A lot of people ask me about how to go about training wushu in China.  Whether they want to know places to train, what to expect from their coach, issues with language barriers, food consumption, or whatever else, people be havin’ questions.

One of the original reasons I started up this blog was to help answer those questions for people.  Since I’m here in China I have a unique opportunity to provide you all with a perspective on what it is like to be here in the thick of things.

So, I thought I would put together a list of my top 5 tips for people who want to come to China to train in Wushu.  These are mainly from my own experiences and from what I’ve noticed are the most helpful things to know before you arrive in the Middle Kingdom — home of wushu.

So, without further delay.  Here is my list o’ tips:

#1.  You get what you give

One of the main problems I see when people who come to China to train is that they have an expectation that they will arrive here, a coach will take them under their wing and nurture their wushu by pushing them beyond their limits.  A few weeks or months later they’ll reach that elusive next level and come back to their home country and blow everyone’s minds.

Here is the problem though … their expectations were most likely faulty to begin with.  I’m not saying that you shouldn’t expect a coach to push you hard or help you achieve another level.  But it is problematic when you expect that they will be automatically inclined to give you every scrap of coaching energy just because you came all the way to China and are paying them.The reality they find is far from it.  They’ll see a coach that is somewhat ambivalent about teaching them, or might seem very helpful at first but after a few days starts to lose interest or seems to be just “going through the motions”.  Or worse yet, the coach passes them off to some Jr. Athlete to work with, and that athlete is more concerned with checking their weibo account or playing games online than they are about helping someone train.

The reality is, you get out of your coach, what you give to your coach.  What a lot of people don’t realize is that, from the moment you walk in to the wushu guan, the coach is observing you.  They watch how you walk in and get ready. They watch how you warm up. They watch how you stretch.  They watch your attitude towards training and the other athletes.  By the time the first class is halfway done they know exactly what sort of athlete you’re going to be and whether or not you are worth their effort.

If you want a coach who is dedicated to helping you train, you need to show that coach that you are more dedicated to your training than they could ever hope to be.  You have to show through your attitude and perseverance and positive work ethic that you are someone who is there to take your training seriously.

Feeling like you deserve good coaching just because you paid them, or because your coach from back home has good guanxi with the facility, is not going to cut it.  You are the arbiter of your own success with training in China, and if you want to get the most from your coach and your training environment, you have to put in just as much, and more, than you hope to get out of it.

I’m not saying this is the case for everyone, of course.  Some people come to China and they receive great coaching.  Or some people come to China with an amazing work ethic, training harder than even the Chinese athletes, but they end up with a lame duck coach.  Your mileage will vary, but even if you end up with a coach who doesn’t seem to care about your development, that doesn’t mean you should give up on yourself too.  You are here to train, so take advantage of the opportunity.  Take advantage of the carpet under your feet, or the hours you can spend in the wushu guan, or the relationships you can develop with the other athletes around you.  Coming to China to train is more than just having a coach — it a holistic experience that embodies multiple facets of life and wushu.

#2. Don’t Generalize

I realize this one probably sounds pretty funny coming from someone who is making a “top 5″ list.  After all, a “top” list is in itself a sort of generalization.

But the difference here is that the generalizing I’m doing is to try to encapsulate an experience that most people have when they come to China to train in wushu.  Whereas the generalization I’m talking about here is where you base or formulate opinions about a group of people based on extremely limited or misleading experiences.

But when you come to China to train in wushu, it is important to treat each encounter and each individual as a unique and different person (even if they don’t perceive themselves that way sometimes).  Everyone is their own person and you can learn something from each person you meet in the wushu guan.Given the homogeneous nature of the Chinese people (well, compared to North America, at least) it becomes easy to lump all Chinese people under one umbrella, and truth be told I find that even people here in China have some tendencies to do that.  ”Chinese people are like this, and foreigner are like that” is a statement that you’ll find coming out of the mouths of Chinese and non-Chinese alike.

The other side of this coin is that you shouldn’t view the culture here as “strange” or “backwards” just because they do things differently than you do it back home.  Yes, a lot of people spit on the street.  Sure, the cars make you fear for your own life.  And perhaps the lack of customer service is going to end up hurting their chance to make a sale.  It can be easy to ridicule or laugh at the system here, but you have to keep in mind that the system here has been developed over hundreds or thousands of years.  It works for everyone here just fine.  In fact you are the odd thing in the equation.  Trying to convince Chinese people that their way of doing things is “wrong” is like painting a sign on your chest that says “I don’t respect you”.

Be open minded and understanding.  Try to look at their differences from their perspective, not your own.  Take the good parts of it in to your heart and leave the parts you aren’t comfortable with alone.  There are a lot of things in China that might seem backwards, but there are also a lot of beautiful things about the culture, people and country that you will come to love.  Embrace those with open arms and you will have a much more pleasant experience.

Not generalizing or judging is especially important with regards to wushu.  Because the truth is, a good wushu coach doesn’t necessarily have a specific look or appearance.  You might find that the Jr. Athlete you are paired with is one of the best coaches you’ve ever had.  Or you might find that the random old man who hangs out in the wushu guan might have gems of knowledge you didn’t even suspect existed.

Don’t dismiss someone who is available to give you knowledge just because you assume they won’t be able to help you.  I’ve met children who train in wushu who understand things beyond most adults in the West.  But then again, I’ve met a lot of kids in the wushu guan who can barely tie their shoes.  With such a wide variety of understanding, ability, knowledge and skill, you have to keep an open mind and be receptive to whatever you can get from whomever might give it to you.

Wushu comes from the heart and mind — not from your skin and bones.  So pay attention to the source of wushu, not the outer wrapping.  You can’t judge a book by it’s cover, and you can’t judge a coach, athlete or friend from how they look.

Get to know people and you might just be surprised what you find out about yourself.

#3. Learn a bit of Chinese

One of the best things you can do for your wushu training and education in China is to pick up some functional skill with the Chinese language.  And contrary to popular misconception, Chinese is not all that hard to learn.

I actually plan to write a lot more about Chinese language learning in a future blog entry — specifically geared towards people who are training in wushu — but for now let me say that the sooner you start picking up some vocabulary and basic grammar (and to be honest, all Chinese grammar is pretty basic compared to the crazy verb conjugations in English) the sooner you will be on your way to having deep and meaningful conversations with athletes and coaches in China.In the course of a few months you could pick up enough Chinese to be able to function on your own, both inside the wushu guan and outside in the “real world”.

If you are heading to China in a few months and only have 30 minutes a day to prepare then pick up the Pimsleur Mandarin Chinese lessons and stick them on your mp3 player.  In 3 months you’ll have enough Chinese to survive on your own — all in 30 minutes a day.

Trust me that they work, because it is how I learned Chinese before moving to China.  One thing Pimsleur is really good at is developing a good accent and ear for the language.  And being able to speak effectively and without a strong accent is really half the battle in Chinese.

If you have more time than that, or you want to get more experience, then hire a private tutor in your home town. (And don’t try to tell me there aren’t any Chinese people where you live.  Chinese people are everywhere!)  Or take a night class.  Or go online.

In fact, I highly recommend checking out chinesepod.com, where they have a great set of lessons geared towards very specific topics, just right for targeted language acquisition.

But the first thing you need to do is to stop believing that Chinese language is out of your reach.  Because languages can be learned by anyone at any age, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.  It’s just a bunch of bologna.

加油!

#4. Take Time to Adjust

When a lot of people first come to China and start training they tend to really go overboard during the first workout.  They want to show the coach how serious they are so they push themselves super hard. Or they don’t want to look bad next to all the Chinese athletes so they go gangbusters with their basics and forms.

You don’t want to kill yourself during the first workout only to be on empty during the second workout of the day.  Or to be so tired and weak that you end up tweaking your knee or twisting your ankle.  I did that during my first time to China back in 1999 and it pretty much made the rest of my trip a waste of money (although I actually did end up learning a lot, it just wasn’t the same).But most of the injuries I see when people come here to train happen in the first few days.  People kill themselves, not realizing that the morning class is just the first class that day.  They still have another 3 hours of training in the afternoon.  And then the next morning too.  And for the rest of the week they have 11 classes before they’ll get a day and a half to recover.

If you have been working out 3 or 4 or even 5 times a week back home, there is no way that you are adequately prepared to increase that by a factor of 2, 3 or 4.  Going from 3 times a week to 11 times a week is like going from zero to infinity (and beyond).  It is taxing on your system.

Add that to the stresses related to travel, new microbes in the food, adjusting to a different (probably hot and humid) weather condition and jet lag, and you have a recipe for disaster just waiting to happen.

You need to allow your body time to adjust to the situation in China.  If you start up all “hot turkey”, then you’ll most likely find yourself in the team doctor’s office with a few needles in your legs.

I know what your’e thinking.  You think I’m contradicting myself.

And I realize it looks that way.  In #1 I told you to show your strong work ethic and now I’m telling you to allow your body to adjust.  But those two things are not mutually exclusive and let me explain why.

There are a few ways you can adjust to your environment when coming to China that don’t involve being a weakling on the carpet.  Here are few things you can do to take the edge off of an abrupt shift in your training:

Increase your training before you come.

If ramping up from 3 to 11 sessions a week is going to cause problems, then start preparing early for your trip.  2 months before start increasing to 4 sessions a week.  Then 5.  Then 6.  If your school doesn’t offer that many, then go find a park or a gym or some open space where you can put yourself through an hour of basics, combos and forms.  Even just an hour of intense wushu will help you out.

By the time you come to China, you should be adapted to at least daily training, if not more.  The better prepared your body is for the increased training regimen, the less likely you will be to get injured.

Take a week off.

Building back your body’s strength and stamina only makes sense if you were increasing the stress on your body to begin with. You grow by rebuilding from damage.  It is the nature of our physical lives.  Take advantage of that by stressing your body and then resting right before you come to China.  You’ll notice the difference.A lot of people will ramp up their training before they come, but they forget to let the body repair itself.  Just like when you are competing, it is a good idea to take it a little easy and taper off the week before you start training in China.  But this only applies if you did the gradual increase in training prior to your trip.  Tapering off the week before when you were only training a few times a week to start with doesn’t really do anything for you.

Ramp Up in China

One thing that might work is to make preparations when you first arrive in China to start off with just once-a-day training sessions.  You can explain to your coach that you want to make the most of your training and put all of your energy and focus in to one training a day for the first week or two.

After that period of time you can increase your training regimen, but starting with a lower number will allow you to both adapt to the environment and also show a strong focus and determination during each class.  When you only have one class a day you can really pour all of your energy in to it.  When you train twice a day you might tend to hold back in the morning so that you still have energy in the afternoon or evening.

So, those are a few ways that might help you adapt when you first come to China.  Again, take care of your body.  Let it adapt to the environment, weather, food and time difference.  Your immune system will thank you.

#5.  Come Bearing Gifts

This is something I was raised to do when I was a kid thanks to my mom’s Japanese culture, but the practice of bringing some omiyage, or souvenir gifts, is a good one to develop.

When you come to China, bring a selection of treats or small trinkets from your hometown or region.  Something to eat is good, or even better are t-shirts.  Mainly because wushu athletes tend to go through a lot of t-shirts.  If your school back home has some t-shirts you can bring with you, stock up on lots of smalls and mediums (and a few larges) to give as gifts to your training partners or coach.  (There aren’t any XL’s in the wushu guan. :-) )

This small token of your appreciation for their help goes a long way to giving a positive impression to those you meet.  And it shows that you are interested in sharing a bit of your home with them, as they are also sharing a bit of their home with you.

It is important not to think of this as a “bribe” to get good training.  In fact, I typically don’t give a gift to a coach or athlete until I’m coming up towards the end of my training.  Giving it when you first arrive will look like you’re trying to curry favor.  But if you give it towards the end of your stay it seems more like a gift of appreciation for their efforts to train or help you.

One thing that I recommend is to invite your coach or some of the athletes you trained with out for dinner.  During the dinner you can present them with your gifts from back home and thank them for all their assistance in the wushu guan.  Even if they didn’t really help you, do it anyway.  Because the next time you come to China they’ll remember you and that you had a lot of appreciation and respect for their efforts, and that pays big dividends in the future.

Chinese relationships should be viewed as a long-term investment, not a short-term agreement.  Many times the first trip or two is just to develop the relationships and friendships that will come back to you in the future.  It isn’t seen as a you “gaming the system”, so don’t worry about them thinking you are trying to take advantage of them (especially if it is clear that you aren’t).  But people here appreciate a long term development and effort of friendship — especially from people who hail from a culture that they’ve been told is all about the “quick fix” mentality.

Hopefully, if all goes well, you will truly make amazing friendships and bond with your new wushu friends in China.

Because these are friendships that you can develop and expand upon for years to come.  And it will be some of the most rewarding experiences you’ve ever had.