Levelling Up and Out of the Sports Field


Picture the 12-year-old pudgy South African-born Chinese kid starting high school.

That wasn’t me.

I had been in Australia for four long years. I was an Aussie and I had left that Chinese-South African kid on the plane. After an early growth spurt, I was tall—but still pudgy thanks to mum’s delicious Chinese cooking. I knew I was different and I was trying hard to fit in so that the other kids didn’t make fun of me.

I wanted to be an Aussie. I wasn’t one of the quiet, Asian kids—I was one of young cubs, all of us fighting to be the leader of the wolf pack. Since there was a rugby rival with South Africa and Australia, I decided my opportunity to level up was on the rugby field.

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As one of the tallest kids in my early years of high school, I quickly became one of the biggest, most dominating and fearless players on the field. When I was on the rugby field I was the one of the top dogs. Physicality was my tool and I asserted it. It carved out my identity. I earned the title of the first grade school rugby captain, a strong and masculine figure not to be messed with, on or off the field.

I belonged. I was more than one of the boys—I was the leader of the wolf pack. I finished high school hustling around eighteen big, grown ‘men’, howling the rugby war cry. I knew then I had made it as one of them.

Now, picture the 18-year-old Chinese-South African born kid starting university.

That wasn’t me.

I didn’t associate with my Chinese culture or ethnicity anymore. But now there was no more rugby, no more wolf pack, no more school captain badge. Identity scratched. My early growth spurt didn’t last long and the rest of the boys caught up. It was like going back to Year 7, back to conversations starting with, ‘Oh hey, where are you from’? With my return answer, ‘North Ryde Sydney’, predictably followed up with ‘No like where are you really from’? Am I just the Chinese-South African kid? Was that really who I was?

I began to struggle. I didn’t have the motivation to study anymore, I lost focus, I slept through most lectures and avoided unnecessary social interactions. Working at the gym was my last hope of holding onto my physical identity. My days were empty, filled with the mundane repetition of exercise physiology lectures, and then working in the gym, followed by working out in the gym.

The turning point was quite ironic, in hindsight. It was a Sunday night and I was working on the gym floor, aimlessly walking around trying to look busy. I noticed a member in the group fitness room with the door closed. There were no classes scheduled on a Sunday night. As I went closer to inspect, I saw through the small window a 60-year-old Anglo-Australian man practising a sequence of martial arts techniques. I watched on as he floated around the room. His kicks, punches, and blocks flowed into one seamless movement. I had seen plenty of martial arts videos and movies, but nevertheless there was something mesmerising watching this white Australian man through the window.

IMG_3637I wasn’t mesmerised by his fancy karate skills or flashy moves. There was something else that had me captivated. Something else pulled me into the room that day, and I felt something I had never felt watching or playing rugby. It was different, his energy was strong, yet not overpowering, focused yet relaxed, determined yet at ease. It was his spirit, and I didn’t know why but at the time but I wanted that feeling, I needed that feeling. I started karate the next week. From that moment I began to search for what he had.

My progress as a martial artist took me back to my Asian upbringing. Words like ‘chi’—energy—which my parents spoke about, began to make more sense. I began to feel whole. Karate still provided me with the physicality in form of the ‘martial’ side, however I gained a lot more from the ‘art’ side. It took me back to the values my family had brought me up with, the same ones that I had somehow lost along the way in getting here.

The values I had left behind were the values that made me who I am: grateful, humble, respectful, hard working and focused. These values I had pushed aside because, at the time, they didn’t seem to fit into the masculine Australian image that I was trying to fulfil. Becoming strong, fearless and muscular were valued and rewarded, but when the physicality was removed I was left with nothing. The white Australian man in the group fitness room reconnected me to a spiritual side that could only be felt.

Now, picture the Chinese-South African-Australian man who’s levelled up.

That’s me.

I am equally proud and equally value all three of my cultures that have made me who I am. I am grateful to rugby for connecting me to Australian culture in my early years, but I am even more grateful to martial arts for reinstating my Asian values.  For the last six years, I have very proudly represented Australia in international karate competitions all over the world. I wear the Australian flag with great pride thanks to the physical, spiritual and personal values that I hold as a Chinese-South African-Australian man.

Author: Mathew Ah Chow

Mathew Ah Chow is a South African born Chinese martial artist with a black belt in Karate. When he isn’t training to represent Australia at International tournaments he is working as a Physiotherapist. Bruce Lee was the inspiration behind Mathew becoming a martial artist and continues to inspire him through his philosophies.

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