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life essay: part 2

I started training in wushu during the summer of 1971. School had just adjourned for the one-month vacation and the authorities didn't want kids to run around on the streets because they had nothing to do. So they began to send us to what's now called the Beijing Sports and Exercise School. Students from all the primary schools in the area--there must have been 15 or so in that district alone--were sent there for a month of sports summer school. They divided us up arbitrarily: 1st grade/class 1 was assigned to gymnastics; 1st grade/class 2 learned swimming, 1st grade/class 3 played soccer, 1st grade/class 4 started learning wushu, etc. Somehow I got assigned to the wushu class. I had no idea what wushu was--none of us did--but if the teacher told you to practice it, you had to practice it!

All of the other grades were split up in the same way, so each sport had a total of about 1000 students ranging from 1st to 6th grade, with one cohort from each grade. During that vacation, everybody spent two and a half hours each day training in our respective sports. We all thought it was pretty fun, though. Most kids had nothing else to do.

When school started again in the fall, almost all of the 1000 kids who had been learning wushu were "fired." That is, they were told that they didn't have to come back. For them, it was merely a fun summer experience that had come to an end. About 20 of us, however, were told that we were to come back here every afternoon after school to continue training. It became something of a point of pride for schools to boast how many kids had been chosen from their ranks. I remember that there were five or six from my school alone, but of them, I was the only first-grader. Being selected out of a thousand made you rather famous in your class. Everybody else had been rejected, but you were special! Nobody--least of all me--knew why I'd been asked to continue training, but it was a terrific feeling.

From then on, every day after school, all the other kids lined up to go home and I waited separately for the 4th and 5th graders who had been assigned to come pick me up; I was so young that I had to be accompanied by older kids on the 15-minute walk to the sports school. The other students looked at me enviously, which I enjoyed.

After a few days of training, though, I began to think: "Hey, wait a minute...this is stupid!" Because after the novelty wore off, I began to realize: "All of my classmates get to go home and play, but I have to go to another school for another grueling two hours of lessons. That's not fair!" I began to rethink the glory of being chosen.

In any case, those of us who had been selected went through another three months of training, after which the group of 20 experienced another massive set of "lay-offs." The four of us who were left joined the other ten or so students who had started wushu during the previous year's winter vacation.

The training got more and more rigorous. When wintertime came, we had no choice but to practice outside, because we had no indoor facilities. Beijing's winters are very cold, and our hands hurt constantly. Doing handslaps were a no-win proposition: if you didn't slap hard enough to make a sound, you'd get scolded. If you did make a sound, it stung like mad!

A year passed. I turned nine years old and began preparing to attend my first competition. Actually, it was the first national wushu competition to be held in China since the Cultural Revolution in the 1960's. Technically speaking, since there would be no official placings or prizes, it wasn't even a standard competition--more like a grand demonstration of forms. Only a single award would be issued: the best performer was to be recognized for "Excellence." Nevertheless, the best athletes from all over China were coming to perform.

The competition was to be held in Jinan, the capital of Shandong Province. It was to be the first time I'd ever left home--the first time in my life I'd ventured out of Beijing. I remember being very excited about the prospect of riding the train. My mother, however, was heartsick at the thought of her baby going so far away from home. The morning that I was set to leave, she started weeping. I felt awful and offered not to go. But that wasn't possible either, so I went to Jinan and I made a great effort.

I ended up winning the award for Excellence.

After I returned to Beijing, I suddenly received a notice informing me that from now on, I only had to attend school for half a day. As far as I was concerned, this was great! What kid doesn't want to cut back on school?

There was a special reason why my training schedule was being increased, though. China was gearing up to host for a very important diplomatic event: the Pan-Asian-African-Latin American Table Tennis Championships. For China at that time, it was a huge event--as big as the Olympics. Sure, it wasn't exactly the Olympics, but you must remember what China was like in those days. Nobody paid attention to China then. The government had closed the door to foreigners for so many decades; now they were actually inviting a small number of competitors from other countries and continents to visit China. Suffice it to say that the government placed very high importance on this ping-pong competition. A great deal of cultural and political pride was at stake.

For the opening ceremonies, the organizers were planning a whole slate of artistic performances to represent the best of Chinese culture: Peking opera, dance, and of course, wushu. Our group was scheduled to perform five programs, and I was in three of them. Practice was impossibly tiring; our motherland was expecting us to give a performance that was nothing less than perfect. We rehearsed the forms and routines countless times. The event was being held in the largest stadium in Beijing, and as I recall, we went there on 12 separate occasions for official rehearsal-evaluations. Each time, yet another high-ranking official was there to assess us: the Minister of Foreign Affairs, the Minister of Defense or some other very important leader. That was the first time I felt the pressure of representing many people with my performance. There was no room for mistakes.

When it came time for the actual performance, I guess all of our hard work stood us in good stead. The officials needn't have worried. We'd practiced so hard that we probably couldn't have turned in a bad performance if we'd tried.

Afterwards, in fact, we were invited to meet with Premier Zhou Enlai, the head of state (at the time, Chairman Mao was still alive, but he was already in seclusion). Just imagine: to be chosen to represent your country with wushu and to meet the leader of your country--and then to hear him praise you for your performance. That was an indescribable honor in China, not to mention a thrilling experience for a 9-year old boy.

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