I haven’t been able to successfully shatter the stereotypes that follow me. No matter how far I run, how far I separate myself, I’m always caught in the end. At last, I am tired of running.
My mother and all her unconscious feminist energy seeped into my life left and right. She always wanted me to learn how to protect myself, making it clear to me from a young age that I needed to be alert of my surroundings at all times. Back then, I couldn’t understand why I wasn’t allowed to walk back home from school alone or go anywhere without letting her know first. I do now.
Self-defense, per my mother’s request, came into my life in the form of wushu, a Chinese martial art that I describe as the marriage between dance and karate. For hours after school, I trained in a dingy studio. Its flickering lights and whistling windows characterized the next decade for me. In between the unavoidable rugburns and fogged mirrors, I created some of my fondest friends and memories within those four walls.
But for me, wushu wasn’t just a sport. I moved to the rhythmic steps of my coach’s feet, studying the timing of his every gesture. The swords my teammates flung whipped the air with each forceful thrust. Every kick came with conviction and every aerial landing came with grace. We told a story in every routine. At the core, in some way or another, we were artists.
No matter how demanding or grueling things would get, the thrill of performing wushu always won me over. The bulky uniforms and the hypnotic drills and warmups were wholly outweighed by the adrenaline rush of it all. The more challenging things would get, the more I’d want it. What started as a way for me to improve protective instincts became a full-fledged passion. I had my mother to thank for that.
So, I didn’t give martial arts much of a deep thought. It was just something I enjoyed doing and nothing less. I discovered a drive within myself to be better, even if it meant earlier mornings and longer trainings. Those practices I had were an innocent escape from any impounding stress, a liberation from any worries. For what it was, I never thought I could be embarrassed for holding wushu so dearly to my heart.
Congratulatory remarks from my Taiwanese relatives aged into microaggressive teases by my peers. I was deemed “so Asian” for liking something directly linked to Chinese culture. My entire identity circulated around this one thing I was made to feel self-conscious about. I felt the judgemental, nonstop eyes on me grow heavier, enough that I started to hide away this part of me.
As much as I’d hate to admit it, I understood the reasoning behind how I was labeled. Objectively, I easily fit into the mold of a cookie-cutter Asian teenager. My interests piqued when I stepped into a chemistry lab. My heart melted when I swooned over the sound of the piano. I pushed myself to stay focused in school, even at the expense of sleep and socialization. Adding martial arts to that mix ultimately made me the poster child of those typical Asian interests.
Watered down, these stereotypes punished me for doing the things I did and liking the things I liked. The provoking comments by those distant acquaintances made their way into my mind and stayed. I slumped in a pool of my own tangled thoughts, wondering if I should just quit wushu entirely. I questioned if they were right, if I genuinely liked wushu or I was simply conditioned to believe I did. Because I was Asian.
It took time for me to confront the fact that wushu wasn’t just a stereotype I was undeniably bound to or a guilty pleasure I was obligated to stow away. The persona I embodied during any performance was bursting with intensity and strength. The ancestral roots that wushu carried served as an avenue for my own cultural understanding. This artistic sport offered me a space of self-exploration and expression, something I no longer wanted to be shy of.
But no matter how often I remind myself of this, the urge to separate myself from those societal expectations has yet to fully dissipate. With a hanging head, I still find myself envious of people who have passions that weren’t dressed with stereotypes. I still find myself hesitating to tell people that I did martial arts, as if it’s some guilty secret. Despite all the mental strides I’ve made, my sentences and their subtle pauses tell me I have wider ones to make.
So, I’ll progress more here and trust that the rest will follow gracefully:
Hi, my name is Ashley. And I like martial arts.
Ashley Tsai writes the Monday A&E column on art bridging the internal and the external. Contact her at [email protected].