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BACK KICKS AND BROKEN PROMISES
By JUAN RADER BAS
abbott pressCopyright © 2012 Juan Rader Bas
All right reserved.
Chapter OneQUARTER POUNDER WITH CHEESE
"Damn SHIOK, huh?" Alex was animated more than usual. "Imagine having your own teacher like that? I'd be king, man."
We had just seen The Karate Kid and Benny, Alex and I were walking to McDonald's in Kallang. It was our usual Saturday get-together that always ended with a trip for Quarter Pounders with cheese or Big Macs and Caramel Sundaes. If we didn't catch a movie, we'd play football, imagining we were our favorite players from Arsenal, Liverpool or Man U. If it were raining, we'd meet at Alex's flat for a round of Space Invaders or Asteroid.
"What, you'd go around kicking people?" Benny said. "That was the whole point of the movie, wasn't it? Not having to fight and learning karate so you can avoid it?"
Alex made a throaty noise, disapproving of his cousin's comments. "I was just saying that it's cool," he added.
"I agree. I mean, I wouldn't go around picking fights or bullying anyone but it would be awesome to be able to do that stuff," I said, imagining as I'd done many times before being able to kick and punch like Bruce Lee. "You have to admit that you wouldn't mind being able to fight like that."
"Sure, sure. But it wasn't even that good, huh? I want to go watch a Shaw Brothers movie now or, even better, Enter The Dragon." He started waving his hands in outward circles. "Wax on, wax off. What is that nonsense?"
"Chibai!" Alex whispered but not quietly enough because it was loud enough for us to hear. I assumed he was referring to Benny and not me so I chuckled.
"Pussy, huh? Screw you," Benny said with a firm finger pointed at his cousin.
"Yeah, chau chibai!" Alex ran behind me for cover.
"That's okay. You run. I'll just kick your ass in class," Benny countered. Puzzled, Alex and I looked at each other.
"School's finished," I said. "What class?"
My attention and anticipation for Benny's reply was averted when a young Chinese man, probably someone's office boy, passed by with a plastic bag. The bag's handles were in a tight knot and inside were three Styrofoam lunch boxes. The smell that wafted by was unmistakable - freshly cooked white rice, goose, scallion and ginger sauce. I almost suggested a change in plans. Bag McDonald's and hit the outdoor food court at Newton Circus but this was our thing so I didn't. There was still plenty of time for prawn curry, chicken rice and banana shake. I wasn't leaving for a month yet.
Benny straightened himself and puffed his chest out as far as he could. He wasn't very tall or muscular, although he was in good shape, more like a runner, so his posture was more comical than imposing.
"Karate class," Benny replied, pointing at himself with his thumb. "I'm going to start karate lessons."
Again, Alex and I turned towards one another with blank faces looking for any kind of clarification. I shook my head and Alex shrugged.
"You're taking karate, is it?" I asked.
"My father wants me to be more active. He says I don't do enough physically. And, now that the school year is over I don't have any excuses."
"What do you mean that you don't do enough? We play football every week," I said.
"Yeah, but that's not good enough. That's just playing." Benny stopped walking and turned to face us. He leaned a shoulder against the exterior glass door of the McDonald's.
"Ricky, at least you play on school's football and basketball teams. You actually train and practice. Alex plays badminton with his dad three times a week and his dad was a pro and coaches the national team."
"So?" I said, looking up and seeing my reflection in the glass, my brown Filipino face next to their Chinese ones.
"He's been getting on me to find something that I can do as I get older," Benny continued.
"At least he talks to you," I said, under my breath.
Benny shook his head. "He's still not talking to you? That's really lousy. What's your father's problem?"
I raised and dropped my shoulders. "Ma says that he's just stressed out from work and our move to America."
"Sorry. That really sucks," Benny added.
"Yeah, whatever." I shrugged.
"So, when did you decide to take karate class?" Alex jumped in. "You're going to be the new Bruce Lee, is it?" Benny and I chuckled.
"Bruce Lee never did karate, you idiot!" Benny turned to Alex sharply, scrunched up annoyance all over his face.
"You're too skinny," Alex went on. "You're going to have to pump up." He raised clenched fists, like a boxer, in front of his chest, and tightened his muscles.
"Yeah, so let's eat. Come on, I'm hungry." Benny opened the door and walked in.
As usual, I ordered a Quarter Pounder with cheese, small fries and Caramel Sundae. Benny and Alex got Big Macs, fries and apple pies. We got soft drinks, too. For the most part, Alex did whatever Benny did. If Benny was going to study karate, so was Alex.
"Okay, so what about the class already? Talk!" Alex said as he chomped down on french fries dipped in mayonnaise and catsup.
"I went and watched my dad's friend, Peter Kwok," he began, and then turned to Alex. "You know, Uncle Peter?"
Alex nodded then Benny continued. "He was practicing at the S. K. A."
"S. K. A? What's that?" I was insistent, filled with excitement.
"Singapore Karate Association."
I moved to the edge of my seat. "So, when do you start?"
"Monday," he replied, then drank from his Coke. "And the two of you better be there with me."
Alex beamed. "I'm in."
I couldn't wait. Monday was two days away. I had never studied any martial arts, at least not formally, but I had always wanted to. Once, I must have been eight or nine, one of my mother's friends gave me a gi as a Christmas present. I don't know why she did. I'd never expressed any kind of desire to do karate, keeping those thoughts secret, but I wore it anyway and mimicked what I saw in the movies. It didn't matter either that the jacket was too tight and the pants too short. I must've spent the majority of the following year wearing it and hearing my mother yell for me to stop kicking inside the flat and that I was going to break something.
Class wasn't until 7:00 but we had to register and get our uniforms so we arrived at the Singapore Karate Association, which was a part of the larger Singapore Sports Council, at around 6:30. As we came into the lobby, I saw signs pointing in the direction of the various facilities - basketball courts, swimming pool, squash courts, badminton hall, weight room. On our left was a signboard, the typical office type with a black felt backing and white push-in letters. It was encased in a metal cabinet with glass doors. In the middle of the frame, where the two doors met, was a keyhole. The signboard had the usual information on it - directors' names and offices, coaches' names and offices, start dates for summer programs - but none of it said anything about the karate class.
Since he'd already been there, Benny took charge. Confidently, he strutted to the counter where a petite Malay girl was sitting. She was pretty, with a short bob for a hairdo, and dressed simply in jeans and a t-shirt. I guessed her to be around eighteen or nineteen. She could've been twenty. She wore a nametag that told us her name was Saalima.
Using a combination of Chinese, Malay and English, jumping seamlessly between all three the way Singaporeans do, Benny and Saalima discussed the situation. It resulted in her handing us registration forms and a pen each. After doing so, she got up from her chair and examined us up and down. I don't know about Benny or Alex but I felt a combination of insult and excitement. I'd never been checked out before.
"Your uniforms?" she said, as if answering the question in my head, with a strong guttural accent that passed through her nose and didn't match her small exterior.
"One medium and two extra large, I think," she added.
"Oh, uh, yeah, of course," I stumbled over my words. "Uniforms."
We nodded in agreement but not before she could disappear into a back room. Moments later, she returned with three uniforms wrapped in clear plastic bags. On the front of each bag was a cartoon of a karate man, in a deep stance with one arm out like he was punching. KARATE UNIFORM was printed below the word HOKKAIDO, the brand name. Through the clear plastic I could see a jacket, pants and white belt. As Saalima handed me one of the uniforms, a surge of adrenaline pulsated through me. It was as if the uniform, its power shining white hot in front of me, assumed talisman-like proportions; an oracle of some kind.
"Thanks." Benny's voice brought me back. He gave her his registration form and the required hundred Singaporean dollar fee. Alex and I did likewise.
"So, where do we go for class?" I asked.
"Follow that corridor to the men's changing room." She leaned over the counter and pointed to a hallway at the front of the lobby. "After you change into your uniforms, go into the next room. That's where the teacher will meet you."
We changed quickly. The pants and jacket were easy enough; put them on and tie the matching cord strings. The belt was a little trickier but, with a little trial and error, we all managed to make a pretty decent square knot with even tails. We put our street clothes into the bags our uniforms came in and carried our shoes. There were lockers in the changing rooms but we didn't have any locks so we decided bringing our things was the safest bet against them getting pinched.
"I guess the other room is through there," Benny said. There was another door on the other side of the changing room. Benny opened it and peeked through. "Yeah, it's here."
He disappeared into the next room and Alex followed. Before following, I stopped to look at myself in the mirror. It was mounted on the wall, above a sink, so I could only see my reflection waist up. I looked good. The uniform was pristine white and a little stiff. It felt like it was wearing me and not the other way around. It was without any wrinkles, except for a straight horizontal crease in the pants from being folded and stored in the bag. As I stood there, this talisman casting its spell over me, everything vanished. Nothing mattered right now except for what was about to happen. Training. I felt like a superhero whose costume is the source of his power; once on I can do anything. And I was only a white belt. When I get my black belt, I'll be invincible.
Inside the other room were three young men, all dressed and ready to workout. Two of them were beginners as well. The third had a brown belt tied around his waist. As we entered, silent nods were exchanged between us white belts. The brown belt didn't even acknowledge us as he stretched out on the cement floor. The room was empty except for wooden pegs around the side and back walls and a small table on which sat a framed portrait of an old Asian man in a gi. The pegs were mounted onto wooden beams that were fixed to the wall at eye height. Most of them were bare except a half dozen or so closest to the front of the room that had black belts draped over them. Most of the black belts looked new, the black still dark and their ends hanging at attention. The others were worn, no longer jet. They were frayed at the tips, the black now army green from years of tying, with limp tails. They drooped on their pegs but were no less impressive than the newer ones. If they could speak, I'm sure they'd have lots to say. All of them had Japanese characters embroidered on the ends. On some of them, the embroidery was done in gold thread. On others, it was in either red or white. I didn't know what they said or what the stitching meant but it was cool.
Benny began doing some stretches - lunges to the side, twisting at the waist, touching his toes. Alex and I just sat and watched the brown belt. He had gone from stretching to throwing kicks in the air. He yelled loudly with each one. I'm sure he was simply practicing what he had already been taught and warming up for class but part of me couldn't help from feeling that he was trying to intimidate us. Me. It was working. I felt my excitement and invincibility wane slightly as I imagined being partnered with this screaming lunatic. It was my first day. That means an easy class to break us in slowly. Right? Somehow, I didn't think that would have mattered to Mr. Brown Belt.
Finally, the door opened and a Chinese man with a short neck and tree-trunk arms came in. He was dressed in a t-shirt, karate pants and slippers. A sports bag hung over his shoulder and he carried papers in his hand. He put everything down, reached into his bag and pulled out a karate jacket. He put it on. On his left chest there was a patch. He bowed to the framed picture before turning to us.
"Good evening," he said, in English. He didn't have a Singaporean accent. He had an English one. Well, kind of an English one. He didn't quite sound like my English expat classmates. He sounded like Benny's dad, a Chinese man with an English accent; an accent he'd acquired from studying at The London School of Economics. It was the kind of accent someone gets from spending long periods of time in the United Kingdom; not quite English but not quite local either.
"I'm Bill Lau. I'm the senior instructor here. You can call me Mr. Lau or Sensei Lau." He said it in English then Chinese. All of us in the room nodded.
He didn't wait for a reply and walked over to one of the hanging black belts. He grabbed one of the frayed ones - the most frayed one - and put it on. I observed him carefully, watching how he held one end longer than the other and wrapped the belt over itself and around his waist so that it was even and two tails were in front on him. Then he looped one end under all of it and knotted the two ends together. A perfect square knot pointed at us. The tails dangled evenly towards the floor. When he'd entered, Sensei Lau's presence demanded our attention. Now, in full uniform, he had become his own superhero and commanded our respect.
"Benny Lim?" Sensei Lau had the papers - the registration forms we'd just completed - in his hands.
"Yes," Benny replied.
Sensei Lau looked up and gave Benny the once over. Then he handed him a patch.
"Sew it here," Sensei Lau said, touching his own patch on his left chest. It was round and red, black and white. The word Shotokan was stitched on the bottom and inside the circle was the embroidered profile of a dragon. It was standing on its hind legs in a combat-ready pose. Sensei Lau continued taking attendance and handed each of us a patch in turn.
"This room is the dojo, our training hall. It is where we have smaller classes for higher belts and black belts. You can also wait here before the general class begins." Sensei Lau put the papers away and gathered his things. He looked at us one by one and when he saw that no one had any questions he barked, "Okay, follow me." He led us back out of the dojo, through the changing room and into the lobby.
"Follow the signs to the basketball courts. That's where class is," he added. "The other students are already there."
"Basketball courts?" Alex asked. "Why are we having class there?" That's what I was thinking, too. Probably what we were all thinking. I had no answer so I simply shook my head.
As we walked through the lobby, Saalima gave us a glance and smiled. "Good luck!" she said, then turned to Sensei Lau who gave her back the registration papers.
The signs directed us to a long corridor that ended at a glass door. It led outside to grey concrete floors with painted lines and basketball standards that were held into place with four very large and likely heavy cement blocks.
"Is the class outside? Barefoot?" Alex was less enthusiastic than when we arrived.
The closer we got, I saw the other students through the glass door. Soon I was going to be among them. There must've been a hundred uniformed karate students. Each one was stretching, kicking, punching. I remembered my reflection. Even though I was still only the karate equivalent of Clark Kent there was a Superman inside me waiting to come out. This - martial arts - was going to be my thing and it was going to set me apart from everyone else.
Excerpted from BACK KICKS AND BROKEN PROMISES by JUAN RADER BAS Copyright © 2012 by Juan Rader Bas. Excerpted by permission of abbott press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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