The Italian Man With the Chinese Name

Posted on 17. Dec, 2009 by in Arts and Culture, International, Jeremy Caplan

Lin De Ming is standing tall, feet spread, arms raised in defense.  Two teenage Chinese boys come at him from both directions, on the attack.  With two quick arm movements he wards them off and they shuffle, heads down, back into position.

From his third floor studio in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, Lin teaches the martial art of Wing Chun.  Unlike other martial arts, Wing Chun teaches quick, small movements and intense concentration.  The boys begin again.

“Switch ya feet,” he says in a classic Brooklyn accent.  The boys stare intently at their feet as they now tap them from side to side.  They continue their concentrated movements as Lin moves on to another student.

Mike, 31, is Italian, like the majority of Bensonhurst’s older residents.  He’s wearing jeans with a plain brown t-shirt and practicing his own movements off to the side.  While the boys repeat their gestures to themselves, Lin engages Mike in hand exercises that look like a sophisticated game of patty cake.

You wouldn’t know it from his name, but Lin’s heritage is Italian and Puerto Rican.  He was born Erik Oliva but changed his name to feel more a part of Chinese culture.  The name De Ming means “high virture”.  He chose it as a constant reminder of what he aspires to be.  Like his names, Lin bridges the gap between the Chinese and Italian communities in Bensonhurst.

Lin De Ming (courtesy Lin De Ming)

Lin De Ming (courtesy Lin De Ming)

Raised in Borough Park, Lin knew he was different from his classmates.

“Growing up, I was not the usual child,” said Lin. “The students in school, classmates, used to make fun of me calling me the devil, or saying I’m weird, or even calling out the numbers 666, or 59, or Yin Yang. I used to laugh it off.”

By 16, he had dropped out of high school because he found it “counterproductive.”  At 18, he traded his jeans for traditional Chinese robes.  A year later he began practicing martial arts from teacher, Alan Goldberg.  At 21, he changed his name.  And at 24, he moved to China to study at the center of the culture.

“I feel more at home and at peace in the Chinese community,” said Lin.

Overseas, he practiced Wing Chun in a local park and developed a following.  Soon his students filled the park.  Because a main element of Wing Chun is concentration, Lin was unaware that during one of his lessons he was filmed for Chinese television.  Back in Bensonhurst, new immigrants still periodically recognize him from the news.

Jing Xin Yuan is Lin’s business.  His third floor studio is sparely furnished to allow room for martial arts and meditation.  On one wall hangs a portrait of his teacher, and his teacher’s teacher.  On another hangs a collection of Chinese swords. A small gray kitten occasionally wanders in, chasing her tail or lounging in a chair.  In the background, the soundtrack of Buddhist chants is periodically interrupted by the noisy start up of a car engine down below on Bay Parkway.  Throughout the unit are Chinese symbols and paper screens.

His love for Chinese culture is the reason why he seeks to unite the two sides of Bensonhurst.  He and his friend, Andy Yu, organize events for the community to highlight Chinese culture and tradition.  Yu, who is Executive Director of The United Chinese Association of Brooklyn, says that Lin has been good at bringing the groups together for events.

“He was able to reach out and bring in members from the Italian, Russian, and Chinese communities to participate,” said Yu.

One of the biggest ways that Lin reaches is out is through social networking.  He regularly updates Jing Xin Yuan’s website, as well maintaining YouTube, Meet Up, Facebook and Ning accounts for the cultural center.  He also corresponds via email with students of Buddhism from all over the world, including Australia, Israel, and Germany.  His main goal is educating those who might otherwise not know about the traditions.

“There’s a lot that Chinese culture can offer to people,” said Lin.  The problem is, for the traditional Italian neighborhood, the exposure to their Asian neighbors is very limited.  Recently, tensions over the cleanliness of businesses along Bay Parkway has sparked animosity towards the Chinese community.   That’s why Lin not only participated in a street cleaning event organized by Assemblyman William Colton, he strongly encouraged his Wing Chun students to join in.

Lin is by no means an entrepreneur.  Though he relies on profits from martial arts classes to pay the bills, he never charges for Buddhist studies – “That’s something the Buddha would never do.”  His students are cultivated not solicited.  Though he presents information about Chinese culture online, he only accepts students that have the right demeanor.

Lin says he knows whether he will accept a student just by the way they walk up the stairs.  If he thinks they have the right frame of mind, he invites them to attend his class.  If not, he says his class is full.

For his young students, he hopes that they will cultivate a sense of concentration, but also confidence.  Because of cultural tensions, Lin worries that they will bullied.  But as someone who understands what it’s like to be an outsider, he prepares them to take pride in themselves while still being true to their culture.

Tags: , , , , , ,

One Response to “The Italian Man With the Chinese Name”

  1. Larry

    02. Feb, 2010

    Wing Chun is a awesome close quarter combat system. I really enjoyed this blog post I found it very interesting that an Italian has a Chinese name.