Voices of Chicago
|Do You Know Kung Fu?|
|Written by Larry Wiley|
|Wednesday, 17 November 2010 23:43|
I was born August 19th, 1961 at the University of Chicago Lying-in Hospital, on the south side of Chicago. My father, Joseph Earl Wiley, hails from a prominent family in Pine Bluff, Arkansas. His father, Joseph Elias, graduated from Tuskegee Institute, class of 1914, and served with distinction as an officer in the 92nd Infantry in WW I. My mother, Frances Sumiko Yoshida was interned with her family in Poston, AZ in WWII. She grew up in Lindsey California the sixth of nine children of an Issei farming family. Her eldest brother and sister married the eldest sister and brother of the Imoto family-who had eleven children. After camp, my mother matriculated from Drake University in Des Moines, IA with a degree in Library Science. After graduation, she took a librarian job at the University of Chicago. It was there that she met my father, who was earning a MA in English after graduating from Loyola University, thanks in large part to the GI bill. They soon wed, bore and raised eight children.
I am number six of the eight children. We all had the good fortune of being raised in the ethnically diverse, politically active, socially progressive environment of Hyde Park. Some of us tend to favor our father’s tall, narrow features, others more so my mother’s compact, sturdy physique, but we all have dark hair and glasses and look “Asian”. My father worked as a special education teacher for the Chicago Public schools for 30 years and for most of my childhood sorted mail during the second shift at the post office. My mother worked also, for a time owning a fabric and notions store but also from home as a seamstress and tailor. Omnipresent at PTA meetings and parish fund-raisers, she maintained order and discipline in the house and always checked our homework. Somehow, my parents managed to send us all to the same catholic grade school, we all graduated from Kenwood High (Academy) the local and one of the most acclaimed Public High Schools, and my brilliant siblings all went on to achieve great academic success, graduating from the University of Chicago and Johns Hopkins Medical Schools, Columbia Business, Bryn Mawr College, Sara Lawrence College, etc. etc. Then there is me-University of Illinois-Chicago! The middle son of three boys, I have sometimes felt like the black sheep of the family. Growing up with gifted, brilliant siblings, I am at best an above average student. I am the only Wiley male in three generations that never served in a branch of the armed forces. I signed up for selective service in high school. Hey, is it my fault there were no wars going on when I was draft eligible?
Fortunately, I did inherit from my parents a hard work ethic. Working most of my adult life in the construction industry, I have earned professional success and recognition and enjoy a good standard of living. It is not because I am particularly smart or creative. I have benefited from the mentoring and tutelage of some highly accomplished businessmen. I work very hard, and somehow I am able to build trusting relationships with people of all walks of life. Truly, I have lived a blessed life. I have never been hungry a single day. I have benefited immensely from my good fortune, but my mantra to my children is something like this: “There is no replacement for hard work. Natural ability and good looks will only take you so far in life and the world is full of broke-assed geniuses. Be industrious, prepared, professional, and productive and everyone will come to recognize and covet your skills and contributions, and you will have earned the respect of others.” How did I come to adopt such a philosophy? I believe I am a product of my environment.
Hyde Park has long been renowned as a liberal, intellectual oasis on the South Side, home to the University of Chicago. It also is the home of the Museum of Science and Industry, at one time the “World’s most visited museum”. Currently, it claims Barack Obama as its own (actually, the Obama house is in neighboring Kenwood). During the 60’s it was a crucible for inter-racial relationships and home to peoples of diverse ethnicities. I had friends of various ethnicities but very few Asians. Kind of like the Little Rascals we loved to watch on TV, much of my carefree pre-adolescent youth was spent building go-carts and playing Army.
One of my oldest friends is Roger Y. We went to school together from kindergarten through college. Ethnically Chinese, his family immigrated from Hong Kong, so they were actually British Citizens. They owned and operated a Chinese hand laundry on 55th Street. Roger’s father, Eddie, regularly drove me home from kindergarten in a black ’57 T-bird. He had several match-grade pistols and collected antique fountain pens as a hobby. Roger was the eldest child in the family and would be the first in his family to graduate from college. In the catholic tradition, we matriculated from kindergarten to eighth grade sitting in alphabetic order at the rear of the classrooms. We became fixtures at each other’s homes and referred to each other as cousins. We both had black hair and wore glasses and were about the same height. I was a little heavier. We did not really look that much alike but there were not a whole lot of Asian kids our age. In high school people often confused one of us for the other.
Another close childhood friend was Roosevelt S. or Jerry. Jerry’s family is Black. They lived across the alley and just up the block. We met in 1st grade and we each had siblings of similar age. Our parents were both involved with Parish activities. In those days it seemed like everyone’s parents knew each other and often times Jerry’s Mom would be feeding me grits and eggs if I had missed breakfast and Jerry’s Dad would be dropping us off at school. Jerry’s father has passed away but to this day we still share a close bond that knits our families together.
The summer after 4th grade, 1971, it was somehow decided that my older sister, my younger brother and I would become members of the local YMCA. We all took up swimming and judo. I really wanted to do Karate (in those days I don’t think there was any other martial art besides Judo and Karate) but those classes did not start until 8:00 pm. My grandfather dutifully walked us to and from the “Y”. I was not a bad athlete but not particularly gifted either. Kind of short and stocky, I was pretty shifty and strong but not particularly swift afoot. I had poor eyesight and eye-hand coordination but could play tackle football with the big boys. I wore “Husky” sized jeans. I took to judo like a duck to water and earned a yellow doing a rolling fall over the backs of seven kids and my orange belt for placing 2nd place at a tournament. My Judo instructor was Jackie T., a black, plain clothes detective for the Chicago Police. He would arrive before class in a long leather trench coat, big afro, floppy hat, a .357 magnum in a shoulder holster, a colt.45 in his back belt and a .22 jet strapped to his ankle. A mix between Shaft and Superfly, he was a strict disciplinarian. Nobody messed with Sensei Jackie! I stuck with judo longer than either of my siblings but my youthful judo career ended with the arrival of my first girlfriend.
In the late 60’s and early 70’s the world seemed to change. The Blackstone Rangers were becoming a “problem” in the neighborhood and the Black Panther Party seemed to always be in the news. The University of Chicago had more squad cars than any suburban police force. My older sister went off to college. My older brother enlisted in the army and shipped off to Viet Nam as an Airborne Ranger.
In the early 1970’s a new TV series came on called Kung Fu. There had never been anything comparable since Kato on the Green Hornet. It was accompanied by what seemed to be an explosion of Kung Fu Cinema including Five Fingers of Death and Bruce Lee’s trio of Golden Harvest releases. All the sudden, it was cool to be Chinese! “Do you know Kung Fu?” neighborhood kids would ask, mostly inquisitively but sometimes menacingly. “He is a distant cousin but we have never met him” Roger and I would conspire. What was I supposed to do, my big sisters and brother were no longer around to protect me! The irony that the star, David Carridine is 0% Asian seemed to escape everyone.
But still, in public high school it was painfully obvious that people were more color conscious. Part of the segregation was based on cliques, the Rock musicians, the disco dancers, the Chorus singers, but the white kids pretty much separate from the black kids. Besides the crossover from the members of the Chess and Math clubs I somehow had the unique ability to “blend in”. Besides the kicker Todd (who of course kicked soccer style) I was the only non-black at the football team summer training. I was not the best swimmer but my senior year I was voted captain of the swimming team by an integrated but predominantly white team, I was not white--not black. It was cool. I could play both sides. My junior year I dated a Black Senior who was a Pom-Pom Girl. But I still spent most of my time with Roger and Jerry and a couple of other hang-out buddies.
When I got to college I decided to go back to Judo. I returned to Sensei Jackie T. at the YMCA. He welcomed me back warmly and put me through rigorous training. I remembered how to fall and quickly advanced to green belt winning some local tournaments. Soon after, the Hyde Park YMCA would close its doors. I bounced around the University of Chicago Judo Club and Hwa Rang Do, a mixed martial arts dojo near the University but neither was a competitive dojo. Through a mutual friend I came to meet Dean M. who I had seen compete at local Shiai but was ranked higher than me and thus had never fought. I was invited to a workout at MBC Judo Academy where Dean, Doug M., Doug T., Kevin C, Steve T. and Sensei Yoshinaga warmly welcomed me with the thrashing of a life time. One of my most vivid adult memories is afterward sitting in the dank, unfinished basement locker room, exhausted and struggling to peel off my soaked judo gi, watching the sweat vaporize and rise off my body. Finally-I had found my new dojo!
Largely through judo and the friendships formed at the dojo on the north side, I became introduced to the larger Japanese American community in Chicago. One night, Dean and I went by the Marigold Bowling Alley. It was “League night”. I had never seen so many Japanese Americans in one place at one time! Gradually, through Ginza, Kagami Biraki, and other festivals at various Buddhist Temples and other social outlets I came to experience and appreciate what is a vibrant and substantial culture within the Chicago community. It seems to me that the JA community in Chicago evolved out of the camp experience, and is driven by a traditional sense of ethics and distinct set of neurosis. Like the African American, Korean, Mexican or other communities, it has its own unique lexicon of idioms and expressions that persons outside the community would not understand.
I have been involved in Judo for about 35 years and have been promoted to Fifth Degree Black Belt (Godan). I cannot imagine my life without judo. It has been the source of many of my closest friends, I have met my accountant and my attorney through judo, I have been employed twice by judo associates, many of my most trusted confidants and mentors are from judo, my children’s godparents are from judo. It really has been a wellspring that has enriched my existence. It also provides me with life balance and a sense of accomplishment.
Summing it up what does it mean? I feel that my understanding of what is good and bad, right and wrong largely stems from my early childhood. My sense of what is interesting and boring, humorous and distasteful, beautiful and ugly, has been influenced by the persons and cultural experiences I have been exposed to. My persona has been shaped by more than my immediate environment in so far as my environment is itself an amalgamation of various cultures. Ethnically, I am a mixture of Japanese, Scottish, Cherokee and Blackfoot Indian, African American and French bloodlines. But that does not define who or what I am. It is my actions (or lack of), my accomplishments (and failures) and the meaningful contributions that I make to society that largely define who I am. That potential is largely determined by my family upbringing, by my friends and associates, by my craft and profession, by my environment in total. As I mentioned, I am the only male in the family who has not served in the military-I am also the only Godan. Except for a distant Uncle Shig on the Imoto side!
Larry Wiley is a Sansei hapa born and raised on the Chicago’s south side. A longtime judo practitioner, he helped found the largest Judo Dojo East of the Mississippi River and has won seven national medals in the “over 30” masters competitions including three gold medals. Working in the construction industry for the past 25 years, he has received several accolades for numerous projects including “2006 Best New Construction under $10 Million” by the Chicago Building Congress for a new Montessori school. Larry is currently managing an 18 month Historical Renovation of the Ludwig Mies van der Rohe designed Federal Center in Downtown Chicago. A divorced father of three, he has lived on the city’s north side since 1985, a White Sox fan adrift in a sea of Cub mania.