeding on someone else's uniform, on someone else's body, and they don't stop.

Q [wails]

J So... I've often been the one to be like, "Oh, someone's bleeding, let's stop and cover it." And then the person'd be like, "Oh no, it's fine." I'd be like, "No! We're going to cover it."

Q [groans]

J [laughs] So there is a complete lack of awareness about infectious disease control.

Q [makes face]

J Yeah. [laughs] I'm also concerned about MRSA, frankly. [laughs]

Q Yeah... risk! [laughs]

J Yeah, more risk! [laughs]

[end interview excerpt]

Triangle was always inclusive of everyone, and people sometimes question the need for exclusive learning environments. The tool of oppression is invisible: most learning environments are designed by and maintained by people of privilege in the privileged culture -- in America, white, middle and upper class, straight, and cis-male. It's when we intentionally identify marginalized identities and cultures to define the learning environment that it becomes truly accessible to members of those groups. It's nearly impossible for privileged people, without help, to see how the environment obstructs learning for others.

One easy way to open up the learning environment is for the most powerful positions, teachers and board members, to be filled by members of those groups. I love that Jacob, through effort and persistence, was able to help Ken address his own limitations. I know a lot of trans people and people of color have burned out or become aversive to making similar efforts in their communities. Sometimes I still find myself in that place. It's because those communities are so important to us, rather than unimportant, that the process can be so difficult.

I offer this shared experience of Triangle and Eureka Valley as inspiration to those who continue to see ignorance in their communities, to be open to opportunities as they arise. Knowing from moment to moment what you have in you, what is worth risking for the well-being of our communities? Can we ever completely separate our personal well-being from that of our communities?


  1. Thank you- this was a fascinating read. Miss you!

  2. My martial arts teacher taught me something that I still value each day. Be kind instead of being right all the time. I always look for the best in people and never let little things bother me. Everyone is fighting their own battles each day, so you don't know if that slow driver or upset waitress may be dealing with a death in the family.

    Matthew Lawrence @ Kung Fu Philly