My favorite scene in The Last Samurai was when the Tom Cruise character says something to the effect that “I’ve never seen a people who are more obsessed with perfecting simple skills” as he watches some villagers. This is just so Japanese—I’ve used it several times to explain to my wife why I try to shoot 100-200 pucks everyday (chi ku—eat bitter) in our backyard. Thus, when I happened upon a book in Kepler’s called American Shaolin: Flying Kicks, Buddhist Monks, and the Legend of Iron Crotch: An Odyssey in the New China, I couldn’t resist it.
This is a first-person narrative written by Matthew Polly. He was a proverbial “98-pound weakling,” tall, skinny white kid from Kansas who decided to prove himself by training at the Shaolin Monastery beginning in 1992. It is absolutely hilarious from the moment he explains to his parents what he’s going to do, to how he finds the temple, to how he gets in, to his interactions with various monks, masters, students, and Chinese babes. Imagine if you combined George Plimpton (Paper Lion) and John McPhee (A Sense of Where You Are) and then this amalgamated man went to China for two years to learn kungfu—this is the book you’d get.
I’m no expert in China and the Chinese, but I found Polly’s insights very informative and amusing—much more so that attending yet-another conference about the “tapping the Chinese market.” For example, you won’t learn about Iron Crotch kungfu from Monk Dong at any conference I’ve been to. The book de-mythifies China, kungfu masters, and the male psyche, so I’d be surprised if you didn’t like American Shaolin. Warning: the book is not even remotely similar to Kung Fu, the television series.