Talking Travel with Matthew Polly

We recently got a chance to talk travel with Matthew Polly, author of American Shaolin, and winner of a Lowell Thomas Award for travel writing. His stories have also appeared in Esquire, The Nation, Playboy, Publisher’s Weekly, and Slate.

Growing up a 98-pound weakling tormented by bullies in the schoolyards of Kansas, young Matthew Polly dreamed of one day journeying to the Shaolin Temple in China to become the toughest fighter in the world, like Caine in his favorite 1970’s TV series Kung Fu. While in college, Matthew decided the time had come to pursue this quixotic dream before it was too late. Much to the dismay of his parents, he dropped out of Princeton to train with the legendary sect of monks who invented kung fu and Zen Buddhism.

We’ve got a few copies of his book to giveaway to three lucky Gadling readers, so stick around after the interview to find out how you can score one.

How did you get started traveling?

I grew up in Kansas. Every year my family would go on one big driving adventure. Since this was pre-GPS, pre-Mapquest, and pre-video Ipods, it involved a great deal of shouting and getting lost. Personally, I’m not sure why I still find travelling exciting. It must the masochist in me.

How much traveling had you done before going to China? And since?

I did a fair amount of traveling before I went to China but it was mostly in very safe, standard areas: North America and Western Europe. After Shaolin, I’ve been around the globe. Not everywhere but a number of fascinating places like Rio, Bangkok, the West Bank.

Did you have any previous martial arts experience or training before deciding to study kung fu at the Shaolin Temple?

When I got to Princeton I started taking martial arts classes in the typical way of most busy college students. A couple days a week when the week wasn’t too busy with other activities.

What made you choose the Shaolin Temple, and not, say, the kung fu school down the road from your house?

When I was a kid I saw the TV show Kung Fu with David Carradine. I idolized his character. He looked as awkward as I felt and yet he was a total bad-ass. When I was in college I started to study Chinese language, philosophy, Ch’an (Zen) Buddhism, and kung fu. The Shaolin Temple is the birthplace of kung fu and Zen Buddhism, so it was like going to the source.

What was the tipping point that made you decide, “okay, I’m going to drop out of Princeton to study kung fu in China?” Was it spur-of-the-moment, or something you thought long and hard about?

I went to one of my Chinese language teachers and asked him where in mainland China I could learn about kung fu and Zen Buddhism.

He asked me in Chinese, “Are you afraid to eat bitter? Are you afraid to suffer?”

“No,” I said, lying.

“Then you must go to the Shaolin Temple.”

As soon as he mentioned Shaolin, it was like a light exploded in my head. I knew I had to go.

Matthew Polly on the Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson

How did your friends and family react to that decision?

My friends didn’t believe I’d actually go through with it. My family thought I had lost my mind. This was in 1992, three years after the Tiananmen Sq. massacre. At that point in time, China’s reputation was that it was North Korea only with more food and better hairdos. My mother was afraid the government would kill me. Eventually, I convinced them to let me go, but it was a hard fight.

It’s got to be intimidating: an American traveling across the globe to study kung fu at the temple in which the martial art was born. What that was like?

It was terrifying. The Shaolin Temple is situated in a tiny village between five mountain peaks in the middle of rural China. When I arrived I was the only laowai (foreigner) there. The monks didn’t know what to make of me. It took me about six months of proving that I was willing to train as hard and as bitter as they did before they finally started to accept me as a member of the community.

Looking back on your experience, what advice would you offer up to someone who is considering a major life change to travel?

If you know in your heart that this is the right decision, then you don’t need any advice. Go and see where the path leads you. If you’re uncertain, then don’t give up your day job and drop out of college. It can be a long road back.

What can you tell us about the movie rights you sold to Fox Studios?

Fox2000 has optioned the rights to the book. And they are currently developing it into a feature length film. The A-list screenwriter who wrote Austin Powers II and III [Michael McCullers] has already adapted it into a screenplay. But one never knows with Hollywood. They may ask Britney Spears to play the role of me. She has the shaved head.

Ha! Now I have to ask… who would you want playing you in the movie version of your book?

Having looked in the mirror recently, I don’t think it will be Brad Pitt. If Tom Hanks had a much younger brother that’d be a fairly close approximation.

Thanks, Matthew!

Matthew Polly’s American Shaolin: Flying Kicks, Buddhist Monks, and the Legend of Iron Crotch: An Odyssey in the New China (Gotham Books/Penguin Group, $26.00) debuted in bookstores in February, 2007.

As promised, we have copies of the book to give away to three lucky Gadling readers! Just leave a comment below and our magical system will automatically select three random winners — but make sure you use a valid email address, as we’ll have to contact you to get your mailing address. For official rules, please click here. Comments and contest will close one week from today, April 25 at 8:00 PM.