Speed. Power. Focus.

I was shootin’ the shit with a salesman from TUV (a safety standards certification company) a few years back and found out he was a long time student at a local Shorinji Kenpo (Japanese shorin = Chinese shaolin) dojo. We went out drinking soon after. A few too many beers and hours of talking about favorite kung fu movies and martial arts/fighting in general led to a sloppy session of chop-socky in the parking lot behind the bar. It was just good-natured fun and a testament to how well we got along, but ended with a bloody nose (his) and torn suit pants (mine) because, like I said, we were pretty toasted, and I got in a lucky shot when he challenged me to try to get in a hit. His nose didn’t break or anything, but it did start dripping blood and he got that crazed look in his eye so I used my failsafe technique – the Sir Robin – and ran away… Then promptly tripped over a parking cone, skinning my knee on the gritty pavement and tearing my pants. We both ended up laughing pretty hard at that and it ended the night on a good note.
Our conversations that day stirred up childhood memories of Tae Kwon Do class and our sensei, Master Shin. Master Shin was a former ROK marine hand-to-hand fighting instructor who immigrated to the US in the hopes of hooking up with, in his words, “a fine white lady.” Before deciding on Tae Kwon Do, my mother had taken me and my sibling to several different dojos and I remember very clearly choosing Master Shin’s dojo because he ran the tightest operation. Even through eleven year old eyes, Master Shin was clearly a good teacher, and knew his subject very well. I remember Tae Kwon Do lessons with much fondness, because it was the only time all of us kids were in the same class, so to speak. We are all two years apart in age, with me at top and Merin (the future doctor – maybe) at the bottom (four all together – Justin, Mika, Adam, Merin). I think Merin was around five when she started, and she ended up being Master Shin’s pet student, because she was the youngest in the dojo and an absolute terror. I’m sure she would have ended up biting her opponents to capitulation if she had been old enough to enter tournaments. She was an absolute doll on the dojo floor, still wobbling around on the unsure footing of post-toddlerhood, yet delivering perfect block-feint-roundhouse combos on a munchkin scale.
Master Shin knew how to bring out the killer in us, which I suppose is not a surprise for man who made his previous living teaching soldiers how to kill with their bare hands, and I cannot speak for my sibling, but I basically saw him as a god among men. You know that scene in the Karate Kid where Mr. Miyagi breaks the beer bottles that the rednecks put on his truck? Master Shin did that in real life, before that movie ever came out. There was a picture of him doing it in the LA Times, a split second where his ridge hand is chopping through the fifth bottle of eight or nine in a row, his face scowling with fierce concentration. When I saw that picture, I just knew that he was picturing those bottles as enemy soldiers, because he had the gift of being able to channel his anger. Years later when I saw Emperor Palpatine harnessing the power of the Dark Side and shooting energy bolts from his fingertips in Return of the Jedi, I thought, that’s Master Shin. Perhaps that’s not the best analogy, because I never really thought of our sensei as being a bad man, just a real life bad-ass, in every aspect. He would scream at me when I was sparring and I could beat bigger kids several belts above me simply because my fear of getting hit was a lot less than my fear of disappointing my sensei, wasting the training he put us through. I would later carry this attitude into high school sports where it served me well.
Master Shin was from a different culture, a culture of tough guys, and this was one of my first glimpses into Korean culture. I learned from him that a man must back up what he says. This was back in the eighties, I guess, and discrimination against minorities was still out in the open. Local rednecks would sometimes jump students from our dojo who had done nothing more to deserve it than wear a gi out in public. Master Shin vowed to get back at these guys, and I heard from one of the senior students that he did it in a particularly nasty fashion, especially after one of them threatened to pull a gun after they intruded the dojo during an advanced weapons course at night. We never heard the specifics of that situation and never asked, either. I was present when a bodybuilder from a nearby gym came in and wanted to arm wrestle with Master Shin. Guess who won? It was all over in an instant. Master Shin could channel his energy into the “one inch” later alluded to by Mr. Miyagi. While lecturing, he would sometimes hold pine boards at arm’s length with one hand and splinter them in a blur with his free hand. “Always remember,” he would say, “the most important things in a fight are: Speed. Power. Focus. Hit faster, harder, and more accurately than your opponent, and you will never lose. SPEED. POWER. FOCUS.”
Yes, we were taught the art of breaking in our classes. It is often frowned upon by purists these days, but it was definitely one of the most fun parts of training. I guess the downside of this is the various fist-size holes in the walls, broken doors, and other war scars our house accumulated over the years as tempers flared and anger manifested as destructive kinetic energy (sorry, dad).
Back to the musing on culture I started above, I think one should imagine Master Shin in context as having come from a warrior society (specifically, the ROK marines) when I relate stories like the Pig or the Bunny Rabbit:
The Pig:
Master Shin taught us the spear-hand technique, but banned us from using it in practice. Too dangerous, he said. Only a technique for killing. He told us that to pass his advanced course in the old days, one had to kill a boar with his bare hands. This was where the spear hand was employed, a linear strike with fingers extended and slightly curved, designed to penetrate flesh. Apparently, the hardest strikes sometimes result with elbow-deep penetration into the pig’s head.
The Bunny Rabbit:
I have always regretted not having been able to go shooting with Master Shin, because this was before the Assault Weapons Ban and the Brady Bill and all that other hoplophobe bullshit and he apparently had quite an arsenal – full auto Tommy guns, Uzis (Did you know these were classified as obsolete in Israel last year?), etc. Anyway, Master Shin decided he wanted some realistic target practice, so he bought a rabbit at the pet store. Which is kind of horrifying from a typical American viewpoint, except that it doesn’t end there. The rabbit, in fear, would not budge, no matter how it was prodded, screamed at, frightened. I have this mental image of Master Shin turning red with anger and screaming at the top of his lungs, maybe firing off shots to scare it into motion, and yet the furry little bunny not moving an inch… A rabbit is not a boar, I guess. Interestingly enough, I don’t remember what happened to the rabbit, but it would be really touching if Master Shin ended up keeping it as a pet… Somehow, I doubt that, though.
I wonder what happened to Master Shin. We never kept up through the years, but I hope he is still teaching. Maybe I’ll look him up the next time we take a trip home. It would be cool to hear some more war stories, I reckon.

3 Replies to “Speed. Power. Focus.”

  1. Master Shin was a God, and I was willing to do anything for him. He was also a really nice guy. He taught with a rare blend of total discipline, and friendly guidance. I got the impression that he was slow to anger, but impossible to stop once he tapped into his fury.
    He also was the first Korean American I had ever met, and I was later surprised to learn about the views that other Koreans held toward Japanese and those of Japanese descent. The man loved us, and instilled confidence and a will to fight in us. We actually wanted to do push-ups on our knuckles, not the regular way.
    I have since seen a few Tae Kwon Do demonstrations and matches, but no fighter seems to have the same electricity as Master Shin. The best way I can describe his kinetic power is by a comparison: The animated scene in Kill Bill when O-Ren’s father takes out one yakuza, and then with an open palm, strikes the yakuza’s nose straight into the brain- that’s Master Shin obliterating five pine boards (not separated with spacers) with a straight punch.
    We should definetely look him up next time. Do you remember that I couldn’t do the purple belt test because I smashed your finger with a pair of pliers, so Mom left me at home? I couldn’t believe it, and was so angry! That was the worst punishment I have ever recieved in my life. I never did get that purple belt, because we moved to Ojai soon after.

  2. You know, no matter how big I’ve gotten I’ve never lost the ability to do a spinning reverse roundhouse? Call me Jenny Garner.
    All thanks to Master Shin.

  3. Sorry Adam for ruining your day way back then. Master Shin was an exemplary human being. He treated you to a birthday dinner at our favorite japanese restaurant and even brought you a present, some sort of weapon no doubt. That’s where he told us (much to my wide-eyed horror) the story of the purchase of that pet store bunny rabbit and how it would not cooperate as a moving target! Even so, please do look him up! Last I heard, he married one of his hakujin students…

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