Dr. Yang’s Fight Club
(Page 8 of 9)
Dr. Yang wasn’t teaching him, Mike decided; he was brainwashing him. He was living in a fantasyland. He wasn’t even a real doctor. His degree was in physics, not medicine, so what could he possibly know about the biological basis of chi?
Now that he was free, Mike held no grudges. Grudge holding was not in his nature. Besides, he had learned a lot from Dr. Yang, despite everything. And he was grateful. “Everybody knew that I was his favorite,” he said, “because he was always, like, helping me. But at the same time it’s, like, I’m still me, I can’t become him.”
Dr. Yang was uncharacteristically depressed for weeks after Mike’s departure. And he wasn’t the only one affected. Ricardo, a disciple from Portugal, began talking of quitting. And Tom, a friend of Mike’s from Wilkes-Barre, was wavering as well. The mountain ecology was fragile, and Mike had dealt it a serious blow. In effect, he had called bullshit on the entire kung fu story line: the idea that a rigorously ascetic lifestyle was the road to true mastery; the idea that a single master could be entrusted to administer truth; the idea that an underdog can ultimately prevail through sheer strength of character.
In June 2009, roughly a year after my first visit, I returned to the mountain to see what had become of Dr. Yang’s ambitions. In attendance were two new candidates, hoping to convince Dr. Yang to accept them in the fall.
I spent the day talking with the disciples as they ground through their daily regime. They had all grown much stronger, of course—especially Mike’s friend Tom, whose limbs had acquired an arboreal thickness (the other disciples had taken to calling him “Turkey Leg”). In one exercise, they repeatedly hopped on and off a two-and-a-half-foot retaining wall. After a year of running the mountain, their legs had grown so strong that they could hop onto the wall with the littlest effort, barely bending their knees. The effect was eerie, as if they were floating, or a film clip had been reversed.
After the initial shock of Mike’s departure, the old rhythms had gradually resumed. Ricardo reconciled himself to the 10-year commitment. Tom was slowly resigning himself to the laggard role Mike had left behind.
Meanwhile, Dr. Yang continued to torture himself, wondering if he had pushed Mike too hard. (When Mike left, Dr. Yang owed him 200 swats with the rattan cane.) “His mentality still, like, 15,” Dr. Yang said. “I should treat him like the first three months, encourage him instead of give him pressure.”
In Dr. Yang’s view, it all began to go downhill after winter break, when Mike got a reminder of how good life could be in the land of distraction. Compared to the barren mountaintop, even a place as benighted as Wilkes-Barre must have seemed like paradise. Possibly, it all came down to buffalo-chicken-wing pizza.
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