My Master was a very private person. One evening during our usual tea time he looked very sad; I could see it in his eyes. He told me that life for him was also tough before coming to London. The problem for him was not being able to speak English and not knowing what to do after losing everything: his business and his home in China.
During the Japanese Invasion, he had to flee China without his wife, son, or daughter. He decided to come to England to seek his fortune and a better life for all of them. It was really tough for him because he had to leave his family behind and on his own.So he took a journey aboard a ship to England not knowing what lay ahead. The ship took months to arrive in Liverpool.
He was heartbroken leaving his family behind. His aim was to arrive in England first, then hopefully save enough money for the passage to bring his family over. It took him a few years of hard graft before he saved enough money to bring his family over. I was touched by this man’s determination to seek a better life for his family and his willingness to sacrifice everything for them. He said that upon arriving in Chinatown in London, he too, had to find odd jobs to survive, and it was worse than in Hong Kong, but instead of dwelling on what he was doing he just got on with it, thinking of his family which gave him the determination to save enough money for their passage here. Eventually he did it and felt so much happier when they arrived and could be a family again.
I was always moaning to him about facing all sorts of problems while in London, yet my problems were trivial compared to his. I had never seen the soft side of him; before it had always been about martial arts. It was then when I realised how selfish I had been, wanting to learn everything from him, without truly knowing him, without understanding that this man had suffered a lot in the past, but graciously, suffered in silence. I realised and understood that sometimes he too needed to show emotions. He too could feel down. He was also human.
This was an incredible story and similar to my grandfather’s, and many other older Chinese people, abroad in the West in those days. I heard similar stories repeated over and over again when I met many old masters in America. I still remember one grandmaster was one hundred and one years old in Los Angeles who told me his life story. He was very fond of me because I listened and respected him as my elder. It is probably the Chinese culture that reinforces that one must learn to respect and listen to one’s elders.
He told me when he left China he was promised by some people that he could have work in a restaurant in Chinatown, but upon arriving he was instead sent to work in the railway industry, blowing up mines with dynamite to open up routes for the railway track to be laid.
It was a life-threatening job, particularly as it was always the Chinese who had to go and light the fuse of the dynamite, before quickly running away as far as they could, before it exploded. Sometimes they tripped or fell and couldn’t get far away enough from the explosion and got maimed or killed. In those days Chinese women were not allowed to go to America. It was a hard time for most migrant, if you wanted to take your family over you must have enough money to bribe the authorities.
The experiences of these people and the work they did fascinated me and it made me proud to be Chinese — yet thinking deeper; with 5000 years of great civilisation, how come a great country’s people came to be like this, where its citizens were being punished for trying to live their dreams after having no choice but to flee their homeland?
The wisdom and their experiences are so different yet they can be the same, each wanting to better their lives for themselves and their families. The struggles and obstacles they faced along the way, their drive, and how they dealt with it really fascinated me. The human mind and spirit is by far greater than all.
These people just got on with it and dealt with the problems without complaining or feeling sorry for themselves. This reminded me that just because I was a tough guy and could fight my way out of a situation, it does not make me a real man. All the macho stuff has no meaning against all these great human experiences I had heard about — I had finally started to grow up.
Life is not just about oneself, thinking how to take advantage of others for selfish benefits. It is about giving, trying and doing. With this conversation I became closer to my Master — he was not just my teacher, but he was also someone who inspired me. In my heart I felt a sense of belonging, like I had found a long-lost family — it made me so happy.