Archive for February, 2009|Monthly archive page

Martial Arts Odyssey: Yaw Yan Hybrid Part 1

In Martial Arts on February 28, 2009 at 11:50 am



MMA Filipino style: Host, Antonio Graceffo, takes us to Manila, Philippines, to learn Yaw Yan Hybrid, a deadly martial art, which is winning MMA competitions in Asia, Yaw Yan. Traditional Yaw Yan was a  Filipino kick boxing art, similar to Muay Thai, founded by Napoleon A. Fernandez in the 1970s.  The founder of Yaw-Yan Hybrid is Sir Henry Kobayashi, who added ground fighting to the Filipino kickboxing and built one of the most powerful MMA teams in the Republic. Meet Sir Henry and his assistant, Sir Jerry, who beat up the Brooklyn Monk and demonstrate the power of this composite combat art.


See it on youtube


See all of Antonio’s videos on his youtube channel, brooklynmonk1, send him a friend request or subscribe.


Antonio Graceffo is a martial arts and adventure author living in Asia. He is the host “Martial Arts Odyssey,” a web TV show which traces his ongoing journey through Asia, learning martial arts in various countries. His website is


His books are available on

Contact him:


Join him on


This was among the first episodes of “Martial Arts odyssey” edited by Antonio Graceffo. So, please excuse the quality, he is still learning. But, it still features the official Martial Arts Odyssey intro and outro by Andy To.



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Martial Arts Odyssey: Muay Boran Part 2

In Martial Arts on February 24, 2009 at 2:29 am



Martial Arts Odyssey: Muay Boran Part 2


Host, Antonio Graceffo, travels to Khmer Suring province of Thailand to study Muay Thai Boran with Adjan Sok Chai, the first teacher of film star Tony Jaa. Adjan sok Chai is an ascetic, a kind of Brahman Holliman, who lives a life of meditation, suffering, training and helping. Khmer Surin province used to be part of Cambodia, and Antonio explores the connection between Khmer Bokator and Muay Thai Boran.


Watch it for free on youtube



See all of Antonio’s videos on his youtube channel, brooklynmonk1, send him a friend request or subscribe.



Antonio Graceffo is a martial arts and adventure author living in Asia. He is the host “Martial Arts Odyssey,” a web TV show which traces his ongoing journey through Asia, learning martial arts in various countries.


His books are available on

Contact him:


Join him on

His website is


This was among the first episodes of “Martial Arts odyssey” edited by Antonio Graceffo. So, please excuse the quality, he is still learning. But, it still features the official Martial Arts Odyssey intro and outro by Andy To.



Muay,thai,boran,Antonio,graceffo,martial,arts,odyssey,surin,khmer,thailand,bokator,monk,Brooklyn,box,boxing, kick,kickboxing,jaa,sok,chai,tony,surin,boran



Turn-off Your Brain

In Linguistics and Language Learning on February 22, 2009 at 3:05 pm

bokatorNow Talk Foreign Language Good By Antonio Graceffo In a low-level English class, with children, we read a very simple story book called “Jim’s New Bike.” There were only one or two very simple sentences per page. If you transcribed the entire book, it would be about one and a half pages of text. The way I teach these books to low-level readers is: First I read the whole book aloud, and they follow with their finger. Then we read the whole book chorally. Next, we go through the book, starting from the beginning, with each child taking turns reading a page or two. If the kids enjoy the story, and aren’t exhausted or still seem to be interested, other exercises include speed reading contests. I pit two students against each other and have them read as fast as they can, and declare a winner. It is a double illumination tournament, so in a class of eight students, even the slowest student will wind up reading twice in the contest. And the winner may wind up reading four or five times. And hopefully, even the ones who aren’t reading, are listening. So, by the end of the exercise, sometimes done over a period of two days, each child has read each page at least five or ten times and heard it read twenty or more times. Before reading the story, I make each child read the title, each time. So, they have also read “Jim’s New Bike,” numerous times. After all of this reading and rereading, we did comprehension questions. Teacher: Who is the boy in the book? Students: Jim Teacher: What did he get? Students: A new bike. T: Who bought it for him? S: His mother T: Why did she buy it for him? S: He was a good boy. At this point, I had to declare that the students were all able to read the story, and that they understood it. So, the next step was to do a dictation. I had them all put their reading books away and take out their notebook. I began the dictation with the title. T: Jim’s New Bike S: What? Who? Ten? Tens? I was at a loss. How could they not have known or understood what I was saying? I even showed them the book, and told them I was reading from the same reading book we had read a few minutes ago. I continued. T: Jim was a good boy. S: A good what? Getting back to a concept I have written about in other articles, predictive logic would tell you that if you heard “Jim was a good toy” or “Jim was a good roy,” you might be able to deduce “Jim was a good boy.” Without prior knowledge of the story, it seems the students should be able to fill in the missing words, or words they hadn’t heard. But, they weren’t doing this exercise in absence of other facts. They had read the story an insane number of times, and answered comprehension questions. So, what was the problem? T: Jim’s mother bought him a new bike. S: Bought him a what? There was a picture of Jim with his bike on the front of the book. And they all knew that the story was about his new bike…. A senior foreign teacher at my school, Pierre, who has an MA in TESOL explained to me that while the story is a story for me, for the students it is just a random collection of sounds. Being Chinese students, with an incredible ability to memorize and spit out data on a test, they were able to remember the sequence of the sounds and reproduce them on command, but the sounds were not being processed as information in the brain. In computer terms, I was picturing someone sending you a college application in Word format. You are able to answer all of the questions on the form, right in your computer, and either print it out or email it back. But if someone sends you the same form as a PDF, although it looks identical, and all of the questions are there, you can’t answer them. With a PDF you don’t have a questionnaire. You have a PICTURE of a questionnaire. Could we say that students had a picture of a story in their heads, rather than the story itself/ Given the visual or pictorial nature of the Chinese language, it is not hard to imagine that Chinese students process thoughts differently than Westerners. In low-level classes, for example, it is often a battle to get students to read phonetically, rather than just memorizing the shapes, appearances, of words. More than once, I have had a student in my class for days or even weeks, who was doing fairly well on his assessments, until I found out that he couldn’t read. How did the student get through all of the individual reading aloud if he couldn’t read? The answer is, he had an amazing memory and basically memorized the story when I pre-read it for the students. The most clever of these students look for visual patterns in written questions and match them with similar patterns in the text. Visual recognition and amazing memory may be features of Chinese learners, but these are logical, intelligent people, so why couldn’t they just guess at what I was saying in the dictation? Certainly, they knew that Jim was a boy and that he had received a bicycle. Again, as Pierre said, the brain, or the logical side of it, shuts down. The data is not processed as information, just as sounds or as words with no meaning. On a greater or lesser level, this same type of shut-down occurs in all learners, from all cultures, learning any language. I walked into work the other day and, speaking Chinese, my boss said to me. “Your students shut off the lights and are hiding in your classroom.” This is really a pretty simple sentence. The only word a very basic student might not know is “hiding,” but I knew that one. And yet, I made her repeat it five times, and still, relying on my “logic” decided she was telling me to make sure to shut off the lights at the end of my class or something. When I got to the door, and saw the lights out, I had to laugh at myself. I repeated her Chinese sentence aloud. “Your students shut off the lights and are hiding in your classroom.” This was exactly what I heard. I was able to repeat it. But, for some reason, I didn’t process it as information until I saw it as a physical, tangible reality. My own stupidity, or inability to understand language which I clearly understood, reminded me of a story which General Joseph Stillwell, commander of the US forces in China, during World War II, wrote in his memoirs. General Stillwell was a fluent speaker of a number of Chinese dialects. Once, he was out on an intelligence gathering mission, when he stopped and asked some workmen “Is this the road to Beijing?” The men said they didn’t understand. So, he asked again, and again, and again. Each attempt met with the same results. Finally, he just gave up and walked away. While he was still within earshot, he heard one of the workmen ask, “What did that guy want?” The other one answered, “I don’t know. It sounded like he was asking if this was the road to Beijing.” Many teaching theorists suggest that one of the problems of classroom learning is that it’s not real. Life is real. Functioning is real. Reading “Jim’s New Bike” is not real. The students don’t know Jim. They never saw him. They never met him. They never rode his bike. If they had, probably my dictation would have gone a lot better. TPR, ALG, English only classrooms, English villages, and foreign language dorms at American universities try to make the language learning experience more real. And I agree. A real experience is easier to understand. Arguably, by definition, to be an experience, it must be real. And we all agree that we learn through experience. While creating real experiences would increase a student’s learning, the question would still be, why didn’t I understand my boss telling me my students were hiding in the classroom? Or, why didn’t the workmen understand General Stillwell? I think as learners, and we are all guilty of it, we shut-down our brains and go on autopilot, dutifully repeating what is told to us, but not processing it. I was interviewing a new student once in Cambodia, whose parents believed she was linguistically gifted because she had mastered English. I began the interview. T: What’s your name? S: What’s your name? Parents (speaking Khmer): You see how bright our daughter is? She speaks English. T: How old are you? S: How old are you? T: No, answer the question. S: No, answer the question. Parents (beaming with pride): You see, she understands everything. The interview went on like this, with the student repeating, but not answering, any of my questions, for the required ten minutes. The parents became irate when I told them their daughter would be going into a beginners class. To learn language, or anything, the brain needs to be engaged. As learners, we need to force ourselves, by sheer will, to have our brains on at all times, actively listening, rather than passively repeating and flowing along like flotsam and jetsam on the river of life. As teachers we need to constantly give the students wakeup calls. Get them out of their seats. Force the language to become a reality for them. Present them with questions which can only be answered by engaging and dealing with the language. If we don’t, we will all be students of the Tarzan school of language. “Me Tarzan, you Jane.” Antonio Graceffo is a martial arts and adventure author living in Asia. His areas of expertise are applied linguistics and second language acquisition. See is video on “Picture Story” applications on His book, The Monk from Brooklyn, and all of his books are available at See his martial arts and adventure videos on youtube. His website is Join him on Contact Antonio: Antonio, graceffo, Brooklyn, monk, alg, linguistic, linguistics, language,

Predictive Listening

In Linguistics and Language Learning on February 17, 2009 at 5:18 pm

Martial Arts Odyssey: Muay Lao Part 3

In Martial Arts on February 12, 2009 at 4:13 pm

muay-lao7For nearly eight years Brooklyn Monk, Antonio Graceffo, has been traveling through Asia training in martial arts and learning languages. This is the third installment of his training in Lao, learning the local kickboxing art, Muay Lao, including stand up grappling. Also, meet Jordan, a Canadian who is training in Lao to prepare for training in Thailand. Here him talk about the life you can expect if you come to Asia for training.


Watch it for free on youtube.


Antonio Graceffo is a martial arts and adventure author living in Asia. He is the host “Martial Arts Odyssey,” a web TV show which traces his ongoing journey through Asia, learning martial arts in various countries.


His books are available on

Contact him:


Join him on

His website is


This episode was edited by Taiwan’s own, “Ohio” Jon Dickerson and features the official Martial Arts Odyssey intro and outro by Andy To.


muay, thai, lao, laos, kick, boxing, kickboxing, martial, arts, odyssey, Brooklyn, monk, brooklynmonk, Antonio, Graceffo

English is not a Foreign Language

In Linguistics and Language Learning on February 11, 2009 at 4:42 pm

dsc08482By Antonio Graceffo

No matter what your native tongue, no matter where you come from, or what rock in a remote cave you crawled out from under, you have been exposed to English your whole life.

Riding my motorcycle down a tiny side street, in the fourth largest city, of a small Chinese speaking country, I count no less than eight businesses with signboards written in both Chinese and English. English is not the second official language of Taiwan. In fact, if they had a second official language it would probably be Taiwanese. This particular street didn’t cater to foreigners. So, the English writing wasn’t there to assist tourists. It was there, simply because it was there.

In a small village in Cambodia residents gather in a tea house, where they sit on blue plastic lawn chairs and huddle around a portable TV and DVD machine, powered by a gasoline generator. They are watching the movie, “The Fantastic Four” in English. It doesn’t even have Khmer subtitles.

Singer Robbie Williams is a bigger star in Asia than he ever was in the United States. Nearly all Japanese, Korean, and Chinese pop groups have English names, written in Latin script, which are then exported across Asia. Even in the Taklamakan desert, in the province of Xinjiang, Uyghur teenagers were wearing T-shirts displaying the image of then popular Taiwanese pop group, F-4. Tribal kids in the border region between Burma and Thailand were wearing WWE T-shirts and knew the names of all of the top pro-wrestlers.

And of course, every person on the planet knows the name of the American president Barak Obama. Even people living in isolated villages, where they would have to walk eight miles barefoot to the nearest TV, were watching the run up to the US election. As budgets are lacking in many of these countries, there is often no way to translate breaking news fast enough, so it is broadcast in English, with subtitles.

In Taiwan, with exception of Disney cartoons, all foreign movies are shown in English with Chinese subtitles. In Korea and Thailand, it’s about half and half. The movie theatre will tell you witch showings are in English and which are in the local language, and they are both popular.

Every country I have ever lived in or visited had several English language channels on their cable system. BBC, CNN, HBO…I watched “The Sopranos” in Cambodia and “Sex and the City” in Vietnam.

Unlike nearly any other foreign language, English is taught, everywhere in the world, by native speakers. Just as an exercise, open a google screen right now and google the words “teach English Central Asia.” You will find countless job ads and placement companies who will help you obtain a job teaching English in any of the “Stan” countries, which before 1989 were completely unknown to outsiders.

English is now the most widely taught language in the world. In China alone, there are 300,000,000 people attending English classes. Said another way, if every qualified English teacher in the world moved to China tomorrow, there would still be job vacancies.

When I took high school French class, my teacher was from Tennessee. He had only visited France a few times, taking students on a one-week tour of fourteen countries. We didn’t have a French cable channel to watch. We didn’t know or care who the prime minister, president, king, or Shah of France was. My school didn’t have any French movies. The schools that did were forced to watch depressing, slow moving black-and-white French films from the 1950s which depicted the tragic lives of people with one-percent body fat in such classics as “The Red Balloon “ and “The Clown of Sadness.”

French kids learning English get to watch “The Simpsons.” It just doesn’t seem fair.

McDonalds has locations in 110 countries. Coke is sold in 200. And Wrigley’s gum claims to be sold in EVERY single country in the world. There are no French products, and the town where I went to high school, in Tennessee, didn’t have a single French restaurant. When I moved back to New York, yes, we had French restaurants, but they were extremely expensive and you only ate in them once a year, or less in my case. So, they didn’t have much influence on my use of French language.

Every computer in the world has the capability to use the Latin keyboard and Latin script. Drop down menus, even in Asian computers, are often written in English. All email addresses, everywhere in the world, are written in English or at least use Latin letters.

China, Japan, Cambodia, Thailand, Lao and several other Asian countries have their own numbers, but they also use western (Arabic) numbers on a daily basis. Nearly all Asian countries have their own calendar with the year being dramatically different than the western one, but they all use the western calendar on a daily basis. They all have their own weights and measure but commonly use the metric system.

Even in China and Taiwan the Latin alphabet is used to organize data or books in a library because Chinese language lacks the ability to do alphabetical order. And in China, small Chinese kids, learning to write Chinese characters learn the pronunciation by writing the Latin alphabet.

That is right! Even Chinese native speakers use the western alphabet to learn to pronounce Chinese characters.

No matter what country I have been in, when I am told, “This is a beginner class. They don’t know any English at all.” Adults would generally know at least the alphabet, because it is nearly impossible to use a computer if you don’t. Adults and children, complete beginners with no prior English at all, would know how to count, and basic words and phrases like hello, good by, and my name is.

Back in Tennessee, when the freshman walked into their first French lesson they knew absolutely nothing. Arguably, English has about 25% cognates with French, borrowed words and words of Latin origin. So, maybe the kids studying French knew something. But when we walked into our first Russian class or Chinese class we didn’t know anything at all. That almost can’t happen for learners of English.

When I was studying French, some of us had a nebulous plan to someday, somehow come up money to go on a one-week fourteen-country tour of Europe, including France. None of us were planning or hoping to move there. Neither did we know anyone who had. In every English class, anywhere in the world, I always ask, “who has a friend or relative already in the US or other English speaking country?” and “who is planning to work, study or immigrate to the USA?” In the Philippines, nearly 100% of Filipino families have a relative in the States. In Taiwan and Korea the number is also extremely high.

For Americans learning a foreign language, the answered would often be zero, particularly for the immigration question. Americans may go work overseas indefinitely, but very few Americans actually immigrate to another country.

Many linguists maintain that personal motivation is the single most powerful force which leads to success in language learning. For a significant percentage of people sitting in ESL classrooms, their job and income depends on them learning English.

To be a civil servant in many countries in the world you must pass an English exam. In Malaysia, Brunei, Philippines, Singapore, Hong Kong, India, much of the Arab world, and many, many other countries, nearly all higher education is taught in English. In some countries entire faculties, such as medicine, computer science or aviation are only taught in English.

Getting the job you want is a good motivator.

According to data published by the FBI, in 2007, they had only 40 field agents who were fluent in Arabic. Apparently, knowing you can keep your job as an FBI agent without learning Arabic takes away the motivation factor. I bet all of the Arab secret police guys speak English.

A lot of westerners living overseas say things like, “People from that country (pick a country) are all so smart. They all speak English.” In my opinion, they speak English because they aren’t stupid, not because they are smart. They speak English because they have to. They speak English because they are forced to. They speak English because they don’t want to work as a street sweeper.

In your country, is everyone over the level of street sweeper smart?

Westerners say, “If my Chinese was half as good as his English…”

First of all, English native speakers have grown up listening to people speaking our language with a foreign language. We are good at understanding them. If you spoke Chinese half as well as he spoke English, no one would understand you. Westerners attribute their inability to be understood in a foreign language to their own inability to learn. Sometimes this is the case. But actually a significant factor is the superhuman ability of English native speakers to understand people with horrible accents and grammar. Asians lack the experience of hearing non-native speakers speak their language, and so lack the ability to understand them.

Another pet peeve is when westerners say, “The people of that country (pick a country) are really gifted language learners. They all speak English so well.” Or “They all speak both of the official languages of their home country and speak English so well.”

First off, if you are raised with two languages, you speak two languages. If you are raised with three languages you speak three languages. Most of my Shan friends were raised with Shan, Thai, Burmese and one more tribal language. And yet, this doesn’t have any bearing on or give any indication of whether they are good language learners or not. In fact, I would imagine they would not do very well in a Japanese class or in my French class in Tennessee.

You don’t “learn” your mother tongue or tongues. Or maybe we should say, they aren’t taught, so we don’t know if you are capable of learning a taught language or not.

As for English, it’s not a foreign language. People everywhere are exposed to significant quantities of English and western/American culture from the time they are born. For most foreign nations, English is becoming a de-facto second language.

So, if you are struggling to learn a foreign language, don’t judge yourself too harshly. You have had months or a few years to do what “they” did over the course of a lifetime.

Antonio Graceffo is a martial arts and adventure author living in Asia. His areas of expertise are applied linguistics and second language acquisition. See is video on “Picture Story” applications on
His book, The Monk from Brooklyn, and all of his books are available at See his martial arts and adventure videos on youtube.

His website is
Join him on
Contact Antonio:

Antonio is currently seeking admission to and a scholarship for MA/PHD studies in Asian linguistics or a related field. If you can help, or know someone who can, please contact Antonio: Feel free to forward this story to anyone who might be interested.
Language,acquisition,theory,linguistic,automatic,growth,alg,esl,tesol,efl,second, language,EFL,TESOL,ALG,Antonio,Graceffo,linguist,martial,Taiwan,teaching

A Difficult Language or a Difficult Culture?

In Linguistics and Language Learning on February 8, 2009 at 3:18 pm


By Antonio Graceffo


Ask most English native speakers to name the hardest languages to learn and they would probably mention Chinese, Russian, and Arabic. Spanish and Italian are generally considered to be easy to learn.


According to data published by the National Virtual Translation Center (NVTC, a US Government organization which translates intelligence data.), Spanish and Italian would be considered category one, or the easiest languages to learn, requiring only 575-600 class hours. Russian, for all of the inherent difficulties would only be considered a category two language, which means 1,100 class hours. Chinese and Arabic, on the other hand would be considered category three. This means 2,200 class hours.


NVTC considers Chinese exactly twice as difficult as Russian.


Many linguists believe that it is culture, not necessarily the nuts and bolts of a language that make it difficult to learn.


During my undergraduate studies in foreign language, I took Russian as an elective. The first few lessons we spent learning the Cyrillic alphabet. For most of us, this was the first time we ever learned a language which didn’t use the Latin alphabet. At that time, I was a specialist in western European languages and had no idea that I was going to some day be learning Chinese, Korean, Khmer, and Thai.


For language students majoring in Spanish or French, apart from the new alphabet being problematic, Russian grammar threw everyone for a loop. The word order was often completely different than English. Russian also had six grammatical cases. That meant there were six forms for each noun, depending if it was a subject, direct object, indirect object, and three other options which English doesn’t really have. For example, you would say, “She is Anna,” but, “I see Annu,” plus four more variations of the name Anna, depending on her role in the sentence.


In spite of all of these grammatical or functional issues associated with learning Russian, I still found Russian easier to learn than Khmer or Chinese. Clearly the Chinese writing system is a huge gulf to overcome, but even foreigners who opt not to learn the writing system, instead concentrating on listening and speaking, don’t become fluent faster. Some experts say that the cultural gulf between the learner and the target language is the biggest obstacle one needs to overcome to become fluent. Russia is very different than Brooklyn. Actually, it is very different than the part of Brooklyn I live in, but probably pretty similar to Brighton Beach, which is now called Little Odessa. China and Cambodia, on the other hand are extremely different than any neighborhood in Brooklyn.


To be fluent, or even conversant, you have to not only know the words, but know how to combine them in such a way that would be meaningful for the listener. While Russia has a history which is different from England, Western Europe, or the Untied States, the basic foundation of their society, thinking, philosophy, science, and mathematics can be traced back to Greece and Rome, the same as in the English speaking world.


When you come to Asia, you find that what we could consider linear thinking, logical argument, building a case one brick at a time and arriving at a conclusion just don’t exist. This isn’t to suggest that Asian people behave irrationally, but just to say that what they consider logic and what you consider logic might be dramatically different. When two people’s viewpoints differ by too high of a degree, no matter how well they speak each other’s language, they completely can’t understand each other.


Once, my employer, in Taiwan, asked me if I had practiced Kung Fu that day. I answered, “No, I didn’t practice today. I had five hard days of training and I need to give my leg a break, because I have a knee injury.” I had had an accident a few months earlier, which my employer knew about, and I was still receiving physical therapy on my knee. The physical therapy was being administered by a doctor, who my employer recommended me to, and the employer asked every day about my recovery. So, he clearly knew about the injury.


“Oh, you don’t like Kung Fu anymore. I can understand that.” Surmised my employer.


“No, I like it. But I trained five days in a row. Now, I want to rest one or two days, and then start training again.”


“Yes, because you are too busy. You are teaching and learning Chinese. Obviously, you can’t study Kung Fu anymore.”


“That is not what I am saying. I have a knee injury, and I need to just be careful not to over-train.”


“Yes, because you are old, and your students need to prepare their English exams, so you want to quit Kung Fu. It is OK.”


We just went on and on, in circles, with me explaining and re-explaining that I had injured my leg and wanted to train carefully, so as not to re-injure it. This misunderstanding or this frustration would happen to someone who spoke Chinese perfectly.


It wasn’t that the employer misheard me or when I said “My knee is injured,” because of my bad pronunciation, he thought I said, “I don’t like Kung Fu anymore.” That wasn’t the problem. The problem wasn’t linguistic at all. In Chinese culture, a middle aged man wouldn’t be practicing kung fu five times a week. A person with a college education and a job wouldn’t be focusing so much time and energy on combat sports. In my employer’s logical mind, I wouldn’t even be doing Kung fu in the first place. So, all he heard was that I was quitting, which was a logical conclusion for him.


I have issues with my weight and periodically go on a no-carbs diet, where I don’t eat anything before 11:00 AM and I cut out all carbohydrates and sugar. In Thailand, my teachers were constantly telling me how fat I was.


In Thai culture, saying someone is fat is actually a kind of compliment. It means you are rich, and you don’t have to work, and you can afford a lot of food. But I hate being fat, and I hate being made fun of.


I was several days into my diet, which my teachers knew about, when one of them brought a rice dish for our class to sample.


“Thank you, but I can’t eat rice because of my diet, and I also don’t eat before eleven o’clock.” I reminded my teacher.

“Oh, you don’t like Thai food.” She responded.

“I like Thai food. In fact, I love Thai food. That’s why I got so fat. But as you know, I am on a diet, and I can’t eat rice or eat anything before eleven o’clock.”

When the assistant teacher entered the classroom, she asked, “Why isn’t Antonio eating?”

My teacher answered, “He feels sick today.”


Again, I never said I was sick. There was not one word in my explanation that could have been confused for the word sick. The problem was cultural, not linguistic. In Thai culture you would never refuse food. Obesity is a fairly new, although growing, concept in Thailand which only effects a small percentage of people in Bangkok. The idea of willfully refusing food wouldn’t enter many people’s minds, particularly if they are rural dwellers or recent migrants to the big city. The only logical reason for not eating would be because you have no food, or because you are ill.


So, my teacher heard, although I never said, that I was ill.


The problem exists on both sides of the fence.


When I was studying in Spain, my host mother told me that her son and daughter-in-law were coming to visit, along with their new-born baby. The host mother said proudly, “They are brining my grandson.” 


“How nice.” I said.


“My grandson.” She said again, as if I hadn’t heard the first time.


“Yes, it is nice to have family.” I answered. From the expectant look on her face, I knew I was missing something, but what was it?


“He is a boy.” She stressed.


“Yes, that was implied when you used the word “grandson.” I wanted to say. Then it hit me. In Spanish culture, having given birth to a boy baby suddenly raised the status of the daughter-in-law in grandmother’s eyes. And having a grandson, rather than a granddaughter, fulfilled the hopes and dreams of the grandmother.


“You are very lucky.” I said.


The host mother smiled. “Yes, very lucky. The baby is a boy.”


Most linguists would agree that learning the vocabulary and grammar is not enough to make one fluent. We also need to learn usage. But understanding the culture is a significant, if not the largest part, of learning usage. For this reason, Arabic, Chinese, Khmer, or Thai may be harder to master than say Russian or Polish, where the cultural differences may be less. Another important point may be that true fluency could never be achieved in a classroom. It could only be achieved by having significant and varied experiences in the culture of the country whose language you are studying. As a foreigner, it is often difficult to find these type of immersion opportunities.


I think you could learn more about a culture by working in the grocery store, helping with the harvest on a rice farm, or serving as a crewman on a fishing boat than you could studying in an international program at a university.


So, I guess my advice to anyone who wants to master Chinese or any category three language is, study hard on the books for 2,200 hours, then drop out of school and get a job on a construction site. Marry, buy a house, raise a family, and change jobs often. After only a lifetime, you may reach near fluency.

Antonio Graceffo is a martial arts and adventure author living in Asia. His areas of expertise are applied linguistics and second language acquisition. See is video on “Picture Story” applications on

His book, The Monk from Brooklyn, and all of his books are available at See his martial arts and adventure videos on youtube.


His website is

Join him on

Contact Antonio:


Antonio is currently seeking admission to and a scholarship for MA/PHD studies in Asian linguistics or a related field. If you can help, or know someone who can, please contact Antonio: Feel free to forward this story to anyone who might be interested.


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VoVinam, The Traditional Vietnamese Martial Art

In Martial Arts on February 6, 2009 at 12:47 am


Antonio Graceffo


They beat the Chinese, the French, the Americans, and even Genghis Khan in war, so I figured the Vietnamese could teach this Brooklyn Monk Something about fighting.


Vovinam is taught everywhere in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon). The practitioners see it as a matter of national pride, similar to the way Koreans view Tae Kwan Do. Vovinam is a very complete martial art with elements taken from many styles. There are kicks from Tae Kwan Do, but also a limited number of shin kicks and knee kicks. There are grapples from Hop Kido and throws from Judo. There are also a limited number of elbow strikes. They train with an array of weapons, taken from China, Vietnam, Korea, and Japan.


Because Vietnam is still a communist country, there is no professional fighting at all. So, the Vovinam guys weren’t ready to go fight in the UFC. But, with a bit of tweaking, the style looks like it could be modified to use in MMA competitions. As far as traditional martial art (TMA) goes, Vovinam was a lot more interesting and complete than Tae Kwan Do. Anything that includes a grappling component is more multi-dimensional than a stand up kicking art. Unfortunately, because Tae Kwan Do is now part of the Olympics and the SEA Games, there is a huge push, particularly in Communist countries, to build world class teams. The cost is that the local martial arts are dying out. 


In Cholon, Saigon’s China Town, I found a massive sports center. In the basement there was a full weight lifting gym. Gyms in Vietnam were quite complete and training was cheap. Membership in a gym costs les than $10 per month. The other five floors of the building were dedicated to martial arts. Walking up the stairs, I felt like Bruce Lee, climbing the tower in “Game of Death.” On the first floor there were about a hundred people doing karate. On the next floor, Kung Fu. Up a level, Kendo and Aikido. On the next floor, Karate and Tae Kwand Do again.


The price of martial arts training was $6 per month.


On the top floor, I found my home, boxing.


I was in Vietnam to learn something new, so I concentrated on Vovinam. The problem with most TMA is that there isn’t enough of a cardio component, nearly no strength component, and no toughening or fighting training. So, I set up a training schedule of weights in the morning, followed by Vovinam in the evening and boxing at night. The boxing was the perfect addition to make my training day complete.


In Ho Chi Minh City people, go out late, study late, and train late. The streets are full of cars and motorcycles, at all hours. Boxing started at 7:30 PM, which is amazing, because in Cambodia, no one would ever consider going out that late. Even more amazing, as I was leaving the two hour workout, people were coming in for their martial arts lessons.


When you walk into a new martial arts school in Asia, there is always the thing about showing respect. They are sizing you up, so you don’t want to look weak. But you don’t want to look challenging either. If they think you have only come to fight, they may not train you, or they may hurt you. Or if they think you are showing disrespect, they won’t deal with you at all.


In boxing, there is none of this. The minute I walked into the boxing gym, the coach, Mr. Ahn, welcomed me with open arms. He was all smiles, asking me a million questions about my training and experiences in other countries. He called the boxers around to listen to the stories and ask me questions. With the martial arts guys, I have to build rapport before I can take out my camera. Mr. Ahn, on the other hand, immediately asked if the boys could take some photos with their new American friend.


As there is no professional boxing in Vietnam, all the boys were amateurs. Most were around 22 years old. They attended university fulltime and boxed part time.


I asked if I could fight in Vietnam, Mr. Ahn laughed and told me that in the whole country there were only four boxers registered at 81 Kgs, the highest weight division. “At national championships they give one gold, one silver, and two bronze medals. So, everyone wins.”


In Thailand I am always amazed at the steps they are taking to improve their training, such as brining in foreign coaches or sending coaches to other countries. Vietnam was the same. One of the team’s coaches had trained in Thailand with the Vietnam national boxing team.


“We can learn from them.” Said Mr. Ahn. “In the lower weight divisions, the Philippines and Thailand are the best in Southeast Asia.”


Philippine champion, Mani Paquoia (Pac Man) was almost as much of a hero to the Vietnamese boxers as he was to the Filipinos.


Talking about my Muay Thai experience, Mr Ahn told me, “We had kickboxing prior to 1979. But then it was banned. Now they would like to bring it back, but there isn’t even an association or a team yet.”


“Traditional wrestling is also dying out. Maybe it exists in the provinces, and probably not every day, just at festivals.”


The good thing about training in a socialist country is that the government supports sports and education programs. Sports are made available to nearly everyone, regardless of how poor they are. The downside, of course, is that while top athletes will have state of the art training and equipment, the average gym is not as good as one we would pay for in a rich country. Boxing training at the sports complex was free, but the boxing team had absolutely nothing. They had half a heavy bag and some rotting, smelly glove. 


The bag was hung too high and not heavy enough for me to do body punches or low kicks. There were no coache’s mitts for pad-work. Mr. Ahn showed me where there had been a floor to ceiling bag, but it was broken. One very cool piece of equipment they did have was a makiwara board hanging on the wall. This padded boarded is normally used in karate and other martial arts to practice focus punching. The boxers used it for speed and power drills. One guy would stand at board, throwing one-two, one-two as fast and hard as he could for thirty seconds, while his partner shadow boxed. Then they would switch off. Thirty second board, thirty seconds shadow, alternating for three minutes. It was brutal! By my third rotation on the board I was completely beat. My arms would barely stay up.


During the drill, Mr. Ahn stood by, and made sure my hands were coming back to a proper guard position between punches, so I was punching off my face, straight through.


Usually when I train with amateurs the coaches leave me alone and let me train what I want, which is nice, if I am there for a short time. I like them to leave me alone because amateur boxing is so different from professional boxing. Fr example, they turn their hands over when they hook, which pros don’t do. I don’t want them to undue my skills.

But if I am going to be there for a year it is a problem because then I am not learning anything new.


Watching one of the best guys train, he was very fast and had good form and tremendous power or his size, but his hands were down at his sides, like Muhammad Ali, and he was wide open. Maybe he was fast enough that it didn’t matter, but I was shocked at how open many of them were.


The gym didn’t have a heavy bag, which would be the bulk of my training as a heavyweight pro. I got the impression that amateurs didn’t work the heavy bag the way pros do. Most of their work was shadow boxing and mock sparing. Amateurs I have trained with in Philippines, Vietnam and other countries did a lot of things we don’t do, such as sliding drills, punching drills, and blocking drills. Maybe we could benefit from these training techniques too.


After the board work, Mr. Ahn had me spar with two of his guys, one round each. We didn’t hit each other hard, just worked.


The second boy I sparred with had one hand on his waste, and punched off his hip. He did all right with it, but it still looked dangerous. The cool thing he kept doing was switching off, left and right hand lead. He didn’t actually change his lead leg, but would twist his body about 50% and lead with a right hand jab. It was tricky and kept giving me a new picture to look at.


They didn’t have a ring, so we were sparring on the floor. Normally I shepherd my opponent onto the ropes or into the corner and pound them. This is much harder to do in an open fighting situation. The speed and stamina of the smaller amateur is a bigger advantage in an open situation.


In pro boxing you are always looking for that knock out or a win by attrition. You lead with the left, but you are constantly trying to set the man up for the big right hand. In amateur boxing, you are trying to win by points. Throwing a flurry of punches, whether they are hard or not, will win you points.


Training with the Vietnamese was great fun, and I look forward to continuing my study of Vovinam, supplemented with boxing and weight lifting. Maybe I will find out who is trying to start the professional kickboxing league and I can help out. Maybe we can build a Vietnamese MMA team and take the Southeast Asian title.


Tan Da helped me to find a school where I could learn Vovinam, the quintessential Vietnamese martial art. Vo means fight. Vovinam is also called Viet Vo Dao, or the way of Vietnamese fighting.


Vovinam is a synthetic martial art, founded by Nguyen Loc in 1938. The practitioners wear blue karate ghis and earn belts just as in many traditional martial arts.


Apparently in the past, the Vietnamese martial arts were as developed as those of China. A martial arts university was founded nearly a thousand years ago, where students studied all forms of combat and also read the classics, such as Tsun Zu, “The Art of War.” National exams were held regularly until some time during the French occupation. Even under the French, martial arts continued to develop with Vietnamese students competing in French competitions of foreign martial arts from Korea, Japan, and China.  


Today, the students of Vovinam seem very proud to be studying their national art, but like in many parts of the developing world, society pushes young people to excel in their studies, particularly English and IT, and to make money. Given the difficulty I had in finding teachers and teams I would say that martial arts are on the decline in Vietnam but still infinitely more alive than in Cambodia or Lao. Tae Kwan Do seems to be extremely popular and was being taught at many high schools and universities. Most parents feel that letting their kids study Tae Kwan Do is a good compromise since they probably won’t get injured. And, now that Tae Kwan Do is in the SEA Games and the Olympics, Tae Kwan Do becomes a matter of national pride, the same as gymnastics or other Asian dominated sports.


The sad thing about the rise of Tae Kwan Do and economic prosperity is that it means the demise of traditional martial arts.


Training with a team who met in one of the most famous high schools of Ho Chi Minh city, at a glance the art looked a lot like Tae Kwan Do with that same round house kick, which hits with the top of the foot. Tae Kwan Do style kicking pads were used and students did drills, running and kicking, leaping and kicking multiple targets. The forms also looked like Tae Kwan Do katas. But when I started rolling with one of the instructors, I found there was a lot more to the art than high kicks and leaps.


The teacher was named Master Hai. I would find out that nearly everyone I met in Vietnam was either named Hai or Nguyen. Nguyen was a traditional hero in ancient literature and was also one of Ho Chi Minh’s original names. Hai admonished me for taking photos of his class. As a result, the story was never able to run in American magazines because there were no images. I try to like TMA but I sometimes get angry and just want to punch these guys in the head. I just didn’t think it was good for PR to prevent foreigners from studying your art or photographing it.


Hai did agree to let me train with him, and once again the price was very low, a few dollars per month. He required me to wear a blue ghi, which is the typical uniform of Vovinam. Almost all of the students were black belts, but I would find out that red was the highest. Remember, when you invent your own martial art, it is important that black not be the highest belt. That way you can be totally unique. One of the styles I had studied in Philippines the highest belt was red, white and blue.


Vovinam contained a lot of impressive joint locks and locking throws, similar to Hop Kido. There were some throws that seemed to have come right out of a judo textbook, “In judo they grab the clothes.” Explained the teacher. “But if you try and grab someone by the T-shirt it will rip and what if he isn’t wearing a shirt? So, we only practice throws that can be done from body lock positions.”


He had a few very cool hip throws where he either locked his arms under mine or grabbed my head and threw me.


When the throw is completed the students did a lock and control or followed up with a punch. I didn’t see any actual submissions, chokes or finishing moves.


The strike side of the art showed the influence from neighboring Cambodia and Bradal Serey (Khmer kickboxing). Vovinam contained low kicks, all be it with the top of the foot, but still they were striking down into the calf muscle. They used some knee strikes. The most obvious connection with Cambodian martial arts was the use of elbows. Vovinam had about five different elbow strikes, including the uppercut elbow, hook elbow, and spin elbow which are techniques pretty much unique to Cambodia and Thailand.



Hai kept referring to Vovinam as Vietnamese kung fu, showing the Chinese influence in Vietnamese culture.


Vovinam was one of those typical traditional martial arts that I have trouble practicing. I hate wearing a ghi. Southeast Asia is bloody hot and I prefer wearing my Muay Thai shorts and T-shirt. We had to stand in rows, military style, according to rank, and do our exercises in unison.


There was a lot of standing and static throwing punches, chops, and elbows. The knees were straight during these drills. Hai yelled at me for dropping into a fighter’s crouch.  


I asked one of the instructors if Vovinam used elbows. He answered, “Yes, several of our combinations involve elbows.”


Vovinam has a number of standard combinations. If your opponent kicked a certain way, you countered with combination 3. if he struck another way, you countered with combination 7. From what I understood, if you started a combination, you had to finish it and these strikes could only be done within the context of these combinations. It seemed very restrictive and not at all conducive of actual fighting.


Being TMA they practiced the old, strike at my face with a lung punch, freeze, and I will block it, deflect it, twist your arm and throw you. I kept wanting to ask him if anyone had ever done any of these techniques for real. One of the stupid drills they had me do was to stand square, once again with your knees stiff, and my hands on my hips. The teacher would throw a very slow punch to my face and I was supposed to block it with my opposite hand. Any time I didn’t do it exactly as he wanted, Hai would laugh at me.


“If you do this in a fight, you will get your nose broken.”


I wanted to answer, if you mouth of at me again, your going to get your nose broken. The only way I can even tolerate TMA is by convincing myself that it isn’t supposed to be about fighting. It is supposed to be about art or culture or tradition or something. But then when they bring up the subject of foght9ng I just get aggressive. If this isn’t fighting, why is he talking about fighting? And if this is fighting, why I am standing with my knees braced, my legs square and my hands on my hips? Who would fight like that? And it’s not like, he is a master and he could fight like this and win. No, the rules are the same for everyone, I don’t care who you are. If you come into a fight like that, you will lose.


How was this stance superior to my normal fighting stance, my Muay Thai/boxing stance?


Hai wanted to teach me a hook, but when I moved my legs, he yelled at me. He wanted me to hook from this same stupid position with my hands on my hips and my knees straight. Then he yelled at me for not putting my shoulder into. I was like, what are you retarded? Boxers through the best hook in the world. And believe me, if someone showed me a better hook I would do it. To hook properly, have to stand in fighting stance. And the way you get your shoulder into is by rotating at the hips and pushing off with your back leg. Standing square like this not only were you not going to have any power, but you were going to hurt yourself.


Maybe that was the plan all along, to get me to through out my back. Perhaps this was revenge for the war. You never knew in Vietnam when the war would rear its ugly head.


The next argument came when he wanted me to turn my fist over on the hook. This is a repeated argument I have had all over Asia. Modern fighters, ones who absorb(rather than reject) the new information flowing throughout the world, do not turn their fist over on a hook. You always turn your fist on a straight punch, but never on a hook. But all of these traditional martial arts have you turning the fist on a hook. But once again, they are only punching the air. None of them train on a bag for several hours per day as a real fighter would and none of them are actually fighting. So, I guess they can throw their hook however they want to and it will be fine.


One thing they did right in Vovinam was the warm up. It was composed of useful martial arts techniques. When you do Tae Kwan Do in other countries, often, they rush through the exercises counting very fast in Korean ish, ni, sam sa….which actually isn’t even the counting system Koreans use for counting exercises in Korea. In so many of these schools I have seen the amount of time they hold a stretch is less than ten seconds. The only reason they don’t have more injuries is because the guys are so young. But, in Vovinam we did real exercises and at a pace that was appropriate.


In most martial arts schools I have trained in (non fighting schools) they do like ten pushups and ten sit ups. In Vovinam we did pushups for about three or four minutes and abs for about twenty minutes. We also did kicking and punching drills which looked as if they were taken from Tae Kwan Do. One guy held up the TKD style kick pad and the other guy kicked it as many times as he could in a certain time limit. Real fighters don’t do this drill because it doesn’t test your ability to throw good kicks. It tests your ability to do the drill. The first kick is real. After that, the guys are only bringing their leg back half way before kicking again. They are practicing wrong, but very fast. And admittedly they can all do this drill better and faster than me. But this has zero impact on whether they can kick in a fight or not.


When people practice this type of drill the kick pad is general held high, head or shoulder height. This is also something I almost never practice. In Muay Thai, most of our kicks are from the floating ribs down and of course we hit with our shins, whereas these guys were hitting with the tops of their feet. 


In their kicking and punching drills they either stood still or moved in a straight line. Real fighters practice moving in circles.


While I was kicking I saw the guys practicing their grappling. On the whole, and as far as TMA goes, Vovinam was infinitely better than Tae Kwan Do or other traditional martial arts I had seen. It was more multi-dimensional. They had a lot of grappling. Some of it looked like Hop Kido and a little clearly came from judo. The Korean influences were obvious in all aspects of the art. After a throw they would go to the ground and use a lock to submit and control the opponent. But because this was TMA the series ended when the thrower put the opponent into a lock. There was no actual wrestling or countering or escaping going on. It was, you attack me. I throw you and put you in a joint lock. Ok, now, you stand up and I attack you and you throw me and put me in an arm bar.


Like in most TMA when Hai talked about fighting it was always theoretical. “If someone strikes you …” They had prepared various silly self-defense techniques such as if someone grabs you from the side, from behind in a bear hug, in a choke…You employ this tricky means of escape. They also had misconceptions about other arts. One of the instructors explained to me that Vovinam was more lethal than Muay Thai because in Muay Thai you just kick once and stop, but in Vovinam you kick and punch at the same time.


I really wanted to fight him so he could show me the failings of my boxing and Muay Thai.


Once again, I was having trouble studying TMA. I know there a lot of cultural and health benefits to TMA, but I still couldn’t do it.


Traditional martial art can be excellent for your health because it will increase the range and variety of your movements. We lose flexibility and get sick in old age because we reduce the types of movements we do. We stand up, walk, sit at a desk, and open the refrigerator everyday. When you were a child you climbed, you slid, you jumped, you belly flopped, you went under the couch…you moved your body in every way possible. As an adult, even if you exercise you are limited in what you are doing. If you lift weights, how much are you actually moving? How many different kinds of motion do you do in a day? Yoga would be an exception but even a dance class or aerobics has you on your feet most of the time.


I can do all my boxing and kickboxing movements, but those are pretty limited compared to what children can do or what TMA requires. Even as a boxer, I, you, all of us do the same things every day. Muscles and joints begin to function only with the scope of very limited range of motion. The movements I do in my boxing routine are the same ones I have done for twenty years. If I do something that feels like boxing or Muay Thai I am pretty good at it. But as soon as I get out o that comfort zone I am lost. 


Looking at one of my Vietnamese training partners I could see that a kid sixty kilos is stronger than me at certain angles. When I actually threw a kick or a hook the way he wanted me to, he was stronger. I am certain that my hook, thrown my way, is stronger than his hook thrown his way. But if I see TMA as exercise then throwing his hook would be a way for me to develop muscles I don’t normally use. It is the same concept as swimming as cross training. You work muscles which are neglected in your regular workouts.


As you get older you develop these tunnels of motion in all of you joints, your wrists, neck, elbows, back, shoulders… If you move within your familiar range you are fine. If you do anything else, you get injured.


I think for an older guy, doing TMA may be a really good way of preserving general health. The problem is doing TMA alone won’t do it because there is not enough cardio and almost no strength work. The cardio at Vovinam was running around the gym in circles. That is just silliness. I refuse to run inside of gyms or dojo. That is not cardio. It is an excuse for cardio and it is really bad for your knees to run in too tight of a circle. You need at least twenty minutes of cardio work to get a work out.


As with Tae Kwan Do practitioners, the dexterity that the Vovinam guys had with their feet was impressive. They were as good with their feet as I am with my hands. They can put a kick anywhere on your body they want and use any part of the foot they want. They can effectively plant a kick up, down, or sideways. That is impressive and they have a lot of techniques kicking low and then high with out the foot touching the ground. The flipside of course is that they have never kicked anything; never kicked a bag, never kicked a target. Most likely, they can’t do it in a real fight, or they might hurt themselves. 


Vovinam had more grappling than most TMA. Once you have kicking, punching, and grappling you have a pretty complete martial art. I wish that more people around the world were doing Vovinam rather than Tae Kwan Do. But in a country with no professional fighters at all how could you expect them to learn it? In Cambodia I don’t know how kickboxing and TKD could exist in the same universe. Can’t the TKD people see how weak their style is compared to kickboxing? Now, MMA and k-1 are big I Korea and yet they still believe in their TKD.


I was not in Vietnam to disprove them. In the context of what they were doing, Vovinam was very good. The pride is also a good thing. They love their country, and they should be proud of Vietnam’s progress. In Cambodia I always had a feeling that there was no hope for the future. But in Vietnam I think the people are capable of achieving anything they want to. 


The final martial art I looked at in Vietnam was Tieu Lam, Vietnamese Kung Fu.


The aged Master Hai (everyone in Vietnam is named Hai) draws his sword and bows. He drops into a low stance and the sword comes over his head and around his body. He rises up on one leg, steps out with his foot and drops back into a low stance. With the perfection of a warrior sculpture he pauses in a forward  stance, the sword fitting his frame like an extension of his arm. Sword practice over, he goes through a similar routine with a long spear. Fighting imaginary opponents, he shuffles forward, backward, turns, strikes behind him, leaps, smack the floor with the weapon, and lunges forward. His practice continues with a chinese fan, wielding the delicate weapon with lethal precision. Last, he practices with his bare hands. This is a daily routine which he has maintained for nearly half a century.


The art is Thieu Lam, and Master Hai has practiced his whole life. In spite of his advanced years, he still manages to teach several group classes as well as private lessons in the Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) sports complex, located in China Town. His favorite form which he demonstrates for foreign visitors is called call “Lao Ho Thuong Son,” which encompasses fifty-eight movements.


“This form contains all the best of Vietnamese Martial Art.” He explains. The form takes nearly four minutes to complete, months to learn, and years to master.


According to data published by the Thieu Lam association, Thieu Lam can trace its origins to China. The art was developed as a hybrid art, a mix of Choy Gar and Hung Gar style of Kung Fu and was originally taught in Guangdong province. Later, Wing Chun was added to the mix.


In watching the master and his students go through their paces, the influence of Northern styles is clear. In fact, much of the movements they use are identical to techniques and forms taught at the Shaolin temple today. At times, however, the southern influence becomes apparent, as they sometimes use a pigeon toed stance. The students would also hlaf twist at the hips and drop into a low stance, similar to that used in Wing Chun.


The Thieu Lam style was brought to Vietnam by M° Luu Phu, who was born near Canton in 1909 and died in 1971 in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City). He trained with his master in China, until 1937, when he left China, fleeing the Japanese invasion. Millions of Chinese live in Vietnam. They came in various waves, most recently, escaping the Japanese war or the Chinese civil war. At the beginning, they lived in tight Chinese communities, divided into dialect groups, with Fujians living together and Guandongese living together. At that time, Kung Fu was not taught to outsiders, and Thieu Lam remained a purely Chinese art. After 1975, Vietnamese students were permitted to study the art. M° Sui Dau, a student of M° Luu Phu became a master and taught the art to Chinese and Vietnamese alike, until his death in 1991.


Thieu Lam is divided into two major schools, “Thieu That Son” and “Trung Son Thieu Lam Tu”. Master Hai belongs to a sect called “Kim Ke Tay Son Hac.”



Training a Chinese art in Vietnam is a unique experience. It is always fascinating to see which aspects of Chinese culture they chose to keep, and which they abandoned. In studying other Vietnamese martial arts, such as Vo Vinam, it is also interesting to see which elements of Chinese Kung Fu were adopted and incorporated  into other Vietnamese arts.


Thieu Lam included a good number of knees and elbows, including the over the top elbow, which must have been picked up in the Indochina region. There were also a lot more joint locks than you would expect to find in a Shaolin art. These may have been adopted from Vo Vinam, the national martial art, or directly from Korean martial arts such as Hop Kido.


They used a lot of the ever-returning fists, similar to Wing Chun. Master Hai punched, and then in one fluid, circular motion, came back with a back fist, followed by a hammer fist. He was constantly striking in circles or figure eights with repeated strikes.


“Everything we do is based on circles.” Explained master Hai, pointing at a Yin Yang symbol over his door. With his weathered features, his face showing signs of age and wisdom, the Master looked like a caricature of a teacher. If you were casting a Kong Fu master in a movie, Mr. Hai would have been your first pick.


“We use circles both up and down for blocking. We also have animal styles such as monkey and dragon.” Said Mr. Hai, pointing out some similarities with Chinese martial arts.


Several of the Vietnamese students referred to their martial art as Vietnamese Kung Fu, the same way people in China use the name Kung Fu as a general word for martial arts.


Although a close first cousin to Kung Fu, Thieu Lam had its own unique Vietnamese character. “In china they use a low stance, but in Vietnam we use medium stance.”


The horse stance looked like it came from southern China or Wing Chun.



“When your opponent strikes with the right hand, you have to block with the left, and vice versa.”


Mr. Hai showed me that if you block with the opposite hand, you will have your opponent tied up in his own limbs, and it will be impossible for him to hit you. Also, it leaves him wide open for you to do a quick jerking joint manipulation and break his arm at the elbow.


As with many traditional martial arts, there was no sparring. They practiced their fighting in patterns, so, to do the drill, both parties would have to know his script. A student struck, Mr. Hai came of the block and into a strike with the same hand. When rolling with me he hit me in the floating ribs, which is more something we emphasize in kickboxing than in Kung Fu. When I threw a kick, he kicked my leg and hit me with his knee, another Muay Thai-esque technique. When we were playing around, he blocked my kick with a cross knee and then kicked the inside of my thigh with the ball of his foot, This is basically a Muay Boran sequence. The most telling Indochina move was when he blocked and then stepped in with an elbow strike to the head, followed by a forearm smash to the elbow, while trapping the hand and hyper-extending the elbow.


“Concentrate where you hit.” Said Mr. Hai. “In China they hit in the liver. In Vietnam we hit in the heart.”


The thing that some students find boring when studying kung Fu is the lack of practical application. Mr. Hai’s students, for example, never did anything apart from forms, which they repeated over and over again. They never sparred and never tried ttheir techniques against a live opponent. Every few years I try to do TMA(Traditional Martial Art), and always quit because I prefer fighting. Kung Fu, however, is the one form of TMA I can forgive because they never actually claim to be fighters. Kung fu is beautiful and on some level, practicing Kung Fu demonstrates a deeper commitment to the art than does fighting.


The thing I really liked about practicing with Master Hai was doing the warm up. A Kung Fu warm up is a sensible exercise. Not only does it prepare your muscles for training, as well as strengthening and creating flexibility, but moving through all of those stances and techniques is much more interesting than standing in front of a mirror in the gym doing sets and reps. Doing the stances, the squatting, bending, and twisting, up and down,  is good for you body, and will help to maintain health and flexibility into old age. Adding TMA, especially Kung Fu, to your overall health regime makes a lot of sense. Most days in ho Chi Minh City, I trained with Mr. Hai and then trained with the boxing team. The combination of the two programs seemed to work well for me. 


In addition to Thieu Lam, the Vietnamese have a rich and diversified martial arts history. At a book store I discovered there was no shortage of books about the various Vietnamese martial arts. The only problem was, none of them were in English. So, you’ll just have to wait for my next book.


Antonio Graceffo is a martial arts and adventure author living in Asia. His book, The Monk from Brooklyn, is available at See his vieos on youtub.


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Wrestling the Monkey Master

In Martial Arts on February 6, 2009 at 12:40 am


wms141By Antonio Graceffo


Telling the world that traditional Kung Fu could be win MMA, Master Hisham, one of Taiwan’s only remaining Monkey masters, shows the Brooklyn Monk his ground game.


“The MMA people say to me, ‘you have no ground game. You can’t fight.’ But I tell them, ‘you haven’t seen my style yet. How can you know?’


Master Hisham takes a break from his rigorous training schedule to teach me something about Monkey style ground fighting. After an afternoon of training, to quote Mr. T, “I pity the fool” who gets in a ring with Hisham. The man is strong, fast, and powerful. He can hit like a ton of bricks, and he can wrestle to the death.


Using Monkey style on the ground, Hisham says, “You have no idea what is coming next. It could be a sweep, a fist, like ground and pound, or a kick. It could be an attack on a body part that normally doesn’t get attacked.”


Hisham tells me to lay on my back and get in the guard. “I see the MMA guys try to push the feet out of the way and attack the man on the ground. But I would just strike the acupuncture points and not bother to move the feet.”


Hisham has a license for Chinese medicine and acupuncture. He says this training gives him specialized knowledge into the body’s pressure points and wear to direct his strikes.


With his feet up in the air, defending himself, the opponent leaves himself open to Hisham’s brand of attack. “There are many points of attack on the back of the calf or the Achilles tendon. They are extremely painful, and makes it impossible for the man to stand afterwards.”


The Sambo fighters, Russian submission wrestlers, also attack the Achilles tendon, but they do it with a grab of the ankle or top of the foot. Hisham explained we shouldn’t grab the foot at all, just strike.


“I can strike with my forearm.” Hisham’s forearms are like stone. Getting hit anywhere with his forearm would be like being hit with a baseball bat. A well placed strike would be crippling.


There are few kung fu styles that can fight off of the ground. According to an old book Hisham found, there was one called, The Great Earth Style, but it has nearly died out. “The monkey incorporates these techniques. You see so many rolls and ground attacks in monkey style, and only in monkey style. The Tiger doesn’t have many. The Praying Mantis has very few, and so on.”


If you look at Shaolin Monkey forms, they do rolls and jumps. Hisham sees practical applications for these techniques.


“There are even Monkey techniques in some forms of wrestling. In Pankration (the ancient Greek martial art which combines wrestling and boxing) there is a monkey roll which leads to a knee bar. You take the leg.” Hisham constantly reads books about Pankration and ancient Greek and Roman martial arts. His wife also helps him to translate antique Chinese Kung Fu texts which they find at specialty shops around the island. “In Pankration, there is a technique where you grab your opponent’s foot, roll into him, and now you have him in a leg submission.”


“Another technique is that when you are thrown, you grab the opponent and roll with him. So, there are many aspects and movements in monkey that an experienced fighter can recognize. Once I showed my uncle, a master of traditional wrestling, the monkey low stance. He said ‘this is a wrestling movement.’ I said no, this is from Monkey style kung fu. He said, for him, it was wrestling. He watched the form and said all of the movements were attacks and counters for wrestling.”


“In Shaolin and Wu Su there is very little left of the original style, only acrobatics and show. There are very few teachers who remember how to use the monkey to fight. Your martial art must not only be good looking. And, you must not only make funny faces and noises. The monkey contains good fighting techniques inside, and you must be lucky to learn these techniques. You have to be lucky enough to find someone who can teach you. Next, you must have the body for the style.”


“In China, small boys are taught Monkey style, usually from ages six to eight. For adults, normally, rolls are too hard to learn. The ligaments and tendons are too hard. The rolls don’t only work the body, they are a form of internal massage which works on the organs. Practicing Monkey is a good way to massage the inside of the body. I have no interest in learning these types of styles. It is very hard to learn, and you can get injured. It looks nice but where is the application? This is only artistic, and you can’t do artistic stuff anymore when you are 60. For ground fighting, however, there is an old master in America who could still choke people out into his sixties.” Hisham was talking about JudoGene LeBell, a contemporary of Bruce Lee whose martial arts career spanned more than 350 movies and TV shows and fifty years. Hisham also spoke of world martial arts legend, Dan Inosanto, who was took up Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ) when he was sixty. “They had experience and could look at an art and say what is usable what isn’t.”


Taking the best from the Monkey style is Hisham’s focus.


“The leg stance is the most important in monkey style. If you watch BJJ they work with their legs and arms together. This comes from monkey techniques. I found an old book where they were doing triangle leg chokes and such with their legs in china.”


“There is an old Chinese art called Ro Su, which uses the same Chinese characters that the Japanese use for Jiu Jitsu. In this art, I saw the leg wraps, using the legs as arms, just like in BJJ. Ho Chuen Ro Su the art of monkey wrestling.”


The up kick has been very popular the last few years in MMA. Many fighters practice laying on their back and kicking up in the air and a few MMA fights have been won by knock outs from this position. “The up kick is already a technique which is part of monkey. The monkey is always low and strikes from low to up. There is no other martial arts style which has the ground punches and kicks that monkey has.”


Although Monkey and other arts have some ground fighting and wrestling, it still would not be advisable to try and wrestle with someone whose primary skill is grappling. So, we return to our strikes, our most powerful weapons. “We must practice punching from the ground.” Says Hisham. “If the man is on top of you, in your guard or past your guard, you can punch up and knock him out, but you need to practice it everyday, just as you do when you are working the bag.”


“You don’t need your shoulder for this. You need triceps, elbows and wrist power. Then you practice the explosive power of Bruce Lee’s one inch punch.”


Here again, Hisham’s teachings echoed lessons I had acquired in my martial arts journey, which now spans more than thirty years, the last seven of which were spent in Asia. When I first learned Muay Thai Boran, in a monastery in Thailand, I was impressed with the incredible number of elbow strikes which the art contained. Hanaman, the Monkey god is widely worshipped among fighters, and Hisham sees a connection between the Monkey of South East Asia and the monkey of East Asia. While living in the monastery, I worked a lot with my team mates, teaching them to use their devastating elbows to fight from and on the ground, and to use the sharp points of the elbow to strike pressure points.


Hisham always looks to the ancient arts for his modern answers. He spoke again about how the old Syrian wrestling masters would grab the opponent’s flesh, before throwing them. I had the same experience once, wrestling in Burma, when Kawn Wan, a young Shan Kung Fu master grabbed the skin under my armpit and threw me. He also showed me how he could force his fingers in, behind my jaw bone, and throw me this way.


Hisham had similar techniques. “In MMA or on the street, the opponent may not be wearing a shirt, which would be a disadvantage to BJJ practitioners, who base many of their throws on grabbing the opponent’s clothing. But for someone who is very proficient in Kung Fu, they would need only to dig their fingers into the opponent’s body, grab his flesh or his fat and use that as handle to throw him.


My friend Kawn Wan, the young Shan master, walked around the village making fists, opening and releasing his fingers all day, thousands of times, to strengthen his grip. Hisham and other Chinese masters use similar techniques. “All day when you have time you need to make fists and train your fingers.” Hisham said the old masters would be able to crush a coffee cup with their fingers.”


To train his gripping power, Hisham used a variety of balls, sticks, bundles of sticks, and heavy vases, which he would grip in various ways. He also used a windlass, a stick, with a rope on it. You hold the stick in both hands out in front of you and twist the stick, rolling up the rope which is attached to a heavy weight. I did that for boxing it was so painful.


In the west when people ask to see your muscles, you show them your bicep. When I was at Shaolin they asked to see your wrists. If your wrists were as hard as stone they knew your Kung Fu was strong, but if not, you had a long way to go.








Hsiham’s final words were. “I would tell the people of the world, don’t give up on your Chinese Kung Fu. The art is thousands of years old and has lots of techniques inside which you can use to fight. But you have to know how to condition and how to train.”





Antonio Graceffo is the author of four books, available on He is also the host of the web TV show, “Martial Arts Odyssey.” To see Antonio Graceffo’s Burma and martial arts videos, click here.



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Martial Arts Odyssey: Kuntaw Stick Fighting (Part 2)

In Martial Arts on February 5, 2009 at 4:47 pm



Part two of the video: Martial Arts Odyssey: Kuntaw stick fighting. See it for free on


Return to Manila with Brooklyn Monk, Antonio Graceffo, to study stick fighting techniques with Kuntaw Master Frank Aycocho. As a Kuntaw master, Master Frank believes strongly in using only one stick. This way, one hand is free to use for grappling, disarming, and striking. The Master also demonstrates the grappling and throwing techniques which are possible if you leave a single hand free.


This video was edited by Andy To, the American film student, who is quickly building a name for himself as a an expert with martial arts videos.


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Antonio Graceffo is the author of five books, available on He is also the host of the web TV show, “Martial Arts Odyssey.” To see Antonio Graceffo’s Burma and martial arts videos, check youtube. His book, “The Monk from Brooklyn” and all of his books are available on



See his website

contact him

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Tags: Kuntaw, martial, arts, odyssey, Brooklyn, monk, Antonio, graceffo, master, frank, aycocho, FMA, Filipino, Philippines, manila, stick, fighting, arnis, cali, escrima