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Mabuhay! I'm an Asian American writer (Back Kicks And Broken Promises, Abbott Press, 2012), martial artist and teacher who was born in The Philippines, raised in Hong Kong and ended up in New Jersey.

31 January, 2012

A Year in the Life, part I

Today’s my birthday and I’ve turned forty-three. I first wrote my age as a number but that seemed a little depressing, emphasizing my age somehow. I’m still pretty young, I guess, and in generally good health but I think it’s normal for someone my age to start assessing his life and taking stock of where he is, what he’s done and where he’s going.  I’m in the fifth decade of my life. Some of you reading are way beyond this. Some of you are at about the same stage and others are very far away from turning thirty, never mind forty. Perhaps some of you are even yet to hit twenty.
Last year, at around the twentieth anniversary of the completion of my undergraduate studies, I did a look back to see what I’d done since then. It was a timeline of some of the major events of my twenties and thirties. Today, I’m going to present what I’ve done and accomplished and failed in over the last twelve months. Hopefully it will be an interesting read and, perhaps, educate some and entertain others. Maybe, too, it will provide one or two of you some ideas and motivation for what you want to achieve for yourself.
It’s a bit long so I’ll post it in two parts.
The year started out great with a nice New Year’s celebration. We were in Manila, though, and coming home was a disaster. It’s a really long story but, in a nutshell, out flight was cancelled. People were getting booked on flights two and three weeks later. We couldn’t afford that. I’d connected somehow with another Fil-Am, who works as a travel agent in New York, and following his lead I pressed the airline to get us booked. I’m usually very shy when it comes to speaking Tagalog but this was not a time for those kinds of insecurities. I spoke Tagalog, as bad as I do, and made some progress. Granted, everyone there at the airport spoke English, but, if you’ve ever been to The Philippines and you’re Filipino, it’s never just English. It’s Taglish, which I found out is an official language, so I had to use whatever Tagalog I knew. After about 12 or so hours, we were bound for Tokyo and, from there, on to Newark. While Guada and I were about to lose it, Jude was brilliant. At one point, we had to re-inspect our bags. I’d been carrying Jude and after our bags came out of the x-ray machine, I was setting up to shoulder one, roll another and grab him. He said, “No, Daddy. Don’t carry. It’s too much.” As I write this, I actually want to lose it. At such a young age, he recognized that we’d been through a hellish ordeal (we got to the airport at about 5pm and didn’t leave for Tokyo until about 9am). He slept through a lot of it but, when he was awake, he was happy and smiling. I looked to him whenever I wanted to break down and whenever I was ready to lose my cool at the airport and airline people. He kept me from doing either. Saint Jude is the patron saint of lost causes and hopeless cases. I became attached to the name years ago when I was going through a bad patch and came across a prayer card to Saint Jude. That’s how I became determined to name my son Jude and, yet again, Saint Jude came to my rescue.
I also returned to Taekwondo this month. Well, I never left it but the realities of everyday life had taken their toll and I hadn’t been training regularly, if at all. At the studio where my wife teaches Pilates, Niyolates and Gyrotonic, and where she and another instructor run their own business providing various dance and fitness classes, I started teaching Taekwondo. I do it through their business, Step2Gether, and I use the name of the Taekwondo school I operated in the early 1990s. I knew I missed training in and teaching Taekwondo, and perhaps it’s because of my age, but I didn’t know I missed it as much as I did. I’m really glad I’m back.
I attended the Writer’s Digest Conference (WDC) in New York City and pitched my novel, Back Kicks And Broken Promises, to agents at the Pitch Slam. They were all kind and said nice things. Three of them requested the complete manuscript and two of them compared it, based on my pitch, to The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. It’s my opinion that writers need validation; that what we’re writing matters to someone other than us. Whether my novel is actually on par or similar, in some way, to Junot Diaz’s Pulitzer Prize winner, I don’t know. That’ll be up to its readers to decide. Just hearing these agents say that, though, gave me a sense of hope and reward that what I’ve written could be something meaningful to someone other than me.
Not much happened in February, except for finding out when the NJ State Taekwondo Championships were being held. I’d only started teaching Taekwondo again when I had to get some supplies at a martial arts supply store in Bergenfield, NJ. On the door was a poster advertising the tournament. Funnily, it was held on the same day as the New York City Half Marathon, a race I’d applied to but didn’t get accepted. If I had, I wouldn’t have competed at States and won my division and the rest of the year wouldn’t have happened as it did.
The biggest thing to happen to me in March 2011 was the NJ State Taekwondo Championships. I hadn’t competed in, maybe, 15 years. Granted, I was only entering the forms division, so there wasn’t going to be contact happening but I was a little nervous about getting on the floor and performing. As it turned out, I was the only one who’d entered my division. I still performed but I was going to auto-gold anyway. If there had been others, who knows how I would have done but I was there, ready and willing to put it out on the floor. What was really interesting, and encouraging in a sense, was the fact that once I’d changed into my uniform and sat on the floor waiting for my time and stretching, a confident sense of déjà vu came over me. It was as if I’d never left the tournament circuit and, while the place and faces had changed, the calm I’d gained from experience, despite my absence, hadn’t.  I was relaxed and even confident and I didn’t have any of the nervousness that some of the other competitors looked like they had.
I’d finished the final draft of my novel the previous December and had it in submission with agents so I allowed myself a break from writing to focus on my training. I was still following up with agents I’d queried and working on my works-in-progress but the main activity I was doing was training; getting back into shape and getting ready for the next tournament. You see, a little while after winning States, I’d received an email from USA Taekwondo (USAT), the governing body of Taekwondo in the United States, that I’d qualified for the US Poomsae (Forms) Team Trials and the US National Championships. I’d tried out for a US team before – in 1996, in Atlanta, for a spot on the US Olympic Men’s Handball Team for 2000. I didn’t make it but I was one of about 300-plus who was invited to try out. Unfortunately, for the team, but in a way it eased my disappointment, the US didn’t qualify for the 2000 Olympics.
After reading the emails and talking with my wife, we decided that 2011 would be ‘my’ year; the year in which our focus were these pursuits that were, ultimately, mine and mine alone. We decided that I would train for team trials and nationals for the experience, for our son to be a part of, for writing research and, maybe, to qualify for a national team.
I also began training with the NJ Taekwondo Team. This was fantastic. I got to meet masters who are in the know of how things are currently done and I got to improve on my forms and my fitness. What I’d missed from playing basketball on my high school team in Hong Kong and from our Taekwondo tournament entries with my friends and students from the 1990s was being rekindled here with the New Jersey Team.
I also received a third email informing me that there was going to be a special poomsae seminar and test in June. The test was being given by the Martial Arts Commission of USAT (USAT-MAC) and the seminar was being taught by a senior master from the Kukkiwon Academy in Korea.
May is my anniversary month so, naturally, this has to be mentioned. In 2011, my wife and I celebrated seven years of marriage. This isn’t a lot, in terms of numbers, but when you hear statistics that 50% of American marriages end in divorce and that many marriages (I forget the stats) don’t get beyond 3-5 years, seven is not too shabby.
This was also when the US Poomsae Team Trials were. I’ll admit I had dreams of success. They turned into delusions of grandeur pretty quickly. In preparation for this event, I had to teach myself three advanced poomsae. I didn’t have a lot of time so I spent most of it learning those forms. Of the ones I already knew, I just practiced them as is. Later, after a humiliating last place finish at team trials, I discovered that the forms had changed. They’d become more streamline and uniform; easier to judge fairly in competition. It was still a great experience and a mini-vacation but I did have to put on a brave face. Inside, to be honest, I felt embarrassed and contemplated not even going to nationals.
After my humiliation, my wife and I talked and we decided that I should take the seminar. So, I enrolled in it and applied for the test. I hadn’t tested since 2001 and, since I had enough time in, I could test from 4th dan to 6th dan. So, turning to my masters and other masters involved with the state organization, I trained, relearnt everything, trained and trained some more.
It was another mini-vacation, thanks, to Taekwondo that was the main event for me in June - the all-day forms seminar and test. It was a fantastic event and I felt very much at home with the grandmaster from Korea. As soon as he’d arrived with the masters from the USAT-MAC, I bowed to him and I think this gave us some kind of connection. Throughout the course, which started at 9am and ended at 5pm, he would come to each us and correct us as we did the forms the new way; new to me but not the others. It was a packed room that was, perhaps the size of a two squash courts, and it held what must’ve been 90-100 of us. Jude and Guada were great. I wasn’t sure how Jude would be but he stayed happy and watched and played in the play room with other kids. Guada watched, learnt stuff herself and filmed the instructor’s demonstrations on her iPhone. I really absorbed what he taught us and I took it back with me, trying to do the forms the way he did. Strangely, and I don’t speak Korean other than a few Taekwondo-based commands, but I felt like I could understand the instructor.
After an hour break, the test was conducted. There were about nine of us who tested. Another master and I were testing for our 6th dan and it was a fantastic experience. Those testing were of varying ages so the style of Taekwondo that was on display could have been filmed into a documentary and titled “Taekwondo Through The Ages.” I did everything well, I think, but my breaking routine needed some work. I tried a three-board jump spinning back kick – MY kick – but no go. I hadn’t practiced enough and I was under-rotating. At least my large frame was still able to get up there, though. After three attempts, I switched to a flying sidekick and went right through the wood. Jude, as kids will do, wanted my broken boards.
The following day, I went to my New Jersey Team practice and got my official uniform. That was, simply, cool. I hadn’t been on a team in a long time and to have this uniform, with the New Jersey Taekwondo logo on it, made me feel, again, part of something exciting.

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