A Few Words of Advice


Well, more than a few, perhaps.

First, I should point out who this article is intended for and why I'm writing it...

As someone who received most of his martial arts training in east Asia (almost all in Taiwan), I have often been asked about this, usually by other people interested in doing likewise. What this article is about, therefore, is what it's like, or at least what it can be like. That is, while it's impossible to say with certainty that training in east Asia will be such-and-such a way -- after all, no two people will have identical experiences -- I'll use my own experience to illustrate roughly what it can be like, particularly with respect to problems you may encounter outside the dojo.

This is going to be a no-nonsense, and no-holds-barred article, and it will deal more with the problems non-Asians may encounter living in an east Asian society while training in a martial art than most other similar articles usually do.

It isn't a guide to where you can find schools teaching any particular styles. If that is what you're after, you may as well stop here and search on the Internet for such information -- there are plenty of sites available listing, for example, all the known aikido schools in Japan and providing links to them. If you are a martial arts instructor or student in Europe or the Americas and have the means to come to east Asia and take one-to-one instruction with a martial arts master here, then, again, this article is probably going to be largely irrelevant to you; you won't be in Asia long enough to encounter some of the situations I deal with here. However, if, like quite a few less wealthy people I have met, you are forced to work in the region to pay your tuition as you go, you are likely to have to spend months, or even years living in the country where you are training, and unavoidably will encounter some problems in doing that.

Again, I won't pretend that you will have to deal with any of the situations I mention here...this article is merely intended to let you know a few things you may be well advised to look out for...

My Background

I began learning east Asian martial arts by accident, rather than design. At the time, in the mid-80s, I was travelling in the region, working at whatever job presented itself, in order to finance further travels. I was, of course, interested in learning something of all the places I worked and travelled in...and martial arts were always something I was vaguely interested in. I knew it could only do me good to be better able to protect myself if I needed to. And there were also obvious health benefits which could only be useful to a hard-drinking, nicotine-addict like myself.

My first black belt was in the Korean martial art of taekwondo. From there, I went on to (Shotokan) karate and aikido, and then (chang chuan) gung fu, although I also learnt some other styles too.

ONE: Standards of Instruction

In these days of globalisation, there is first of all an obvious question which comes to mind: why bother with all the expense and inconvenience of coming to east Asia to learn an Asian martial art, when there are well-qualified teachers in all the classical styles to be found in any major city in Europe? Nowadays, there are even instructors offering courses taught via the Internet.

The truth is, standards, in every oriental martial art are still significantly higher in east Asia than elsewhere, especially so in their country of origin. This applies even to the most internationalised and well-regulated styles with internationally-recognised supervisory bodies, such as the major schools of karate and judo. In lesser-known styles, such as, for example, praying mantis gung fu (kung fu), the difference in standards can be enormous. True, there are many accomplished practitioners of almost every style, who could be found teaching almost anywhere in the world. And Europeans and Americans have been taking world championship titles in those arts which are also promoted as competitive sports -- such as karate and judo --for decades now. But these still tend to be the exceptions, rather than the rule, and what I'm talking about here is standards. In a dojo, you tend to learn from all your fellow students, not just the teacher.

It's almost inevitable that in societies which are, generally speaking, more traditionally-oriented than, say, western Europe, standards will be high in arts which often form part of those societal traditions, and even in some cases, a part of the national identity -- if for no other reason than the sheer numbers of people learning from accomplished masters over so many decades, or even hundreds of years. Many of whom, of course, go on to teach others without ever considering teaching foreigners, or people without a thorough grasp of their language.

So you can be absolutely sure that, while it may be commonplace now to see, for example, an Iranian or a American take a taekwondo sparring title, the standards of taekwondo instruction are significantly higher in South Korea than anywhere else in the world. Don't be surprised to find that those Iranian or American champions also spent some time training in Korea themselves!

It's even true that standards of instruction are probably still higher in places nearby to the country of the art's origin than in places as far away as Europe or the Americas. This point was one which I was slow to realise when I began learning taekwondo in Taiwan.

At that time I was teaching English and learning Chinese. From what little I knew about it, taiji (tai-ji, tai-chi) tickled my interest as something to learn. Good for your health, not too strenuous, and, frankly, still very exotic in the late 1980s. What a thing to learn on your travels -- a traditional art which nobody back home would even know anything about...something to show off, if nothing else!

However, all my initial efforts to find a teacher seemed to be frustrated. It seemed that almost everyone I met had something to tell me about taiji -- but none could advise me where, precisely, I could start learning, forthwith. A couple of teachers I had seen advertised on the bulletin board of the language school I was studying at, specialised in teaching foreigner. Both seemed to be of dubious ability, out for the foreign buck more than anything else. Many people seemed to know of someone who could teach, but rarely actually turned up to do so. Also, there seemed to be few dojos, and most taiji instruction was out in the park, very early in the mornings, the nearest such park being a bus ride from my abode. And of course, rain, a regular feature of life in northern Taiwan, would often stop play.

A Chinese-language student from Austria convinced me to take up taekwondo. He himself was eager to get the minimum of three students the instructor demanded to make it worthwhile for him to hold a class, and thought of taking a lunch-time class after morning Mandarin lessons. At the time -- this was before the 1988 Seoul Olympics brought the sport to international attention -- I knew very little about taekwondo. I had seen it described as 'Korean karate', however, though I didn't know how it differed from native Japanese karate. In any case, I didn't really see the point in taking classes in a Korean martial art in Taiwan -- perhaps sometime in my future travels I would go to Korea anyway, and I could learn it there. I wanted to learn a Chinese martial art in Taiwan.

But that was proving difficult, as mentioned. And I was having problems with my Chinese classes. Most students I knew, such as the Austrian, were taking classes daily at the language lab of one of Taipei's major universities. I had seen their textbooks, which were basically very formal and outdated, having hardly been changed since before the Nationalist government were chased from mainland China by the Communists decades previously. Also, I didn't have the time or money for such a major investment as daily tuition and chose instead a private language centre where I could take three lessons a week at significantly lower fees. Depressingly, the private school mimicked the university in teaching 'Beijing-hua' -- which is basically Mandarin with a Beijing accent -- and this was already the second such language school in which I had taken classes. It seemed to me needlessly artificial to mimic Beijingers, and I just wanted to learn standard Mandarin, without the phoney accent. But I had already been in Taiwan half a year and wanted to avoid the otherwise necessary trips to Hongkong every two months to re-new my Taiwan tourist visa (it was possible to extend the tourist visa twice, to 6 months, if you were studying Chinese).

But, it transpired, one didn't have to be studying Chinese to qualify for a student visa; you could be studying anything -- even taekwondo. My Austrian friend also pointed out that standards of taekwondo instruction were very high in Taiwan because this martial art was mandatory training in the military, which of course was itself mandatory for all 18-20 year-old male Taiwan citizens. And this friend had looked in on a class himself, and promised me 'this is the real taekwondo, not like what I've seen in Austria'.

I decided to give it a try, and regretted it almost immediately.

The workout, which occurred Monday noon and lasted till 1.30 was great, but when it came to Wednesday noon, my body was still aching all over from Monday's class. I couldn't understand it; I was cycling to my English school every day now and had thought I was already getting quite fit. I almost didn't make the Wednesday class, but I couldn't think of a valid excuse not to.

Another thing I couldn't comprehend was how the instructor could take us through a set of stances, practicing all the same stances himself, without sweating. He seemed human, as far as I could judge, while wiping the sweat constantly from my eyes. Yet not a single drop of sweat appeared on his brow. It was already early June, the seasonal 'plum rains' had just about ceased and the air temperature at this time of day was already well over 30 degrees centigrade. When I practiced my stances, a pool of sweat developed at my feet, so large that sometimes that I couldn't keep from slipping on it. The Austrian guy and the American girl who made up the other two class members of our small class were more or less in the same boat (that is, one sailing on a sea of sweat). But with me it was so bad that by the end of class I was soaked through as if I had just taken a shower fully clothed. And furthermore, the instructor assigned to take this class was a mere 18-year old, several years younger than any of us.

Another problem was shaking: I could hardly hold a stance for a minute without shaking like a leaf on a tree, and all the stances were two minutes long. Finally, after class, on the second or third class -- with the agreement of my two classmates -- I asked the instructor if the stances couldn't be reduced to a minute each. He smiled and told me the dojo's master had requested this two-minute time period, also pointing out that in the evening class the 'horse-riding stance' was held for five minutes, not two. Five minutes!? I could hardly believe it. What kind of people were these, I asked myself? The instructor assured us we'd soon get used to two minutes. And in the meantime we should just do the best we could, taking a quick break by standing upright again if we really found a stance too hard to maintain, and joining in again as soon as we felt ready. As I stood in my soggy uniform before this sweatless 18-year-old, pleading for leniency, and being told he had specifically been instructed to give us an easy time, I couldn't help feeling a twinge of embarrassment.

Over the subsequent weeks, I realised that in a sense I had entered another realm. I had heard of martial arts being described as a way to self-improvement, of coming to terms with one's shortcomings, of overcoming fear and pain, etc., etc. I could appreciate that, in the sense of what one might perhaps feel upon being repeatedly knocked to the floor by someone apparently weaker. But now I began to realise it went much further than that. I was taking orders from a wiry 18-year old, who couldn't speak a word of English, or any other foreign language, had only ever worked as a motorcycle mechanic, had never been abroad, or even travelled much in Taiwan, and didn't even look particularly intelligent. Yet, with respect to our martial arts abilities we were obviously so far removed from each other as to be almost two different species. And I had to get used to it.

Not only did that happen, but after a few months of almost constant amazement at my instructor's abilities, I began to respect him.

I could not judge from all this whether the experience would have been different if I had learnt taekwondo in, say, London. True, the Austrian had believed this to be, 'the real taekwondo', but that could have been just his own subjective experience. Still, I had definately been bitten by the martial arts bug...

After about a year of training, I was about half way to a black belt. The class itself had expanded four or five times over, and in addition, local students from the evening classes, if they had the time, often took part in our lunch-time class, which nevertheless still consisted mostly of foreign-national Chinese-language students.

Once, a British taekwondo black belt sat in on our class. I cornered him after class to see his views on it. We grabbed a quick lunch at a local stand outside the dojo, which was my usual fare. He told me his company had moved him to Taipei and he was looking to keep up his training, having earned his first level black belt about half a year previously. 'But, if I joined this class', he told me, 'I'm not sure the master would let me keep wearing my black belt. I suppose I'd have to claim I haven't trained for two or three years, which isn't the truth...'

I began to get the feeling that standards really were higher in Taiwan than in Europe.

But a few months after I took my first black belt, some of the steam seemed to disappear from my drive to learn taekwondo. I was still training and hoping to get a second level black belt, but at the same time, the fact that I was living in a Chinese society and still hadn't even started learning a Chinese martial art was often on my mind. Our midday class had by this time been disbanded after a number of the students had left Taiwan at almost the same time. I was now living and working in another part of town and the evening classes were always difficult to find the time to get to.

I checked out some of the local yong chun chuan (wing chun, ving tsun) teachers. Although a typical southern Chinese art, the best yong chun practitioners were generally regarded to be almost exclusively from Hongkong. But now, with 1997 looming, a few of those not keen on moving to Canada -- the country of first choice for Hongkong's emigrants -- but at the same time worried about living in Hongkong under Chinese Communist rule, had decided to take out the insurance policy of setting up a second home in Taiwan. Three of the four teachers I located in Taipei were Hongkong Chinese; one had even studied with Yeh Wen (Yip Man), Bruce Lee's teacher, and though now old, he seemed extremely capable. But his classes were expensive, and the others were inconvenient in terms of either location, schedule, or both.

I was now working in another language school, my main responsibility being liaison with all the foreign teachers working throughout this chain of schools spread across the city. I had noticed a karate dojo on the floor above the language school, but given it no further thought. Until one day, when a teacher I was arranging classes for, mentioned that one of the reasons he was in Taipei was to learn yong chun at one of the places I had earlier checked out. We discussed martial arts in Taipei briefly and when I mentioned the karate dojo on the floor above, it transpired that this was the other reason he was in Taiwan. A third level black belt from the UK, he told me that Shotokan karate standards were very high in Taiwan. In fact, he didn't think there was anything much he could do which any of the first dan black belt students in the dojo upstairs couldn't.

I belatedly realised that aikido standards in the city were probably also higher than in European countries and signed myself up for classes both at a local aikido school that a colleague had recommended and also at the karate dojo upstairs, which, of course, could not have been more convenient for me to get to.

Prior to Nationalist Chinese rule, Taiwan had spent over half a century under Japanese rule, and this was one of the reasons the standards of Japanese martial arts were so high here. The aikido school had a long history, and boasted a number of highly qualified teachers. The karate master had himself studied in Japan, and, in common with many Taiwanese, spoke Japanese fairly well himself. I soon found the Brit was not the only one who believed karate instruction standards to be high in Taiwan -- the Iraqi national team also received their training at the same school. It seemed then that Taiwan was an obvious choice, with fees and hotel costs considerably lower than in Japan itself, but standards still significantly higher than, in, say, Iraq itself. With no further reservation, I quit my taekwondo classes and put myself fully into my karate and aikido traning.

Of course, differing standards must be seen in context. To say standards are higher doesn't mean that in South Korea, for example, you will find the country populated by millions of high-ranking taekwondo black belts. Generally, this martial art is practiced by people who are interested in it, just like anywhere else, even if it is the national sport. And it should be said that, definately, internationalisation of any martial art, or any sport, is going to lead to higher standards internationally; that's what internationalisation is all about. But the idea that it will ever lead to the same high standards globally is dubious. Even today, after hundreds of years of internationalisation, Shakespearian theatre can be expected to be of a higher standard in Shakespeare's homeland, England, than, say, Bolivia, or Uganda (and that's despite Uganda having been a British colony).

Still on the subject of teaching standards, from what I have been able to glean of martial arts teaching in Europe, most of what's available in Europe falls into what I would call 'commercially-oriented' teaching. This approach is also gaining ground in Asia. However, it is still relatively easy to find traditional martial arts teaching in the place of the art's origin.

By 'traditional', I mean that profit is not the sole or primary objective. Certainly, any martial artist hoping to survive on his skills is going to have to make money, but in the traditional approach, the teacher is there to impart his skills and the student is there to learn them. For example, in a traditional karate school, you are there to learn karate, not to get a karate black belt. You will, of course, get a black belt if you stick at it, yes...but that's almost incidental. In the traditional approach, the master will put you in for an exam when he thinks you are good and ready for it, especially black belt tests, which are typically not held within the dojo, but organised by the martial art's recognised association, and held collectively for many dojos, at a suitably large venue, like a sports hall. For a traditionally-oriented dojo, it is a matter of prestige to produce black belters who truly are black belters, rather than huge numbers of students who mostly -- barely -- pass their first black belt test and consider their studies completed there and then.

In the commercial approach, which panders to the student's fantasy of having a black belt, whether he or she is worthy of one of not, you will usually find the main selling point is how quickly you can learn: 'guaranteed black belt within one year' is the typical advertising. In recent decades, there has been an explosion of interest in Asian martial arts outside Asia. All sorts of people are learning now, including many who are not really that interested in martial arts and yet are willing to dedicate a few hours a week to learning a martial art -- if it will result in a prestigious qualification to boast about within a matter of months.

This 'lowest common denominator' approach is, unfortunately, widespread in Europe and a symptom of a difference in attitudes to learning (more about that a little later). Some martial arts teachers will even admit that this is not an effective way to learn, but claim that they have little choice -- it's all that students are interested in, and it pays the bills.

So, from the school's point of view, the commercial approach is a good way to teach, but for the student, it's fundamentally flawed. In this kind of teaching, the student is put in for his black belt test almost the moment he is capable of executing the various component parts of the test without serious fault. Usually, he passes the test and gets a black belt...yet he isn't a black belt. Typically, he then has a break of a few weeks to celebrate and consider his next move -- go on to a second level black belt, or learn something else -- and when he finally has a workout in preparation for return to the dojo, he finds he has already completely forgotten the last kata he learnt. And about half of the second last. The third most recent kata he learnt is also missing a few parts and contains moves he isn't sure about. And so on. In other words, he is now already well on his way to forgetting half of what he learnt. Usually, he will blame himself and his own inconsistency: after all, the school did all it could to get him to black belt level, and quickly. Finally, he will remember so little of what he learnt that he will have failed even to have gained the prestige of a black belt that was originally his aim. Because -- rather than being something to be proud about -- he will hardly dare admit to having a black belt.

In martial arts schools which use coloured belt systems, a 'first dan' black belt is usually valid for five to ten years if it isn't improved upon. That is, a first level black belt must be succeeded by a second level black belt within a number of years or it will lose validity. This is because it is thought that, if a student gets to first level black belt level and then goes no further, after a certain number of years of -- possibly complete -- lack of practice, he or she will no longer be at that first black belt level anymore. But in the commercial approach, the certification should rightly last for months. Two years down the road (with no further practice) the student will be lucky to remember the name and address of the school where he once took classes, let alone be able put all he learnt into practice at will.


Gichin Funakoshi, the founder of Shotokan karate, makes a point about attitudes to learning in his book Karate-do: My Way of Life:

"Let us say, as an example, that a man has been practicing a particular kata for a couple of months and then he says with a weary sigh, 'No matter how hard I train, I cannot master this kata. What shall I do?' A couple of months! How could he master a kata in a couple of months?

"The 'horse-riding stance', for instance, looks extremely easy, but the fact is that no-one could possibly master it even if he practiced every day for an entire year until his feet became as heavy as lead. What nonsense, then, for a man to complain after a couple of months' practice that he is incapable of learning a kata!'

Funakoshi, as the founder of Shotokan, was probably something of a traditionalist even in his own day. But he would surely turn in his grave if he knew of today's karate masters, offering 'quick fix' black belts with the minimum of inconvenience.

As most martial arts which have katas, require 'mastery' of at least eight or ten of them to qualify a practitioner as ready to take a first dan black belt test, how, then, could so many be mastered -- not to mention all the other things you may be tested on -- in a year or so?

It's always a good rule of thumb when checking out potential places to learn a martial art, to sit in on a class and try to have a few words with one of the instructors. If they tell you they can make you a black belter in less than a year and a half, the school you're in is by no means traditional in its approach. Another thing to watch is kata practice. All beginners are somewhat mechanical in their moves, typically trying hard to remember these moves while in the middle of practicing them. But the higher-ranking students should look like they know exactly what they're doing when executing a kata. Katas are not a dance; every move has a practical application, and if the student is aware of this, it should come out in the movements themselves. The impression a kata practiced expertly should give is that the martial artist is moving effortlessly, yet effectively, against some invisible opponent (albeit not necessarily full-speed and 'full contact'). In commercially-oriented dojos, it's usual to see students lacking this quality because they haven't been taught the movements' practical applications, or can't remember them, because they haven't had sufficient time before being taught the next kata.

TWO: Teaching Styles and Attitudes

One of the reasons the British karate practitioner I mentioned earlier liked learning at the dojo in Taiwan was that he felt classes were taught 'Chinese-style'. What he meant by this was that the atmosphere was more informal, and that the teacher always had some words of advice for the students towards the end of the class. Another characteristic of the 'Chinese-style' class is that while the class may be, for example, from 7.00pm till 9.00pm, these times indicate the minimum time a student is expected to be present. Many stay for 15, 20, even more than 30 minutes after class to work further on whatever they had just learnt, and/or ask the instructor related questions if they have a chance. In fact, only a minority of students would leave our karate dojo as soon as the class finished every time; they didn't all pour out of the doors as soon as class ended like schoolchildren who actually couldn't wait to get away!

But those characteristics -- while they may differentiate Chinese attitudes to class time from Japanese, Korean, or those of other Asian nations -- pale into insignificance when compared with the difference in attitude of most European and north American students toward class time. At the karate dojo, I was the only non-local student, but I had seen this contrast in action at our Chinese-language students' taekwondo class...

Naturally, for one reason or another, from time to time, students will arrive late for classes anywhere. But at this class, it was often the case that more students arrived late -- often very late, and repeatedly late -- than on time, something which baffled the instructor. After all, it was their class; they had paid for it. One or two students would often turn up less than half an hour from the end of the class, and almost all skipped classes regularly. One even turned up, on more than one occasion, towards the end of the class, still suffering a hangover from the previous night, and rather than bothering to take part in the class, just stood on the sidelines, sipping a hot coffee from the local convenience store and giving advice and opinions to students and instructor alike.

Attitudes like this convinced the taekwondo master that most European students didn't really want to learn, they were just mildly curious and wanted to know what it was all about, without investing much time and effort. There is, in fact, an almost military-style discipline towards most Korean and Japanese martial arts classes in east Asia, which is something a lot of foreign students have difficulty with. That is not to say that all instructors are dour, humourless types, who just drive you till you drop. But all learning in east Asia -- including language learning, for example -- is by rote in the early stages. The teacher is assumed to know what he is doing, and the students are expected to simply follow his instructions...without the kind of endless stream of opinions that characterised our taekwondo classes. Basically, hard as it may be to accept, as a beginner, your opinions are not regarded as that worthy of being aired. This situation changes only slowly, and in correspondence with the growth in your own experience and ability.

Another problem with our lunch-time classes which gave the taekwondo instructor regular headaches was uniforms.

Almost everyone forgets some, or even all of his uniform at some time, or else, perhaps, leaves it in the wash, or forgets to collect it from the local laundry. But some of our taekwondo students almost never wore any part of the uniform. Our instructors repeatedly reminded them that students were expected to wear the uniform, urged and encouraged them to comply, and explained the reasons and benefits of wearing a uniform rather than one's own casual clothes.

All to no avail. The European attitude could probably best be summed up when one Swedish student, who seemed to have designed his own outfit, suitable for both martial arts workouts and casual wear, objected to the instructors demands when they became too persistent, telling the instructor that he didn't wear the uniform because he didn't like it. Uniforms, the Swede said, reduced the uniqueness of each personality, which he or she could express through clothing. The instructor, baffled at this refusal and explanation, made no further demands, except to say that, when it came to the black belt test, which was not held in the dojo, students not in uniform would simply not be allowed to take the test. As it happened, this was a pretty useless warning -- I was the only one in our class to go as far as taking the first level black belt. But anyway, after these disagreements on clothing, the Swedish guy didn't bother turning up at all for any further classes.

Another problem with the lunch-time class, was lunch itself. Our class finished at 1.30pm, which didn't leave much time for lunch for some students, depending on their afternoon schedules. The teacher advised students in a hurry to prepare some light snack beforehand, which could be eaten in transit to wherever they were going, but not to eat in the hour before class. One Dutch student, complained regularly during pre-class warm-ups of his discomfort -- he could hardly keep his lunch down, he told us. The teacher pointed out that he had already advised -- on more than one occasion -- students not to take lunch before class. Several students complained that they felt really hungry by eleven o'clock. The teacher told them that, in that case -- if they felt truly lacking energy or unable to concentrate because of hunger -- then they should take a light snack. No more than a sandwich should be eaten within an hour of class, he warned them. 'I can't miss lunch!' the Dutchman protested. 'I always take lunch at 11.30'!

The above are just some illustrations of the differences in attitude you may encounter learning martial arts in east Asia to what may be normal elsewhere. There are plenty of other examples, but most you will probably already have some idea about if you are contemplating living in east Asia.

Generally speaking, you will probably find Chinese classes, and Chinese society in general, more relaxed and informal than their equivalent in Japan or Korea. Uniforms are not always required in Chinese martial arts, and in some, such as yong chun, they are expressly avoided. Formalities in addressing others are generally not so heavily stressed, and bowing is kept to a minimal (in my experience, this can be as infrequent as just once, towards the teacher, at the end of class). In comparison to Japan or Korea, you will rarely see people bowing in Chinese society generally, but still, 'rarely' is a lot more than it is usually seen in western Europe. And even in Chinese classes, teachers are usually referred to as 'teacher'. This may also be 'master' in the case of the teacher being the master of the dojo, or 'instructor', if he is only an instructor employed by the master. But they are not addressed by personal name or family name, not even prefixed by 'Mr.' Even if you happened to become familiar with the teacher outside class, and call him by a personal name outside the dojo, it would be still be best to use the same title during class that the other students use.

There is also a big difference in what is perceived to be an accomplished martial artist in east Asia, and the equivalent notion in Europe or the Americas. Flick through the pages of one of the American martial arts magazines to get an idea of this. There is an awful lot of talk about 'warriors' and 'real street-fighters'. The martial artist is a second-dan black belt...and he's going to make sure everyone knows it. Thus, the public's perception of a skilled martial artist is something of a sophisticated, swaggering street thug, throwing his weight around and ready to deal with anyone who gets in his way. He's a cut above your most street thugs, to be sure, but only because he knows some fancy tricks beyond the ken of your average dim, muscle-bound yob.

The Asian notion of an accomplished martial artist is light-years away from this. As martial arts in east Asia are perceived to be something used to end violence, to bring it to a halt, you will not find the term 'warrior' used to anything like the degree that non-Asians seems willing to use it. Furthermore, like 'master', 'warrior' is a 'loaded' description, thus it is not one that any martial artist -- however accomplished -- would generally want to use on themselves. Masters are called masters by other people, not by themselves. By contrast, the pages of American martial arts magazines are filled with articles and advertisements featuring self-proclaimed 'grandmasters' of this style or that.

Also -- at least traditionally -- an accomplished Asian martial artist, rather than letting everyone know the level of his skills, lets no-one (except his own students) know this. He does not feel compelled to show off his skills at any and every opportunity, makes no claim to be a 'warrior' or a 'real street-fighter' and feels no need to prove to anyone he happens to meet that his school or style is 'the best'. He is confident of his physical abilities, therefore he has no need to use them to intimidate others. And just as countries use diplomacy to solve conflicts between each other, and don't go to war at the drop of a hat, the real martial artist does likewise on this much smaller, personal scale, often solving arguments without ever lifting a finger. Physical means are only a last resort. To adapt a hackneyed saying, a true martial artist only ever finishes fights; he doesn't start them.

Another thing you don't see much in east Asia is the obsession of 'which school is best' that seems to drive a lot of interest in martial arts outside Asia. By that I mean, 'which is better, judo or taekwondo?', or 'a Thai. boxer would hammer an aikido man', or 'no, wing chun can't be beaten; I've seen it in action', etc., etc. Most east Asians seem to realise the obvious fact that every major style has its good points and its weaknesses, its advantages -- which, in addition, are perhaps, enhanced in certain environments -- and its disadvantages. And that furthermore, not all practitioners of any one style -- even those with the same ranking -- are going to perform with equal ability, and on every occasion. The idea that there is some way to grade how 'good' the various schools are in an absolute sense stems from the notion that ability in them can be bought, like items in a supermarket. The commercially-oriented schools may have it in their interests to convince students that all they have to is decide to learn their particular style at their particular dojo to become an 'invincible warrior' or an 'unbeatable opponent' but unfortunately there is rather a lot more to it than that.


THREE: Beyond Black Belt

How long one spends learning martial arts, in east Asia, or anywhere else obviously varies hugely from person to person and can, of course, depend, on a whole bunch of factors. How long you spend learning a martial art in east Asia will also depend on some additional factors you may not have to take into account in your own home country. For example, whether or not it is an easy and straightforward matter for people of your nationality to obtain visas for the country you want to live in, and to renew or extend these visas if you want to stay longer than their original period of validity. It will also almost certainly depend on whether or not you are comfortable with the inevitable differences in the culture and lifestyle of the country you choose to train in from what you are used to back home (more about that later), and whether you have enough funds to pay tuition fees for an extended period of time, or can find a way to earn an income while you train. Of course, if you can arrange a full-time job from the outset, or if you work for an international corporation which can provide you a post in east Asia, this is an ideal way to solve the finance problem.

Still, an interesting question is, how far can you go with martial arts in east Asia if you have no other constraints? Let's say you have the financial means, you can stay legally as long as you like, you are comfortable with the lifestyle, or can at least tolerate it, you are able to attend classes and you can make yourself understood to your instructor -- preferably in his own language -- and understand everything he says. Well then, you can learn as long as you like...

As previously discussed, standards of martial arts instruction are high in east Asia, and if you find a traditionally-oriented school rather than a commercially-oriented one, you may decide to take your time and learn everything you have a chance to learn as thoroughly as possible. In this scenario, learning a belt-graded Japanese or Korean martial art can easily keep you busy for a couple of decades. It can of course be said that this is true anywhere, but what I mean is that you will still be learning new things after all those years, not merely practicing, or teaching others. In other words, you would have not have reached the stage where there is no-one else around capable of teaching you any further, nor would you be learning only from teaching others, although this is also a additional possibility.

By contrast, if you learn in a commercially-oriented dojo, as the vast majority are in Europe, you may find you have a high-level black belt after only a few years, even though you may not be a match for those holding the same belt rank in the country the martial art in question comes from.

When I began learning taekwondo at the aforementioned dojo, I had only a mild interest in martial arts and understood very little about the various systems and styles. I initially thought a black belt was the end of the line, the highest rank possible. One of my classmates explained to me that black belts ranked from first level (first dan), the lowest-ranking black belt, right up to ninth dan, with those above 5th granted only for contribution to the art, not for ability (in other words, a 5th level black belt is the highest-ranking in terms of ability).

This suddenly made sense to me, for there seemed to be a quite noticeable difference in the skill level of the school's master -- a fourth dan -- and the local first-level black belts, two of whom were by then supplementing their evening classes by practicing in our lunchtime classes.

The fact that many of us could hardly manage to land a kick in the right spot while practicing with kick bags or kick pads, while these two wiry evening class lads would unvariably slam their feet swiftly into the hand-held targets with a resounding 'thwack!' was not lost among us foreign students. Their limbs seemed like rubber and head-height side kicks and back-roundhouse kicks presented little problem for either of them.

But I didn't discover how huge the gulf between their ability and the master's was until the master joined us once in a sparring practice, many weeks later. At one point, our teacher relied entirely on the same kick -- a right roundhouse, or rather 'foot-face hook kick' -- repeatedly, simply hopping along on his left foot without ever letting his right foot back down. Even with these self-imposed constraints, he managed to land kicks repeatedly on one of the first dan black belt boys, from one end of the dojo to the other. They had obviously never had to deal with this bizarre style of attack before. On the other hand, when kicks from either of these first dan black belts actually made contact with the teacher, they seemed to bounce off like water, making no impact at all.

I had to wonder about this. Both the first level black belts were -- like all of us -- wearing full protective gear for sparring; the master wore none. These were the same tough young black belts who 20 minutes earlier had almost been knocking me off my feet as I hunkered down in the strongest stance I could manage, holding a hefty kick bag firmly to my side. Could it all be just show? Were they genuinely putting all they had into their kicks? Were they perhaps just too polite and didn't want their teacher to face the embarrassment of being knocked to the ground by one of his students?

Occasionally, the fourth dan would stifle a yawn during sparring. I was never quite sure if this was deliberate or if he was genuinely bored.

Finally, a few classes later I myself came up against the master in sparring practice. Again, the full sparring gear -- helmet, shin pads, forearm pads and upper body protective body padding -- was donned. I felt ready, willing and able to give him all I had. At first, I felt I was doing alright, landing one or two kicks on the master or grazing past him, while concentrating for the most part -- naturally -- on playing a defensive role, successfully avoiding several of his kicks. Then came a low roundhouse which I successfully blocked. It hadn't felt like a full force kick, in terms of speed. Yet I was shocked. His bare shin had made contact with my padded forearm and the pain was clearly felt by me, not him. His shin had literally felt as heavy, and as hard, as iron. And I couldn't keep the thought from my mind: what on earth had happened to this man to result in this? The rest of my three minutes was spent dodging and parrying with all the more determination to avoid a strike than would otherwise have been the case, until suddenly, a rear-leg sidekick came flying out of nowhere, hit me smack in the middle of my chest and literally sent me flying right out of sparring area.

My breath had been literally knocked right out of me by the force of this kick. After some minutes getting my breath back, I reflected on what had happened. It seemed then that the teacher had spent the first 98% of this brief sparring session play-acting, merely going through the motions to see if I was going through the motions correctly before landing this dramatic kick upon me and thus finishing the session, and the class. He could probably have executed this kick within the first few seconds if he had wanted, but then the sparring session would have been over and I would have learnt much less from it.

Around the same time, I began to realise that the martial arts of the dojo and the martial arts of martial arts films are not necessarily the same thing. In the case of taekwondo, many high kicks, jump kicks and flying kicks can look quite spectacular. But even here, in real-life sparring, kicks can sometimes look very undramatic, clumsy, awkward, and even ugly, yet still be effective. In films, on the other hand, everything has to look good, or at least be attention-grabbing.

Months later, with another student from the taekwondo class, we checked out some of the local yong chun and aikido classes, partly with a view to learning a second martial art to supplement the taekwondo, but also simply to expand our knowledge of various styles and schools. Sitting in on some of these classes, I then discovered that it wasn't even a matter of effective moves sometimes being ones that look awkward or undramatic. Sometimes, effective moves don't look anything. That is, the only thing to see is the reaction of the person on the receiving end. This kind of move is completely unsuited for filming; it just results in disbelief on the part of the viewer.

I also realised that while film martial artists like Bruce Lee and Jackie Chen may be accomplished martial artists of the highest calibre, they are by no means in a class of their own (except with respect to the fact that they combined their martial arts careers with film careers). There is no lack of highly accomplished individuals, deeply involved in martial arts, who have never given even a moment's thought to the idea of a film career, or even taking part in international kumetai (fight competitions) for that matter.

For example, I already knew that our teenage taekwondo instructor, Instructor Lee, could do every kick combination in the book, and more, at the drop of a hat. But later, at the request of some of the class's female students, he also taught half-an-hour of 'basic self-defence' skills every second class. Thus, we discovered him to be a proficient practitioner of chin-na arrest techniques (similar to aikido for those unfamiliar with the art), which he could combine freely with kick techniques and all sorts of other striking skills. Lee's father, a former full-time gung fu teacher introduced him to the world of martial arts in his very early years. By now, he was a superb martial artist who could certainly execute almost any of the actions that would typically be seen in any martial arts film. Yet, before arriving at our dojo for the mid-day class, he would spend four hours at his uncle's garage repairing cars. After class, for which he earned the equivalent of about three Euros, he would then put in several more hours' work at the car repair shop.

Lee didn't complete high school, but I discovered a few years later from a chance meeting in the street with his successor, that he had gone on to find a better job as a car salesman, and now had no time to dedicate to martial arts.

So, there are plenty of martial artists of the highest calibre, who, far from being famous, or even having the slightest inclination to become well-known, are just in martial arts for their own sake. Art for art's sake, as the saying goes.

On the other hand, the world of martial arts is awash with legendary figures of incredible ability. Every discipline -- particularly those with a long history -- has it's own stories of people in days gone by who could execute the most incredible moves in the blink of an eye.

It has to be said that almost all these stories have certainly gone through some embellishment through the telling over generations. This is in the interest of the art in question, to make those legendary figures even more inspiring to students of that school, as well as to make them even more able to instill fear and awe among those who don't belong to the school in question.

However, it also has to be said that there is also almost always some substance to these stories, and that such exceptional people are found less and less in today's world. While on the one hand many schools and styles have internationalised and now have dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of times the numbers of practitioners they had a century or two ago, the very highest standards reached today in any of the classical martial arts have dropped and continue to do so, simply because of the difference in the way martial arts are taught. In today's commercial model it simply isn't possible to produce martial artists to match the best martial artists of ancient times ('ancient times' can in some cases mean anything beyond a few decades ago).

There are people who find this hard to accept, but generally that's because they aren't considering the truly vast differences in lifestyle between today's martial arts students and those of days gone by.

An example would be a Buddhist monk I once saw perform in Taiwan, in about 1990. Though in his late 60s, the monk still practised an obscure school of gung fu called 'tong-dz gung' (literally 'child's gung fu'). His fingers could be made so hard as to puncture tin cans or shatter glass with a single poke, and he could walk on them as others walk on their feet, except that his feet were still free to kick at the same time! However, this kind of gung fu required no small commitment: it owed its name to the fact that training had to begin in childhood and a lifetime of sexual abstinence was mandatory. In the modern world -- certainly in the developed world -- handing a child over to a monastery for such a fate would probably result in the parents being jailed for such a gross abuse of human rights!

It came as no surprise then for me to learn that this monk was the last of his line in Taiwan. He himself didn't even know of a single other person in Taiwan or anywhere else in the world who practiced tong-dz gung.

The first chance I had to get to get an understanding of the fact that some aspects of certain martial skills are rapidly becoming lost arts was an experience I had in the early 1990s. If you take this with a pinch of salt, I won't blame you, I wouldn't have believed it either...

At the week-ends, the Shaolin gung fu school I was attending held a sparring class. Master Chen was giving a talk one time about the problems of fear and nervousness interfering with our physical intentions. I had not been paying close attention until -- at Chen's instruction -- one of the senior instructors faced off against Chen, ready to spar. At first, I could only think that this instructor was faking his apparent shaky nervousness as he made what seemed like huge, over-jittery reactions to Chen's every hint of a move in his direction. As this was going on, Chen was actually explaining, without looking away from the instructor, that he had mentally established his power and ability to overwhelm the instructor. Now, far from daring to move against him, his opponent could only hope to react quick enough to avoid Chen's blows; his fight would be entirely defensive.

It all seemed too unreal to be anything but a pre-coordinated show. I swiftly began to picture in my mind how I would react if pitted against Chen.

Then, Master Chen suddenly called me forward, to give a 'yet clearer example' to the class.


It crossed my mind that Chen may have made an enormous miscalculation. He may have thought that I, as one of the lower-ranking students present that day, was one of the few students who could be relied on to 'naturally' react in the same way that I thought the instructor could just now only have been instructed to act. If this was the case, Chen was going to be 'sorely' disappointed, I told myself. On the one hand, I didn't approve of putting on a show for the teacher's benefit; on the other, if he thought I would be a natural 'pushover', he had grossly underestimated by sparring ability.

As I faced off against Chen, I reminded myself that I held two black belts and had sparred successfully countless times. Sometimes even against opponents bigger and heavier than myself, as sparring in the dojo is not usually limited to those who happen to be in the same weight range. Master Chen was a stocky man, but shorter than myself. I would not be part of his show, but I would give him a chance to back out. I rapidly decided his hints of impending attack would elicit no reaction from me. I would not react at all in fact, till Chen came almost within kicking range, then I would throw two or three rapid-fire 'safe' high kicks such as a couple of fronts and an axe. They would no doubt be successfully avoided, but would certainly brush close enough to his face to make him think twice and change his demonstration strategy.

The other students looked on all around us, closing in a little. For what seemed like an endless time, I struggled to try to bring back the thoughts of a few moments previously; not to lose my own strategy. Unlike the previous demonstration, however, Chen was not even moving. And I seemed to be rooted to the spot with some force pushing firmly against me. When Master Chen did slide a step forward, I did nothing, but not because I had decided I wouldn't move till he came within range. I couldn't move. Then Chen slid another step forward, almost within range now. In a state of what could only be described as dopey panic, I realised this was supposed to be the moment of a couple of rapid-fire warning kicks Yet I couldn't move now for the life of me. Then, without further ado, Chen, closed the gap and pointed out that now he could strike me anywhere and nothing I could do at this point would be fast enough to stop him.

He had been entirely right. But I was more confused than ever. What had just happened simply didn't make any sense to me. I had done absolutely nothing to stop him. I just could not explain it, beyond saying that something seemed to stop me moving, and that was not an obvious, physical thing. Afterwards, I wondered if Chen had hypnotised me, but that didn't seem logical -- I was far too tensed up to be hypnotised.

All that was left of that lesson was the knowledge that what happened to me left me without the ability to react, clued to the spot, an easy victim for someone with such a skill. And, the knowledge that -- thankfully -- nobody else among Chen's students, including the highest-ranking instructors, had this rare skill. Master Chen would say no more on the topic that day, except that the skill he had just demonstrated was only taught when the student reaches 'a certain level of advancement'.

Learning such skills are probably beyond the potential of many of us, even given the most ideal learning environment. The 'modern world' is a long way from that. There are so many things clamouring for our attention nowadays, that most people feel themselves lucky if they can break away from them for just a few moments now and again to study anything at all, let alone such formidable skills.

In today's world, it is almost impossible for anyone to free himself entirely of the incessant barrage of information which comes at us from every angle, in the form of newspapers, magazines, cable television, dvds, the Internet, etc., etc. We also find ourselves swamped with social and political concerns, 'causes' not of our own making, that nevertheless grip our attention and force us to take one viewpoint or another and learn how to argue our viewpoints convincingly.

While it's easy to say 'I'd just shut those things out of my life and concentrate on my training' -- and some who have never tried to do so may really imagine they can do just that -- the practice is much, much more difficult. Because today, even your fellow students and your instructor/s would hardly be likely to live like that. They too are probably recruits to a host of 'causes'; they have refined their viewpoints on a huge range of modern-day concerns. They also probably feel that a life dedicated entirely to martial arts is not quite a 'full' life, and thus have other hobbies, interests or pastimes which clamour for their time and attention. They too want to have social lives.

Even if you could lock yourself up to train in a monastery you may find yourself disappointed; monks and nuns of recent years are ever more involved in righting social injustices and increasingly less likely to spend their time totally separated from the concerns of the outside world.

So, while it's theoretically possible to live a life dedicated entirely to the practice of some martial art, and still find that there are some more esoteric aspects of the art remaining to be learnt -- skills you simply don't have the years left for -- in reality this kind of training hardly exists anymore, even in the most traditionalist schools. And even the most traditionalist schools are also increasingly commercial in their concerns.

But in ancient times, that was not always the case, hence the continuing drop in the highest standards. Training once took place in schools that had no need to be commercially viable. Also, whether the master was a monk in a monastery, a military man or a civilian whose dojo was supported by a feudal lord, he would, to a great degree, be free of the need to impress students. He could teach them what he saw fit, when and how he saw fit. And, if such a possibility existed as a student who had come under a master's tutelage merely out of idle interest -- for a hobby perhaps -- he wouldn't stay long. All students were 'serious' students!

Today, many people study a coloured-belt martial arts system to the point of first level black belt, then -- as mentioned already -- give up and never practice again. It goes without saying that a far greater number never manage to get to black belt standard, dropping out anywhere along the way. Taken together, this number would easily account for the vast majority of people who ever formally study a martial art.

A much smaller number go on to second level black belt in the same system or else study another system from scratch. Of the yet smaller number who go on to third level black belt, almost all will be looking to make some financial returns on what by this point is already a sizeable investment, even just in monetary terms, let alone time. In other words, they will be training for a career as an instructor.

So...can you do that in east Asia? Learn an Asian martial art to high enough level, then teach the same art to Asians?

The good news is 'Yes'. However...

I mean, yes, there are a number of foreign martial arts students who have gone on to teach in east Asian countries. But the bad news is that the difficulties you face in taking this route are enormous.

The main difficulty is that, as mentioned already, some martial arts are regarded, by many people at least, as a part of the nation's culture. To have a foreign national set up shop teaching an art perceived to belong to their own culture, seems to many people to be something of an insult. Hence, most non-Asians hoping for a career in the martial arts will eventually follow that career in their own country of origin, no matter how many years they spend training in Asia


But there are those who go on to teach east Asian martial arts in east Asia. The Hollywood actor, Steven Seagal, is perhaps the most well-known example of this. Seagal has taught aikido at a dojo in Osaka for many years now. But, even here (quite apart from the fact that Seagal would have easily enough funds to run a school whether it made a good profit or not, if he really wanted to), a large proportion of students at Seagal's dojo are non-local (though perhaps not the majority), and that is the case with most martial arts schools run by non-Asians.

Any foreign student who follows this route will also definately have his work cut out for him, in terms of convincing locals of his qualifications to teach them.

This can be neatly summed up by a typical scene I remember from practicing martial arts in a park on Hongkong island in the early 1990s. Like most of Hongkong's parks in the early mornings, this one was full of people exercising almost every day, including a good many practitioners of taiji and other martial arts. The vast majority, of course, were Chinese.

Occasionally, however, I would see a fellow non-Asian working out at a martial arts routine, and at this particular time I noticed a white guy in his early 20s, not far from where I was, executing an unfamiliar kata. As I finished my own practice, I stood to watch him work out a complex kata with a lot of difficult footwork. He landed off-balance after one jump-kick and almost slipped up completely. Nothing about this was unusual; it was the just the sort of thing which typically could and would happen time and again with any local practicing such difficult moves, and would never have elicited more than a glance from any onlookers normally. But in this case, a group of locals who had also been watching the foreigner burst out in guffaws and mocking laughter!

I had noticed this group of chubby, middle-aged locals before; they usually stood chattering while doing some mild stretching and arm shaking. They certainly didn't look like they had ever spent any time practicing any movements remotely as difficult as the foreign guy had been.

While this occasion is one of those that still remains in my memory, I have to say that such reactions are quite normal in Chinese society, and hundreds of others are simply lost in memory. This is just something to be expected on a daily basis. That is to say, for a good many people, the slightest false move by a non-Chinese martial arts practitioner will only confirm the obvious to them: foreigners 'can't do' these things like Chinese. On the other hand, any number of remarkably difficult moves executed with expert precision by a non-Chinese will not convince some people that these skills could be anything other than easy-to-master, suitable-for-foreigners techniques; anything else would fly in the face of their views of their nation's place in the world.

So, teaching Asians 'their' arts is not a challenge to take up lightly.

FOUR: Just the Past Few Thousand Years

However, even if you don't have such ambitions, you will inevitably met the above-mentioned problem in different guises during a prolonged stay in east Asia. Most east Asians, particularly Chinese, consider themselves culturally superior to other races. There is even no shortage of those so chauvinistic as to doubt that there could be anything at all a foreigner could know worthy of learning, so it's easy to imagine how some can bristle at the very notion of a foreigner teaching them aspects of their own culture.

This isn't to say that you can expect to be mocked and ridiculed by the locals at every turn, but it has to be said that, generally speaking, these notions of cultural superiority run deep and, furthermore, if you spend some time in Chinese society, you can't avoid running into this problem.

For example, if you choose to spend months, even years, learning to communicate with Chinese in their own language, you will still meet those who insist on speaking to you in English, even if they can hardly string a single sentence together. Some will do this even if your Chinese is obviously fluent, and even if you insist you don't speak English; to do otherwise would be seen by them as a loss of face.

You can't really get around problems like this easily. Faced with a white man or woman speaking fluent and correct Chinese, and lacking even the basic English needed to put up a pretence in front of others, many Chinese will opt for the tactic of putting on a deliberately exaggerated 'foreign' accent for the sake of face. Like many other aspects of Chinese culture, some Chinese, for whatever reason, believe proficiency in Chinese language (whether Mandarin or another dialect) to be beyond the abilities of 'foreign barbarians'.

Hence, this need to deliberately mispronounce words while in conversation with a foreigner in front of other Chinese. Chinese is a tonal language; words with the same basic pronunciation have a different meaning if given a different tone. This 'foreign' accent generally has deliberately flattened tones, but it may also feature deliberately incorrect tones when and if the speaker realises the opportunity to provide his audience with amusing double entendres.

This can make for an amusing game, as the local, believing the foreigner to be unable to distinguish tones properly, is able (theoretically, at least) to mock the outsider without the outsider even being aware of it. In this model, nobody loses face; at worst the foreigner simply feels a little baffled that onlookers are sniggering at something apparently happening very close by.

Of course, the success of this depends entirely on the flawed notion that somehow only Chinese are capable of learning to distinguish tones properly.

There is another, somewhat related, phenomenon which should be of interest to any outsider ('foreigner' in Chinese -- and Chinese-derived vocabulary in Japanese and other east Asian languages -- is literally 'outsider', or 'outside-country person', and refers generally to non-east Asians, or 'Euro-mericans' as the Chinese term describes caucasians). Anywhere in east Asia, there are those who view outsiders in more benevolent terms. They are ready and willing to impart knowledge relating to the superior aspects of their culture to foreigners. After all, if even barbarians can be brought about to learning some of the simpler aspects of their superior culture, everybody benefits. These foreigners may return to their respective countries, taking this valuable knowledge with them, and in turn teach others. It's almost as if the possibility exists to indirectly help an entire nation take a step up the evolutionary ladder.

Any outsider who spends more than a few weeks in east Asia will almost certainly encounter at least one -- and probably many more -- unqualified (or self-qualified) 'history teachers' and, if he is practicing martial arts, perhaps even a 'martial arts guru'.

The 'martial arts guru' image is a vivid one, featured in countless martial arts films from the Karate Kid onwards: the inexperienced westerner, who has the interest, energy and will to learn but none of the other prerequisites, is carefully tutored by the wiser, more experienced, easterner. His lessons -- while sometimes painful -- finally result in the westerner getting a grasp on such inherently (for the westerner) difficult subjects as patience and applying them to his fighting skills.


As a martial arts student in east Asia, you will almost certainly encounter this type of martial arts 'master', who is willing to take you under his wing and give you the benefit of his vast knowledge. The only problem is, far from being a sage-like master, whose every sentence is laden with age-old truths and wisdom, the 'master' may very well be less experienced than yourself -- perhaps even a fellow student in your school with a lower ranking than yourself!

Even -- or maybe, especially -- in society at large you can meet this problem. At the park on Hongkong island I mentioned above, where I took regular morning workouts, I found myself on two occasions insisting repeatedly to complete strangers that I had no interest in learning martial arts with them. Even if they did want to teach me for free. I had to explain that I already had a teacher.

The 'history teacher', on the other hand, is someone you will meet if you spend any significant amount of time in east Asia, regardless of what you are doing there.

As mentioned already, all east Asian societies are, relative to western Europe -- let alone the US -- more traditionally oriented. Family ties are generally stronger, religious beliefs are stronger, and more attention is paid to tradition and formality. Most nations are also very proud of their histories and tend to pay a lot of attention to the aspects of their culture that make them unique.

A less complimentary way of putting that is that some east Asian don't look forward to the future, but dwell in the past. Often this is not a historic past at all, but a mythical past, lost in the mists of time. If you spend any time in east Asia you will hear plenty of references to two, three, four, and even 'five thousand years of history' (strangely, you won't hear many claims of say, '2,400 years of history'; this would perhaps indicate someone who knew what he or she was talking about). In Japan and the nations of Indo-China, it's two or three thousand, depending on who you talk to, in Korea, it's four thousand. China leads the pack with the outrageous claim of 5,000 years of history.

I have heard occasional references to 6,000 years of Chinese culture, but generally speaking it seems that most people feel it's still a little early yet for that claim, so '5,000 years of history' or 'more than 5,000 years of history' (or worse still, 'more than 5,000 years of history and superior culture') are what you will generally hear in Chinese society. This is also the official line; that is, this is the kind of nonsense you will often hear Chinese government officials spouting.

In fact, little more than 2,000 years of history can be justly claimed by any nation in east Asia, and little more than three even for China And that's by the furthest stretches of the imagination and definition of the word 'nation'. In all cases, everything beyond that is no more than unsubstantiated myth and legend. This is something any historian -- including Chinese historians -- would be aware of, but in order to encourage nationalistic sentiment, this idea of '5,000 years of history and culture' is actively promoted by the Chinese government and easily accepted by 'the masses'.

A contrast is often drawn with the '200 years' of history of 'the West' -- by which is meant the United States of America. Most Chinese do not view 'the West' as a vague description of a loose grouping of developed countries with somewhat similar, yet differing cultures and histories. They see it as a single entity, whose central government is in Washington, USA, so there is something of an underlying 'logic' for this shrunken history of the United States applying to nearly all the developed world.

Some people will feel very strongly about such convictions, faulty as they may be in fact, and leap at a chance to express them. An experience that still remains fresh in my mind is when I taught a 'conversation' class in Taiwan in early 1986. At the time, the island had not yet really opened up the outside world, and was still very much in the firm grip of the Chinese Nationalist government which fled China after defeat at the hands of the Communists. Indigenous Taiwanese culture, even the local dialect, was actively discouraged, while a sense of pride in being from China, was actively encouraged.

The kind of 'conversation class' I was teaching was becoming very popular in Taiwan at the time; a chance for more advanced students to practice their English in informal conversation with a native speaker (many of whom were actually from France, Germany, Spain and other 'English-speaking nations'). The hourly rates were relatively low, but all one had to do was correct mistakes and keep the conversation going. On this occasion, we were about 10 minutes into the class when a new student walked in, taking the seat nearest to where I was standing, and briefly introducing himself with the English name of Ben. He listened for a few minutes to the rest of the class discussing Taipei's ever-worsening air pollution problems before he could finally contain himself no longer, cut off one of the other students and shouted to me bluntly: 'You have no pollution in New York? You have no cars yet in New York? Or you have cars but no air pollution, like magic, only for Americans?'

I told him I believed New York also had an air pollution problem, but I couldn't be sure how serious it was, having never been there, and Ben burst out in a loud guffaw. I had never been to New York! Was I a peasant, just pretending to be a teacher?

When I told him I wasn't from New York or anywhere near it, he stood up and, facing me, demanded: 'Where you from? Which state, which state?'.

'California' I answered. This was just to humour the new student and entertain the rest of the class, who knew I wasn't even American. 'Ha! Ha! California!', Ben burst out, 'The state with the least history of all!

'You have NO history!' Ben stood shouting at me from a distance of about half a metre. 'None! You have NOTHING!'

I was considering how to calm Ben down, when he stepped even closer and, spluttering with anger, proclaimed: 'We have the 5,000! We have the 5,000! You have NOTHING...Ha!' Slowly, he moved back to his seat, now sweating profusely, shaking, and breathing hard. The tension was palpable, but it seemed their would be no fists flying this first class. 'California!', he muttered. 'And you came here to teach me? Ha!'

In his haste and anger, Ben had forgotten to add 'years' to 'the 5,000', but everybody knew which 5,000 he was talking about. Then, he too realised his mistake, and added: 'We have 5,000 years -- yes, years -- of history, and culture, and...' he searched for the words, before finally claiming triumphantly '...unparalleled civilisation!.'

(Ben and I later became good friends and drinking buddies. He eventually became a pilot for Taiwan's national carrier, China Airlines, and the last I heard of him, in about 1994, he had emigrated to the land of his dreams).

It would have been obvious to anyone listening to Ben speaking with such conviction, that more than a little painstaking labour had gone into memorising his words before the opportunity finally arrived (almost throwing him into a panic) to say them and put the 'American' in his place. In most east Asian societies, 'face' and formality take precedence over other considerations. In other words, putting on a good appearance is what it's really all about.

Sometimes, and certainly in Chinese society, you may feel that the questions strangers ask you in casual conversation sound rehearsed, and that the person doing the asking isn't really listening to your answer. Then they probably really are simply asking the kind of questions people learn to ask 'foreigners'. These questions are like polite greetings. In the same way that elementary English language classes will feature a teacher asking the class, 'How are you?' and the class, replying in unison with the 'correct' answer -- 'I'm fine, thank you, and you?' -- time after time, until it's thoroughly memorised, an answer that differs from this will result either in a moment's confusion, or more likely, be completely ignored. The asker may even feel you didn't understand the question.

The style of government in Taiwan has changed a lot since those days, but in the PRC, even today (2008), students and others going abroad are issued government literature advising them how they should talk to foreigners, how they should talk about themselves and their country, topics to avoid and how to do so, and so forth. Once, while working on Taipei's local English-language newsheet in 1990, I had a surreal experience of this.

At the time, the Taiwanese government-appointed censor had been removed from his post a few weeks earlier as part of open government reforms and a lot of news reports were now getting into print without any kind of official oversight ('government information office' officials still called the editor to issue instructions on how touchy political news items should be reported, but minor non-political news items -- 'social' or 'society' news in Chinese -- were reported uncensored). I had just finished copy-editing a couple of gruesome ones. In the first, a 14 year-old schoolboy had felt slighted by the doorman of the apartment building he lived in. He returned to his apartment building with two friends, the three teenagers then beat the old man unconscious, doused him with petrol and burned him alive. In the second, a young man had not been able to tolerate his girlfriend repeatedly beating him at card games in front of friends. He leapt upon her, and killed her in front of them with the nearest weapon, a screwdriver, gouging her eyes out in the process.

Looking up from these stories and others like them, I was faced with the sight of a new journalist from Beijing, who had started the previous day (my day off). The thin, bespectacled character looked the epitome of the Chinese intellectual. He introduced himself to me. 'Welcome to Taiwan', he said warmly, extending his hand. 'We Chinese stress friendship and hospitality', he went on, 'especially to our foreign friends. You know, we have 5,000 years of history and culture compared to the West's 200, and yet...' At that point I couldn't help but burst out laughing, and asked whether he had learnt his spiel from the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) or the KMT (the Chinese Nationalist Party, Taiwan's government). In fact, he was a dissident, who had taken part in Beijing's democracy demonstrations the previous year. He had spoken out publicly against the government prior to the Tienanmen massacre, and thus had to flee the subsequent nationwide crackdown. Despite that, he had not forgotten his lines and the importance of putting on a 'good face' to foreigners; his introduction stayed fairly close to the kind the PRC government would have recommended when talking to 'outsiders'. Needless to say, my response took him aback completely, and for the remainder of his stay with that newspaper, he didn't speak another word to me.

These national characteristics have been actively promoted by the communist government since it's establishment in Beijing in 1950. But they are not a creation of the CCP. The Nationalists before them encouraged the same ways of dealing with foreigners, and continued to do so after fleeing to Taiwan. They not do not require very much 'spiritual engineering' (Chairman Mao's term for 'brainwashing') to bring forth. Sometimes even overseas Chinese will be amply endowed with them, as they often learn these characteristics in their 'home education' (ie., from their parents and other elder relatives).

It's useful to understand something of the Chinese mind-set, even if you don't train in Chinese east Asia ('greater China'). China is by far the largest country in east Asia, with a south-east Asian diaspora equal in size to the population of a sizeable ASEAN state.

Another point worth making is that most long-term foreign residents -- even certified 'ethnic-worshippers', as most sinologists are -- almost always come to a point of feeling despondent and frustrated that none of their enthusiasm for Chinese culture is reflected among their Chinese friends and associates.

There never has been in Chinese society (and certainly won't be in the foreseeable future) much interest in foreign culture, customs and traditions, except in as much as it may relate to opportunities for commercial enterprise.

That is to say, at present, there is, confusingly perhaps, a huge interest among young Chinese in learning English, and some interest in leaning Japanese, which can give the initial impression of interest in the cultures where those languages are spoken.

This impression is mistaken. English is, of course, essential for doing business with or in the United States, not to mention Canada, the UK, Australia and New Zealand. It is also perceived (wrongly, but that's another matter) as being universally understood in western Europe, thus all that is really required for living in most of the developed world.

Despite slow growth for over a decade, Japan's is still the dominant economy in east Asia, and, by virtue of proximity, for many Chinese (especially for those reluctant to relocate to a distant land) it is actually the preferred destination for legal and illegal immigration, both of which have rocketed in the past decade.

These interests among Chinese in improving language ability have absolutely nothing to do with interest in other nations, per se. Unlike the major cities of Japan, for example, where language schools can be found offering tuition in all the world's major languages, there is virtually zero interest in these to be found in Chinese cities. For most Chinese, it doesn't make much sense to waste time dwelling on the ways of people of inferior cultures.


FIVE: Racism and Ethnic Chauvinism

Most European societies, and virtually all of the Americas are multi-ethnic. After moving to Asia, many Europeans and Americans continue to see Asians through the prism of their own home societies, where Asians form ethnic minorities, along with other minorities from other parts of the world. Asians forming such minorities obviously have it in their interests to be opposed to racism in their adopted European and American (or Australasian) homelands. Thus, it sometimes seems contradictory to the newly-arrived European living in Asia that Asians could be racist or racialist in their outlook.

The uncomfortable truth is that they are, by European standards at least.

This is a fact that has to be faced up to from the start if one expects to get by in Asia without constantly feeling slighted, insulted, or the victim of racist abuse. This fact is a natural consequence of the fact that most Asian societies -- as well as most Middle Eastern and African societies for that matter -- are not multi-ethnic, but centred around a single dominant ethnic group.

Furthermore, these societies are not obliged to accept the standards of other states in this respect. Many people from multi-ethnic societies have a tendency to see societies with a single ethnic group as less developed and somehow imagine that when political pluralism comes to that country, racial pluralism will follow, and the end result will be a kind of 'Asian western' country, with large ethnic minorities sharing their legally-protected equal rights with the dominant ethnic group.

This view is a little immature, and in any case is a long way off the mark.

This may seem a bit irrelevant for someone merely studying martial arts in east Asia, but it helps to know where you stand in society. It also helps to know where you don't stand. Firstly, you are not the same as the people among whom you are living, and this difference is obvious from the outset. Secondly, as an 'obvious foreigner', with these 'distinguishing features' of appearance (unless you happen to be, for example, a European of Chinese descent, and are now living in Chinese society) that are always going to be immediately noticeable as alien, you cannot expect to ever be treated like a local, no matter how long you stay and no matter how familiar with the language and customs etc., etc., you become, .

I've known a number of long-term foreign residents in places like China, especially Hongkong, who have started out in love with the culture and the people and ended up bitterly racist in their own outlooks as a result of not being able to come to terms with living among people who are inherently unable to accept Europeans on equal terms.

This is not to say that there is no such thing, for example, as white (caucasian) or black (negro) Asians. There are, as well as various 'mixed bloods' but these populations are so tiny as to be completely unnoticeable to the majority in most east Asian countries. Democracy and equal rights don't work in their favour either, as their numbers are simply too insignificant. Furthermore, as most east Asian states are already very densely populated, this ratio is unlikely to change much in coming decades in the way that demographic changes may be possible in the Americas or Australia, for example.

So, as a non-Asian living in east Asia, whether for months, years or even decades, it helps to know that most people -- and all strangers -- will judge you first and foremost by appearance and treat you accordingly.

There is also the problem here that certain foreign nationals have made themselves enemies in other countries more through their own country's foreign policies more than any actions of their own, or their fellow foreign nationals living abroad for that matter And then there is the related problem of being mistaken for being from another (more disliked) country.

You don't necessarily need to stay a long time in a country to be a victim of this. For example, on every one the three visits I made to Seoul, South Korea, in the late 1980s -- each visit lasting only a few days -- complete strangers shouted abuse at me of the 'Yank go home' variety. When, on my third visit, I mentioned this situation to an Iranian staying in the same hotel as myself, he laughed heartily. He -- light-skinned in appearance -- had also been a regular victim of anti-American sentiment on his various visits to South Korea. What a contradictory situation for an Iranian -- a national of a country, at that time anyway, openly anti-American, and lacking even diplomatic relations with the United States, to be repeatedly the victim of the locals' anti-American sentiment!

As I mentioned earlier, I didn't set out with the intention of following a training in martial arts anywhere in Asia, but rather 'happened upon' martial arts.

The reasons that initially fired my interest in martial arts were all the wrong ones. The first time I recall seriously entertaining the thought of learning a martial art was while in Thailand in about 1985, when I thought of learning muay Thai. (Thai. boxing), in order to feel somehow avenged of past 'mistreatment' as well as to protect myself from any possibly similar event in the future.

I was working in Bangkok at the time as an English teacher, and still living in guest house accommodation. Usually, evenings were spent with some of the other teachers from the language school, several of whom lived nearby in other guest houses, but this Friday night I found myself out alone, and determined to have a good time. I ended up in a bar in another part of town with a group of four young Thais -- three guys and a girl -- I had met earlier in one of the restaurants I usually ate in.

For reasons known only to the girl and her boyfriend, she began making eyes at me from across the table where we were sat in the bar. At first I felt uncomfortable with this situation, but when it led to her playing 'footsie' under the table, I began to wonder what the actual relationship was between the two of them. My Thai. was not very good, they spoke almost no English, and I thought I must have missed or misunderstood something.

That was a question I couldn't ponder for long. With absolutely no warning, the boyfriend -- a scrawny, acned teenager I would not normally have considered a physical threat -- leapt from his seat next to his 'girlfriend' and landed a blow to my head that literally floored me. I had hardly a chance to know what had hit me. When I looked up, his friends were already on their feet, with the boyfriend screaming and shouting at his girlfriend while the others tried to keep him from hitting her.

The barman and doorman were soon involved in bringing calm to the situation and as I struggled to my feet I noticed a lot of pointing in my direction. Before I knew it, I was being shoved out of the bar by the doorman, a burly but overweight character who looked like he had been hired more for his ugliness than any real strength. He was actually shorter than me, and much fatter, and I didn't take too kindly to his repeated shoving at the back of my neck. When he got the door open, he literally booted me out of the place, and I skidded onto the ground amid laughter from another man who had been talking to the doorman when we entered.

That was it! I had had no opportunity to object, had been punched, shoved, kicked, knocked to the floor twice, and laughed at. Without a further thought, I ran back at the doorman, with the intention of ramming him into the door and leaving him dazed on the ground. What actually happened was that he caught me with an instep kick that knocked me to the ground, yet again.

This time I ended up fending off a barrage of kicks from the doorman and his friend, and had no chance to rise. Then, something I just couldn't comprehend happened: a group of youths who had been idling around by a couple of motorcycles nearby, and didn't seem to be anything to do with the bar, came over and joined in, yelping and whooping as they landed their stamps and kicks on me, enjoying themselves immensely, or so it seemed.

I was kicked unconscious and, I suppose, dragged a little way from the bar, because I was about 20 metres from the place when I came to. I came to several times during that night, but felt in such pain every time I tried to move that I just stayed on the pavement. I was unable to muster enough strength to get to my feet anyway. When I finally did manage to get up and begin hobbling back in the direction of my guesthouse, it was dawn. It had not escaped my notice that in this city of millions of devout Buddhists, no-one had lifted a finger to help me. And -- of course -- the money I had brought out with me, was gone. Luckily, that wasn't very much.

It seemed to me that the youths who put the boot in in Bangkok had done so just for the sheer fun of it. I could never be sure a Thai. would not have got the same treatment. But it also seemed very possible that I had been the victim was a racist attack. I vowed then to learn muay Thai. to protect myself against people like that in the future. I never got around to that, and it was nearly a year later that I began learning taekwondo in Taiwan.

Not long after our Chinese-language students' taekwondo class began, we were joined by a Canadian named Paul. He had sat in on a class and a few weeks later admitted to me over lunch near the dojo that before seeing our class he had never even heard of taekwondo. But, after sitting in on some sparring sessions, he said, he knew that this was what he was looking for. 'If you're a foreigner in this country, you just have to know how to protect yourself', he told me, and then related the experience which had convinced him of the need to learn a martial art...

One warm autumn evening, Paul was sitting at a roadside stand eating noodles and drinking a bottle of the local brew, when a couple of rowdy characters who had just finished their drinks made to walk by his table. They stopped upon seeing Paul and ordered another beer.

'Welcome to Taiwan', one said in English, placing the beer in front of the Canadian. 'Drink!'. Paul claimed to have declined politely, explaining in Chinese that he had already had a beer and needed to get up early the next morning. But before he could leave his seat, the Taiwanese pushed him back down, telling Paul that he was his guest in Taiwan and a guest could not refuse. The Canadian then said that he was nobody's guest, that he had come to Taiwan by himself and made to rise. He was stopped short when the bottle of beer was picked up swiftly and brought crashing down on his head. After a barrage of racist insults, the two locals walked calmly away, and the Canadian staggered to his feet, his head bleeding profusely.

Finishing his story, Paul parted his thick black hair to reveal a cresent-shaped scar about 6 centimetres long. 'I should have had stitches, but I had no health insurance...and this was past 11 o'clock at night -- where was I even going to find a clinic? And, when something like that happens', he told me, 'forget about help from the locals: they'll act as if they haven't seen anything. Guaranteed.'

Paul, like myself, it seemed, had been the victim of a racist attack. Of course, racist attacks happen everywhere, and east Asia is no exception. But some Europeans, particularly white Europeans, are slow in coming to terms with this. This is, perhaps, partly because racist attacks -- both physical and verbal -- are usually much more overt in western Europe and north America.

One of the main reasons there are few openly racist, extremist 'nazi'-type groups in Asia as compared to Europe is that there is little call for them. Those ethnic minorities which are visibly very different (and have, perhaps, very different lifestyles or cultural values) from the dominant ethnic group of any particular Asia country are relatively tiny in number, generally are not competing on the same job markets, do not plan to stay on in their adopted country permanently, and are, right from the start, regarded anyway as almost living on a separate plane from that of the nation's 'citizens'.

Given similar circumstances, however, it's possible to see the difference in Asian outlooks on ethnicity from those of Europeans. The Malay peninsula (including Singapore) is a rare example of a truly multi-racial Asian society. Malaysia is populated by three main ethnic groups: ethnic Malays, ethnic Chinese, and ethnic Indians (in that order), as well as a number of relatively small groups of various mixed-bloods and then the insignificant Malay aboriginals, who are now only an ever-smaller, fast disappearing, minority.

At the time of independence from Britain, ethnic Chinese accounted for a share of the population roughly equal to that of the ethnic Malays (this has since fallen to just over half of that of the ethnic Malays). However, even with Malaysian nationality, ethnic Chinese and ethnic Indians were not accorded the same legal rights as Malays, and this situation persists to the present day. Even at the time of writing, a non-Malay Malaysian must enter into an agreement with a Malay Malaysian to start a company, for example.

Malay Malaysians see this as a way of ensuring that the country moves towards a common Malay identity with a homogeneous ethnicity. While an Asian state may be populated by a number of ethnic groups, ethnic diversity is not typically something celebrated in the same way it often is in European countries. While accepted, it is also usually taken for granted (at least by the dominant ethnic group) that all the minor ethnic groups are, if not facing immediate assimilation, then certainly on a course to be eventually assimilated. And this is, naturally, regarded as a good thing.

Another important difference to bear in mind when considering the various ethnic minorities of east Asian nations is that (assuming no difference in dress), they may be appear visibly little different from people of the dominant ethnic group, especially to the untrained eye. In western Europe, by contrast, people are used to seeing those of differing ethnic heritage appearing markedly different from the main ethnic group. For example, a British national of Jamaican ancestry will not generally look like a Briton of Anglo-saxon ancestry, and this is nowadays very much taken for granted and accepted. Furthermore, as the colonial era recedes further and further into history for those European countries with major overseas possessions, more inter-ethic marriage occurs. Add to that that the various EU states are ever more integrated, and minorities of any one state are now mixing more than ever with minority and majority ethnic groups of any of the other EU states. Thus, today it is becoming difficult in some European countries to define an appearance and behaviour typical and representative of the nation.

This is not the case in most Asian countries.

An experience I had shortly after arriving in Taiwan in the mid-1980s made me realise that people of drastically different appearance from the dominant ethnic group can be very unwelcome in Asian societies.

At that time, whites were rarely seen even on the busiest streets of the island's capital. I don't think I had even seen any blacks in the time I had spent there up to that point (a few weeks). The government, still basically a mainland Chinese-run dictatorship, had set the island on a course of economic -- and perhaps even eventual political -- reform, but foreign travellers were still few and far between.

One day, a German man staying at my guesthouse, who made a living as an extra in films needing caucasians told some of the other guests excitedly that there was a local film director who needed foreign extras for a film set in Africa due to start immediately. There was easily enough work for all of us (about a dozen young men and women, all white) if we were interested. Africans, or black Americans or Europeans, were needed too, the German told us...

A few days later, we extras were taken by minibus to a site just outside Taipei where filming was taking place. It had been set up to look like a marketplace in some east African capital. Problem number one, however, was that only one black, an African-American who had originally planned only a two-day stopover had been found. The remaining several dozen 'blacks' to feature as extras in this film (in appearance, it should be said, they all appeared more African than Chinese) were locals, the children of African-American G.I.s deployed to Taiwan in the late 1950s, and Taiwanese mothers. Most spoke only the Taiwanese dialect and none spoke any English, so everything we learnt about them came via a Dutch Mandarin student who also spoke the Taiwanese dialect. (The above-mentioned 'blacks' played the roles of stall-keepers in the market. The local military and the rebels that they fought throughout that market were played -- believe it or not -- by Chinese with dark face paint).

The moment filming finished for lunch, members of the public who had been watching with interest from nearby hurried over to ask questions. We -- that is, mostly, we residents of the guesthouse -- were instantly surrounded by locals with a barrage of questions: where were we from, had we made films before, how long would we stay in Taiwan, etc.. We were generally flattered by the interest of the local residents, and by their friendliness. There were also a few sighs of admiration as it was discovered that some of our number could communicate well in Chinese.

Then, one man, in his late 40s or early 50s and less shy than most of the young people turned to one of the black Taiwanese and asked: 'And which state are you from?' The black man smiled and replied in fluent Taiwanese, and the whole group of onlookers went deadly silent...staring with mixture of revulsion and fascination at the blacks among us. Unlike the painfully cultivated and phoney-sounding 'Beijing hua' spoken by those of us who could speak some Chinese, this was fluent Chinese of the local variety, the naturalness of which left nobody in any doubt that these people were in fact, from Taiwan. Several of the other Taiwan-born blacks chimed in with comments, mostly delivered with friendly laughs, but they were greeted only by silent, open-mouthed stares. After quite some time of a very uncomfortable silence, some of us tried to get the conversations going again by actually firing a few questions back at our inquisitors of a few moments ago. Interest was eventually re-kindled, and we were once again surrounded by friendly people. This time, however, the locals studiously made it clear they were only interested only in talking to us whites. They avoided even looking in the direction of the black Taiwanese from that point on.

Afterward, the Dutchman apologised to the black Taiwanese for the way we seemed to have taken all the interest and attention. According to his translation of their reaction, the Taiwanese blacks hadn't minded at all. They were used to such unfriendliness, and often much worse, 'especially from mainlanders'.

Several years later, I saw a newspaper report in one of the local newspapers. It seemed the Taiwan government had scored a great success in finally solving 'the problem' of several dozen black Americans with local mothers who had been 'exiled' in Taiwan for several decades. The US government had finally decided to allow these 'orphans' home and would grant all of them nationality. To the newspaper's credit -- all Taiwan's news media remained government-censored until 1990 -- the report had noted that efforts to trace the fathers of most of these so-called Americans had failed. It didn't mention, however, that most could not speak a word of English.


I should add that in those days, most people in Taiwan were considerably more cautious, even afraid of the idea of having to deal with black people. A question I was often asked by students of my English classes, especially those planning to study abroad, was: 'How would you react if a black man wanted to shake hands with you?' Another was: 'I'm going to an American university for further study next school year. What should I do if a black man speaks to me?'

On one occasion, a mother wanting to find a home tutor for her son, responded to an advertisement I had placed on a local bulletin board by phoning me. After agreeing on the tuition fees, I asked her address. 'Wait', she replied, 'I have to ask you a question first. You're not...?' Her voice trailed off in silence. I was apparently supposed to know what she meant, but I was stumped. 'Not what..?', I finally urged, and heard an inaudible whisper. I told her I hadn't heard her question and heard a nervous coughing, before, finally 'Are you black?'

'No', I responded.

'Oh, thank God!' The sense of relief seemed immense. 'Only, there are so many blacks in Taiwan nowadays and I don't want my son to have to meet one.'

Taiwan is far more cosmopolitan now than in the mid-1980s, but attitudes among the general public towards non-Chinese have not changed that much.

Despite this, during the several decades I have spent in east Asia, I have known or met many non-Asians, even blacks, who have ended up staying year after year, even decade after decade, in a state of never entirely settling down in their country of chosen residence, often due in part at least to some of the above-mentioned factors. Often expatriate Europeans, initially sent out by their European head offices for a year or two in an Asian city, will find they like life there and don't want to go back home. Sometimes they will be willing to settle for a lower salary in order to stay in their adopted country, sometimes they will even leave their company and take another job locally just in order to stay on. Often they will be men -- single or otherwise -- who become involved with local women, and this is a major factor in their wanting to stay on. Occasionally, they will just be people who really are in love with the culture of their adopted country, and wish to stay as long as possible.

In any case, it is just as well to be aware of the point up to which one can, as an 'obvious foreigner' integrate with and be accepted by local people in east Asian countries.


SIX: Living with the Locals

There can be a tremendous difference between meeting the local residents of any place and living with them. Even staying in a hotel or guesthouse in the same area, effectively, puts you and them in two different areas.

Although I've travelled extensively in east Asia, and come to know many Asians of various nationalities, my only experience of living long-term alongside Asians in Asia is with ethnic Chinese. Therefore, I cannot claim my experience to be typical or representative, but I have spoken to many others with similar experiences. Times change and so do the values and customs of any people in any place, although as indicated already, not so rapidly in more traditional societies as in the developed world.

I should mention that just about anywhere in Chinese society, and most of urban east Asia, when you are living in close proximity with the locals, that will indeed be close proximity.

The more obvious environmental problems; the serious air and water pollution which affect all Chinese cities, including now even Hongkong, present obstacles for anybody coming from environmentally cleaner societies in adapting to life here. However, there is also the -- initially perhaps less obvious -- problem of noise pollution to consider. Chinese cities are among the most densely populated in the world, and things which one may not find annoying or otherwise disturbing when they are happening at a good distance, may be found disturbing when they are happening right outside your window. In Chinese societies, including almost any urban areas in Taiwan, Hongkong and Macau, as well as in the Peoples' Republic itself, you have a combination of very high population density, little respect for the notion of others having the right to peace and quiet, and shoddy building standards with little or no noise insulation properties.

An example of the problems this can cause which comes to mind would be when I recall, in the late 1980s, Jeff, a American software engineer assigned to work in Taipei, moved into the ground-floor apartment I rented (I sub-letted rooms to make up the rent).

It is common everywhere in Taiwan for small food stalls to be pushed or driven to a convenient location, set up for a short time and moved elsewhere after a few hours business. Some typically announce their arrival, in the same way as an 'ice-cream van' does in the UK (in that case with a short, distinct piece of music) by shouting the name or names of the food they sell. In the case of a certain kind of soyabean curd (literally 'smelly dofu'), which is typically the only product sold by such a 'smelly dofu' stand, the name, 'smelly dofu' is simply shouted out (nowadays usually through a recording), repeatedly, with slightly differing lilts.

A smelly dofu stand set up a couple of metres outside the front of our apartment. I had no idea of how the noise pollution problem had thus far been affecting Jeff, whose room faced the street, until I heard him slam his door, go out through the front door and shout abuse at the dofu seller. Jeff still spoke almost no Chinese. I heard him screaming a litany of four-letter English words. Then, as I went out of the front door with the intention of mediating, I saw him deliberately screaming at the top of his voice right into the dofu-seller's ear! The man showed no indication of understanding what Jeff was saying, but did look very disturbed at what was happening and rapidly moved his stall away.

This is probably as good an example as any of a problem Jeff could never have foreseen when making plans to come to Taiwan and looking through guidebooks and other such literature for information on the place.

Attitudes to noise pollution and the relevant laws differ in various Chinese societies. In Taiwan, there are laws just as strict as those of Hongkong or even Singapore, but these are rarely enforced. Many people seem to regard it as their right to make as much noise as they like and the majority of people, even the police, are loath to protest, fearing a violent confrontation.

Daoist temples are a good example. House prices in the classier areas of Taipei have often been seen to plummet when a new temple is built in the vicinity. Temples typically hold very noisy celebrations and ceremonies, featuring huge 'taiko'-style drums played outside, in front of the temple, and plenty of firecrackers. Few buildings within a couple of hundred metres have walls capable of withstanding such assaults!

Often local triads are hired to take care of traffic, setting up temporary roadblocks while temple ceremonies are underway, one reason police don't like to intervene. But this usually carries over into a reluctance to confront anybody making a disturbance to the peace.

A good example of this was provided by a group of about two dozen Christians singing songs to recorded musical accompaniment in my local park one Easter, in a city just outside Taipei. My apartment block overlooked the park, and as the evening wore on, the residents' patience wore thin. (Easter is not a holiday and most people would have been working a normal day the next day). When I phoned the local police station, the officer answering confirmed that residents of other apartment blocks surrounding the small park had also complained, and told me he was sending some officers out to deal with the problem immediately.

At that time, it was 11 pm, and by law public singing events, karaoke, etc., could not be held in the open in urban areas between 10 pm in 6 am. Half-an-hour later, knowing that some more of my neighbours had also complained since, I called the police station again and was told, again, that some officers were on their way to the park.

Unable to sleep, I resigned myself to the Christians continuing to sing their praises to Jesus deep into the night, and stood watching them from my balcony as midnight came and went. Finally, I saw a police car arriving on the scene. It slowed down, followed the four streets that surrounded the park, and returned to the station without even stopping! The singers would not even have seen the police car, and the car's occupants were simply too afraid to confront these good-hearted Christians!

So much for noise pollution. Most people who learn martial arts are young men, and they may find this next topic of particular interest...

Let's look at how relationships with Asian females can affect a non-Asian male staying long-term in a more traditionally-oriented Asian society.

On the surface, there seems little the east Asian female can offer the European (or 'Euro-merican') male in terms of sexual attractiveness. Typically short-legged and almost universally flat-chested, it would appear that east Asian women lack the basic attributes of 'sexiness', at least according to European standards.

Yet, paradoxically, there are many more European men who 'hook up' with Asian girls, than European girls who become involved with Asian men. It is my opinion -- and I have known a good many such couples over the years -- that the main reason for this is that women in most Asian countries are typically less assertive of their rights as equals to males, even in places where those rights are enshrined in law, and they are more willing to play what some would consider a subservient role to men. One the other hand, European girls usually find themselves unable to tolerate the role/s assigned to them as wives or girlfriends of east Asian men, and quickly extricate themselves from any such relationship, if they ever allowed themselves to slip into such a mess in the first place.

In the UK, which is where I grew up, and is probably fairly typical of western Europe, the role of women in society has changed drastically since the 'womens' liberation' movement of the 1960 and '70s. Now, obviously, only people of retirement age and older can remember it ever being any different. And yet, many young male foreign nationals from first-world countries, having lived with Asian women in Asia find themselves unwilling to go back to the previous lifestyles. For example, when I lived in Hongkong, I had a French friend who was married to a South Korean woman. He told me he was happy for his employer (a French firm) to assign him to a position anywhere in east Asia, but doubted that he could ever return to Europe, for fear that his wife would 'become infected' with the views of European women.

Its worth mentioning that, even in east Asia, womens' roles and status in society have changed a lot in the past few decades, but that change has thus far been nothing like as profound as in Europe. There are also degrees of difference to be perceived in the submissiveness and subservience of women in different countries within east Asia. Japanese wives or girlfriends are almost universally regarded as the most loyal and obedient (although in actuality, Korean women are probably at least equally so). As a Taiwanese friend of mine often used to joke, the ideal (man's) living situation was to have an American house, a German car (presumably a Mercedes), and a Japanese wife who could cook Chinese food.

Obviously, Chinese men do not feel that short-legged, flat-chested woman are unsexy -- we can see this from China's colossal population problem. The point is, ideas of what is sexy, or of what is attractive vary from culture to culture. Bare in mind that less than 100 years ago, Chinese men found 'bound feet' the ultimate turn-on, despite the fact that these dainty, malformed feet were arrived at only through great pain and discomfort, repeatedly broken bones and almost constant bruising, while women with clumsy big feet were regarded as comically ugly. Nowadays, the Chinese man's idea of female beauty is a skin which looks like it's never seen the light of day. Chinese females go to great lengths to make their skin mae-bai, that is, 'beautifully white' (a term favoured by many face-cream and other cosmetics companies, although I've even seen advertising for food and drinks claiming this effect).

In my own case, I originally had no intention of becoming 'romantically involved' with anyone during my stay in Taiwan. During my first couple of years in Taiwan, my general state of health and fitness improved by leaps and bounds, and I slowly began to realise that one of the various reasons for this was my situation of sexual abstinence. Another was the lack of any of the mental or emotional concerns that inevitably come with such a relationship.

Indeed, I was almost amazed by the changes happening to me. During the time I had lived in the Netherlands, and again during the time I lived in Thailand, I had been a habitual (that is to say, daily) marijuana smoker. During the time I travelled in India prior to this, I had even developed a liking for opium. Now, while I didn't rule out a random 'toke' on a joint if it ever presented itself to me, I didn't feel any need to search for 'grass' and would not have minded if the chance of a smoke never presented itself to me again for the rest of my life.

And, as a certified nicotine addict I usually went through nearly 40 cigarettes a day and had already 'quit' more times than I could count. Then, after six months of taekwondo training, I simply decided I needed to be able to call on all the physical resources at my disposal if I was going to make the progress I wanted. I knew my stamina would improve and I would be less likely to suffer breathlessness if I quit, so I did.

I was still a moderately heavy drinker, but the 'binge-drinking' which had once been a part of my life began to fall away, becoming less and less frequent. I just did not want my head feeling like it had been put through a rack during my lunch-time workouts. Besides, late-night or early-morning jogs had become a part of my new lifestyle, and I wanted to feel I had taken in no more alcohol than I could 'run off' in half-an-hour or so.

As for women, some of my kickboxing classmates chided me for 'living like a Shaolin monk', but the fact was, this wasn't a situation I really minded much if it came right down to it. I may have been a red-blooded young man like any other, but increasingly I wanted to turn my body into the kind of fighting machine my teacher was; I also wanted that incredible flexibility guiding iron-hard shins and forearms and devastatingly powerful kicks. And I knew that having a girlfriend would inevitably slow down my process in that direction.

Luckily for me -- although I didn't see it as a blessing at the time -- there were, as far as I was concerned, 'no women in Taiwan'. I felt very little physical attraction to the local girls for the aforementioned reasons of their physical attributes. In addition, the deathly white skin Chinese girls achieved through the use of their twin weapons of 'sun umbrellas' and skin-whitening creams only looked unhealthy to me. And finally, if the truth be told, even imagining them to be less deathly pale, I had simply never seen a local girl who was 'good-looking' in the sense that some of the Japanese and Korean girls from my language classes were; having well-proportioned, attractive facial features. Chinese are less racially pure than Koreans or Japanese, and consequently tend to possess a hotchpotch of ill-matching physical features.

Despite this, I found myself slowing becoming involved with a girl I shall call by the English name of Vicky. At first, we saw each other only in the evenings. After some weeks, evenings lasted all night, and eventually we even travelled to various different places around the island for several days at a time.

Throughout this time, a pretence had to be put up for the sake of Vicky's parents that I was not her boyfriend, but her English teacher, and when she stayed overnight at my place, stories were made up about her staying with some female friend or other. Sometimes, some of these stories would come dangerously unstuck, but for the most part Vicky succeeded in fooling her parents about our relationship.

Vicky's elder sister had once come uncomfortably close to having a relationship with a foreign businessman living in Taiwan, and her father, seeing what was happening, had had to step in to stop it going any further. He let both his daughters know that if either of them were ever to become involved with a foreign man in the future, he would disown that daughter completely, and for life. He warned them that if such a thing happened, they would be 'unmarryable' for the rest of their lives.

Gradually, my own principles began to unravel as I fell in love with Vicky. She had told me in the early stages of our relationship that the only way we could be together long-term was for me to be her 'secret lover'; she was in no doubt over the seriousness of her father's threat to disown her if he found she had a foreign boyfriend. I accepted, then, that she would marry a Taiwan national, and somehow we would continue to find ways to be together 'illicitly', as we were already.

I took as an inspiration, if that is the right word, my Japanese teacher, a Taiwanese woman in her mid-40s. Once, when discussing Japanese customs, she revealed that she had had the same Japanese boyfriend for over two decades, despite the fact that he was married and living in Japan. It transpired that the reason for this state of affairs was that, while they both wanted to live with each other, the parents of the Japanese man expressly forbid him from marrying a non-Japanese. Thus, he ended up getting married to a woman he didn't want to marry because not to marry would have resulted in his father suspecting him of being homosexual or having some other similar problem, and this would also have ultimately resulted in the man being disowned by his parents.

At this time in Taiwan, morals were changing in respect to marriage. Although I heard of several cases of arranged marriages, I knew first-hand of only one case where a young man's bride was chosen for him by his parents. More typical was for parents to 'introduce' suitable matches without explicitly suggesting they should eventually get married. This had happened with Vicky's elder sister after she had showed signs of straying from the right path, and she soon became engaged to the man favoured by her parents.

Vicky's parents were -- in most respects -- pretty progressive, and Vicky herself studied business management with the intention of furthering her studies in the United States. I travelled with her to Oregon state and stayed for several weeks with her to help her settle in. As we were both travelling on the same plane to San Francisco, we had decided that I was probably going to be seen one way or another by her family at the airport when they saw her off. A little research revealed that a flight was leaving for Hongkong 20 minutes after hers, so we met 'by chance' at the airport, and followed the pretence that I was taking the Hongkong flight to renew my Taiwan visa. As Vicky had already passed customs when I went through, there was no need for her family to hang around waiting for me to leave and they would be none the wiser as to my actual destination. This is an example of the sometimes ridiculous lengths we would go to cover up our actual relationship.

However, despite my theoretical willingness to accept that we could only be secret lovers, and that Vicky would marry someone else, in practice it didn't work out. Several months later, with a few days holiday at the lunar New Year, I boarded a flight to the US again, at great expense, for the sake of little more than 2 days with Vicky.

Vicky told me that she now had a new male friend from Singapore, who by chance was taking a short holiday at that time, and showed me some of the photos of the two of them together on a short trip to California. She intended to send the photos to her parents and told me her father would know what it meant: she was asking for approval. But she was worried about two things: one, would her father regard this ethnic-Chinese Singaporean as a foreigner and not give his approval; and two, would her husband-to-be discover she wasn't a virgin and not want her?

At first I accepted the existence of both problems at face value, but the more I thought about them, the more they annoyed me. Firstly, the fact of the matter was, the Singaporean was a foreign national. Vicky had also told me he was a Cantonese speaker and that his Mandarin was terrible. Usually, they spoke English together, and he had never even been to Taiwan. What made him acceptable -- probably -- where I wasn't, was his Chinese race, and nothing else. But it was the other point Vicky made that, for me, was the straw that broke the camel's back.

I was well aware that women in Taiwan and elsewhere in Asia often underwent a simple operation to sew up the hymen in order for their husbands to believe they were still virgins up to their wedding night. But I found it somehow offensive that that this Singaporean, a 'man-of-the-world' of 28 years of age, a fluent English speaker who had spent years in the United States and travelled throughout north America, should need to be convinced of Vicky's virginity in order to accept her as his wife. What kind of love was that?

At this time (the late 1980s and early 1990s), such attitudes were still typical of nearly all men in Taiwan. The landlord of the flat I sub-letted to Jeff would be a good example of this. Politically, this man was very progressive. Although a second-generation mainlander, he was most unusual politically in his support for the newly-formed opposition party and -- even more radically -- the notion that a plebiscite should be held to decide whether or not the island should declare itself independent of China. He also spoke passable English, and made no excuse for entering into debate with locals and foreigners alike on any number of controversial political and social topics.

Thus I had little hesitation in asking him, some months before he was due to marry a Taiwanese girl, what his reactions would be if he discovered his wife-to-be was not a virgin.

'Are you insane?' he asked me, with an air of genuine incredulity. After a moment's pause, he asked me: 'What do you think my reaction would be? I'd kick her out! I want a real wife', he told me, 'I don't want second-hand goods!'

It has to be said that the younger generations in urban Taiwan -- those presently under 40 -- mostly do not subscribe to this notion that a woman must be a virgin at the time she marries (or at least appear to be a virgin), and the operation to turn a woman 'back into a virgin' is not so popular as it used to be. However, this is more a case of young people not holding the same opinions on this as their parents' generation, rather than their parents' generation changing their opinions (that simply doesn't happen in Chinese society). There are also plenty of more traditional regions in east Asia where similar attitudes still prevail.

Interestingly, my relationship with Vicky also complicated areas of my life that were not so directly related as her own family. For example, on several occasions, she was the target of insults from complete strangers on the streets for being with a non-Chinese. We would never walk hand-in-hand, or even so closely as to make our relationship obvious to strangers, yet some would still assume her to be my girlfriend and, without warning, call her names such as 'slut', or 'whore', on account of this.

Many Chinese, believing themselves to belong to a special, superior, race, would find Vicky's relationship with a white foreign national perplexing, to say the least. Even people we met who seemed, initially at least, to be of a friendly disposition would often assume her to be a foreign national herself for her to be with a white man. If, for whatever reason, I happened to exchange more than a few words in Chinese with strangers, they would invariably look at Vicky and ask, in slow, clear Mandarin, if she could also understand Chinese, usually looking very surprised at the response.

If the people talking to us were not so shy, they would be unable to resist asking Vicky, 'Why are you with a foreigner?' And on a good many occasions, those who bristled at the idea of a Chinese girl having a caucasian boyfriend would follow with: 'Chinese not good enough for you, eh?'

On several occasions, for example, children would point at me (in the same way as they would if I were alone) telling each other 'Look! Look! A Big-nose (a caucasian)! Look at the Big-nose...and his Japanese girlfriend!' It was the only explanation that seemed to make sense. Why would a Chinese girl have a white boyfriend?

(Funnily enough, the same thing happened even in San Franscisco's Chinatown, where one would assume such a sight as a caucasian man walking with a Chinese woman to be commonplace, if only because many such relationships are entered into in order to secure residence rights or US nationality for newly-arrived Chinese immigrants).

I began then to realise how much Vicky had been forced to put up with, just on a social level and completely outside the problems of her fooling her own family. Simply for the sake of our supposedly 'secret' relationship. She herself, as a native-born Taiwanese, would often quip 'definately must be a mainlander!' when at the receiving end of some stranger's insult, preferring to believe native Taiwanese to be more open to the idea of local girls having foreign boyfriends, although the truth was obviously not that simple...

There were many other difficulties which my relationship with Vicky brought into our lives in Taiwan, but I will leave them out in the interests of keeping this article reasonably short.

In those days, I believed one of the reasons my relationship with a Taiwanese girl had been so problematic was that Taiwan had only recently opened up to the outside world. For several decades after the Nationalist Chinese government fled there after losing mainland China to the Chinese Communists, the island had been virtually impervious to foreign influence, existing in a state of martial law. Foreign visitors to the island were few and far between, foreign news media was restricted and everything was done to ensure that contact between foreign nationals and locals was limited and carefully monitored. It had only been in 1984, three years before his death, that President Jiang Jing-guo (son of the former Chinese dictator Jiang Kai-shek) had set the one-party state on a course of economic reform, which in the long-term would make continued isolation impossible.

At this time, Hongkong was, relatively speaking, a thriving, cosmopolitan, international city with an open press and all the freedoms of a modern democracy, save for an actual directly-elected legislature. Hongkong had been under British administration for over 140 years, and I mistakenly believed that the sight of local women with foreign husbands or boyfriends must have been so absolutely commonplace that nobody would bat an eyelid at it.

I was totally wrong about that and this brings me to another problem with 'living with the locals'; that of reaching too fast a judgement on a place based on superficialities.

I soon found this out when I was forced to move to the British territory in early 1992. The Taiwan government had embarked on a purge of foreign workers which made finding employment virtually impossible there for all but the most highly-qualified foreign nationals. Even the foreign lawyers at the law firm I had been working at were forced to work from home after some had been caught in police swoops and deported. Less fortunate were south Asian home helps, labourers, restaurant and bar staff who had been seeping into the country as the economy boomed. They were unceremoniously rounded up, held in detention centres and given 48 hours in which to arrange their departure. I was informed by airport staff that most of those who failed in this were severely beaten by police and immigration staff.

All this was fuelled by a wave of race hatred inspired by local construction companies hiring cheap south-east Asian labour. At first, when I walked into the subways of central Taipei and found them daubed with the words 'kill foreigners' written in red paint in Chinese and English, I thought this to merely be the work of someone mentally unhinged. However, when this wasn't immediately cleaned up (the area was regularly policed around the clock) and I noticed that the Chinese characters also included the words 'kill black devils', I knew there was more to it.

Hooking up on public resentment of foreigners stealing work from locals, a few legislators, both democratic and ultra-nationalist, took the baton (or club) in the call for 'all foreigners' to be deported and a set of stricter restrictions on 'importing' foreigners put in place before any were allowed back.

In early 1992, then, unable to find legal work, I left Taiwan and took up work for a trading company based in Hongkong, with factories over the border in Shenzen. I lived, in turn, in Kowloon and on Hongkong island, sharing apartments with mainland Chinese, mostly Fujianese.

Expecting to find the PRC nationals steeped in anti-foreign Chinese Communist Party-inspired propaganda and rhetoric, I was surprised to find, that in fact, it was the local Cantonese population who were actually the most overtly anti-foreign.

Despite -- or, perhaps, because of -- nearly 150 years of British rule, the Hongkong Chinese were, far and away, the most overtly racist and chauvinistic people I had come across anywhere in east Asia. Even the Fujianese I lived with recounted the surprise they had felt when, as new arrivals in the territory they had first learnt how the local Cantonese referred to outsiders. While the most derogatory term the mainlanders typically used to describe whites was the relatively mild 'old outsiders' (lao-wai), the Hongkong Cantonese normally used (and still do at the time of writing) terms like 'devil' and 'barbarian' (the full term is 'barbarian devil' -- faan gwai-lo in the local dialect -- often shortened to either 'barbarian', faan-lo, or 'devil', gwai-lo).

I soon discovered that a whole range of other insulting terms for non-Chinese were still in common use in Hongkong, such as 'hairies' (mau-tsai), terms which had long fallen into disuse in other Chinese societies, along with some new ones specifically for Indians and Filipinos (the territory being home to large populations of both). Dark people were normally described as hei-gwei (hak-gwai in the Hongkong dialect). Literally 'black devil', this refers to anyone too dark to be Chinese, including, but not limited to, black Africans. This term was one often used for south Asians (as it was in the blood-red graffiti on the subway walls in Taipei, but in Taiwan this insulting term would never be used in media broadcasts). Even other Chinese were referred to in none-too complimentary ways by the Hongkong Chinese. Incredibly, all these terms were in common and in open use, not only by the Cantonese population at large, but by all the local media, including TV and radio stations, newspapers, magazines and books. In all the years I spent in Hongkong, I never even once heard the use of (in Cantonese) normal Chinese terms for ' a foreigner', 'a white man', 'a black person', etc..

Little wonder then that the local Cantonese-speaking population would come across to outsiders -- even other Chinese -- as arrogant and self-important (of course, no such derogatory terminology is used by the Hongkong Cantonese to refer to themselves). But even more surprising -- at least initially -- was that while anti-racism laws had been in place in the UK for decades, successive colonial administrations in Hongkong had chosen not to deal with this problem at all, and even promoted the remarkable notion that none of these terms were really insulting, because...well, 'the local people don't regard them as insulting'!

After a year and a half living in the intensely densely-populated urban areas of Hongkong I began to harbour notions that I may find life in the semi-rural New Territories more to my liking. The New Territories meant all the land under the Hongkong government administration outside the urban areas of Kowloon and Hongkong island itself. This included all the islands, but most especially the large chunk of peninsula-like territory lying between Kowloon and the border with the Peoples' Republic to the north.

If assuming Hongkong's people to be as sophisticated as the city appeared superficially was my first big mistake about the place, then my second was that the New Territories villagers would be some kind of hospitable country-type people.

True, the pre-colonial era single-story house I moved into was a primitive enough affair to seem in a different world from the 24-hour 'city of glass and steel' barely more than an hour's travel away. It featured glass-less windows (ie., just holes in the walls), walls about twice as thick as those typical of apartment buildings, a small front yard with an overhanging tree full of birds, and an erratic electricity supply. Apart from the birds, some stray cats, a thriving frog population, and the most enormous snake I had ever laid eyes on in my life (which slid passed me far too close for comfort on my second morning there as I sat in my newly-acquired front yard), there didn't seem to be any signs of life nearby. At first, I was more than pleased to be living in such a relatively huge place for the same price as the shoebox I lived in on Hongkong island.

There were other, similar houses nearby, all around in fact, but it seemed many were unlived in.

The village, my landlord had told me was a 'Kerjia village'. The Kerjia (Haggar in Cantonese) people were a semi-tribal people originating in northern China. The name means literally 'guest people' as in ancient times they were semi-nomadic and existed only the peripheries of mainstream Chinese society. Now regarded as Han Chinese, they have settled in southern China, and are mostly concentrated in Guangdong province, where their dialect has grown close to Cantonese (close enough to be easily mutually comprehensible).

Despite that, when, on my way along the winding path which led to the nearest main road (my house was accessible only on foot), I occasionally saw another local resident and greeted them in Cantonese, there was never any response other than to stare at me. Staring at Barbarians is virtually a national pastime in the more rural areas of Chinese society, and there is little that can be gleaned as to reasons for the staring by looking back. In other words, there is rarely any sign of any displeasure or disgust on the face of the starer, nor do they look welcoming, humourous or happy to see you. Even if you stare back, in nine cases out of ten, the starer will continue staring with absolutely no sign of emotion, or even any sign that they have noticed that you are staring back. It is almost as if you exist on a separate plane from the starer, and of course, for all intents and purposes -- for many people at least -- you do. You might as well be something previously filmed and now replayed, moving across a screen with which no interaction were possible.

I was still working in the city and my time in the village was limited, but after a few weeks I began to feel something was seriously wrong with it, or at least my life in it.

However, one Sunday morning, I decided to have a martial arts workout in my front yard, and did so by practicing a couple of broadsword katas. Very soon, half a dozen children had gathered around were asking questions excitedly. Could they hold the sword? Where did I learn my gung-fu? Could I also do flying kicks?

It seemed my martial arts training had instantly destroyed a barrier between myself and the rest of the village. Once the children were over in my front yard, I even noticed other villagers milling around at chores in their own yards and vegetable plots and for the first time felt as if I was actually living in an inhabited village.

Not for long. For several subsequent weekends, the local children were conspicuous by their absence from my front yard, though I occasionally noticed some of them playing around their own houses as I worked out at various katas or kick routines. Then, by chance, on my way back from shopping in the nearest town (some New Territories towns are significant urban population centres in their own right, designed to meet all the needs of the nearby districts, thus alleviating the constant population drift towards the already phenonemenly densely populated areas of Kowloon and Hongkong island), I met two of the local children on their way out to town. When I mentioned to them that I hadn't seen them around for a few weeks, they told me their parents had forbidden them from going near my house.

I would, perhaps, have thought little of this if it hadn't been that by now I had given up greeting any villagers I happened to meet for lack of response. Then, one day, as I traversed the outer perimeter of the village, approaching the main road, I noticed two young men chatting as one cleaned what was probably his car. Looking in my direction, one remarked in Cantonese in a low voice obviously not intended to be overheard, 'There's an awful stink here.'

'Yes; it's the stink of British imperialism', the other replied.

It was the kind of remark I was already very used to hearing in Hongkong. The territory was one of the few places I had been to in Asia where Britain could vey with the United States for the title Most Despised Foreign Nationality (the other two places being Malaysia and Pakistan).

However, rarely in such a thoroughly internationalised territory as Hongkong would complete strangers assume to know your nationality and '(the stink of) western imperialism', 'foreign imperialism', or just 'imperialism' were the terms usually heard. This remark, coming from complete strangers who lived a full five minutes walk from my own house made me wonder if the news had spread throughout the village after I moved in that a 'British imperialist' was now living in their midst, and that these people now actually knew 'the imperialist' by sight?

In any case, over the subsequent two years, the only other occurrence I recorded (in my diary) of a villager displaying any recognition of my existence was a cursory nod in my direction by my most immediate neighbour in response to a New Year's greeting. Chinese are traditionally friendly even to strangers at lunar New Year, even if that show of friendliness is for the most part obviously very put-on and superficial.

On the subject of general politeness towards strangers, the Hongkong Chinese -- quite apart from being easily the most arrogant, racist, and self-important people I had ever had the misfortune of having to live with -- were also, by far, the least polite (even to each other), the most bad-mannered, false, superficial and showy, and certainly the most money and profit-obsessed materialistic people I had encountered in all my travels.

Politeness towards strangers varies considerably from place to place in east Asia.

In general, Japanese and Koreans place quite a bit of importance on politeness towards strangers, particularly within service industries where polite terminology is routinely used. In Chinese society, there is much less formality towards strangers, which you may or may not find to your liking. But even within Chinese society, this varies a lot.

As I've said, without a doubt, the ethnic group least polite towards strangers -- especially non-Chinese strangers -- are the Cantonese.

On the crowded streets of Hongkong, as well as Shenzhen, Guangzhou and presumably other Cantonese cities, it's normal to find people pushing and shoving without so much as a word of apology. The only way to get through this without falling to the ground, is to barge your way through in the same way they do. In any event, you will finish up a session of this with aching shoulders and much more short-tempered than you started. (I believe that this is one of the main reasons Cantonese are typically so short-tempered, ill-mannered and impatient; another being that most consume meat at every meal).

There is no point in getting angry at this kind of treatment. When you find yourself almost knocked off your feet by some Hongkong Chinese, bear in mind that it isn't in any way deliberate or because they don't like you (although very probably they don't like you). It is only because, with their minds ever preoccupied with the immediate concerns of Numero Uno, other people simply don't even appear on their radars. While this, one of the worst features of Chinese culture is most evident with the Cantonese, you will find it in varying degrees in Chinese society in general, and is evident, for example, in the way Chinese drive as well as the way they walk.

Some people I've talked to about this have argued that this push and shove aspect of life is typical of life in developing countries and that I shouldn't expect first-world standards of conduct in a developing country. However, I have visited many developing countries, including poorer countries than China, where regard for the other people on the street -- whether in vehicles or on foot -- is better than in some southern Chinese cities. Besides which, Hongkong is now -- in money terms at least -- a first-world society, with its citizens boasting (and I think that is the right term here) a higher per capita GDP than many EU states.

No, I believe that the attitude towards strangers and the push and shove aspect of life in Chinese society is a cultural thing, but one which varies hugely within Chinese society. For example, on one occasion, while boarding a metro train at Tsuenwan station in Hongkong, in the rush for seats, I saw an old woman pushed to the ground by a young man, who beat her to the seat. The young guy didn't so much as look at the old woman on the floor, who could easily have been injured. But nor did anyone else. At this station, which was first on the line, this was normal behaviour (because not getting a seat probably meant standing all the way to Kowloon or Hongkong island). On another occasion, when I got to a seat just before another guy, he threatened to 'kill me'! (Of course, his threat was soon forgotten, and I was no doubt only the first minor skirmish in his day of push and shove).

On the other hand, this kind of behaviour is hard -- but not impossible -- to imagine among the ethnic Chinese of Singapore. The ethnic Chinese of Malaysia and Singapore are testament to the fact that it is possible for Chinese -- even those of Cantonese heritage -- to behave towards strangers with the same modicum of respect and civility commonly found in other cultures. Even when no monetary profit is involved, and without the need to turn to Cantonese-speaking friends to make snide, mocking remarks about the stupid barbarian (or black) devil being spoken to in English.

It's also worth mentioning that the Hongkong Cantonese are pretty foul-mouthed, even to strangers. While their insults and swear words don't match those of, for example, the Greeks in terms of obscenity, they are certainly among the most foul-mouthed people in east Asia, and a litany of four-letter words (or three-character terms, as they known in Chinese) will usually roll off the tongue of any Cantonese male with little or no provocation. Some examples, when this happened to me: once, when I took a seat in a café, oblivious that someone else had been rushing up behind me hoping to get that same seat; another time I pointed out to a middle-aged man smoking on a tram that the area was no-smoking (I really thought he might not have known); and another time when I didn't even say anything...I had been eating a takeaway on a busy street one night in Kowloon, just outside the takeaway itself, like several other people. My face must have registered a look of disgust on seeing three teenagers chuck their plastic lunchboxes and stuff directly onto the street when they had finished with them, so I got a mouthful of abuse from them just for that!


All this is not to say I didn't enjoy my years in Hongkong; I thoroughly enjoyed living in such a thriving, powerful economy, and particularly enjoyed the huge contrast between the densely populated urban areas and the hilly rural areas of the territory and their mutual easy accessibility. I took off on hikes into the hills almost every opportunity I had and it took me years to cover every country trail in the territory. But it has often been said that the 'people make a place', and if that saying is taken as true, then Hongkong was certainly the worst, most hostile place I had ever been.

It is worth noting that huge political changes have taken place in Hongkong since the signing of the Sino-British Joint Declaration on the future of the territory, and particularly since the Tienanmen Massacre six year later, in early June, 1989. Around a sixth of the territory's 1989 population emigrated over the following five years and by 1997 a gulf had opened up between the then majority (now minority) BNO (British National Overseas) passport holders and the holders of the post-1997-issued SAR (Special Administrative Region) passport.

Typically English-language educated, the BNO passport holders were also more likely to be (but not necessarily) supporters of the territory's political democratisation. Often from the ranks of middle-management and the professional classes, the majority of Hongkong's emigrating 'half-devils' or 'half-barbarians' were BNO passport holders. SAR passport holders, on the other hand, are more likely to be (though again, not necessarily) stridently anti-foreign and anti-imperialist, supportive and understanding of the Chinese Communist Party using whatever means necessary to maintain its rule. (But all Hongkong Cantonese use the same insulting terminology to refer to non-Chinese, and are equally well endowed in the aforementioned qualities of 'negative charm').

Since the days of Bruce Lee, Hongkong has been one of the favourite locations for foreign martial arts students to learn their stuff. If considering training in Hongkong, possible language problems may also be a point to take into account. Few foreigners are going to be willing to go the trouble of learning Cantonese, a minority dialect of little practical use outside China's Guangdong province region (including Hongkong and Macau). Yet the fact is, most Hongkong Chinese still communicate badly in standard (Mandarin) Chinese, and some can hardly speak proper Chinese at all. On the other hand, English standards have fallen considerably since colonial times, with around a quarter of the population able to communicate in fluent English in the years between the Joint Declaration and the Tienanmen Massacre, and only around 15% by the start of the 21st century. Recently, this drop has slowed, but the overall trend is still down, towards, no doubt, approximate parity with other major international cities in non-English speaking Asian countries (such as Bangkok, for example).

Two more points I should make may be worth noting for non-Asians thinking of spending time in east Asia. The first relates to sex. In the same way as many Europeans take the Chinese proclivity for constant work as an obsession with money, many Chinese -- and other east Asians too -- believe 'Euro-mericans' to be obsessed with sex. This delusion probably results from the fact that most Europeans are able to talk about sex without using a huge array of euphemisms. A lot of Chinese cannot talk about sex, only about 'it' (or 'that' to use the Chinese term).

The other common delusion is that whites have more money than they know what to do with.

Travellers everywhere worry about being 'ripped-off'. If you travel anywhere in Chinese society, I can guarantee, you will be ripped off. The only question is by how much and how often. Even Chinese who care about their fellow nationals falling victim to some scam or other, will generally not feel the same way about foreigners having the same ill-luck. The reason for this is that, as I've just said, you have more money than you know what to do with, so it's no big deal.

The misconception that 'foreigners are rich' is something which has always been encouraged, from the highest levels of government down. In my first visits to the PRC, for example, I had to use something called 'foreign exchange certificates' to buy things. You could still (and in fact, only,) use regular 'citizens currency' to buy a bunch of fruit at a market, for example. But for those things foreign visitors were supposed to want or need to buy, foreign exchange certificates had to be used. Thus, to buy a train ticket cost nearly 20 times as much for me as for it would for a 'citizen'.

This system was abandoned in the mid 1990s, but it is a measure of how the foreign visitor is regarded.

Even in Taiwan, in the 1980s, my taekwondo dojo, for example, had two pricing systems: one for nationals, and one for foreigners (costing twice as much). After a few months of our lunchtime classes, when the master had come to realise that 'Euro-mericans' were in fact ordinary people with their fair share of money worries, he ditched this pricing system. But initially it seemed quite reasonable.

My chang chuan gung fu school was government-sponsored and as such had to charge twice as much for foreign students -- that was the sponsors' policy. Again, after some time, when the master opened his own independent school, the pricing system was dropped in favour of standard pricing across the board. But as I've said, this kind of thing illustrates the prevalent mentality.

To my mind, there are two kinds of 'rip-offs' the foreign visitor needs to be aware of. The first is the kind found almost exclusively in tourist areas.

This kind of rip-off can hurt you badly, even leave you penniless and without a ticket home. Taipei had very little of this at the time of my arrival, and as I have only re-visited those touristy areas very infrequently since am unsure of how bad the situation there is now.

In the case of Hongkong, however, which has long been an international travel hub, I would advise buying nothing more expensive than a soft drink within two kilometres of the Star Ferry piers in Tsimshatsui and Central, especially the former. Rip-offs here are foreign-tourist oriented, and very sophisticated. Be especially careful of electronic goods dealers. If you do decide to buy something at one of these places make sure you walk out of the store with the same item you looked at in the store. In so many cases, the foreign visitor doesn't take the camera/ laptop/ dvd player/ whatever out of the box until after he leaves Hongkong when its too late to complain that it isn't a camera but a plastic shell, empty but for a metal bar stuck inside to lend it a realistic weight.

Police have always been loathe to crack down on these kind of rip-offs for fear of the 'knock-on' effect it would have on all the other tourist-oriented businesses in the area.

It isn't for nothing that the term 'Shanghaied' means to get ripped-off. Dating back to the pre-communist era, this was an accurate description of what happened to many foreign visitors to the city. Although we now see a re-surgent Shanghai, eager once again for the tourist dollar by whatever means possible, for most of the second-half of the 20th century, the term could have been re-named 'Hongkonged'.

The fact is, in any major Chinese city host to a sizeable population of foreign visitors, there will be a mass of every conceivable scam and rip-off aimed at those visitors. Or, as a Hongkong-born British friend of mine always used to say: 'where there's a scam, look for the Chinaman'.

Having said that, Bangkok is the city which takes first place in east Asia for this kind of foreign visitor rip-off. My first few months in that city were a series of rude awakenings as to the extent of the trustworthiness of almost any Bangkok Thai. with regular dealings with foreigners.

I myself only stayed there much longer than originally planned, teaching English for a living, because a very sophisticated pickpocket had relieved me of travellers' cheques to the value of 1,200 pounds sterling. Two of the three roommates in the small dorm I stayed in at first fell victim to 'gem' scams; buying worthless stones they had thought were going to be the beginnings of profitable sideline export businesses. As far as I know, the Thai. government has in recent years tried to regulate the gem trade and educate foreign buyers on the dangers of buying convincingly real-seeming fake stones, but with only limited affect.

As for the second way in which a non-local staying in Chinese society will get ripped-off is regularly, almost everywhere he or she goes, but in small amounts.

This kind of rip-off is not any sort of sophisticated operation with foreign visitors as its target. Its reason for existence is simply the aforementioned commonly-held delusion that 'foreigners have plenty of money', so what's the harm in it? If you are on a budget, as I have been all this particular lifetime, this is the kind of rip-off you will find the most frustrating. The nature of life makes it almost impossible to guard against it all the time. There are simply going to be times when, for example, for whatever reason, you suddenly need to take a taxi and don't know that there isn't a surcharge that has to be paid until you talk to people afterwards.

I cannot count the number of times in both Hongkong and Taiwan when I have felt I paid too much at a supermarket, but didn't know for sure until arriving home and looking at the receipt. As you do get a receipt at these places, and the checkout girls can't be sure you won't look at it immediately, the more common practice is to literally short-change you. This is easily explained as a mistake if you notice it there and then, and the correct change is then given. But the rate of occurrence (about one in three purchases) tells you that it can't always be a mistake.

These checkout girls are paid a pitiful wage, so from one point of view, it seems understandable that they will resort to dishonesty in an attempt to make up a salary possible to stay alive on. The only thing is, being an obvious target for this trickery is going to leave a bitter aftertaste whether you sympathise with their plight or not.

The only reason I began shopping in supermarkets was the fixed prices. For the first year or two in Taiwan, I shopped regularly at open markets, at least for fresh fruit and vegetables. Unfortunately, learning the local dialect made me wise to the fact that while vendors would sell me a kilo of something or other for 60 Taiwan dollars, they would sell the next person the same thing for 40. Getting angry in these situation is also a waste of time. Typical reactions are amiable laughter and remarks such as: 'OK, OK, I give you local price. In future, I treat as Chinese. So, you want to be like us, eh? Don't you Americans have plenty of money to spare?'

Finally, a sub-delusion found among the Taiwanese, but not the long more sophisticated Hongkong population is that 'Euro-mericans' are here to teach them English (and that's what they're doing, to their great profit).

A typical example of this was provided when the Taipei apartment I sub-letted was broken into by an ex-tenant. (After several months of refusing to share cleaning duties, on account of cleaning being 'womens' work', I had to ask him to leave, whereupon he refused, and threatened me that I would regret it if I tried to make him leave). After all losses were found to amount to only a few hundred US dollars, the police told me that they didn't have the man-power to waste questioning the person I suspected of staging the break-in, and that in any case, they didn't bother investigating any loss amounting to less than 1,000 US dollars. When I objected that if he wasn't even questioned, he may try the same thing again, the response was:

'So what? Don't keep too much money at home in future, then you can't lose too much. What's a few thousand Taiwan dollars to you Americans, anyway? You make that back in a couple of hours teaching.' At that time, I wasn't in fact teaching English, and had already informed the police both of this, and of my nationality, but this kind of information tends to go in through one ear and out the other.

On one occasion I even heard a government minister interviewed on local radio, reminding the listeners that: 'The reason the Euro-mericans are here, is to teach us English. Don't be afraid of taking advantage of every opportunity to practice with them.'

Of course, apart from being a gross exaggeration, much like the money to be made from this teaching , this commonly-held and encouraged delusion can result in quite a lot of inconvenience on your part. At first, you may not feel having strangers determined to make conversation with you is any bad thing, but I can assure when you are trying to do something else/ go somewhere else/ talk to someone else etc., you will find this persistent behaviour something more than merely annoying.

SEVEN: Health, Hygiene and Safety

Certainly these are matters anyone travelling abroad should consider, and this article would not be complete without at least touching on these matters.

The problem here though is that health, hygiene and safety are very major issues and impossible to cover thoroughly in one short document. The idea behind this writing is to give non-Asians -- especially those intending to learn martial arts -- an idea of some of the reasons they may want to consider learning martial arts in east Asia, as well as some of the problems and difficulties they may encounter during an extended stay in east Asia, based upon some of the experiences I have had doing so. Asia is a big place, for the most part made up of developing countries: the standards of living, and the economic and political circumstances tend to differ more drastically from country to country and also to change more rapidly than they do in the developed world. I would need to be constantly updating anything I say about standards of living in this part of the world to keep any degree of accuracy in my comments, and that's beyond my abilities, as one man running a web-site in his spare time. I would recommend reading a recent guidebook (certainly no more than 3 or 4 years old) on the place you intend to stay in, and -- even more important -- keeping up-to-date on day-to-day changes through a reliable (ie., major) news-oriented web-site.

So, again, one thing that can be said with a fair degree of certainty is that standards of living in east Asia are far more variable from place to place, than in, say Europe. This isn't going to change much anytime soon. Such a time as when the nations comprising ASEAN, for example, share the same sort of distribution of wealth as is the case in the EU at present, is certainly still a long way off.

Here is an example of how big these differences can still be in Asia, even in a place that some people would even then have considered the same country: Hongkong, as part of China.

As mentioned above, the time I lived in Hongkong was the early and mid-1990s. During this time, the territory's per capita GDP reached western European levels. It approached, and finally overtook that of the country which still handled its political administration: Britain. Though still officially a British colony -- albeit one scheduled to remain so for only a very short time -- the reality of the territory was that of a semi-autonomous Chinese city-state, with a very international flavour. It had already established itself as a regional centre of travel, finance, trade and shipping, and in many other respects not so immediately obvious (for example as east Asia's counterpart to Hollywood and India's 'Bollywood', and as the preferred location for international news media to run their Asian regional headquarters).

But just over the border, in the Special Economic Zone of Shenzen, the average salary was only around one 18th that of Hongkong. The per capita GDP of Hongkong was actually a staggering 44 times that of China's interior.

The standards of living of the various states and regions comprising east Asia can also be expected to continue to vary considerably in the short to medium term. Generally speaking, health and hygiene are not the major issues in the richer countries that they may be in the poorer ones, richer countries generally having better standards of medical care. But, you would still be wise to take out some sort of medical insurance or long-term travel insurance for the period you plan to be resident in east Asia, even if that is in one of the more affluent states. Consider also if you need this for the possibility of getting injured while in training. Obviously, people are often injured in martial arts training, and insurance covering you for this kind of training is naturally going to come at a much higher cost than insurance covering you to study language, or history, for example. But the likelihood of injury can also vary a lot from martial art to martial art, so it may still be worth looking into. You may want to consider (ideally, in addition to taking out insurance) putting aside a part of your funds to cover you in such an eventuality, and/or in the eventuality of being robbed, mugged, cheated or ripped-off for a large amount of your money.

Most of east Asia is relatively safe; some large cities are even safer for lone female travellers than the major cities of Europe. However, it pays to check the latest circumstances, as the following story should illustrate. Nowadays, this pre-trip research is a relatively easy and straightforward thing to do for anyone with an Internet connection. That wasn't the case in late 1986, when I decided to spend a few weeks in the Philippines.

At the time, as mentioned before, I was living in Taiwan, teaching English and learning Chinese. Taiwan was still very much a closed society albeit it in the process of opening up to the outside world. With my fairly basic lifestyle, working as many hours as I could, it was not too difficult to arrange to take a few weeks off in the tropical Philippines while the mild Taiwan winter took hold in December 1986. I had at this point been 'on the road', living, working and travelling in a whole bunch of countries for the best part of six years. I was a 'hardened traveller', I suppose, having encountered a variety of unforeseen difficulties in places like war-torn Iran, Egypt, India and the like, and the Philippines gave me the impression of being a tropical paradise hardly worth bothering to worry about -- I just knew I was going to have a great time. English was widely spoken, the cost of living was low, and the place seemed just ideal for lying low on perfect white sand beaches for a few winter weeks, judging from the tattered guidebook a friend had given me, now about 7 years out of date. The last news I had actually seen about the place was nearly a year previously when the 'People Power' revolution had -- peacefully -- removed the former dictator Ferdinand Marcos from power. Now the country was ruled by Corazon Aquino, wife of an assassinated political activist, Benigno Aquino. Even the political situation seemed on the up and up.

And, in retrospect, it may well have been. But barely. In her first few years in office, Aquino's government struggled to hold sway and maintain authority in a country that often looked ready to come apart at the seams. In the south, there was the on-going battle with Muslim separatists fighting for their own state. Within her own security forces there were resurgent pro-Marcos right-wing elements ready to remove her from power at the first opportunity. And everywhere, there were hard-line communists who wanted revolution, not Aquino's moderate left-wing compromise. They had little faith that the country's battered economy under Aquino's management could offer them anything but more of the kind of hardship they had suffered so many years under the Marcos regime.

I arrived at Manila's international airport. After a huge effort, I finally managed to shake off all the potential taxi drivers and other people who for various reasons wanted to 'take luggage' for me and I got onto the local bus to the district where I had read the best budget hotels and guest houses were located.

The condition of the bus was like nothing I had seen since my travels in rural India several years earlier. And this was the capital! Though only a small indication of circumstances, I began to feel some trepidation and even wondered if I had made the right decision in coming to the Philippines.

This trepidation increased several fold when I checked into a cheap hotel. I had only bothered to change money at Manila airport and the local currency had come in a huge wad of low-denomination notes. I had had no chance to sort this wad out and put it in a safe place or places. The night receptionist took me to my room and insisted on being paid in advance. As he told me to pay him immediately, and I stood in the doorway of what I had already decided was going to be a one-night-only hotel, the doors of the other hotel rooms opened and people began peeping out to see what was going on. I pulled the wad of notes from my pocket and flicked off the amount the receptionist had demanded. As he took the cash, he turned around, and, addressing all the on-lookers, proclaimed 'Ha! Much money! Plenty!', nodding in my direction.

I felt terrible. What was going on, I asked myself, for a hotel receptionist to act like this? I decided to sleep with the light on and my clothes on in case any sort of fast action was needed.


It was, in fact, an uneventful, but sleepless, night. Next morning, I prepared to leave the hotel room. My instinct was to carry all my money, plus my passport and flight ticket, in my airline shoulder bag, but I knew such an approach was fraught with danger. I had no idea where I was going to be that day, and if I was mugged, or the bag otherwise separated from me, then I would have lost everything. On the other hand, leaving anything in my room seemed to be asking for trouble and the night receptionist had hardly struck me as worthy of trusting to look after his guests valuables. Then, I noticed that the legs of the metal-framed bed offered a possibly safe place to stash money. Tilting the heavy bed up, I found the rubber buffer at the end of the legs was easily removed. I decided to split my money, pushing most of what I had already changed, and some foreign currency, up one of the hollow bed legs.

I left the hotel and took breakfast at a nearby café, then wondered down to Manila Bay.

Sitting in the shade of a tree on a wall by the waterside, I began to contemplate my next move. I had noticed on my short walk that the apartment buildings I had passed had mostly featured empty holes or wooden boards where air conditioners had once been. The place seemed considerably poorer and more decrepit than I had imagined. I decided I would not stay in Manila more than a couple of days.

As I sat considering my next move, a local man strolled over and tried to start a conversation with me. I was edgy, and not particularly eager to get into any conversation with strangers which I didn't have to. At the same time, I had noticed that a man sleeping on the pavement -- seemingly homeless and very thin -- had rolled over several times on the pavement in the 20 minutes or so that I had been there, closing the original distance between him and myself by about half.

I began to feel uncomfortable, wondering if perhaps I was about to become the target of some cleverly choreographed joint mugging.

But in fact, it began to transpire that the local man was indeed just making conversation. In his 30s, he had the looks -- and the English -- of an educated intellectual. Although casually dressed, he didn't seem particularly poor either, another point which made me feel more at ease. He asked when I had arrived in Manila, and I replied that I had taken the bus from the airport only the previous night.

'That's good', he commented. 'The buses are still mostly safe. You can't trust taxi drivers. The other day, for example, a Czech dance troupe arrived here. The taxi drivers took them into the hills and robbed them, instead of taking them to their hotel...

The Manilarite told me he felt there would be 'big problems' with safety in the capital in the coming weeks. Aquino's government, he believed, was now more or less surrounded. In most places in the countryside, the New People's Army called the shots. Now, the communists were moving into Manila's slums, preparing for the final push against the government. 'They're safe in the poorest areas', the intellectual told me, 'because the people trust them. They don't trust the police or security forces.'

As we talked, I noticed the homeless man, rolling restlessly in the rising heat of the morning and at one point, I finally looked directly at him: he was a caucasian. I wondered where this man had originally come from and how he had ended up half-starved and sleeping on pavements in Manila?

The possibilities of myself ending up in similar circumstances if I were not both lucky and exceptionally careful began to creep into my thoughts. It seemed I had inadvertently jetted into a place that was about to become a war zone, naively intent on a relaxing time 'chilling out' on tropical beaches. And yet, at that moment, it seemed that a beach may have been just the place to be -- the capital certainly wasn't, judging from all I had seen and been told thus far. I decided I would wait no longer. It was still only mid-morning; I could return to the hotel and check out before noon.

I had originally planned to holiday at a resort called Boracay, famous for its pristine white beaches. But it was further than I wanted to travel that day, so I opted for another tourist mecca called Puerto Galera, just a few hours bus ride from the capital. When I returned to my hotel, most of the other guests were already out of their rooms, and I noticed mine was the only room on the second floor not padlocked. All the other guests had obviously thought it necessary to take this extra precaution in addition to the lock fitted into the door.

I lifted the bed to take my money from its hiding place. It was gone! I was incredulous, and panic-stricken. How was it possible, I asked myself? Who could think anyone would hide money there? I lifted the bed higher, looked up the leg and probed with a pen; no it was definately not there...

A heavy despondency fell over me. If people could work out that a guest would hide money there, then there was nowhere safe to hide money. I would have to keep most of my money in my money belt, sleep with the belt on, and...well, in the end everything would depend on my physical ability to protect myself. I could only hope not to meet determined muggers.

I contemplated finding a travel agency and booking my return flight immediately. But I had only bought a ticket from Hongkong, arriving back in Hongkong now would mean arriving back at the start of the lunar New Year's holidays. Travel agencies would be closed several days and the only way to get a ticket to Taiwan would be to pay full price at the airport, or sit things out in Hongkong for a few days, either of which would cost money I had intended to spend here on nearly a month's holiday in the Philippines.

I decided I still had enough money for two weeks' holiday. I would just have to be careful. It wouldn't be as much fun, that was certain. I couldn't imagine lying on a beach sunbathing with a money belt on, but I had come this far and wasn't in the mood to turn back. With a new-found determination, I packed up my shoulder bag, swung it up on my right shoulder and left the hotel room for the bus station.

Only to find that the hotel manager would not let me leave without paying again for the previous night. He claimed there was no record of me having paid when I arrived the previous night. I protested strongly and also told him I had had money taken from my room as well, but to no avail. I paid again, and left.

An hour or two later, I was finally on the bus, leaving Manila for Puerto Galera, and glad of it. I sat at a window seat one row from the back and kept my heavy shoulder bag -- I had, after all, been planning on a month in the Philippines -- embraced like a lover in front of me. I initially felt I would have preferred a back row seat from which I could see everything and everyone, but this seat had an empty one next to it, which made me feel even safer.

As the bus made its way further from the city's centre, I couldn't help but notice people who seemed to be ordinary civilians walking around with rifles on their backs and thought about what I had been told earlier -- were these people with the New People's Army, or were they members of some kind of neighbourhood militias? In any case, they all seemed confident of the right to be fully armed in broad daylight.

It was late afternoon when the bus arrived at Puerto Galera. The travellers on the bus -- roughly half of whom were foreign tourists, predominantly young backpackers -- prepared to get off. Most of the tourists had put their backpacks and shoulder bags on the overhead racks. As they pulled them off, something remarkable happened: the contents of some bags fell to the floor as if they had been left open, which they didn't seem to have been.

Then I realised what had happened. Somebody -- probably several people -- had managed, without even being noticed, to slit the bags from beneath with razors or sharp knives, and steal some of the contents. The idea that people had had their hands inside the tourists' luggage, feeling around for things like wallets and removing them without even incurring suspicion filled me with awe and dread. These thieves could get at anything!

As the travellers cursed with despair, a middle-aged man who had been sitting expansively behind me on the back row laughed uproariously and finally burst into song as he made his way to the front of the bus.

That his behaviour made him an immediate suspect for having orchestrated the whole operation didn't seem to worry him. On the other hand, he may well have simply been amused; happy to see the despised foreign tourists having a hard time for a change. In any case, he made no attempt to hide his joy at their despair. Nor did any of the other locals seem perturbed at what had happened. Perhaps it was just an everyday occurrence that didn't happen to the local residents simply because they were wise to it. While some looked on in mild amusement, others, including the driver, simply didn't bat an eyelid, as unconcerned with the tourists misfortunes as if they had happened in some other place.

I noticed a couple of foreign travellers who, like myself, had apparently come out of the bus trip unscathed; a young, deeply tanned European man and his Filipino girlfriend, and I commented to them as we left the bus that we were lucky not to have put our bags on the racks.

'I'd never do that', the man replied; 'we've seen this too many times...'

He was a Swiss national and before he had met his girlfriend in Manila, had spent a couple of years as a merchant seaman. We talked as we checked out the local accommodation.

After some collective haggling over prices we found accommodation to suit our pockets, checked in our respective bungalows, and afterwards met at the restaurant of the same bungalow resort. We found we had a lot to talk about. Hadn't they seen me in Manila the night before, arriving at the hotel opposite theirs, Karl, the Swiss asked? It transpired that the hotel I had stayed in had a bad reputation in the area.

'Its hard to know who you can trust when you first arrive in a place like Manila', Karl laughed, and related the story of how he came to be living in the Philippines.

He had fallen in love with the tropical paradise image on his several visits to the Philippines with cargo vessels. With little to spend his money on while on board ship, Karl found it easy to save, and soon planned his return. Coming back with ample funds, he planned to open a small stall or beachside stand catering to foreign tourists. He laughed out loud at the naivety of the idea and quipped that if it had actually ever come to be he would probably have ended up paying 90% of his earnings as protection money to the local mafia!

Karl told me how quickly his money had disappeared and how he would now be dependent on his girlfriend's family providing him with a job in the family business after his return to Manila. On one occasion, he claimed, he had handed over three 100 US dollar travellers' cheques at a bank, only to be given thirty dollars in the local currency. Pointing out the 'mistake' only resulted in the teller holding up the cheques in full view of the bank's armed guard, and insisting they were three ten dollar cheques. The guard brought his rifle up to the height of Karl's waist and told him not to take the teller for a fool. Causing trouble would only result in him getting hurt, the guard warned and Karl decided to drop the matter.

My relaxing winter sun 'holiday' caused a constant knot of tension in my stomach. I had been around quite a bit by that time. But none of the places I had visited -- not even Iran at the height of the war with Iraq, when the Iraqis had resorted to night-time bombing raids on civilian population centres -- made me feel as constantly uneasy as my tropical beach holiday in the Philippines.

It seemed that the root cause of this was the feeling that there simply wasn't anybody who could be trusted; everyone had their own agenda, whether they were called communists, police, government officials, or whatever. There were no real guiding principles beyond looking after number one. The main social value seemed to be corruption.

Add to that that there seemed to be firearms everywhere, and the resulting mix was enough to make anyone feel nervous.

I kept meeting people with guns. For example, each morning, at the resort in Puerto Galera, a German 'tourist' would sit at the local beachside bar, for several hours with a bottle of hard spirits. I avoided him after our first meeting. Wild-eyed, his only topic of conversation revolved around the subject of shooting people dead.

'That look', he would ramble repeatedly, 'that look in their, they know you are going to kill them. But, still, they will say anything, anything, to stop you. Say anything, promise anything. But then, they know...nothing will stop you. You are just doing a job, you are just working for money. You don't hate them. And you are going to kill them; nothing is going to stop you doing that. Then, you aim, and they know for certain...but, still...that look, that look...'

When I mentioned this to Karl he explained that local people with a grudge against someone would often hire foreign travellers to do easy 'hit' jobs. It had become a thriving business. The traveller, typically a young backpacker hoping to stay on in the country months longer than originally planned, or perhaps having hit the misfortune of being mugged himself, earned enough money in one day for the next few months in this tropical paradise. And if ever the killer were caught, it would usually be impossible to prove who had hired him. But public security was such that the killer would almost never be caught anyway.

One afternoon, I took a stroll to a nearby -- much quieter -- beach with Karl and Susan -- his girlfriend --where we had drinks at another beachside restaurant. It was the same story. A young Filipino man, dressed in army fatigues and carrying a machine gun, laughed and joked with us. He was the only 'guest' of the barman, and may well have been his son.

Something in the soldier's manner did not inspire confidence. Karl asked if there were any other foreign tourists staying there? An American, once, and an Arab, once, the young man replied. When Karl asked where the Arab was now, the soldier began to chuckle.

'Over there!' he finally answered and pointed further up the beach.

"Where?' Karl asked, seeing no sign of a person or habitation.

'Under the sand!' the soldier replied and broke into an insane cackle.

After my return to Manila, another such encounter. In the small lobby, or rather reception area, of the budget hotel, a middle-aged foreign man, sat drinking and joking with two young Filipino girls in their late teens or early twenties. He seemed to be enjoying himself immensely. As I was the only other person in the reception area, waiting for the owner to return, it would have been strange to avoid conversation. Besides, I could hear from his accent that he was a Londoner, a city I had spent two years in.

We exchanged a couple of comments and then I remarked that things were so much cheaper and more readily available in the Philippines than back in the UK. It had been a half-veiled reference to the women he was with: after all, they were half his age and definately not girls he could have hoped to 'pull' at home -- but worded in a way which probably wouldn't have been understood by the girls. His response was agreement -- and he then added that he had just bought 'a shooter' at a ridiculously low price.

After a moments pause, I ventured to ask why he wanted a gun? 'Gonna plaster someone, ain't I?'

I didn't ask who. But I couldn't help wondering if the girls he was with knew he was on a murder mission? Was it even part of the attraction? Or were they immune to such concerns, simply with the killer as long as his money lasted, perhaps even ready to leave with his wallet if he ever had his back turned long enough?

Despite my best efforts, I would 'lose' money once more before finally returning to Hongkong. Though my holiday lasted less than half of the month I had planned for, it was with an immense sense of relief that I landed at Hongkong's Kaitak airport, vowing never to return to the Philippines again!

I was already very well-travelled by this point, and I knew that in principle stereotyping people according to nationality was usually a mistake. But I couldn't avoid instinctively regarding Filipinos as potential thieves, muggers and pickpockets. For example, when taking a flight from Singapore to New Zealand nearly ten years later, two Filipino men boarded just prior to take-off and took their seats next to mine. Without so much as thinking about it, I immediately reached for my waist bag, which I had placed in the seat pocket in front of me, put it back on, and kept it on for the rest of the long flight. When I dozed -- very lightly -- I slid the bag around my waist first, so that the actual pockets of the waist bag were almost under me on the opposite side from the Filipinos (I was in a window seat), where they couldn't easily be reached. The Filipinos may well have noticed my actions, but I was beyond caring -- the fear of arriving in Auckland minus my wallet and passport outweighed any other concerns.

The moral of this story is that you must do your research before going anywhere you haven't been before. When I visited the Philippines I had the excuse that Taiwan was still a fairly closed society with only very limited and very heavily censored news from abroad, but as a regular traveller to Hongkong, I could still have easily read news reports in the local English-language papers there about the situation in the Philippines...if only I had taken the trouble. Nowadays, in the Internet age, there is even less excuse for not finding out the public security situation of any country you plan to visit before actually going.

I did, belatedly, read news reports on the Philippines while back in Hongkong, waiting the several days necessary at that time for my Taiwan visa application to be processed. I thus learnt of the so-called 'sparrow units', dedicated communist hit-squads, willing to die in their assassination operations. They targeted local police chiefs and politicians and even succeeded in killing a government minister. But they also killed foreign businessmen and residents, even those running only small cafes and coffee shops in Manila.

It seemed the revolutionaries were indeed about to make their final push against the government in Manila, and for the following year or two I always expected that the next time I heard any news from that country it would be that Aquino's government had been toppled.

Generally speaking, Asia -- especially east Asia -- is a fairly stable part of the world, but things can change quickly in developing countries lacking well-established democratic political systems. A good example would be Myanmar (formerly Burma), which, with little warning, saw a huge wave of public unrest in early 2008, with monk-led anti-government demonstrations, subsequently put down violently by the military government.

Tourists and foreign travellers are rarely deliberately targeted in such events; the issues causing the unrest are usually between the government and the general population or some part of the population. But there are plenty of instances of foreign visitors being shot in crossfire, and also instances of foreigners spontaneously joining demonstrations out of sympathy for the demonstrators' cause and being shot dead by army or police units putting down the demonstration. This has happened several times in Tibet, when Chinese police or army units believed they were in fact only shooting Tibetans.

It's also possible to be 'in the wrong place at the wrong time' through no fault of your own. A good example of this happened when I visited the Dome on the Rock mosque in Jerusalem with some other kibbutz volunteer workers in the early 1980s. We merely sat in front of the mosque eating snacks and deliberating our next move, hitch-hiking around the country; we didn't enter. It was only the next day that we heard the news: no more than ten minutes after we left the mosque, an unhinged Jewish extremist had walked in and opened fire at the worshippers with a machine gun, killing most of the worshippers there instantly. This is an example of an unavoidable (from our point of view) event. But if the country you are intending to stay in has a volatile history, take any extra precautions you can, and avoid those areas which have repeatedly proven to be 'hot-spots' of local conflict.


However, it's also worth bearing in mind that there is 'always a first time', For example, at the time I stayed for several months in Indian-administered Kashmir (1985), I saw few overt examples of hostility or anti-foreign sentiment (apart from, in country areas, being an occasional victim of the local pastime of throwing rocks at strange or foreign-looking people). Not long after leaving, however, anti-Indian government Islamic groups began kidnapping foreigners and holding them hostage. One Norwegian traveller was even beheaded when demands were not met.

On another level, even in developed countries with good records of public security, no unusual level of political unrest and no open hostility typically found towards people of any particular race, nationality or religion, there is still no lack of those people who pray on gullible foreigners who 'don't know their way around', offering scams of every kind. Again, take the trouble of keeping up to date on these by regular visits to the many travellers' sites on the Internet, such as Lonely Planet's, rather than cause yourself seemingly no end of troubles by falling victim to them.

It also should go without saying that if you are female, you should avoid dressing 'provocatively' in any place you visit where you are a stranger unfamiliar with the place and its people -- regardless of whether it happens to be a more traditionally-oriented conservative society or not.

All in all, as a non-Asian, living in Asia while training in martial arts can still be a very worthwhile experience if a few precautions are taken beforehand, and if you remind yourself that it may not always be well-advised to behave in exactly the same ways you may at home...