When I scanned my Facebook page one recent morning, I found a photo posted by a former art student of mine. It was a delightful, relaxed picture of him with his mother, both smiling at the camera. Then I read his post and was saddened to learn that his mother had just passed away from cancer.
I first met the irrepressible Jiho and his mother when they came to Hawaii from South Korea. The mother, a concert pianist, doted on her son and daughter, but Jiho was constantly getting into trouble in school. He simply did not fit into the Korean educational system. He was like the proverbial round peg being banged into a square hole, and he rebelled at every turn. Yet, the mother felt Jiho had artistic talent, and asked me, as the head of the visual arts program in a school for gifted and talented artists, to take him into the program.
She showed me some of the drawings he did. They were impressive. In Korea, she explained, high school art teachers were big on copying by rote, not so much developing creative problem solving skills. So Jiho’s drawings were studies of still lifes, Rennaissance masters, and the like. Impressive work. Maybe not so creative, but impressive for a youngster. So I took him on with a caveat. I explained to the mother that our program was rigorous, but not like Korean art classes. We try to get students to be artistically creative. She nodded her head and said, as a professional artist, she knew what I meant, and promised her son would do good in our school.
I later learned that the mother sacrificed everything for Jiho. She gave up her career and uprooted her son and daughter to move to the States, leaving her businessman husband, in order to give her son a second chance at life. She thought that, if left in Korea, Jiho would probably end up in jail because he was so rebellious. America and our school was her last chance to steer him away from his downward spiral.
Jiho’s mother opened a small Korean restaurant and worked long hours so she could make ends meet and pay the tuition for her children’s private school.
Jiho, indeed, was a handful. I could see why a repressive educational system would have tried to hammer him down. He was always full of joyful energy, making art, making friends, unafraid of trying new media, new adventures, and asking question after question. Back in Korea, he said, he used to constantly be hit in the head and physically disciplined by his teachers for talking out of turn or trying to do something unconventional, and he rebelled against that. In our school, however, he blossomed. Allowed to let his creative juices flow, he diverted most of his energy to his artwork, not getting into too much trouble. The other art teachers and I mentored him through the years, and when it came time for him to apply to college, he got a scholarship to the Rhode Island School of Design, a prestigious art school on the East Coast. He ended up working at various Internet startups as a digital artist and web designer, and become, in his adulthood, a much sought-after, creative, hard-working professional.
Art must have run in the family because his younger sister also had natural artistic talent, albeit she was more self-controlled and circumspect. She went on to FIT, Fashion Institute of Technology, in New York City. Upon Jiho’s and her daughter’s graduations, the mother was so ecstatic that, in Korean tradition, she gave me a token gift of sweets and a card thanking me for all that I did for her children.
Eventually, the mother moved to the East Coast to be near her children, and opened up a small restaurant there. Her own dreams of playing piano and pursuing her art were given up for her children’s sake, an experience familiar to many, many first-generation immigrant families.
So it was with sadness that I read of her passing. Yet, she must have died happy that her children were doing alright, after all that she had sacrificed for them.
I wrote a short note to Jiho expressing my condolences, and Jiho replied, saying how much his mom still remembered me and was grateful for what I did for her kids.
What does this have to do with martial arts?
Well, the passing of Jiho’s mother made me contemplate the nature of a teacher and a student, and the relationship thereof. No one replaces one’s parents, and no one can replace a child in terms of family bonds.
Yet, as a Chinese proverb says, “A teacher for one day is like a parent for a lifetime.”
In Asian societies, a good teacher is nearly as important as one’s parents. A loving parent gives a child life, nurtures the child, protects, and raises the child up. Nothing can replace that. But likewise, nothing can replace an inspirational teacher who guides the child and gives the child the tools of the trade, craft or art as a gift. Confucian culture calls attention to the personal bond that should exist between a good teacher and a good student, stressing that it is among the core human relationships that should be nurtured and fostered among human beings.
Oh, I’ve also had incredible failures as a teacher, too. I handled some situations very, very badly. I learned how imperfect I truly am. In my defense, I would say that I learned hard lessons from such experiences, which helped me to become a better teacher, both in art and in martial arts.
That has led me to realize that there are students who are truly students of mine, and a greater bulk of students who are merely “passing through” my dojo or my digital art classroom. The relationship of teacher and student is a two way street. If a student is truly willing to absorb the lessons, if a student has what is called nyuunanshin, or a willing mind, he becomes a lifelong student and friend of the teacher, something beyond just someone who steps into a classroom to pick up a point or two. And if the teacher is willing and capable, he can leave a deep and positive impression on students that will last a lifetime.
My own incongruous mentor is a Japanese anthropology instructor from my college days. I say incongruous because I daresay that I was a middling student in college. Still, for some reason, we kept in touch as I continued on with my graduate degree and my continued participation in various Japanese cultural activities. He offered advice and commentary on my endeavors in my cultural activities, and when I embarked on a teaching career, we continued our correspondence, comparing notes on the experiences of teaching college. Whenever he and his wife stopped in Hawaii, we would try to go out for dinner. It’s been about 35 years since I graduated from college, but we’ve kept in touch for all that time.
In the same way, thanks to the Internet, I’ve found it easy to stay in touch with some students of mine who continue to email me now and then to tell me about their progress. Rie wanted to become an artist and go to college on the Mainland USA but her Japanese father thought, as a girl, she should not have such lofty ambitions. When she got accepted into my alma mater, Cornell University, I had to try to convince her father that it was a very good thing. Only when his coworkers began to congratulate him about his daughter making it into a very high-class university did he relent and allow his daughter to go to the East Coast.
Rie eventually followed in my footsteps, attended Cornell, then finished with a degree in architecture, interned in London, worked in New York, and is now pursuing a graduate degree.
In like manner, I have a couple of budo students who I look at as truly my students, or deshi. They learned the technical aspects of the system, but also spent a lot of time with me, hiking, eating together, getting to know our respective families, and keeping in touch. We trained in parks and rec centers, banged each other around, attended each other’s weddings, listened to each other’s sob stories. Perhaps the ones who have moved away still see me as a teacher, but like my old art students, they also see me as an old friend, an advisor, a mentor.
What I have learned, though, is that such a relationship cannot be forced. It arises only naturally between a student willing to participate and give it his/her all to master the subject, and a teacher willing to give more than the required investment in time and attention to the student. In that situation, the bond will arise naturally or not at all.
I would postulate that such a personal bond would be hard to develop in the modern strip mall dojo, however diligently one tries to artificially create it. If a teacher has over 100 students he has to attend to at each training session, how can he truly give enough attention to each student so that they develop an in-depth relationship? That’s like saying a guy can have a serious relationship with 100 women at the same time. It ain’t gonna happen. It’s hard enough to develop a sincere relationship with one social partner at a time.
When it does arise, it is a wonderful thing. It creates a human bond that is what I imagine the old sensei-deshi system must have been like “back in the day,” a bond that is referred to in so many plotlines of corny kung-fu martial arts movies, but one you so seldom see in actuality. Think of the movie “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” in which Chow Yun Fat tries to teach the young Ziyi Zhang. Theirs is not a “romantic” relationship; the Chow Yun Fat character is really in love with the Michelle Yeoh character. But the bond of teacher/student between Chow Yun Fat’s character and Ziyi Zhang’s impetuous character is just as emotional. The student-teacher relationship, I reiterate, is a bond that is as important, in Confucianism, as that between a parent and child, a friend to friend, a husband and wife, or oneself to one’s ancestors.
I compare that to the attitude some teachers and students have of the educational experience. To them, it’s just a business transaction. You pay your money, you get something in return. There’s no personal buy-in. If you don’t get what you want, you complain and sue the bastards. I’ve had too many of those experiences, where parents will complain about their children getting bad grades when they’re “paying damn good money” so Johnny or Jane (no matter if they are lazy-ass sloths in class, had BETTER get a good grade, no matter whether they’re learning or not.
In a martial arts context, it’s like a student who wants to learn all the kata and get all the degree promotions, but isn’t willing to help other students, listen to the teacher’s advice on trying to correct some nuances of their performance, or give of himself other than pay the tuition and fees. It’s all a business transaction for that kind of student.
Such a student may, perhaps, become proficient in the technical aspect of the art, but they’ll never understand the heart of the art, which is passed from teacher to student, person to person, and heart to heart, in a bond that extends for a lifetime.