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American Shaolin

“... it doesn't take much courage to fight when you still believe you can win. What takes real courage is to keep fighting when all hope is gone,” (Polly 168)

I once had a childhood dream and like most childhood dreams, it was impossible to reach. I wanted to be a doctor who would go to other worlds with space explorers to keep them healthy. Now that I look back on it, I understand how unreachable of a dream that was.  Becoming a doctor is a lot of work and with all the rigorous training that astronauts go through just to go into space, let alone to a new planet, I now know that I am not cut out for that. In American Shaolin the author, Matthew Polly, had the dream of becoming a high-flying kung fu master.

Polly had that dream since he was a child watching old kung fu movies and tv shows. Even as he grew up and began to realize that his dream would be way harder to actually achieve than he originally thought, he kept right on with that dream, by making a list of things about himself he wanted to change. In what I have read so far, Polly has only scratched two things off of his list. The first thing he fixed on his list was that he was ignorant. In order to do this, Polly found every book he could on test taking and learning in general so that he could get accepted to an ivy league school and no longer be ignorant. (14). This showed early on that Polly was willing to go the extra mile in order to work towards fulfilling his dreams and it definitely shows later in the book.

All that work amounted to something, because Polly got accepted to Princeton. There, he took many classes about the study of Chinese culture in order to help keep his dream alive. His obsession with eastern culture, help him find his favorite philosopher, Chang-tzu. Polly liked him because of the way he looked at religion with a sense of humor and went along with how the world was (15). Through Princeton, Polly was able to further fuel his dream, because one of the professors who taught Mandarin, learned of his dream and told him that he should look towards fulfilling it. That was when Polly decided to put his dreams into actions. He promptly dropped out of college, returned home to tell his parents (who didn’t approve in the slightest), and finally boarded the plane bound for china (34). This once again showed that Polly had the drive and determination to follow his dream even in the face of adversity.

Polly was finally able to go to the place where all his dreams had been made from, China. When he got there, it was completely different than what he thought it would be. What he thought would be a collection of traditional oriental villages, turned out to be sprawling, overpopulated metropolises. He was also shocked when he realized how many different dialects of Chinese there were and how all of them were only somewhat similar to the Mandarin he learned at Princeton (47). A final shock that almost sent him back home was when he asked people about the Shaolin Temple, they a said it had been destroyed. Polly then began to panic as his entire world began to crumble around him and all of his hopes and dreams began to vanish. As he was freaking out, a group of elderly people gathered around him to see why a foreigner was having a panic attack. Whilst explain what was wrong, one elderly woman told him that the Shaolin Temple was still up and running. Polly’s dream was reignited and he continued his journey to the shaolin temple.

When Polly finally got to the Shaolin Temple, what he found was less than what he expected. The Shaolin Temple had become more of a martial arts school than a temple were monks meditated for days on end and had little interaction with the outside world. It was quite the opposite, the temple was constantly filled with tourists and monks that don’t meditate (65). After hours of searching, he found the “owners” of the Shaolin Temple and was able to follow his dreams of becoming a shaolin monk.

When I got to highschool, I had a new dream to become an Information Technology specialist. So far, this has been my most feasible dream yet and I actually can do this too. When Polly talked about how his dream had been to be a kung fu master, I thought that there was no way that an American could be allowed to become a shaolin monk and  then come back to America. What I have read so far has been very inspiring to see someone actually follow their lifelong dream and accomplish it.

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  • “A club hurts the flesh, but evil words hurt the bone. -Traditional Chinese Proverb,” (Polly 209).

    In the second half of American Shaolin, Matthew Polly showed how much adversity a person faces when trying to pursue their dreams. Polly’s dream was to become a high-flying karate master that studied under buddhist monks. After facing much adversity, he was able to achieve his dream by taking a huge amount of punishment. As part of his training he had to do very strenuous exercises in order to become the kungfu master that he dreamed of. This wasn’t the only punishment that he had to endure. Throughout the entire time he was in China, he was not only second guessing himself, but was also ridiculed by his family and some of the monks he trained with.

    The book is divided into five sections, of which I read the last two and a half for this particular blog. The first section was the last half of the final section I read for last time. It is called initiate chronicles the time in which Polly finally begins to get the grip of how to perform Shaolin kungfu. Polly said that “Master Cheng said that before a fighter could win, he had to master losing” (205). This shows that the road to success, is paved with the failures of the past. It is not that suddenly after 100 failures, you win, it is that you learn from each and every one of your failings in order to finally win. Polly does just that. Most of his time is spent, losing and learning from that loss in order to help him become better. This is very much applicable to attaining just about anything. A perfect example of this is trying to master playing an instrument. In the beginning, it is frustrating and you aren’t very good at it. You fail repeatedly at trying to play a consistent beat or a certain note that you have no chance of reaching at your current skill level. That is about the time that you feel like giving up because you don’t think that you’ll ever get better. That’s when most people would give up, but right after this is the part where you begin to improve and improve. This is also where it starts to get fun. Everyone has felt that at one point or another, the feeling of pure joy that comes from when you finally are able to accomplish the one thing you have been working toward.

    The next section is called apprentice and is about how Polly had gotten out of the learning phase of his training and into the mastering phase. He also has more interactions with the people of china instead of just the monks. One of the more humorous things that he talks about is how after he finally got used to the training exercises he was able to think about other things than being exhausted. The most prominent thing was how his libido came back. According to Polly “It only took five months of self-imposed celibacy before my libido went nuclear” (211). It showed that he was in the end just a young man that had his hormones pumping at light speed, not some hero in a movie that was too busy beating guys up to be normal. Another pivotal moment within this section is when Polly becomes one of two americans studying under the Shaolin. This other american was John Lee, the son of a man who owned several factories in China and was sent to train with the Shaolin to smooth him out (265). This was the first time Polly had seen another American who wasn’t a tourist at the Shaolin temple and relished in the fact that he could speak english to someone other than himself.

    The fifth and final section of the book was called disciple. It recounts Polly’s last few months with the Shaolin and the struggles he has when having to say goodbye to his life in China. Towards the end, he begins to reflect back on why he had come to China in the first place and how his time there had changed him for the better. “One day I was looking inside myself and discovered that the revenge fantasies I’d been quietly nursing for years against my playground tormentors had magically disappeared,” Polly said (339). As he was coming to the end of his stay in China, he began to meditate more than train. While meditating, he reflected on his entire time there and saw how much he had accomplished in his time there. Throughout the book, Polly always referenced his list of “Things wrong with Matt”. He had effectively gotten rid of everything that he thought was wrong with himself before he came to China. He noticed however, new problems began to pop up, which he came to accept. In order for someone to truly be at peace with themselves, they have to acknowledge their flaws. By the end of the book Polly has done just that.

    The questions that were asked by my writing group members were both similar. The first was how can a person change and adapt to reach a lifelong goal? Throughout the entire book, Polly changes from a weakling who is very confused to a fighter who has found himself. The way he did this was through hard work and being able to withstand the barrage of problems he faced in order to better himself. This can be applied to anything, not just learning to become a kungfu master. Another question asked of me was a two parter: How can we, as humans, train our minds to chase our lifelong goals? What are the greatest problems that arise when trying to master our minds? Polly didn’t do much training with his mind, he just said that he was going to learn kung fu from the Shaolin temple and did just that. However, to train your mind to chase your goals, you have to sit down and weigh the options within your head. The problem with that though is that is when you begin to look at all the hardships that you will have to go through. Once that happens, a lot of people give up. It is the people who truly wish to meet that goal that stick with it. A third question, asked of me by Mr. Polking was “How does the concept of masculinity and what it means to be a man play into Polly's journey, and how has his understanding of this concept changed by the end of the book?” I described this roughly when I was going through the sections above, but I’ll give a recap. Polly starts out thinking that “being a man” is being big, tough, and macho all the time. By the end, he realizes that there is so much more to being a man than just something as simple as being tough. As he spends his time in china he sees how much he was wrong about being a man.

    The path of success is hardly an easy one, which this book has more than demonstrated. Polly was able to meet his goals and attain success after so much hard work. This book has really shown be that it doesn’t matter how many times that you fail, it's about what you learn from those times that you do in order to attain your goal.
  • How does the concept of masculinity and what it means to be a man play into Polly's journey, and how has his understanding of this concept changed by the end of the book?
  • How can a person change and adapt to reach a life long goal?
  • How can we, as humans, train our minds to chase our lifelong goals? What are the greatest problems that arise when trying to master our minds?
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