Friday, August 8, 2008

REVIEW: American Shaolin, by Matthew Polly

American Shaolin: Flying Kicks, Buddhist Monks, and the Legend of Iron Crotch: An Odyssey in the new China, by Matthew Polly. Published 2007 by Gotham Books. Nonfiction. Memoir.

American Shaolin is a memoir by a young man named Matthew Polly who spent two years at the Shaolin monastery in a remote, rural area of China, studying martial arts. It's part adventure story, part cross-cultural experiment, part bildungsroman. But it's almost all fun.

When Polly decided to drop out of Princeton University and go to China, he did so without a net- little money, no firm plans, and no real idea where he was going. He gets off the plane, makes his way to the Shaolin temple without even knowing where it is, talks (or more to the point, buys) his way in, and starts his new life as a student of sanda, a kickboxing sport and the only one someone his age (early 20s) and size (over 6 feet) can master. What he did have on his side was decent Mandarin, without which his adventures would have been impossible, and blind determination.

How else to explain all the challenges he overcomes- not just the language barrier but the grueling physical and mental challenges of his training in a sport where most participants peak in their early 20s and burn out by the time they're 26 or 27. Not to mention the cultural barriers and misunderstandings. The book is filled with hilarious, often wince-inducing anecdotes of his dealings with the Chinese government, health care system and social customs. The stories about his less-than-successful love life were very funny. There's a lot of pathos here too, and a lot of surprises. He learns that most monks enter the monastery not out of devotion to the Buddhist religion, but due to rural China's grinding poverty. He learns a lot about himself in the process as well.

And Polly does a good job putting it all together. His writing is varied and on point; the tone ranges from matter-of-fact narration to engaging self-deprecation to comedy to surprise to humble respect for the hard life that many Chinese live. Sometimes the narrative structure becomes formulaic, for example when he ends several chapters with clunky foreshadowing. He starts the book with an anecdote about a sanda match in which he was chosen to challenge another athlete, then leaves the story about halfway through; when he comes back to the story several chapters later there is nothing linking the two and I had to ask a friend about the connection. So I wish he had made that particular connection a little clearer, but that's a minor quibble. The final chapters are a little heavy on the sports-talk for me and I'll admit I skimmed some passages in which he details which jab he used when and where it was placed- I was reading it for the fish-out-of-water story, not the kickboxing analysis- and I found those passages dull and hard to follow.

But the nice thing about American Shaolin is that it will appeal equally to different kinds of readers- those interested in athletics and martial arts, and those interested in China or in a good story about an American abroad. The violence in the story is relatively mild, as is the sexual content (although both are present to some extent) and it would be a fun book to hand to an older teen wanting to learn about China or about sports, as well as a fun light read for adults. The cultural analysis may be somewhat dated at this point, but probably not much. It's a great story and makes for a delightful read.

Rating: BEACH

FTC Disclosure: I did not receive this book for review from the publisher.

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