Archive for June, 2010|Monthly archive page

Martial Arts 3D video Filming

In Uncategorized on June 28, 2010 at 10:53 am

It’s a whole new art, both of fighting and filming.

By Antonio Graceffo

Watching the proof of our 3D martial arts fight on a video monitor was incredible. The spinning, dancing, battling images popped off the screen like holograms in some advanced video game, but it wasn’t a random CGI image, it was me. And it was one of the coolest projects I had ever been involved with.

My greatest aspiration is to one day become an action figure.

The video was cut into a series of free promos that will be running online at and on youtube, which you can watch with 3D glasses. A new martial arts series will be launched in August, hosted by Antonio Graceffo. As far as we know, it will be the first ever 3D martial arts series.

The way I got involved in this project was a lot of luck. I had just arrived back in Bangkok, when Al Caudullo, who owns a company I had worked with last summer, 3D Guy TV called me for a one-day video shoot. He asked me to bring a friend, to be my opponent, and we filmed in a park.

Shooting 3D is a whole new art and presents a lot of different problems, compared to regular 2D movies. First off, movie sets which work in 2D will not work in 3D because they will look flat. Movie sets today, especially large sets, like cityscape backgrounds, are done in 4th Dimension.

If you wanted to shoot a movie and have the characters in New York and you wanted the Empire State Building, Rockefeller center, and the New York Public Library in the background, first off, those buildings are nowhere near each other, so it would be impossible to get them all in a single shot. Next, they are so big that if you had two people standing in front of them, you wouldn’t even recognize the buildings or wouldn’t be able to see very much of them. So, you create a 4th dimension set. The set would be custom made, including the buildings you wanted. Then they would be shrunk down to size that would make them appear bigger than your stars, but small enough to fit into the frame. Next, to give them depth, there would be a mix of 2 and 3D scenery. If you go to the New York section of Universal studios, you will find a small version of the New York Public Library. The building is mostly a flat painting, but the stone staircase in front is real. And part of the lion statues are real, 3D. The other parts are painted on. To complete the illusion, a 4th Dimension set is tapered on the sides so that it creates an artistic vanishing point, to make it appear that you have a wide shot and the images melt away into the horizon at the ends of the shot.

In reality, if you shot a picture of a building in New York and had the same perspective, your stars would be two little ants, barely visible in the foreground.

With 3D, things change. If you shot the same set on 3D you would be able to see that half of it was painted on the wall and that the parts that stuck out were only inches deep. Remember 3D gives real perspective. 4th Dimension only gives the illusion of perspective.

So, a lot of old scenery will have to be scrapped when shooting in 3D. Luckily, my shoot was outdoors, in a garden with a playground.

When we arrived at the shoot, I immediately spied a gazebo which had a roof made of crisscrossed steel. I though, wow! Perfect. We could put the cameraman up there and he could shoot form bird’s eye perspective, down through the holes in the steel.

But with a massive 3D rig, 23 kgs, plus a monitor, it would have been nearly impossible and stupid to try and climb up anything. Next, Al explained that if you shot from directly overhead with a 3D camera, the actors would look like they were six inches tall.

I am already self conscious about my height. So we left the bird’s eye shot out.

While we are on the subject of body image issues, I got seriously out of shape in Malaysia. With 3D I was worried that I would look even fatter, or my fat would come out of the screen and spew onto the audience. In normal shooting, a camera adds ten pounds, so I never do a three camera shoot. But with 3D, I was really worried I would look like Jaba the Hut.

The other thing I was concerned about was whether or not I would need to wear the glasses during the shoot. It seemed safer not to wear them. But then I was worried I wouldn’t appear in 3D.

Al told me not to worry about the fat thing. Then he called me an idiot for asking about wearing glasses during the shoot. It’s refreshing, working for someone from Brooklyn, who knows how to speak his mind, even if his mind is full of venom.

During the shoot, I noticed Al wearing the glasses, however, and I was a little jealous. I wanted glasses too.  He said it was because he needed them to watch the monitor. That made sense. When I am filming on my 2D camera, obviously, I have to watch the monitor to make sure I am picking everything up and getting the right shots. But with 3D you need to wear the glasses to see everything properly, on the monitor.

When Al said “action,” we began fighting. Ulysses is an experienced Muay Thai fighter. He has had a number of fights and spars regularly. So, he knew how to circle and stick and move. The problem is, in movie fighting that can be very boring. For one thing, real fights are composed of five two minute rounds. The first two rounds are usually pretty slow, with two fighters feeling each other out. They don’t really get going till the third and fourth rounds. But in a movie, a fight scene rarely lasts more than a minute or a maximum of three minutes, but not 15 like a real fight.

The audience doesn’t want to see circling and isolated strikes. They want to see pounding and pounding, and hitting, and popping and possibly some blood and death.

Real tournament fighting, jab, jab, front kick, circle, step, jab…isn’t going to cut it.

I explained to Ulysses that in movie fighting he just needed to hit and hit with intensity and not worry about getting hit back. We started fighting again and Ulysses, to his credit was doing much better, but Al stopped us again.

“3D is not just a film effect.” He explained. “It is psychological. It is an illusion. The audience sees the 3D because they believe in it.” Al went on to teach us that if during the fight we moved too much and part of our bodies went out of frame, or we got cut in half, the part that remained on screen would revert to 2D and the scene would be ruined. “As good as the movie Avatar was, there were several scenes where the movie went back to 2D because of these types of mistakes.”

“Action!” yelled Al, and we began hitting each other. Two seconds later, he was already yelling “Cut!” Apparently every time we moved or circled we were going out of frame. Al marked the ground where we needed to fight. After one more cut, he tightened up our fighting area. Eventually it got so small he asked us, “Can you guys just grapple?”

I wanted to do a couple of sweeps or throws, but aside from the fact that we were fighting on concrete, the only safety gear I had with me was an oral dam with a hole in it that I use for administering mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Actually, the sweeps would have been problematic, anyway, because they would have taken us out of frame. The more we filmed, the more I realized how narrow the “in frame” area was and that it was limited not only by breadth but also by depth. Once again, this was 3D, depth TV. Getting too far away from the camera, under the camera, over the camera…left or right, we would go out of frame. But the real no-no was to be half in and half out.

The second half of the fight scene consisted of a chase across the playground and a very cool final fight on the sliding board. On the way to the sliding board, Ulysses was chasing me. He leaped up onto a row of park benches, got beside me and leaped off, giving me an elbow to the top of the head. I had wanted to shoot the leap from several angles, including from the ground and from bird’s eye perspective, but it just wasn’t possible.

Next, we fought on the sliding board, which worked extremely well for 3 D because Ulysses leapt off the board on top of me, dropping both a knee and an elbow on me.

Al said, “We are pushing the envelope today of what has been done with 3D.”

3D really lends itself to action. Shrek was great in 3D because there was constant action with things leaping off the screen at you. “The Office” in 3D, wouldn’t be as exciting. It is an extremely funny show, but you need action to really capitalize on the 3D. So, a martial arts fight scene was perfect for 3D. BUT, there are special problems with shooting in 3D.

For one thing, as I said earlier, the camera weighs a ton. At this point in time, you can’t just pick up a 3D camera and run with it. In our fight scene there was a chase sequence. Normally the cameraman would run in front of us or behind us, but you can’t do that with 3D. The camera has to stay put.

You can move the camera to get multiple angles as you could with a 2 D camera. Al says that when you are used to it, moving and re-setting the 3D camera isn’t any harder than doing the same for a 2D camera, and he was very fast. He told me, though that you had to be really careful about how you did scene cuts cut-aways.

When you cut the action and then restart, in 3D you have to make sure that the actors are in the same exact positions as they were before. This is true of good 2D filming as well, but for 3D you have to ensure that the actors are on the same relative plane. Remember the camera picks up depth. So, for example, when shooting a 2D fight scene, I can put the two actors facing each other, inches apart, but one is slightly closer to the camera to the other. When the far away guy punches, his fists will appear to go through his opponent. So the opponent reacts, and it looks like he has been hit. With 3D if we had that same layered effect, the audience would be able to see the distance between them.

In fact, in some of the better, clearer shots, the two fighters popped off the screen so well, that you felt you could pass your hand between them. If one punched and the other reacted the audience would just laugh, because you would see that the punch missed him by a mile.

3D is going to create a whole new type of scenery. It will also create a new type of fight choreography, and in the end, it will create a new type of action movie star.

And since I am one of the few who has experience, I just wanted to say, I am available for your next 3D action film.

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

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

Antonio is also on twitter, with the name, Brooklyn Monk. Follow his adventures and tweets.

His books are available on

Contact him:

His website is sign up for his mailing list on the site.


The Karate Kid, Then and Now

In Uncategorized on June 26, 2010 at 4:12 pm

By Antonio Graceffo

I just saw “The Karate Kid 2010” tonight in Bangkok, and I feel like I am 43 going on 16. I have one of those feel-great movie highs that prompts you to make life altering decisions, which you will never follow through on when you wake up with a hangover. But for those brief moments of illusion, you feel like a million bucks.

In short, the new version of “The Karate Kid’ was the greatest movie ever. It was certainly better than “Cats”, but I wouldn’t want to match it up with “Casablanca”, “It’s a Wonderful Life” or “Dodge Ball.”

Even if my over-blown praise seems exaggerated, I can’t believe there are people out there who didn’t love this movie. Maybe if you prefer movies that suck, you wouldn’t like “The Karate Kid”. Or, if you like movies made with crap instead of excellent writing, great acting, and incredible characterization. I hate to compare it to the original, which is a classic, iconic film, but it was even better.

The original was great. I saw it when I was basically the same age as Daniel San and I related to it in so many ways. As an adult, I have re-watched the Pat Morita version a number of times, including twice in the last year, and it is truly a great and timeless film. And of course, I am required to like Ralph Macchio on ethnic grounds. BUT, it did have holes. For one thing, the original needed to be trimmed by 30 minutes. There were too many sequences of playing beach volleyball, riding bicycles and listening to the Bangles musical montage. Otherwise, it was great.

Everyone who was a kid in the 1980s will say that “Star Wars” and “Indiana Jones” were the two most unforgettable film franchises of their youth. Kids who grew up in the 2000’s will say that the “Star Wars” prequels and the fourth installment of “Indiana Jones” were some of the most forgettable moments of their youth, except those kids who were so traumatized by the terrible films that they are in counseling, reliving those tear-filled moments, again and again….

But I believe kids who are kids now, will remember “The Karate kid 2010” as fondly as we remember the original. And if they don’t, I will punch them in the nose, the snotty ungrateful bastards…not liking my favorite film. Video games and childhood obesity ruined an entire generation.

A lot of people ask me, “So, Antonio, why is Karate Kid so great?”

Funny you should ask that. I was just about to explain what I liked about the movie.

First off, the casting was brilliant. Obviously Jackie Chan is the greatest living martial artist on the planet. He has more film credits and more stunts than almost any living actor. Since I live in Asia, I am probably more aware than most Americans of his tireless activities and charity works off camera. He did no-smoking campaigns in Hong Kong, save the tigers in Cambodia, and promoted world peace, fitness and martial arts everywhere else. Plus, he makes me laugh. The man has made a career out of being the funny, but unbelievably talented Kung Fu movie star. And he just keeps going. He is 56 years old but no one can hold a candle to his martial arts ability.

Pat Morita was Mr. Miyagi. In fact, he said in an interview, that he personally created the Sensei as a character in movies. And I strongly agree. He should  be remembered and honored. But the new movie is not an exact remake of the old. And the performance of the new actors shouldn’t be degraded by our emotional ties to the originals. The two films both exist and are both good, full stop. And Mr. Miyagi and Mr. Han both exist. And each is great in his own right.

Probably Mr. Han, Chan’s character, won’t be as quoted as often as Miyagi, but that’s because his lines were in Chinese. And the pronunciation is difficult for many westerners.

When I first heard Jaden Smith was playing Dre Parker (Daniel San) my first thought was that he was from an incredibly talented family, son of Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith. I also remembered him from the movie, “The Pursuit of Happyness”, which was great. I didn’t see him in “The Day the Earth Stood Still” because it starred Tom Cruise and I was afraid people would see me buying a ticket.

The only concern I had about Jaden was that he was too young, twelve-years old. While both “Karate Kid” films dealt with being the new kid in school and being the geek that no one liked, two demons which I wrestle with to this very day, the original was about a boy in high school, a boy trying to become a man. Also, the guys who were beating up Daniel San were basically full grown men. When Miyagi defeated them, he was a hero. The kids beating up Jaden Smith were 14. When Mr. Han defeated them, he should have been arrested.

Although I may have gone into the theater with some slight reservations about a film with such a young kid as the focus, those reservations disappeared minutes into Jaden’s performance. The kid is hip, cool, sassy, good looking, and very likeable. The fact that he is the new kid in school, in China, as opposed to California, means he is facing a bigger challenge than Daniel San and it more than makes up for his lack of years.

Just like in the first movie, Daniel San, Dre gets a crush on a girl who is out of his league. Wen Wen Han the young Chinese actress who plays Mei Ying was excellent. And as a character, she was infinitely more interesting than Ally in the original. In the film, Mei Ying is a musician trying out for the Beijing Academy of Music, facing her own daemons. Dre teaches her the pinky-swear, and they both promise to support each other’s dreams.

As for sheer action, the kung fu was, of course, incredible, because Jackie Chan, unlike Pat Morita, is actually a martial artist. The modern version of “wax-on, wax-off” was also a pleasant surprise. An article I read about the original said it was one of the only karate movies that was about karate. I definitely felt that way about the new version as well. It was about martial art and about taking martial art to your everyday life.

Mr. Han (Jackie Chan) tells Dre (Jaden Smith) “Kung fu is in everything we do. How we put on a jacket, how we take off a jacket, how we treat people. Everything is Kung Fu.”

On the whole, the greatest strength of the movie is that it is not a remake. This film is not just a modern reboot of the original. It is almost a parallel story, which loosely follows the original formula. There were a lot of really fun references to the original movie. Particularly funny for me, as a Chinese speaker, was the fact that some of the dialogue was exactly the same, except in Chinese.

Notable lines translated into Chinese were, “There is no fear in this dojo” And, “One on one problem, the boy can handle, but not six on one problem.” The one line they did not translate, unfortunately, was “Sweep the leg Johnny.”

As an American living in Asia (I said that already) I completely related to many of Dre’s problems adjusting to his new country. I remember not being able to read street signs, getting lost everywhere I went, Stumbling through my first words of Mandarin, and trying to watch cartoons, only to find that they were dubbed into Chinese. In those early silly days in China (ROC) I remember constantly insulting or interrupting people, simply because I didn’t understand the culture and every time I had a problem I had to go to great lengths to find the one person who spoke English well enough to understand me.

I give huge kudos to the US movie-makers and the American viewing audience for getting out of the American bubble and supporting a movie about an American living abroad.

The Kung Fu training center was exactly like my experience in Shaolin Temple, with hundreds or even thousands of students, in colored track suits, doing forms and practicing for hours. And of course, all of them better than me.

Go see “Karate Kid”. Don’t waste time comparing it to the original. Just enjoy it, and let the memories and emotions wave over you. You may even shed a tear or two.

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

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

Antonio is also on twitter, with the name, Brooklyn Monk. Follow his adventures and tweets.

His books are available on

Contact him:

His website is sign up for his mailing list on the site.


Silat Kalam: Islamic Martial Art

In Uncategorized on June 17, 2010 at 6:21 pm

A Malaysian Art Tied Closely to the Religion of Islam

By Antonio Graceffo

Guru Mazlan man stood in a neutral stance, hands at his side, feet side by side, a natural and relaxed stance, which is the starting point of all Silat Kalam movements. I threw a punch at his face. He blocked my punching arm, knocking it skyward. Next, he drove his knee into the tendons at the back of my knee joint. He was only going at a quarter speed, but the pain was incredible. After 50 years of martial art practice, the Guru was perfect. In every movement, I could feel his bones cutting through my flesh and digging into my nerves.

He placed his shin bone against the back of my knee and leaned forward. I had no choice but to fall down, on one knee. Next, he stomped down hard on my calf muscle which was flat on the ground. Then he backhanded me in the face, and I fell backward. My body was completely locked. My own natural skeletal structure had betrayed me. The only way I could stand back up was if the Guru removed his foot from my calf muscle and then reached a hand down, to help me stand.

This was Silat Kalam, an art designed to completely subdue an attacker, but never to be used as an attack.

“I breath because of God. I drink because of God. I eat because of God. I practice Silat because of God.” This is a portion of the mantra which Guru Mazlan Man had the students recite on a daily basis. He explained his philosophy this way. “We must remember that we only do things because of God. And if we only do things because of God, we will not do bad things. You cannot say, I steal because of God.”

In the west, when people here the word Guru, they associate it with some new age religion or Hindu philosophy. But in Malaysia, the word Guru simply means teacher or master. And it is the name applied to all martial arts teachers.

Everyday, the students met in a community meeting room of a government building in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. The lead student, Fami, called us to attention, “Kalam sedia!”  The students immediately brought their hands up to prayer position and begin reciting their devotions. They give thanks for their health and strength and for the opportunity to practice martial art. Then they remind themselves that they practice martial art because of God.

After a brief warm-up and stretching, the students started into the buah, or choreographed sets of movements. Silat Kalam has 28 buah

Silat Kalam is essentially a grappling art. Because the art is strictly for defense, each of the buah, or series of movements, begins with an opponent attacking you. You block, using one of four basic blocks, and then throw and lock the opponent. The locks put the opponent on the ground, tied up like a pretzel. At the least, the opponent is submitted. But a slight twist or variation in the throw or lock could severely cripple or even kill the opponent.

Unlike submissions in other arts, the locks in Silat Kalam are completely impossible to break out of.

The Guru told me once, “If a man walks into your school and challenges you to a fight, don’t accept him as a student.” A man like that has something to prove, or he isn’t a good person. “If you accept him as a student, remember, that when he throws you and locks you, you will be completely helpless.”

The Guru is over sixty years old, but when he has me in a lock, I am truly incapacitated, completely unable to escape, and as he says, totally helpless.

I was the first non-Muslim to ever be permitted to study Silat Kalam. It was a great honor and also an incredible cultural experience. Each day, I met the Guru for training and also for lessons about the religion. He never asked me to convert, only to learn.

He told me. “We are all children of Adam, children of God. God made us all different, so we can learn from each other and love one another. He does not want us to fight or quarrel among ourselves. If you were a father, would you want your children to kill one another?”

When I reminded him that I am Catholic, not Muslim, he said. “When I teach you, I only talk about God. When we talk about God, everyone is happy. It is only when we talk about religion that people get angry.”

Guru Mazlan Man described Silat Kalam in this manner. “Silat kalam is a martial art where you never use a lot of force or movement. And each movement is based on the position of the prayers, the position of where you pray to God.”

The first eleven buah are based on “Dua” which literally means “to give thanks.” It is the first prayer position, where the hands come up, with the palms facing the sky. This is the first movement of more than one third of the buah. It is fitting that Dua plays so prominently in an art which asks you to remember who gave you your strength and your health. A man strikes you. You block by bringing your hands up in prayer position, knocking his elbow straight up. Each block is always followed by a strike. Since you have knocked his arm skyward, the rib cage and under arm are vulnerable. You can move in with a knee or elbow strike, or a simple punch. The palm of your hand is making contact with his elbow, so after you strike him, you can grab the elbow and pull in whatever direction you want him to go. The Guru would often grab the elbow, pull the man towards him and then deliver a karate chop to the man’s forearm.

When I was on the receiving end, I was amazed at how painful that chop was. Jjust like in Brazilian jujitsu where you may strike a man simply to distract him and go for a submission, the same is true in Silat Kalam. When you karate chop a man’s arm, it hurts intensely, but only for a split second. So, that chop is not a fight ending technique. But during that split second of intense pain, the man loses his will to struggle. You chop his arm, and immediately go for the throw or the lock. In one of the boa, you chop the arm, which knocks it toward the ground. You simultaneously grab the elbow or upper arm and continue to pull the man to the ground, Then you step on his hand. You release that arm and lock his other arm. Now, he is completely helpless, and in incredible pain.

For the full series. You simply lean forward with your knee against his elbow, breaking his arm.

In many forms of Silat that I have seen, once you have the man “where you want him” you go nuts with overkill and devastating force. Picture this boa, the man’s hand is under your foot. You have just broken his arm with your knee. You control his other arm. You place your knee on the back of his neck, and drive his face into the ground. His other arm is now in a very unnatural and vulnerable position, so you break it. Then you finish with any number of locks, grapples, kicks, punches….

And that is just one of the buah.

As violent and potentially lethal as the art is, it is still strictly defensive all buah begin with a man attacking you, not the reverse.

“The movement of Kalam is art.” Says the Guru. “You will never attack anyone. Practicing Kalam softens your kindness toward human beings. There is no more quarrel. And that is how God teaches us to be all of the time. So, Silat Kalam takes the position to teach people to know each other, love each other, and to learn self defense.”

Guru believes that we should never hate another person for his actions because people are basically good.

“Our enemy is not people, our enemy is satan. Satan always wants to attack us, wants to kill us, fighting each other. So, we must live peacefully. And when we have self-defense, no one can attack us, nobody can harm us, and we will always be a friend to every body.”

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

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

Antonio is also on twitter, with the name, Brooklyn Monk. Follow his adventures and tweets.

His books are available on

Contact him:

His website is sign up for his mailing list on the site.


Silat Tomoi DVD Trailer

In Uncategorized on June 16, 2010 at 2:52 am

“Devastating Elbows of Silat Tomoi” a new DVD, featuring Khru Jak Othman, one of Malaysia’s leading Silat Gurus, and Antonio Graceffo, The Monk from Brooklyn.

In ancient times, Muay kickboxing arts migrated from Cambodia, down through Thailand to the Malaysian border where they met Silt. Silat Tomoi is the traditional, and lethal fight style of the Malay warriors. In this never before seen DVD learn how the elbows of Silat Tomoi are used in the same manner as the knives, spear, and small axe of the Silat used by Malay assassins.

Coming soon on DVD.

Watch the trailer on youtube


Martial Arts Odyssey: Silat Kalam

In Uncategorized on June 13, 2010 at 9:34 pm

Brooklyn Monk, Antonio Graceffo returns to Malaysia to study Silat Kalam, a religious form of Silat, taught by Guru Mazlan Man. Martial Arts Odyssey fans will remember Guru Mazlan Man from a previous video, “Silat Because of God.” The Guru and Antonio both appreciated each other’s philosophy, and the Guru invited Antonio to be the first ever, non-Muslim student of Silat Kalam.

Silat Kalam is a grappling form of Silat, in which an opponent is taken down to the ground, and then locked. The locks can be limb breakers, submissions or killers. One theory on the origin of Silat Kalam is that it is a modern, living example of the ancient Persian art of Gulat.

Martial Arts Odyssey: Silat Kalam

Watch it for free on youtube.

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

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

His books are available on

Contact him:

His website is

This episode was edited by Antonio Graceffo and features the official Martial Arts Odyssey intro and outro by Andy To.


Rohingyas in Malaysia

In Uncategorized on June 12, 2010 at 12:56 pm

Burmese Muslim Refugees Seeking Shelter and Survival

By Antonio Graceffo

“We know you help Shan people Burma. Please help we. We Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh.”

This was an email I received nearly two years ago. It was accompanied by heart-wrenching photos of people on the brink of starvation. Children with distended bellies, covered in parasites. The “camp” seemed to be submerged in a foot and a half of filthy water.

From September of 2007 to February of 2008 I was embedded with the Shan State rebel army in Burma, documenting human rights abuses and genocide waged by the tyrannical Burmese Junta, lead by Than Shwe. The military government, which is completely in the hands of the Burman ethnic majority has been slaughtering Burma’s many ethnic minorities for decades. Some are fighting back. Some, after forty years of waiting in vein for the US, UK, or UN to come help them, have just given up.

Most of the foreign volunteers, aid workers, and journalists who are working in Burma, are working with ether the Karen or Shan ethnic groups, as well as smaller ones such as Karenni, Pa-O, Padaung, Lisu, Lahu, and Akha. But the Rohingyas, a Muslim ethnic minority have the misfortune of living in Burma’s Arakan State (Rakhine), which is nearly unreachable from the outside.

The first cry for help that I heard from the Shan people was in 2004, when I was studying in a monastery with Shan refugees whose families had been murdered by the Burmese government. I never forgot the faces or the names of those young monks, and I vowed to help as much as I could. It took me three years to finally get inside of Burma and work with the Shan.

Today, sitting in Malaysia, writing an article about the Rohingya refugees here, I stumbled across this old email, and realized it has been three years, and I still haven’t done anything to help. The magazine asked me to write an article about the Rohingya to help educate the public. But I am going to hijack this article and also use it as a cry for help. I really want to launch a health mission into Arakan State, or at least to help the Rohingyas on the border of India or Chin State. If there is anyone out there who would like to help, please contact me.

Who are the Rohingyas?

Burma is home to countless ethnic minorities. The Rohingyas are the only significant group of Muslims in the largely Buddhist country. There are also Indian Muslims, but they are a much smaller group, and they lack a unique ethnic state. The Rohingya population is about three-quarters of a million. They live in their own ethnic state called Arakan State (Rakhine), which borders on Bangladesh.

Their spoken language is called Rohingyalish, which has never had a traditional writing system. The language has been written with Latin, Burmese, Hanifi, Urdu or modified Arabic script.

In Burma the SPDC (State Peace and Development Council) which is the repressive army of the Burmese Junta, has been waging a steady war against all of the minority peoples, who together, comprise nearly 60% of the population. The crimes against the Rohingya have been similar to those against other ethnic groups, namely: forced labor, murder, imprisonment, torture, rape, denying them citizenships, freedom of movement, basic human rights, or even a national ID card. Since 1978, when the government began launching major offensives against the Rohingyas, many have fled to Bangladesh where life in the refugee camps was not much better, and often worse than remaining in the Orwellian-Hell of Burma.

In 2005 the Bangladesh government began forcing Rohingyas to return to Burma. Many refugees believe that they will be jailed or killed if returned to Burma. But remaining in Bangladesh was also horrible because of the rape, torture, extortion and abuses perpetrated on them by the Bangladeshi government soldiers.

Although the Rohingyas always knew about themselves and their suffering the world first heard about the Rohingyas in 2009 when CNN, Aljazeera, and other international news media reported that the Thai military had towed boatloads of Rohingyas out to sea and abandoned them. At least one boat was rescued by Indonesian authorities and all 190 passengers gave testimony of beatings by Thai military and of having been set adrift on the ocean.

In 2004, the government of Malaysia announced that it would extend refugee status to the Rohingyas. Since then, many have sought refuge in the Muslim majority, Southeast Asian nation.

The Rohingya market outside Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

“Back in Burma, if the police saw you with a Koran outside the house they would beat you and take it from you and burn it.” Said a Rohingya man who we will call Asyef. “So, we tried hiding Koran in the house, up in the roof.” He was telling us a long list of reasons why he had to flee Burma.

We were sitting in a small eatery in the Rohingya community which I am told is home to 80,000 Rohingyas and another 30,000 people who the Rohingyas loosely refer to as Buddhist Burmese. My translator and guide is a Malay, named Saya, who seems to know everyone and everything that is happening in his country.

When I asked him to help me get a story on the Rohingyas in Malaysia he told me.

“I can take you there. But it is very dangerous. You have to go easy. And maybe you can’t take any pictures.”

As sad as the Rohingyas’ story was, there was an even darker side. The Rohingya community is centered around a principle fruit, vegetable, meat, and fish market for the restaurants in Kuala Lumpur. The men told us it was very hard to get a job in there and that seemed to be the aspiration of most. My translator Saya, told me that he had seen guns being shipped through the market and that everyone knew drugs were being smuggled there. The principle export product of Burma, apart from refugees is opium. The whole complex was flanked by two lakes.

Saya told me. “At least one person gets killed here per day. Last month, the police had to drain the lakes because they were just too full of bodies.”

Trying to build rapport with the men, I mentioned my intense hatred of military junta leader Than Shwe.

The mere mention of his name evoked a flood of hatred and horrific stories from the men. They also knew about the boat loads of Rohingyas that had been set adrift in Thailand, and they were very upset.

“Many Rohingya die trying to get here.” They explained. And where was here? A country where there was a slight possibility of getting a UNHCR card and living peacefully. But the cards were not easy to get.

“There are Nepali guards at UN now, and they chase away Rohingyas when we go there for help.”

Nearly all of the people we spoke to were undocumented aliens, living at the mercy of the gods.

“Last month, the police raided the community and arrested 100 people.” Said Osama, a 22 year old Rohingya man who had been in Malaysia for four years. He proudly showed me his UNHCR card (United Nations High Commission for Refugees). It made him an official refugee and gave him residence and work privileges in Malaysia. He was still unemployed, but at least he couldn’t be arrested.

RELA is the Malay word for “volunteer”. Unfortunately, the Rela corps is a volunteer police force, of more than half a million people, in a country with less than 30 million population. The main focus of Rela corps is to check the documents of foreigners. They are paid a bounty for each undocumented alien they catch. Rela has been the bane of Burmese refugees, particularly non-Muslim refugees who find it more difficult to get a residency permit of any kind. The Rela volunteers act more or less with impunity and have been accused of numerous abuses. Many international bodies have asked the Malaysian government to disband Rela.

The men continued their accounts of atrocities in Burma.

“They burned the mosques.” said one man. Another used the word “broken.”

“If they saw we had long beards, they would catch us and cut them.”

“On Fridays the police blockaded the way. If they saw us trying to go to prayers they would beat us or put us in jail.”

Saya and I had been sitting alone drinking coffee in this market, which everyone knew was home to a lot of dodgy and down right illegal activities, such as weapons and drug smuggling, and murder. Eventually, he asked the waiter if he could speak Malay enough to give me an interview. Surprisingly, the waiter tried, but finally had to give up. He left the restaurant. The Rohingyas are famous for being sea pirates, and I assumed he was on his way to gather a bully-squad of swashbuckling scallywags who would make us walk the plank for asking too many questions. Instead, he returned with a neatly dressed, well-mannered, young man, named Osama, who spoke Malay passably well.

At first, he was slow about answering our questions, not sure what we wanted. The vast majority of the Rohingyas are unemployed, so the two funny journalist men, one of them a white man, became a diversion for the whole neighborhood. A crowd slowly formed around us. At first, it was all men, and I was getting a bit nervous, but Saya, always the professional continued with his questions.

“Things in my country are so bad.” Said Osama, answering Saya’s question. “If the police catch you, they simply kill you. There was a curfew. Muslims weren’t allowed on the streets past 9:00 PM. In my country we were so poor we worked a whole week and had enough food for one day. I only went to school for two years because we didn’t have money.”

Even with the money Osama sends back to Burma now, it is not enough, and his little sister can’t go to school.

By this point, the restaurant was nearly full of people who had come to look at us. When I saw groups of women and children in the back, I breathed a sigh of relief. They probably weren’t going to kill us in front of their families.

I added a bunch of stools to our table and signaled the waiter to get drinks for everyone. The mood began to turn festive, as one by one, the people voiced their feelings about Burma and why they had left. Those that could speak Malay just blurted their stories out.

“If we go back they will arrest us.” Said one man.

“A one way trip. We can never go back.” Agreed another.

Those who couldn’t speak Malay asked friends to interpret for them.

“I walked thirty days across Thailand and twenty through Malaysia to get here.”

Another man said he used to like to call home once per week, but now his phone was out of credit and he had no work.

I asked the men how they sent money home to Burma. They told me there was a Rohingya bank in the grocery store upstairs. They would pay money to the clerk and twenty minutes later, a bicycle messenger would hand deliver the cash to the family in Burma.

Life had been hard for the Rohingyas in Burma. But it wasn’t easy for them in Malaysia either. I asked them what they liked best about living in Malaysia and to a man they all agreed, “attending mosque.” They all said they went five times per day, happy now because they could.


They blamed a lot of their suffering in Burma on the Buddhists.

They made comments like, the Buddhists did this to us. The Buddhists did that to us. But I know from my own experience, the Burmese government hates all of the ethnic minorities. They do horrible things to them equally. They persecute Christians and other Buddhists alike. It’s not because of religion but because of race. In Arakan State, the area where these men come from, there are basically only two types of people, Rohingyas and the government/military people. And the government/military people just happen to be Buddhists. So the only experience these people ever had with Buddhists was of being mistreated and repressed by the Burmese government.

These men are truly victims. Their whole way of life was taken from them. They will never see their families again. At best they will live as second humans in Malaysia forever. They will most likely never become actual Malaysian citizens. None of them had a passport form any country, and most had never had a Burmese ID card.  The only ID they had was their UNHCR card, which only a few of them had.

The Rohingyas are not the only refugees from Burma, who have sought asylum in Malaysia. The Rohingyas told me that Buddhists could get resettled in third countries but Muslims couldn’t. This was a half truth. The Muslims have the distinct advantage that they can remain in Malaysia, legally, and eventually obtain the right to work. And a lucky few will be given citizenship. That option is not open to other ethnic groups from Burma.

When the men said Buddhists got resettled, most of the ethnic minorities in Burma are Buddhist or Christian. Several of these groups are on a UN list which qualifies the attacks against them as genocide, which makes the path to refugee status and then resettlement a lot easier. For example, the Karen, who are mostly Christian, can be re-settled in the US and Canada. Now, there are Karen communities in both of these countries. The Shan, the group I worked with, are Buddhist, but for some reason, they can’t even get recognized by the UN as being an ethnic minority. Which means genocide can’t be proven. Consequently, it is nearly impossible for them to get refugee status and resettlement.

Another issue that plagues the Rohingyas is that they are not cuddly or cute. The Straits of Malacca are the second highest piracy area in the world, and most of the piracy is done by Rohingyas. In southern Thailand, armed Rohingya groups have been encountered who were working as mercenaries in the conflict there. And of course, right now, a lot of countries are not as welcoming to young Muslim men, of foreign origin, between the ages of 16 and 29. In general refugee status and resettlement is easier for Buddhists or Christians.

The mood had been very somber, so I told Saya to ask the men what they thought of Aung San Suu Kyi.

“Who is that?” asked Saya. He knew a lot about Malaysia, but decided little about Burma.

“Ask the men to tell you.” I said, with a sly smile.

The minute he mentioned her name, the room lit up. The men couldn’t speak quickly enough, singing the praises of “The Lady.”

“They told me she is in jail.” Said Saya, confused.

“That’s right. She has been for the last ten years.” I said.

“Just because she wanted democracy?” Asked Saya confused.

Malaysia, like many countries, had its good and bad points, but it was a relatively free country, where a significant percent of the population was middle class. And of course, it was a country where Muslims could worship in peace.

“That’s terrible.” Confirmed Saya, shaking his head.

Yeah, it was terrible. The situation of the Rohingya, and any other ethnic minority from Burma is terrible. Of the men in the room, only a few had a UNHCR cards. None of them had a Malay passport. None had a Burmese passport. And only one or two had a Burmese identity card. There was a small chance that a few of them might go on to be Malay citizens and find some kind of peace in their new life in Malaysia.

The others just sit and wait in limbo.

Catholics believe Limbo is a place between Heaven and Hell. Burma is definitely Hell. Hopefully some of the Rohingyas will find Heaven.

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

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

Antonio is also on twitter, with the name, Brooklyn Monk. Follow his adventures and tweets.

His books are available on

Contact him:

His website is sign up for his mailing list on the site.


Learning Bahasa in Malaysia

In Uncategorized on June 7, 2010 at 11:20 am

By Antonio Graceffo

Nine years in Asia and FINALLY, I am in Malaysia, learning Bahasa Malay. Since coming to Asia I was constantly hearing from people how easy Bahasa is. Every time I struggled with my Chinese writing, Vietnamese grammar, Thai tones, Korean existence, or Khmer pronunciation there was always some comforting soul lurking around the corner, waiting to tell me, “You should learn Bahasa Malay. It’s the easiest language in Asia.”

Whether easy or not, I knew that I needed to learn the language because it is the root of Filipino, Southern Thai, and Cham, languages which are important for my field work. And of course, it is very close to the Bahasa spoken in Indonesia, Brunei, and Singapore.

After my first week of lessons, I have to agree, Bahasa is extremely easy. The pronunciation is very straight forward. Most letters only have one sound. There are only about two or three cases where letters change their pronunciation based on what combination they occur in. There only seem to be about two sounds we don’t have in English. Bahasa, unlike Chinese, Thai, or Vietnamese, is not tonal. As an added bonus, the language is written with the Latin alphabet. So, from day one, you can read. And best of all, you don’t have to sit and do writing practice for five hours per day like in Chinese. Finally, because Malaysia was a British colony they have absorbed a lot of English words into their language, particularly for modern or technical terms, but a lot of common words come from English as well.

My teacher often tells me, “In Indonesia they have words for all of these, but in Malaysia, we just use English.”

The only trick with the English loan words is that they will be spelled Malay style. So, central becomes sentral and bus becomes bas, taxi becomes teksi, pencil becomes pensel, and station becomes stesen. Adjectives go after nouns, so bus station is stesen bas.

Some English words retain their original spelling, such as Wales or Miami, but the pronunciation will be according to the Malay alphabet. So, you have to remember to talk funny when you encounter seemingly familiar words.

I originally was planning to approach learning Bahasa Malay the same way I learned Chinese, Thai or Vietnamese, using a modified ALG, listening based approach. But after my first few lessons, I began to suspect whether ALG theory is necessary for easier languages. I am still convinced that for Chinese, Thai, Khmer, Vietnamese, and Korean, ALG is perfect, but with Bahasa, it seems like overkill.

In ALG theory, there is no such thing as a difficult or easy language. And on some level I agree. For example, Italian is one of the easiest European languages. People find that after a few weeks of classes, they can already function and maintain polite conversations with native speakers. German is generally considered a much more difficult language because of the complex grammar, particularly, case declinations. But, you could study Italian for years and not understand, or perhaps appreciate, literary Italian which is extremely flowery and complex. But even high level German writing is fairly straight forward. So, maybe it is easier to grasp low-level Italian, than low level German. But advanced Italian is more difficult than advanced German, so it evens out in the end.

And of course, Italian, German, and Chinese children all begin speaking at the same age, and go through the same stages of linguistic development at the same pace. So, this would support the theory that all languages are equally difficult or easy.

David Long, who runs the Thai and ALG program at AUA school in Bangkok always chastises me. “You are thinking about the language too much.” He says. He wants me to focus on communication, rather than elements of language. One of the points of ALG is that grammar is completely synthetic. It doesn’t even exist. People were talking for thousands of years, and they understood one-another, before there was grammar. Anyone who has ever taught or tried to learn a language knows that you can’t learn language by memorizing grammar rules. One of the first proofs of this is that native speakers make very few grammatical errors, but generally haven’t memorized any rules.

I agree with the ALG principle of not teaching grammar or any other aspect of the language. I do not let my teachers teach me any grammar rules. Neither do I memorize lists of nouns or verbs or special adjectives….I don’t even let them “teach me” the pronunciation. I just listen. And the pronunciation becomes apparent.

I asked one of my Khmer friends where he was headed and he answered, “Muskle training.” He meant he was going to the gym. He wanted to say “muscle training,” but he said “muskle.” Obviously, the only way he could have made that error was that he learned from reading, rather than listening. When an Asian student says to me “Where do you are from?” I know he has learned English from books. He memorized that the word “do” is used for questions. It is not even remotely possible that he listened to a native speaker and this is what the native speaker said, or what he heard.

I strongly agree with ALG that grammar, pronunciation, and especially usage can’t be taught. They can only be learned properly through repeated listening to a native speaker.

Native speaker preschoolers will not ask you, “where do you are from?” Even though they don’t begin attending grammar classes until they start school. They know how to use the question forms properly from listening.

With Bahasa, I began with an ALG approach. I didn’t want the teacher teaching me anything or explaining anything. In the early stages of learning a language, the explanations are in English, which is a complete waste of time, when you should be listening to the language. If you are listening to the language, and you are clever, and constantly guessing, you begin to formulate rules. For example, the teacher didn’t have to explain to me that adjectives came after nouns. When I heard “stesen bas”, rather than “bas stesen,” I guessed that adjectives came after nouns. But I kept listening and guessing till I heard enough examples, which confirmed my suspicion.

With Thai, Chinese and other difficult Asian languages which have a unique writing system, we estimate that a student needs 2,000 hours of classroom. The first 800 hours would be listening only. Next, speaking and reading would be added, BUT all classes would still be taught in the target language.

I know that it goes against the strict ALG theory, but I personally believe that it is at least possible that some languages are easier to learn. For example, Chinese is tonal. Bahasa is not. Chinese writing system is definitely harder. It takes native speakers 5 hours per day of practice for 12 years of school to learn it. Bahasa uses the Latin alphabet.

The US government categorizes languages according to difficulty. Chinese is a Category 3 language. Bahasa is Category 2, BUT, I believe, they only classified it as a 2 because the culture of Malaysia is different from US culture, which makes language acquisition harder. For someone already familiar with Southeast Asian culture, particularly Thai culture, I assume Bahasa is a Category 1 language. Category 1 languages could be learned in 90 days of full time study.

Normally with Chinese or Thai or Khmer we say that reading comes last. But with Bahasa, my theory is that reading can come in the first week.

I was trying not to read at all in my first lesson, but by the end of the first hour, it became apparent how incredibly easy the language was. And it made almost no sense to refrain from reading, particularly since the language used the Latin alphabet.

So, I gave in, and began reading. The obvious advantage of reading was that it “sped up” the listening process. Looking at the letters helped confirm what I was hearing. The disadvantage of reading of course is that your pronunciation will be prejudiced by what you see. For example, my Khmer friend who was doing “muskle training” So, although I was looking at the letters, I didn’t read aloud. I just listened to my teacher, and followed with my finger on the page.

I did not allow the teacher to “teach me” the alphabet or pronunciation rules. I just made guesses about the pronunciation of the letters I was looking at. Fr example, when I heard “sechepat” but saw “secepat” I decided that in Bahasa, like in Italian, a “c” before a vowel becomes a “ch” sound.

Originally I didn’t want to speak at all in the early lessons, because of my ALG ideas about listening till your pronunciation is perfect. But again, Bahasa is not Vietnamese. It is easy. You can learn to pronounce correctly, albeit with a foreign accent, in a day or two. To achieve native pronunciation would still require an ALG approach, but with much fewer hours of listening. I think 100 might be too many.

Now I am reading, speaking and listening in class, which isn’t what I believe a student should do. The next step is to return to my roots of learning European languages, where the goal is to get away from the textbook, and on to real materials, as soon as possible.

With Bahasa it might actually be possible to finish the 16 lessons in the textbook and then move on to working with newspaper and magazine articles. That is my goal anyway.

For now, I am still ALGing in that I refuse to speak Bahasa outside of class or to depart from the book. That will come later. I am also considering going to Indonesia. Here in Malaysia there is and probably will be very little opportunity to use Bahasa in every day life. Nearly everyone speaks English and most of my friends speak Mandarin as well as English. There isn’t a real “need” to speak Bahasa to function and I suspect I won’t get any practice apart from people who are polite enough to humor me. In Indonesia, the language is actually used everyday for everything.

Another side note, which I am sticking here for lack of better organization: As easy as Bahasa is, I would have to assume that Filipino is easier. It should have the same Malay roots and simple grammar. In fact, I noticed a lot of the words are the same as the bit of language I picked up in the Philippines. But, spoken Filipino contains at least 40% Spanish loan words and a huge percentage of English vocabulary. Which must make it even easier to learn. I wonder why no one ever mentions Filipino in the list of easy to learn Asian languages?

For now, I am learning Bahasa Malaysia. Next, maybe I will learn Bahasa Indonesia or go back to Philippines to study Filipino, or take a break from the Malay language study track and head back to Vietnam or Taiwan to finish my studies there.

Studies lead to other studies.

Selamat belajar!

Antonio Graceffo holds a BA in Foreign Language from MTSU. He studied applied linguistics, translation at the University of Mainz, Germersheim, Germany. He has attended full time language classes in Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, and Cambodia, and has studied and worked closely with the ALG program at AUA Ratchadamri, Bangkok.

He is a martial arts and adventure author living in Asia. Antonio is the author of the book, “The Monk from Brooklyn” and the host of the web TV show, “Martial Arts Odyssey,” which traces his ongoing journey through Asia, learning martial arts in various countries. On youtube you can find a series of ALG inspired language acquisition video Antonio created on: Khmer, English, Thai, and Mandarin.

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

Antonio is also on twitter, with the name, Brooklyn Monk. Follow his adventures and tweets.

His books are available on

Contact him:

His website is sign up for his mailing list on the site.


How Many Words is Fluent?

In Uncategorized on June 6, 2010 at 5:38 pm

By Antonio Graceffo

Googling around the internet I found a lot of sites where people had written in saying, “I am studying language XYZ, and I want to know how many words I have to know to be able to read a newspaper.”

This question is particularly relevant for people who are studying Chinese, where each word is a character, and most students know the exact number of characters that they can read. Whereas students who have been studying Spanish, German, or Vietnamese for a period of years, wouldn’t generally know the exact number, or may not even know an approximate number of words that they understand.

This information is relevant for anyone studying a foreign language, including English, particularly if your goal is to study at a university overseas or to work in a professional job in the foreign language environment.

Checking a number of websites, The answers varied substantially.

On someone took the time to write a long reply, explaining that major News papers, such as USA Today are written at a 6th to 8th grade level and require approximately 3,000 words to read.

Another site, called “I read somewhere that to be able to carry on a good conversation in “Mandarin Chinese” one should know about 3,000 characters, and about 7,000 characters to read technical books.”

A follow up comment by a reader on the same site said, “You will need to know a minimum of 3000 characters to be proficient. * You will need to be able to speak and understand in the range of 5000-7000 characters”

According to Omniglot, a site which I tend to have a lot of respect for, “The largest Chinese dictionaries include about 56,000 characters, but most of them are archaic, obscure or rare variant forms. Knowledge of about 3,000 characters enables you to read about 99% of the characters used in Chinese newspapers and magazines. To read Chinese  literature, technical writings or Classical Chinese though, you need  to be familiar with at least 6,000 characters.”

I had always heard that the range was somewhere between 1,500 and 3,000 words to read a newspaper. In the case of Chinese, I know that I can read right about 3,000 characters, and yet, I absolutely cannot read a newspaper. If you hand me a newspaper, I can pick out words that I know, but I can’t actually read and understand the stories.

In Bangkok, I have several friends who are extremely conversant in Thai, and they can read a menu. But they would need an entire day and a dictionary to read a single newspaper story. And even then, they wouldn’t understand everything.

With German, after four years of studying and working as a translator and researcher in the country, I can obviously read anything. But, I have no idea how many words I know. Now that I am embarking on my study of Bahasa Malay, and also making plans to go back and finish learning Vietnamese, I am becoming very curious how long it will take to get my reading level anywhere close to what it is in English or Spanish. My own experience with Chinese made me question this 3,000 word figure. Also, as a person who earns most of his living from writing for magazines, newspapers, and books, I would hate to believe that I only write a 3,000 word vocabulary , and on a 6th to 8th grade level.

As many times as I attended 9th grade, you would think I would be writing at least at high school level.

The two facts that I wanted to verify were, the average reading level of The New York Times, my home town paper, and the average number of words per edition.

The first question was easy to answer.

The May 2, 2005 edition of “Plain Language At Work Newsletter”, Published by

Impact Information Plain-Language Services, explained that there are two generally accepted scales for determining the reading level of various publications. They are the Rudolph Flesch Magazine Chart (1949) and the Robert Gunning Magazine Chart (1952). Both charts analyzed such aspects of a magazine or newspaper such as, average sentence length in words and number of syllables per 100 words. Based on this information, they assigned a school grade reading-level to the publication. According to this rating system, The Times of India was considered the most difficult newspaper in the world, with a reading level of 15th grade. The London Times scored a 12th grade reading level, as did the LA Times and the Boston Globe. The survey must have been flawed, however, because they assigned The New York Times a reading level of 10th grade, which is lower than the LA Times, when everyone knows quite well that New York is better than California or any other place which is not New York.

If you get most of your news from Time Magazine, you might be pleased to know that Time and TV Guide both scored a 9th grade reading level.

The survey didn’t cover newspapers written in languages other than English, but if we assume that we are shooting for an average 10th grade level, this will probably be close to what you need to read a newspaper in any language.

The next question was much harder to answer. How many words do I need to read the New York Times? I have never believed the low estimates of 3,000 or less, simply because every event that happens anywhere in the world, any human situation can appear in the Times as a news story and could of course, require the appropriate vocabulary.

To answer the question, I went to the June 4, 2010 New York Times online and I chose 8 articles, taken from several different sections, because I assumed they would all require different vocabulary. The stories were: “Pelicans, Back From Brink of Extinction, Face Oil Threat”, “BP Funneling Some of Leak to the Surface”, “John Wooden, Who Built Incomparable Dynasty at U.C.L.A., Dies at 99”, “An Appraisal : Wooden as a Teacher: The First Lesson Was Shoelaces”, “Should you be able to discharge student loans into bankruptcy?”, “On the Road to Rock, Fueled by Excess” as well as other tidbits, announcements and follow up articles.

In some cases, if the articles were very long, I didn’t take them in their entirety, assuming there would be much repetition of words.

In all, I took parts of about 8 stories, comprising 51 pages of text. The stories I took didn’t even represent 10% of the total content of this particular edition of The New York Time, June 4, 2010 online edition.

I pasted the words into a word document, converted them to a single column table, which ran over 450 pages long. Then I sorted the table alphabetically. Up to this point, it was easy, just pressing buttons. Next, I had to go through all 450 pages, all 10s of thousands of words, removing duplicates. It was one of the most tedious exercises I have ever conducted in my life. It was exactly the type of obsessive compulsive behavior that gets people locked up in mental institutions. It took 16 hours. By the 10th hour I began hallucinating. Nearing the 12th hour I believed I was a hummingbird of some kind.

I allowed plural forms of nouns, so I counted “car” once and “cars” once. I also included all forms of a verb, so “walk” once, “walked” once, and “walking” once. I counted proper nouns, including place names, as the names of people and countries will come up in the news and you need to know them. Also, in foreign language, particularly Asian languages the grammatical forms and proper names may not even be recognizable if you haven’t studied and learned them.

When I was finished, I found that the random sampling of stories I chose contained 4,139 unique words. This was much higher than the estimates I had read on some websites, but was well in line with what I suspected. If I had the energy to complete a similar analysis of the entire edition, I would have to believe the number would increase. And if we monitored the newspaper over a period of one month, analyzing the text every day, and comparing the vocabulary against an accumulated list, I would imagine that it would grow. Most likely the difference in vocabulary from day to day would be small, but still, the necessary vocabulary would increase.

Comparing the dialogues in my Chinese textbooks with the vocabulary that appeared in these New York Times articles, much of what I learned in school was useless. For example, all foreign language textbooks have chapters devoted to shopping at the market, where you have to memorize tedious lists of Fruits and vegetables. In these Times articles, not a single fruit name was mentioned. Neither my Vietnamese, Chinese, or Bahasa textbooks include the names of heads of state of various countries. But obviously, these names came up in world news stories.

Below is a small sampling of words that I found in the news story which, I don’t know how to say in Chinese. Some of these words, I question, however, if the average 9th grader would know them. Do 9th graders know: abetted, absinthe, archeo-feminist, or bearish?

abetted albeit assesses bankruptcy biofuels
able-bodied. Amandine assessment batch biography
abortions ambivalent assets bawdy-sweet black-clad
absinthe anachronistic asthmatic bearish bleak
absurd. anarchic audience-pleasing Bedford blemish
accord Appended aura befriended blockade
across-the-board Archbishop autobiography, behind-the-back blowout
activists archeo-feminist autograph-seekers benefits bond
Advocates articulate awfully best-selling booster
aerodynamic assertion babbles bioenergy breakthrough

Names and proper nouns are important for understanding news stories. In language textbooks you may learn the names of major countries and the capital cities, but news happens in small cities and even villages as well. To read the news you need to know the names of political parties, famous people, economic theories, financial indices, global corporations, educational institutions, associations, and international organizations such as the UN.

All of these names were taken from the same collection of stories. Do you know how to say these in Vietnamese or write them in Thai?

Cypriot Delta Geneva Mediterranean Bihar
Baltic Democrat Greece Nehru Turkish-controlled
Brooklyn Denmark Uttar Metropolitan Nasdaq
Iranian Dow Midwesterner Mayor Polytechnique
Louisiana Durbin Scotch Reich Iskenderun.
pro-Greek Dutch-Irish Rev. Latino Kentucky.
California Baptist BENJAMIN Bonaventure/Agence Burke/Associated
Cambridge Chicago-based Berkeley Pennsylvania. Bush
Cyprus Barataria-


Navy BP Dallas-Fort
Audubon Gandhi. Bess Dalit Arce

How many of the above terms were you able to translate or transliterate into the language that you study? This is the level of reading that an adult native-speaker can do, and this should be your goal. If the task doesn’t seem daunting enough, remember, in this article, we were only concerned with vocabulary. But you could have a vocabulary of a million words not be able to understand a newspaper or a book. For real communication, you need a comprehensive approach to language, which includes culture, syntax, context, and grammar.

It’s a long stretch. I know. And it can seem impossible. But remember, every Sunday in New York City Catholic mass is said in 29 languages. For more than a centuries, large numbers of immigrants, my family included, have been coming to America and Canada in search of a better life. Most of them learned English with less than half of the education of the average person reading this article.

So, if your Grandma and Grandpa could learn a new language to a level of functionality, so can you.

Antonio Graceffo holds a BA in Foreign Language from MTSU. He studied applied linguistics, translation at the University of Mainz, Germersheim, Germany. He has attended full time language classes in Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, and Cambodia, and has studied and worked closely with the ALG program at AUA Ratchadamri, Bangkok.

He is a martial arts and adventure author living in Asia. Antonio is the author of the book, “The Monk from Brooklyn” and the host of the web TV show, “Martial Arts Odyssey,” which traces his ongoing journey through Asia, learning martial arts in various countries. On youtube you can find a series of ALG inspired language acquisition video Antonio created on: Khmer, English, Thai, and Mandarin.

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

Antonio is also on twitter, with the name, Brooklyn Monk. Follow his adventures and tweets.

His books are available on

Contact him:

His website is sign up for his mailing list on the site.


A Warrior’s Odyssey – Interview with Antonio Graceffo

In Uncategorized on June 2, 2010 at 5:18 pm

Warrior Odyssey – Interview with Antonio Graceffo

Australian journalist, David Calleja interviews Brooklyn Monk, Antonio Graceffo about his upcoming book, “Warrior Odyssey” do out in June 2010. is already accepting reorders for this much anticipated book of martial arts adventure travel, across Asia.

A Warrior’s Odyssey – Interview with Antonio Graceffo

by David Calleja

Warrior Odyssey is the sixth book written by Antonio Graceffo, the American host of the web TV show Martial Arts Odyssey. Having spent nearly nine years in Asia studying martial arts, Antonio has immersed himself in the languages, cultures and religions of a number of nations in that time, Warrior Odyssey looks at the first six years of his journey. Arriving in Taiwan in 2001, Antonio’s quest to discover Asia’s diverse martial arts has led him to the original Shaolin Temple in China, a Muay Thai monastery in Thailand, as well as learning martial arts from Cambodia, Vietnam, Korea, and the Philippines. His journey ends in Burma, where he highlights the persecution faced by the Shan ethnic minority.

For a person who is constantly on the move in pursuit of his dream, relaxation is an unfamiliar term for Antonio because there is so much experience to cram into one lifetime.

D.C. – How did you come up with the name Warrior Odyssey for the book? Does the term ‘warrior’ refer specifically to the practising of martial arts or is there a broader picture that you are presenting?

A.G. – Originally, I wanted the name to be Martial Arts Odyssey the same as my web TV show. But this book begins with my arrival in Asia, when I was only writing for magazines and writing books. I didn’t get a video camera until my sixth year in Asia. So most of the stories in the book were not filmed and never appeared on YouTube.

The publisher also felt that Warrior Odyssey was a better title because, as you said, there are broader implications to the meaning and to the journey and the struggle. One point I always make to people about following their dreams, or going on their own odyssey, is that it doesn’t have to be about martial arts.

D.C. – Which nation provided the greatest challenge to you in learning about the martial art and people’s way of life in which you became ensconced? What was that challenge?

A.G. – So far, I have studied five Asian languages and speak three well; Thai, Chinese, and Khmer. I didn’t finish studying Korean and Vietnamese.

I have studied Theravada Buddhism and Mahayana Buddhism while living in a temple, and currently I am studying Islam in Malaysia. I have also done reporting on the Cao Dai religion of Vietnam and as far as I know, have presented the only video, about the Cao Dai Temple in Phnom Penh.

I had to learn about religions. I studied in a Mahayana Buddhist temple and had a best friend/adviser in Taiwan who was a former Mahayana Buddhist monk. In Thailand, I lived in a Theravada monastery and then often stayed in monasteries after that, studying with the monks and using monasteries as my base to launch various adventures. My assistant and very close friend in Cambodia was an ex-Theravada monk who went back to the monkhood and then I stayed at his monastery several times. We travelled together in Surin and Chiang Mai. Now, in Malaysia, most of my teachers are Muslim. Now I am first non-Muslim to be permitted to learn Silat Kalam, a Muslim martial art which is deeply tied to Islam.

The word Kalam means, “The word of God.” We have to say prayers before, after and sometimes during practice. We are taught that everything we do on this Earth is because of God. Even the four basic positions, which all of the movements are based on, are taken from Muslim prayers.

D.C. In preparing for Warrior Odyssey, who do you cite as a major influence for both your writing style and the material? Does it differ from your previous material as an adventure author?

A.G. – The largest influence on me as a writer is Ernest Hemingway. I am not so pretentious as to say I have a tenth of his talent, but he was always my favourite author growing up. I loved the fact that he lived such an incredibly adventurous life. His books are really just fictionalized accounts of his real life, boxing, sailing, and serving in two wars.

The interesting thing with Hemingway is that his stories were originally fictionalized versions of his real life, and then later, his real life became a fiction of his stories.

Jack London, another of my other literary heroes, had great adventures, and he knew he would be an author. But most of his adventures were motivated first, from a position of needing to earn a living, and then as fodder for writing second.

In the early part of my life, boxing, working as a sailor and a soldier, I also adopted a similar philosophy to Jack London of trying to live an adventurous life, so I would write about it later. But when I came to Asia, I decided it would be better to write about thing as they happened. So I began keeping diaries.

Sir Richard Francis Burton is another huge role model and influence for me. He was an agent for the British military and lived for countless years in India, Africa, and Arabia. Burton lived a life of study and exploration and wound up writing about twenty books, at least one of which was on sword fighting and pugilism. During his life, he learned 29 languages. He also became so convincing in the roles he played under cover that he became an Islamic Imam and made the Hajj to Mecca. He became a Hindu priest and I believe he was also a Sikh.

D.C. – How important is faith to the practice of martial arts?

A.G. – It is extremely important. You can’t study the language without knowing the culture. You absolutely can’t study the culture without studying the language, and religion is one of the biggest factors in culture. Finally, you can’t study the martial art without knowing the language, religion and culture. Prayer and meditation are a huge part of many martial arts. So, the religion is definitely present at all times.

D.C. – How would you compare your writing style used in your first book, The Monk From Brooklyn, to your upcoming release, Warrior Odyssey?

A.G. – My first book, The Monk From Brooklyn is simply an edited copy of the diary I kept at the Shaolin Temple. My first two books were diaries. My next three were collections of articles I published in magazines. This was a hybrid Hemingway/London thing. I earned so little per story that I had to write five stories a week to stay alive, so I was constantly doing adventures and writing about them, then heading out for the next adventure. During those years of adventuring in Chiang Mai, in Taiwan and Phnom Penh, I had no time to keep a diary. My life was pretty well documented through the stories I wrote.

My martial arts odyssey, while having a central theme of martial arts, has been my attempt to live up to the spirit of adventure and great literary prowess of my idols.

D.C. – Does the process of writing about a martial art differ from your previous material as an adventure author?

A.G. – I don’t know if we could say that the process differs because of a martial art, but I have definitely changed a lot, and this is reflected in my writing. In my early adventure writing, I was the primary character. In fact, since I crossed the desert alone, and climbed mountains and cycled around Formosa (Taiwan) alone, I was often the only character. Now that I am studying martial arts, I am often a secondary character. I allow an interesting teacher, Kru or Guru, or the martial art become the centre of attention. Sometimes it is the culture or philosophy surrounding the art. In my videos, I am still often the centre, but in the writing I am often just an observer or catalyst.

One huge difference between adventure writing and martial arts writing is that I study martial arts deeply, whereas I never studied mountain climbing or cycling. So I write and think a lot about the art, not my own actions. And I go in with a knowing eye, comparing one art to another, and also I do a lot of research, where as with the adventure stuff, it was all experiential.

D.C. – When you first began your journey many years ago, how long did you think your journey throughout Asia would last? Did you map out a plan to cover numerous martial arts throughout various nations back then?

A.G. – No, I didn’t map out anything. An ex-monk in Taiwan who taught me a lot said, “If you want to make the gods laugh, make a plan.” You can’t plan this type of adventure sitting in Starbucks in Union Square. You don’t even know what all the options are or what difficulties or opportunities will present themselves. So, you just go and follow as the road reveals itself. Half the martial arts and some of the languages I have studied since coming to Asia, I had never heard of back in New York.

D.C. – Can you recall one moment in the book where you sit back and think, “Wow, I cannot believe I put myself through such mental or physical pain?” and why it sticks out in your mind as a defining moment?

A.G. – Honestly, there were a lot of painful or harrowing adventures. But because it is your real life and not a movie, there is never a definite start or end point for any event in your life. So, when these things are happening, they sometimes seem less epic than when you retell them. In my book, The Monk from Brooklyn, I talked a lot about how dirty Shaolin was and how unhygienic it was living there. But it got normal. And I was used to seeing the outhouse completely overflowing with human waste, but drew the line when I saw a dead pig floating in the pool of faecal matter.

Life happens in gradual increments. At Shaolin we trained from 5:30am till about 6:00pm. That is a brutal workout day, but you just do it. Afterwards it looks like a lot. At the time, you just get through as best you can.

Some of my fights were scary. I didn’t know what the rules would be. I didn’t know how people from that country or style fought, or if they would try and kill me. But in the end, it always worked out fine. Win or lose, you almost always walked away with new friends, new experiences and having learned something.

In Vietnam I had severe diarrhoea while we were filming and we had to shoot in one and two minute increments so I could run to the toilet. I almost passed out several times, but we had to keep filming or it wouldn’t get done.

In Burma I got knocked unconscious in an accident, but had to revive myself enough to open the airway on an injured man and stop the bleeding on another.

Don’t make too much of your own suffering. You need to realize that you, me, we are all just tourists in other people’s reality. Yes, Shaolin was hard, but I left. My friends are still there. Yes, Burma was dangerous and sad, but my friends are still there and their lives are being threatened. Yes, I got beaten up in Saigon and in several other places, but I got my photos and video, did my story and moved on. The guys who beat me are facing the reality of making a living as professional fighters. If they ever lose to anyone the way I did to them, their career would be over.

D.C. – Describe a day in the life of Antonio Graceffo when preparing for an episode of Martial Arts Odyssey. Do you have a particular schedule that you maintain or is every session spontaneous?

A.G. – I am constantly in different countries, with different issues, problems, and opportunities. So I don’t have a typical day. However, the two consistencies are that I must train at least two hours every day and I must be online, answering emails for at least two hours per day. Here in Malaysia I also teach advanced students sparring and old style Muay Thai/Bokator at Kru Jak Othman’s club from 10:00 – 11:00. In Malaysia, my training day starts at 4:00pm when I go to Silat Kalam, then at 7:00pm I go to Muay Thai, and train till 10:00pm. Once that finishes, I start teaching.

Since arriving in Malaysia two months ago, I have done numerous episodes of Martial Arts Odyssey. I have done one professional shoot for a DVD on Silat Tomoi. That required two weeks of preparation and three days of filming. One of our shoot days ran 18 hours. My involvement is still not finished because I have to go into the studio this week and do voice over.

Now, I also have my column in Black Belt magazine, and they wanted me to submit several months ahead, so I had to prepare numerous articles for them. Black Belt is also going to have a video magazine soon, and the editors have asked me to do a video column which complements the print magazine column, so I have begun working on the first instalment.

Parallel to these shoots, The Star newspaper in Malaysia is doing a video documentary about me for their website, That required two days of shooting, three days of interviews, and several days of sending them video clips and photos and answering more questions.

For Warrior Odyssey I needed to be online every day, and the editor would send me chapters to rewrite or suggest changes. That was hard. I probably worked on about 200 or more pages of the book each month.

I have another DVD, Martial Arts Odyssey: Volume One, that is coming out soon, and I have had to do a ton of work on that. The editors tell me what I need to change, or if they need more photos or if I have to do more voiceovers. Working on a DVD product like that is already a full time job.

Now I am preparing for the next professional video shoot, which will be on Silat Kalam. I need to pass the black belt test this month before we start shooting. That is absorbing much of my time and my mental energy.

D.C.Muhammad Ali once said, “I hated every minute of training, but I said, ‘Don’t quit. Suffer now and live the rest of your life as a champion.’” Can you draw any comparison to Muhammad Ali’s words and the message you are sending in Warrior Odyssey, regardless of the metaphorical meaning of warrior or champion in life?

A.G. – Obviously you have to overcome adversity to achieve anything. And there is a cost for everything you want in this life. If you want a BMW, the cost is money. If you want to lose weight, the cost is enduring the pain of hunger. If you want to be a lawyer, the cost is studying through seven years of college. So never back down from a dream simply because there is a cost. If you do, you will never have anything.

One reason why people sometimes follow a bad path or an immoral path is because with immoral desires, you get the payoff first, and the price comes second. If you had to first sit in prison for five years BEFORE you committed a crime, I bet people just wouldn’t commit crimes. But sadly, if you want to use drugs, drink, gamble, get involved with crime and prostitution, those payoffs all come first and the consequences come later.

People love credit. Buy now, pay later.

That’s why people find it hard to learn a foreign language, lose weight, learn a martial art, start a business, or make positive changes in their lives. The hard work comes first. The pay off comes second. People get turned off by the cost and walk away.

I want to encourage people to endure that pain, pay the cost, and get the things they truly want.

Warrior Odyssey is due for release in late June. You can follow Antonio’s progress by visiting his website, Speaking Adventures at and sign up to his newsletter.

Antonio Graceffo is also available on Facebook and Twitter. You can also email him at