Sunday, July 1, 2012

My Fake Teacher

A lot of martial artists would be ashamed if they found out that their teacher was fake and learned completely from videos.  Well, not me!  I chose to take it and be proud that I was caught by a scammer.  You might ask why, and I think I have a great answer that might benefit new students as they look for a teacher.  But first let me share my experience in depth and how many martial artists have reacted when they found out.

When I was 18 years old I was fresh out of high school, I finished wrestling and I wanted to try my hand at martial arts.  It had always been a dream of mine and I loved watching the old Kung Fu movies on TV, so I did what any young man would do...I ran down to the first kung fu school I saw that advertised Shaolin Kung Fu!  But when I first walked in I should have seen the truth.  This school was extremely run down and hidden away in the basement of a tiny office building in a part of town that wasn't the nicest.  But I saw all the weapons and training gear and I was hooked.  I spoke to the "Sifu" and completely swallowed his line of BS without thinking.  He told me so many amazing things about himself and his training at all of the martial arts temples in China, how famous his masters were, how many different styles he had mastered and all the famous people he knew from training.  Now that I'm more mature, I would fall down laughing at the same story if I heard it today, but I was young and fresh off the farm, so I didn't know any better.  He showed me a list of all the styles he knew, and they ranged from Muay Thai to all different styles of Kung Fu to secret family styles of Ninjutsu.  He showed me demo tapes of the styles, and Xingyi immediately caught my eye.  I had never heard of that style before, but I knew when I saw it that I wanted to master it.  But Xingyi was a privately taught style, so I had to either pay for a year of private lessons up front or become a formal disciple right then to be taught my chosen style.  Both were VERY expensive, the private lessons costing 2,000 a year and becoming a disciple was 5,000 dollars for a lifetime of training.  I chose the private lessons and began to train.

At first the lessons were great.  He taught me personally even though he rarely taught his group classes, he had mid-level students usually teach for him.  I got all the attention I wanted and was almost force fed material and pushed very hard during training.  I loved every minute of it.  I would watch the other students in their classes and I felt so arrogant and proud that I was learning faster and training harder than them.  I progressed quickly in Xingyi, partially because I trained so hard and had a background in combat arts from wrestling and partially because I was only learning forms and techniques and the standard to gain a level was very low.  Only memorization was required, not any degree of skill.  After 6 years I became a black belt in Xingyi and I tought I had learned so much!  I had also gained rank in several other styles of Kung Fu as well, a red sash in Hung Gar and a blue sash in Northern Shaolin.  I was the instructor of the demo team and taught other classes as well.   Overall I was very happy with what I had learned.  But as I started my family I began to examine everything in my life and several things started to bother me about my training.

A big problem for me was that I had never seen proof of any of my teachers claims about ANYTHING.  Not a single picture taken overseas, not a single video or trophy from any of the tournaments he had won, never had any of his martial family come to visit.  NOTHING.  It started raising other questions as well.  He would give out videos to refine what he had just taught, but they weren't of the teachers he claimed he learned from.  In fact many times he would incorrectly identify WHO was on the tape.  When I was younger I simply thought he was mixing names up, since he knew so many people and trained with so many great teachers.  Then I started to compare his claims and the years he said they had happened.  In 1982 he had already opened the school I was training in, but somehow managed to spend months at the Wudang Temple, practice with Jet Li and be a private student of Grandmaster Hatsumi, the leader of the Bujinkan (Ninja school), all while being a competitive Muay Thai fighter in Thailand.  Now I wasn't a complete sucker, he didn't tell me all this at once, he told me these lies over years, never stopping to think if he had said something else that would conflict.  But I have a fantastic memory and I was impressed by the stories, so I remembered them all.  I watched his group students and saw that most of the time they would take a video tape of the level requirements and learn a WHOLE level off of them, with barely any instruction from a teacher.  And there weren't just a couple students there, for many years he had between 80 and 100 students!!!  We all bought into the myth and supported each other in it like cult members do.  I was initially complimented when he asked me to teach his demo team, his reason being that I was a good teacher and always pushed for technical perfection.  But the HUGE point he glossed over was that I had NEVER competed in a forms tournament!  I had only visited a few, since I watched them and laughed because I felt they were just dance competitions.  Remember I had been recently medically discharged from the Marines and a nationally competitive wrestler, so I knew what combat was like and it can't be seen at most tournaments.  I began to see how my teacher would forget basics of each style, maybe not a movement, but the name or association.  Sometimes he forgot the connections of the 5 basic movements of Xingyi and their corresponding element.  And these are only some of the things that I saw that weren't right.

Eventually I posted some of his videos on Youtube and I was contacted by a local Northern Shaolin teacher who told me in polite but direct terms that my teacher was a fake.  He offered to prove it if I came to meet him and he would work on my Northern Shaolin material and show me how it was supposed to be done.  I accepted and was completely ashamed when he easily showed how I had been mislead.  He showed my the videos that the forms had been stolen from, and it stung because I had seen those same videos in my teachers office but never watched them.  This new teacher became a good friend and helped me to learn a lot of where I had gone wrong.  As I looked online more and more, I found other videos of teachers that had gone to my old school and challenged my former teacher and his claims, and I watched my old master almost run in fear from the challengers.  My new friend who was teaching me Northern Shaolin even went and spoke to my teacher behind closed doors when I was there and called him out.  At the time I was so hurt and confused, I almost quit martial arts all together.  But martial arts were such a massive part of my life that I couldn't walk away.  So I resolved to find the right teachers to correct my Xingyi and never again be caught by a liar.  I traveled to Wudang Mt in China to train, I thought that if I started in China I would be able to know what to look for in the States.  When I came home I continued my search and was able to train with some of the best Internal teachers in the US since I was willing to travel however far for lessons.  It took several years of hard work and LOTS of travel, but I finally got my horrible initial instruction corrected and I wound up ahead of where I would have been, since I was exposed to so much great teaching.  But for all the knowledge I have gained, many teachers today recoil when they learn about it.  I have had it thrown at me that I must be fake because my first teacher was.  Or that I can't have any skill because of he had none.  Other say I shouldn't teach because he had influenced my understanding and I could never correct what he taught me.  Some teachers have told me to hide it since any bad perception is unacceptable.  Many have offered creative ways of lying about my past so I can look better on paper.  But in the end its just different ways to lie and I don't want to be like my teacher and build a career off lies.

Now comes the part where I share WHY I am proud of falling for lies but I would like to share first some of the warning signs in the hopes that this might prevent another student from being taken advantage of.  First, ALWAYS research a teacher before you give them money.  If they make a claim, learn if it is true or false immediately.  If they claim to have trained with a famous teacher, write or call that teacher and ask if its true. There is nothing rude or wrong about checking these things and if a teacher is insulted or gets upset, that is another bad sign.  If the teacher has a massive video collection and has a TV anywhere on the training floor, be careful!  There shouldn't be a TV out there, any video review should be done at home or in his office.  Watch how the teacher interacts with the students, if he is arrogant and aloof, it usually that means he is trying to prove something.  But if he is calm and relaxed it usually means he is confident and has nothing to hide or prove.  If the teacher fails to train with his students or even teach them personally that is a VERY bad sign.  I can understand if he is busy with another class or a meeting, but to sit and watch a student who has only been training for a year teach his new students is bad!  A good teacher trains with his students to show them how to do things correctly and the right intensity, he doesn't just shout orders.  Many famous MMA fighters still train along with new students to bond with them and show them how hard the new student should train. In the Marines, the Drill Instructors have a saying "I will never ask you to do something that I am not capable of doing along with you".  I hate to put it that way, but there are so many fake teachers in the world that are only interested in getting your hard earned money, you should be very suspicious of a teacher at first until you make your decision.  Masters should be open and friendly with prospective students, sharing and answering any questions easily and without having to think or change topic.

So my reason for being proud?  First off I know I trained like a maniac, even under false instruction.  I know that the skills I learned from him actually worked in real fights, at the time I was training with him I had a job as a bouncer at a nightclub and my knowledge came in handy many times.  I made great friends with some of the other students and I still talk to them to this day.  But mostly I am proud because learning that I had been lied to started an amazing kung fu journey that took me places I never would have gone if I didn't learn the truth.  I got to see so much more of the world, train with some of the best teachers and my understanding of my arts grew so much because of it.  I can honestly say for the most part I have "Been there and done that".  Of course I am a bit harsh on other teachers and their claims at times if I'm not careful because I ask for solid proof or a logical explaination, but for the most part I am a much wiser student of the arts now.  I actually wish I could thank my old Sifu for how my training and skills have turned out because of his actions.

There are many more ways to find out if your teacher is legit or not, and just because he doesn't meet the standards I am laying out here doesn't mean for a second he is fake.  That is a very serious charge to lay against a martial arts teacher and if said can wreck his school and ability to care for his family.  Be careful of who you train with and give your time and devotion to and trust that if he proves to be real, your hard work will pay off in spades.  Best of luck and I hope you enjoyed reading this!  Now get back to training!

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This is a blog devoted to the Chinese Internal martial arts. Our school is located in Vancouver, WA and currently accepting students for group classes, and limited private sessions.