Can a White Guy Teach the FMAs?

As I’ve mentioned before, martial artists are some of the biggest assholes.

Many of us got involved in the arts because we lack self-esteem or confidence that we can defend ourselves, and the martial arts allow us to feel like we’ve got back up. But something about arming a coward…. He usually ends up going overboard with the confidence thing, and is likely to become a bully or just major league jerk-off. Why is this? Because the martial artist was not really changed by his training, and is still a coward–and still insecure. But the arts at least gave him the wisdom to fake being tough;  it gave him the dress, the jargon, the mannerisms, and even the physique of a guy that can fight. But although he is dressed like a tough guy, he still has “puss” written all over him.

Bottom line is that the expectations of a newbie in the art are still there, if the training hasn’t done what it’s supposed to do for him. Whether we are talking about toughness in the art, fighting ability, or even our prejudices.

So one guy joins because he feels unsafe, and another guy joins because he watched “Black Belt Theater” on Saturdays in his pajamas and now he wants to be the next Grasshopper. He will bring with him all the silly, childish expectations of a beginner in the art about who he will become, what to expect, and what is authentic in the arts. If the teacher and the training are incomplete or not deep enough, as a Black Belter, he will still harbor those fantasies well into the mature stages of his martial arts career.

On the other hand, we also have those with plain old racism, xenocentrism, and prejudice in the art.

I have met more than my share of Asian teachers (not just Filipinos, but I am thinking of a particular Filipino teacher as I type this article) who believe that any White teacher of the art is inferior to Asian teachers. They have a difficult time referring to an American FMA “master” with all the qualifications–like time in the art, SKILL, and level of knowledge–while accepting a 28 year-old FOB (fresh off the boat) referring to himself as a Master. You see it in some of the Korean magazines (I didn’t subscribe, but I’ve been getting them for nearly 10 years);  Koreans of any age being referred to as “Master/Grandmaster/Kwangjangnim”, while all the White guys are being titled “Mr.” or “Teacher/Sabumnim”. I have quite a few friends and acquaintances that are Korean teachers, and many of them are very guilty of this. (Betcha didn’t know, but I grew up with a Korean stepmom, speak some Korean, and have the inside scoop in this community). Some of the Filipino teachers I know have suggested that I recruit in the Filipino community a little heavier, because my students are mostly White and Black, with a few others here and there. There is an underlying belief that more Filipino students would legitimize my school (to whom, I wonder?) and that perhaps I am giving up too much to the wrong people.

Not long ago, my school was like that. I have always had an “inner circle” in my school, as my teachers had one. Matter of fact, Gatdula’s Fighting Cobras (my old business name) once had ONE White guy, ONE Black guy, ONE Mexican, and ONE Cambodian, and all the rest of my school was Filipino. I don’t know, maybe it was because the older folks in my community encouraged their kids to do martial arts. But my school was also the only FMA school in Sacramento at the time (all the others were in community centers or operating out of subleased space in Karate schools), so that could be a reason too. When I moved to a bigger location downtown, I ended up with mostly Caucasian students, and I didn’t blink for a second. Hey, as long as these guys worked hard and made me look good, right? Yet there were still a few idiots who felt like my school was suffering something because although I was making much more money, I had too many “others” in the school.

And guess what? Those American guys made really good students. They are taller, they are humble and learn just as quickly–sometimes even more humble than my Asian students–and stronger. How could I complain about that? Where the average height in my school was once around 5’6″, it is now about 6′. I have four strongest fighters that are African American, and I would bet my money on them against any fighter in Sacramento. How many teachers can say that? One of my students is 55, and had been taken private lessons for about 3 years before I opened a group class (in Jow Ga, my kung fu style), and he is perhaps the best Kung Fu student I’ve had in the 18-year history of my school. My most accomplished tournament fighters (of the adults) are a guy now living in Fiji (Indian descent) and one of my African American students… both over age 30.

But cowardly is the word of the day, and none of the Guro I know that hold these feelings would come right out and say it (except the guy I’m writing this about, and I gave him an earful about it too). They express it in their attitude towards non-Filipinos/non-Asians teaching the art. I know that I’ve had people think that I was that way, but my attitude towards the FMA in the West has nothing to do with race (if you knew me personally, you would know that this is true). It was all about the approach to teaching the practice of the art. Sometimes, people don’t look deep enough into the things I say, and they believe that I am representing their view to the art and it will allow them to say stupid things around me. But if a practitioner of the art studied full-time, trained hard, tested himself regularly, and reflected on the philosophy of the art… and then repeated this process when he became a teacher, he is a qualified teacher. But if he learned by seminar, promoted by seminar, and skipped over everything else important (testing and full-time study), I have harsh things to say about you, Westerner or Filipino.

Sometimes, I can change my view of a person just by listening to the things they say, or to see what they are doing. Not long ago, I resented guys like Hock Hockheim–students of Remy Presas who now teach “non-Filipino” labeled martial arts through the seminar circuit. But recently, I came across his website/forum and really read what he says:

  • I no longer “do” FMAs because, as a non-Filipino, there is a ceiling to my success
  • I still teach FMAs, but have to label it as simply “stick/knife/empty hand” because of the implication that I am not qualified since I am not Filipino
  • I still honor my teachers for what they gave me, but I must carve my own niche in this path
  • FMAs, as it is being taught, does not involve skill development and is too random for anyone to really learn the art

Who can argue with that? As one who is very close to prejudice and injustice (remember I am from Washington, DC and Pampanga; I’ve seen more than my share of the ugly head of racism) it saddens me that this martial arts community cannot allow a guy who has paid his dues in the FMAs to simply be “one of us”. Something else you may not know:  Hock is my Kuya under Ernesto Presas’ Arjuken, so I know a little more about his training than what you can find on the internet. I remember reading that he now calls his art “PAC”/Pacific Archipelago Combatives, and for a short time (sorry can’t remember exactly what it was) some European stuff, and yeah, it pissed me off. But it wasn’t steal-FMA-from-the-Filipinos-and-call-it-something-else, it was find-a-way-to-market-to-people-who-won’t-respect-me-for-my-knowledge-because-of-my-race. And that’s a damned shame.

The solution, in my opinion, is natural. The seminar industry simply does not allow for students to develop, it is a dog-and-pony show for martial artists to sell videos and increase attendance to more seminars. I know what goes on. A bunch of seminar junkies and magazine/video tape/youtube nut-huggers gather around to watch the Master dazzle them with a tap-dance of techniques and drills. They take pictures, collect a certificate, and then add another notch to their resumes, while practicing what little they were able to take away from the seminar in their Karate schools and garages. Most of the complaints many people have of the FMAs (which caused them to come out with a new-and-improved version in the first place) come from this industry, and taking the traditional road will give you a different experience. And then, you have to fight. If American guys like Hock needed respect, they would get it by fighting and letting the world see their credibility; it’s an easy sell. You can’t convince a guy in a seminar. A common expression you’ll hear the Sayoc/Atienza guys say is “come to a seminar and you’ll see”. But that won’t do it for some of us, we have to see it in action. And the old, sad excuse “sparring ain’t real fighting” isn’t good enough either; if you don’t spar, you’ll have to streetfight and I’m sure there aren’t too many of you doing that. But respect comes from skill, and regardless of your race or ethnicity, you will have that respect if people see you fight–whether you are a dominant fighter or not. This is one reason why the Dog Brothers and their members get instant respect just by being a member. Ever heard the Filipino expression “Skill is rank”?

Sometimes, your skill in movement is convincing enough. But few people will really ever witness your skill before they meet you, and as a teacher you need to be able to put your stuff in print and paint a picture that way. A bio that reads, “Guro X fought in tournaments from 1988 – 2000” carries a lot more weight in the minds of potential students than, “Guro X is certified by GM Y, GM Z…”  That stuff is for other seminar junkies. Substance will almost always transcend misconception, never forget that. And if you have good skill and they are still judging you by your race, then I say you wouldn’t want those guys as students anyway. The ones who hold the prejudices will eventually die away, they are really insignificant, insecure children who never grew up. Whether they are here or not, they won’t affect your bottom line, the life of your business, or the reputation of your skill and character.

Thanks for reading my blog, have a good Thanksgiving!