Sunday, June 21, 2009

Ippon vs Life in Malaysia

In case I hadn't mentioned it before, I love kendo. I haven't really been at it very long, and at the time of writing bear the grade 7th kyu, that is, the minimum required to wear armour. That will, hopefully, change soon, seeing as my next grading is on 11 July. I wouldn't say I'm qualified to speak with any authority on the technical points of kendo, but I'd like to record a little something I've noticed, as a Malaysian doing kendo.

The world seems more real from inside that armour.

A little background is needed here, I think. I am part of generation whose creativity and passion has been crippled forever by the hamfisted mucking about of Malaysia's Ministry of Education. For decades, the meaning of 'education' was utterly lost, reduced to nothing more than having children jump through meaningless hoops for decades of their lives. The subjects being taught became pale shadows of what they were really about, mere collections of bullet points to be swallowed, regurgitated and forgotten.

Today's Malaysia is the inevitable product of such wasted youth. A nation driven by nothing more than consumerism. Ideals have faded into saccharine platitudes. Culture is dictated by MTV, Channel [V] and the criminally insipid Hong Kong entertainment industry. Language on all fronts has decayed into the vulgar mash that is Manglish, the subject of much misplaced pride and yet another contributing factor to the miasma of anti-intellectualism that grips the nation. Am I exaggerating? Answer me this: When was the last time you saw someone reading on the train in KL? And then ask yourself: When was the last time you saw some Malaysian Chinese person dismiss something they couldn't understand (because it wasn't shoehorned into Manglish) with "Mm chee kui ngup mut"?

I'm a dyed in the wool empiricist. I'm the kind of person whom you'd say "Good morning" to, who'd look up at the overcast sky and retort, "Is it really?" I live every moment constantly making sure I'm doing my utmost to cut through bullshit and grasp the reality of the world I perceive. Being in Malaysia means I've a *lot* of bullshit to cut through.

Now contrast this with kendo. Specifically, duelling in kendo, i.e. shiai. I think there's a certain austere beauty to it, everything you've ever known in your life, shrinking down to the immediate reality of your situation, that every fibre of your being is now focused on the task of scoring the killing blow, ippon, on this one opponent in front of you. There is no conversation to be had, no words that need to be spoken except for the occassional ear-splitting kiai to break your opponent's spirit. There is no luck. Whoever scores is, for that brief moment, the superior swordsman, and that's that. Luck is merely a polite way to downplay the truth of the matter: "I was better than you."

But this is kendo. Bamboo blades and heavy armour make sure we survive each encounter practically unscathed, no matter how viciously we throw ourselves at each other. We bow, we reflect, we learn. Perhaps in the near future we will fight again and see who is worthy of ippon. Ippon is everything. It is the culmination of your countless hours of harsh training. It can only be bought with the one true currency of life - sweat, blood and tears. Who you were and who you will be fade into the distance in the face of ippon, because all that matters, there and then, is who you are and the answer to the question: Are you good enough to take ippon?

And there we have wee slice of my understanding of kendo. I expect in the future, when I've climbed up a few more ranks, I'll come back to this post and think on how I have or haven't changed. For now, I've a shinai that needs repairing before the next class, and maybe, the next ippon.

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