Henry Lem

Educator | Researcher | Writer | Martial Artist


Global Connections: INTL's Impactful Exchange Program with New Taipei's TYK School

Silicon Valley International School (INTL) fosters global connections and cultural understanding through its experiential learning and language exchange programs. Most recently, INTL welcomed a group of 5th through 9th Graders from New Taipei Municipal Tur Ya Kar Elementary & Junior High School (TYK), a sister school from Taiwan, to campus. TYK spent a week on INTL’s Willows Campus, going to classes while also living with INTL students and their families.

This exchange initiative equips students with indispensable skills for success in our interconnected world. Beyond the enriching experiences of immersing themselves in different cultures abroad, students hosting exchange peers also gain fresh perspectives on their own cultural norms.

Reflecting on the positive impact, 10th Grader Owen L. shared, "the exchange has been a really positive experience. I wanted to show my buddy from TYK what students our age do for fun. So, we explored various restaurants and shopping centers. Edward was particularly intrigued by the tech stores, noting differences compared to those back home. Despite the challenges in class exploring complex topics, my buddy actively participated and gained a lot from the immersive experience."

Aside from classroom activities, TYK students enjoyed an educational outing to Tech Interactive. The joint group of INTL and TYK students spent hours exploring exhibits, with highlights including the bio design lab, where they examined their own cells, and the "Solve the Earth" exhibit, addressing issues of urban growth, food supply, sustainability, and environmental protection. The day also featured designing roller coasters and exploring space travel possibilities. In the afternoon, the group explored downtown San Jose and enjoyed the architecture of the art museum, city hall, and SJSU.

These experiences not only broaden horizons, but also create enduring memories and cross-cultural relationships. 

Howard from TYK expressed gratitude, saying, "I want to convey my deep appreciation to my host family for their warm welcome. They provided a comfortable living space, and I engaged in activities with my buddy Andrew K. that I wouldn't typically do. The INTL host family exuded care and support."

Echoing Howard's sentiments, Lillian from TYK shared, "my first impression was, wow, everyone's so friendly! The teachers, the students, I feel a great sense of warmth from everyone on campus. We also got to do lots of science experiments, something unique we don't usually experience at our school in Taiwan."

Looking ahead, INTL's students will reciprocate the visit by traveling to TYK in the spring, further solidifying friendships and nurturing a global perspective. INTL’s emphasis on experiential learning and exchange programs continues to empower students with critical thinking skills, understanding, and cultural sensitivity.


I planned and executed this exchange at our school, and also conducted the interviews which are quoted here. This piece was initially published in the INTL Blog in Feb 2024, and can be found on their website here.

The Impact of Language

As a highly competent and passionate educator, Upper School Chinese teacher and Chinese Curriculum Lead Henry Lem is uniquely positioned to impart the intricacies of language acquisition to INTL students. With a background in Cantonese, which he spoke as a child, and a revitalized passion for language in college that led him to earn a degree in Mandarin and later obtain a PhD in Chinese language and literature, Henry brings a wealth of linguistic knowledge to the classroom.

“When it comes to Chinese language and culture, I'm very passionate about it," said Henry. "It's really important for us to help equip students with the skills and the knowledge they need to solve real-world problems. I really think that starts with being bilingual.”

That passion for language eventually brought Henry to INTL where he teaches not only Chinese immersion program students, but also Upper School Language Acquisition (USLA) students who have begun their bilingual journey later in their educational lives. In the USLA, new students learn to become proficient in a second language as the school prioritizes teaching both English and their target language for four hours per week to make sure that they have plenty of time to learn. The connections between language, culture, and academic subjects are emphasized, providing students with a holistic and multidisciplinary educational experience.

“It's the overall approach,” Henry explains. “We are crossing different languages, crossing different cultures, and disciplines. For example, in the United States education system, typically, we organize knowledge based on traditional categories such as the arts, literature, science, mathematics, etc. and a lot of this approach is dependent on categories of knowledge embedded in the language. Whereas when a student is learning Chinese and learning a subject like physics, they get a glimpse of how that knowledge of the material is organized, conceptualized, and made more complex in another language and culture. This complexity in the theories and practices of knowledge thus gives students a unique perspective on how the world works.”

For students at INTL, language acquisition is an opportunity to see through the lens of another culture, outside of their own native language, and into something completely different. In experiencing those differences, they also find similarities. 

Henry continues, “it's really more of shifting the mindset with the language as the foundation rather than just learning the language by itself.”


This piece was initially published in the Spring 2023 Issue of Globe Magazine and can be found on their website here.

Battle Within: Martial Arts, Asian Food, and Facemasks

I have lived and breathed martial arts. Drilling, sparring, and community at the dojo all provide me with a great sense of quiet and stillness. Yet after implementation of national shelter-in-place directives in the US, my martial arts ritual and routine was rudely interrupted. On a larger scale, many dojos across the nation have halted training completely due to the risk of infection. We no longer train the way we used to, nor can we enjoy the camaraderie of tough sparring we had before the COVID-19 outbreak. Such limitations have left me thinking more deeply about martial arts: its origins, the reasons why I train, and in light of the increase in Anti-Asian hate crimes, why martial arts training has become even more necessary to protect body and spirit.


I. Martial Arts Form and Philosophy



“Those who know when and when not to fight: Victorious.”


Among the various martial arts, Wing Chun has witnessed a rise in popularity due to depictions in the movies of its most famous practitioner Ip Man (1893-1972), Bruce Lee’s first master. According to Ip Man’s testimony in his book Origin of the Wing Chun Style, Wing Chun was founded by a woman named Ng Mui (1623-?) who fled the Shaolin Temple after it was burned down by the army of the newly founded Qing dynasty. Likewise, one seventeenth-century historical account suggests that Wing Chun was founded by a woman named Ding and her husband. This account further notes they had a total of 24 disciples, including a man named Zheng Li who possessed extraordinary strength and martial prowess.[1] The description of Zheng Li has certain appeal to our modern sensibilities. He embodies what we envision to be a martial arts hero: strong, courageous, and masculine. Yet what we find in many martial arts, including Wing Chun, is not a focus on brute strength and rough “male” qualities, but an emphasis on gentle characteristics and flowing movements that speak to commonly shared technical and philosophical principles among martial arts forms.


The methods of Wing Chun emphasize how to divert force and use quick strikes to tire out and demoralize one’s opponent. If this martial art exemplifies certain feminine, gentle qualities of fighting, then Chinese Shuai Jiao is certainly its masculine counterpart. Shuai Jiao is a combat wrestling system where strength, explosiveness, and physicality are significant factors in executing fighting techniques. Shuai Jiao was the core training program for the army in many imperial dynasties in China, and in current times, it is still taught in military and police academies in China and Taiwan.[2]


From Shuai Jiao, Wing Chun, and Judo, to Muay Thai, Pankration, and Boxing, these arts are living, organic, and ever-transforming fighting traditions. When we consider the historical contexts of these arts, they were certainly designed as effective tools for combat. Despite their strong focus on training one to control and adapt to the chaos of combat, the inherent principle of “martial arts” is quite the opposite of aggressive fighting. In Art of War, Sun Tzu stresses avoiding directly attacking enemy forces and to instead counteract the enemy’s mind as the greatest offensive.[3] He reasons that direct, belligerent offensives only serve to generate casualties on both sides, which is the worst consequence of fighting and is to be avoided at all costs. Sun Tzu then summarizes the ultimate objective of martial arts in one concise phrase: to “subjugate one’s opponent without fighting” (buzhan er quren 不戰而屈人).[4]


Readers of Art of War will find Sun Tzu repeatedly emphasizing this guiding principle of martial arts: to prevent conflict, war, and damage on both sides. The breakdown of the Chinese character “martial” (wu ) further resonates with this principle. Wu is made of two radicals: “prevent” (zhi ) and “spear” (ge ). Thus “martial” in Chinese emphasizes the tremendous importance attached to preventing hostility of any kind.[5]


When applied to modern fighting, the character “martial” speaks to the fundamental need to train martial arts for protecting the bodies of oneself, our families, our friends (and in ancient times, one’s lord), and to protect our spirits by pursuing the Way (dao ). For practitioners of martial arts having East Asian origins, the aim is to become what Confucius had outlined in the Analects: a “gentleman” (junzi 君子) who is humane (ren ) and embodies propriety (li ) in his words and actions, and who is gentle but capable of toughness (rou er neng gang 柔而能剛).[6] Likewise, another ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu tells us a person’s ultimate aim is to give “undivided focus to vital breath and achieve the utmost degree of gentleness” (zhuan qi zhi rou 專氣致柔), and to model water in its fluidity and ability to overcome hard things.[7] The importance of certain human qualities and fluidity in action were considered to be pinnacles of human development by martial arts practitioners in Japan, as seen in the development and maturity of several “Gentle Art” (jujitsu 柔術) traditions and its branching form, the “Gentle Way” (judo 柔道),[8] which both acknowledge the necessity of hard force (pushing, pulling, throwing), but prioritize gentle maneuvering (countering, off-balancing, diverting force). The purpose of such martial arts is to train a person, usually of smaller stature, to dominate a larger, stronger opponent in the most efficient, smooth manner possible without reliance on brute strength. With enough training, he will be able to block aggressive strikes, redirect an opponent’s force, throw him to the ground, and force him to submission, thereby preventing rather than prolonging hostility.


II. An Empty Dojo and My Only Training Partner



“Know yourself, know your enemy: win one hundred battles.”


The dojo (道場, literally a site where the Way is practiced) is a site for ethical and spiritual cultivation. Traditionally it was considered both a space where Buddhism is studied and a combat training hall. The goal of working through the physical and mental tempering during training is to acquire the highest of human qualities, including those described by Confucius and Lao Tzu. At the same time, with the influence of Buddhism, combat training can also be viewed as a physio-mental activity, capable of assisting practitioners in uncovering pathways of their interior landscape and capable of taking them to a higher state of consciousness. It is certainly a place to learn ways of fighting, but can also serve as a pure space for cultivation in emptiness (kong ) / nothingness (wu ).

Our dojo consists of men and women of various degrees in stature, strength, and training experience. Before stepping onto the training mats, we bow to our instructor and pay respects to the spirit altars of our grandmasters. After about an hour of instruction and uchi komi (technique drills), we participate in one-on-one randori (sparring) to sharpen our techniques. Sparring models live fighting conditions. We all know and live by the Japanese word ossu 押忍, which means to endure hard training / pressure as the art is physically tiring, mentally taxing, and sometimes brutal on our bodies. Unlike conventional sports where competition is often separated by gender, sparring makes no gender distinction in the dojo: a 125-pound female black belt is likely going to completely smash a 200-pound male blue belt based on experience and technique alone.


The tough training at our dojo provides much needed spiritual sustenance. On a good day, I find the perfect balance of stillness and active flow, where past and future concerns, anxieties, and worries do not seem to have their usual effect. I try to “cleanse the mind” (senshin 洗心) through action married with meditation: gripping the rough sleeve and lapel of my training partner and stepping in for a graceful hip throw, or getting thrown on my back but regripping, then setting up the kuzushi (unbalancing opponent’s fighting stance) to then sweep out his legs for a perfectly executed reversal. There are hundreds of possible scenarios in sparring, all unified by principles of stimulus and response, action and inaction, and substance and vacuity. In these practice scenarios, sometimes you die (going unconscious, submitting) but you are always reborn again. A martial artist practices this cycle of life and death, and all activities while in the dojo reflect a spiritual battle within, imbued with the hopes of finding sanctuary during turbulent, unstable times.

These days, the dojo is mostly empty due to COVID-19. In the absence of training partners, I often drag out a 180-pound worn-out and sturdy training dummy who graciously allows me to beat him up a couple times a week. I run through about 10 fundamental techniques and drills to keep my mind sharp and to active my muscle memory. I stand him up, make grips, and take a deep lunge forward to unbalance him, then sweep out the dummy’s legs to send him crashing down into the mats with a deep, thunderous boom. Immediately I drop a knee into his “ribs” and punish him with a flurry of strikes to the head and transition into lapel chokes and joint submissions.


When executing my techniques, even on a training dummy, I think of nothing. I am not checking the John Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center COVID-19 Map. I am not thinking about Anti-Asian racial slurs, assaults on Asian Americans, and “Kill the Chinese” chants. To the best of my ability, I practice life and death as an Asian American Martial Artist.


III. Food, Facemasks, and Fighting




“Appear in places where he must hasten, hasten to places where he is unprepared”

“To excel in attacking, attack where he does not defend”


When not training, I am a serious food glutton with a diet completely antithetical to what is expected of a martial artist. I sometimes tell my friends that in martial arts, especially for practitioners in China, a fighter’s martial prowess is often considered to be consummate with his capacity for large amounts of meat and wine. This joke is related to images of heroism and masculinity that are prevalent in Chinese literature, such as the classic novel Water Margin, where the “monk” Sagacious Lu swings around a 100-kg staff with god-like strength and causes a ruckus at the Wutai Monastery, and the “pilgrim” Wu Song wrestles and defeats a tiger with his bare hands on Jingyang Ridge (as well as the martial heroine Chen Liqing who uses her superior fighting skills to wrestle, wristlock, and defeat a strapping bandit-hero named Wang Ying the “Short-Legged Tiger”).[9] These heroic feats occur, of course, after these heroes have consumed several plates of meat and buckets of wine.

My commitment to martial arts began as a fascination with martial heroes and heroines in classic Chinese novels. This interest in the intersection between martial arts and literature led me to spend about four years in China and Taiwan. I now live in the Southwest region of the US with my family. My wife and I are almost always in search for some semblance of our family’s Chinese/Taiwanese cuisine favorites. A constant topic we have is our yearning for the plethora of unique, vibrant dishes and snacks from our respective native places. Often our weekends turn into journeys for the perfect Taiwanese style fried chicken, fried tofu, black rice, and boba tea. At times we search for cuisine tailored to my Hong Kong and Guangdong roots: Canto-style BBQ duck and pork, dim sum, and the classic HK style milk tea (again, the antithesis of a martial artist’s diet).


Much of our marital harmony has been built upon our love for “Southern” Chinese cuisine.[10] Yet with the “Stay Safe, Stay Home” directive, we no longer dine at our favorite Asian restaurants. Gone are the days of casually strolling the Asian market in search of food from our respective homelands. Instead, we wear facemasks to protect ourselves and to protect others during our now infrequent Asian market trips. We also decided to wear unique items: a baseball cap declaring “Taiwanese” for my wife (in her view, to not be mistaken as “Chinese” and to avoid getting attacked), and for me, a US battleflag neck gaiter that covers my face and highlights my US “patriotism.”


We live in a predominantly white, Christian, and conservative area, so the fears of anti-Asian hate crimes are a constant reality for us. On occasion I walk through the grocery store with my wife and daughter in hand. My wife is wearing her facemask and “Taiwanese” baseball cap, and my daughter wears a child-sized facemask. With the USA battleflag gaiter draped across my face, I walk tall, constantly scanning for potential aggressors. On the exterior I am calm, but I cannot shake off my uneasiness—the sense that we are being watched, judged, vilified.


At home, a reel tape in my head plays: on March 14 in Midland, Texas, a man draws his knife and stabs an Asian American family of three. He assumes they are Chinese, blaming them for spreading the Coronavirus. In reports detailing Anti-Asian hate crimes that have occurred during COVID-19, a common narrative is prevalent: Asians are victims (not capable of defending themselves), not martial arts heroes/heroines; Asians are weak, not staunch or courageous. In these narratives we are represented as a failed people who cannot shelter our bodies, protect our spirits. The damage is visceral. Fears bubble up somewhere deep: a darkness gnawing at the soul.


Is my choice to don a US flag informed by fear or patriotism? Perhaps that darkness can be purged if American others see me, born and raised in the US, as one of them. Covering my face with a US flag gaiter makes me unreadable, temporarily unafraid. Yet with this concealing of my face, I also surrender my Chinese American identity, and the nuanced differences of the regional groups to which I identify with (Hong Konger, Taiwan Supporter, Southern Chinese) gradually diminish as well. In light of the pandemic, fears of the foreign-born Coronavirus continue to grow, and we are read by the rest of America as a collective without differentiation, read as all Chinese.


The reel tape in my mind plays again. Shelter your body, protect your spirit. I imagine myself faced with the aggressor in Midland, Texas, who has just pulled out his knife. The aggressor comes at me with an obvious intent to hurt.


The many hours of training at the dojo kick in.


I put my hands up and step into my kamae (postured fighting stance), which is perfect for blocking and maneuvering around my opponent. With the knife he stabs in an overhead motion, but I dodge, deflect, control his arm and wristlock to disarm the weapon. I close the distance, sweep out his legs, and keep him pinned to the ground. In this dominant position I am completely capable of executing a carotid choke, or attacking elbow or shoulder joints if needed. The onlookers stare. Some are recording on their smart phones. I hope they notice the US battleflag gaiter covering my face. I hope they see a fierce, patriotic Asian American.


We have done these drills hundreds of times in many different variations and have applied them in live combat. We train to prepare for hostile situations, yet these activities also elevate us beyond that darkness gnawing at the soul. I fight with the intention to protect, without the desire to hurt; I accept the existence of my fear and I commit to the belief this fear will not crippling me. Last, I work on becoming “without mind” (mushin 無心), a complete, formless state that transcends language and logic.[11] In drilling, sparring, or meditation, we hope to enter mushin, where past and future take no relevance, where human activity becomes “action without contention” (wuwei 無為).[12] That way, even before hostility presents itself (with or without a weapon), we have already won the battle in our minds.


May 3, 2020

[1] Benjamin N. Judkins, “Lives of Chinese Martial Artists (9): Woman Ding Number Seven: Founder of the Fujian Yongchun Boxing Tradition,” from Kung Fu Tea website, https://chinesemartialstudies.com/2019/11/14/lives-of-chinese-martial-artists-9-woman-ding-number-seven-founder-of-the-fujian-yongchun-boxing-tradition/

[2] Chinese Kuoshu Institute, “History,” from http://www.kuoshu.co.uk/History%20-%20SJ.htm; Traditional Wing Chun Kung Fu Academy,  “History of Shuai Jiao,” from http://traditionalwingchun.com/twckf/history-of-shuai-jiao/

[3]  That is, to counteract his mou , or “strategic maneuverings.”

[4] In my translations of Art of War passages, I have referenced Ralph D. Sawyer’s translations in The Art of War (Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press Inc., 1994).

[5] This point is noted in early Chinese historical narrative Zuo Commentaries for the Spring and Autumn Annals (Chunqiu Zuo zhuan): “[The true meaning of] war lies in the prevention of hostilities” zhi ge wei wu 止戈為武.

[6] May Fourth writer, intellectual, and scholar Hu Shi (1891-1962) writes: “Confucius came from the scholarly tradition of the Gentle Way and hoped people would be gentle but capable of toughness, gracious and respectful.” See Hu Shi’s Shuo Ru [Discourse on Confucians] (Taipei: Zhongyang yanjiuyuan lishi yuyan yanjiu suo jikan 4, 1934).

[7] See Wang Bi, Laozi sizhong [Four editions of Lao-Tzu] (Taipei: Da’an Chubanshe, 1999), 7.

[8] See Budō: The Martial Ways of Japan (Tokyo: Nippon Budokan Foundation, 2009), 123-138.

[9] From the Water Margin sequel titled Quell the Bandits, by Yu Wanchun (1794-1849).

[10] I use this as a kind of umbrella term that covers cuisine from Guangdong, Hong Kong, and Taiwan.

[11] This view of Mushin is based on the school of the Sixth Patriarch Dajian Huineng (638-713). See Deng Keming, “Tang Dai Huangbi Xiyun chanshi zhi xinti guan” [Tang Dynasty Zen Master Huangbo Xiyun’s Perspective of Mind and Body], National Taiwan University Buddhist Studies, No. 22 (Dec. 2011): 3

[12] Sometimes translated as Non-action. The original passage emphasizes how ancient sages managed human affairs without action and suggests they governed with maximum effect with the lightest touch and least amount of effort. See Laozi sizhong [Four editions of Lao-Tzu], 2.


This piece was initially published in the Summer 2020 CUNY Forum Issue 8 and can be found on their website here.

Essential Fighting Techniques, printed in Taiwan, 1973