A lone Israeli among China’s thousands of kung fu adherents, Shmuel Shoshtari was thrilled to be his country’s flag bearer at the martial art’s main event.

Shmuel Shoshtari and fellow students

Shmuel Shoshtari, left, at the “Kung Fu Olympics” in China with fellow students John from Kyrgyzstan, Kai from Germany, and one of the school’s headmasters.

Shmuel Shoshtari proudly carried the Israeli flag at an international kung fu competition in China in October. He enjoyed the privilege – so he says – not because he is a master of the martial art, but because he was the only Israeli the organizers could locate among China’s thousands of kung fu students.

“I am not good enough to compete against these people,” 22-year-old Shoshtari tells ISRAEL21c in an interview via Skype from the Shaolin Wushu School of Kung Fu in Deng Feng where he has been studying since January 1. “They have been training for years while I have been training for a few months. It would be like asking you to compete against Michael Phelps because you know how to swim – or because you have a bathing suit.”

But since Israel hadn’t sent a delegation and the competition planners wanted representation from as many countries as possible, they made inquiries at the 60 kung fu schools in Deng Feng, seeking an Israeli, and they found Shoshtari.

He describes the event, held in Zhengzhou, as “the kung fu equivalent of the World Cup or Olympics,” taking place every four years. Martial artists arrived from across the globe, including Japan, Tanzania, India, Spain, Macau, China, Singapore and Argentina. Even the prince of Trinidad and Tobago came to take part in a sparring contest.

In training since age five

“Both the school and I knew I wasn’t good enough to compete,” Shoshtari insists. “There were people there from the Chinese National Team and others who’ve been training since childhood. A week before I went, I trained with a competition group at my school, which includes the best of the 5,000 students here, ranging from eight to 17 years old. You see these 10-year-olds with unbelievable power.”

For a person who has been training for only a few months, he acquitted himself quite well. “In open fist form, I got ninth place out of 12, and in spear form I placed 10th out of 16. You can make very small mistakes; your leg can slip a bit on the carpet and they take away points.”

Shoshtari was born to an American mother and an Israeli father living in a small agricultural village, Moshav Haniel, in central Israel. When he was about five years old, his parents sent him to learn krav maga, the Israeli self-defense system. Years later, he took an interest in kung fu, one of the oldest martial arts forms in the world.

“Kung fu has so much precision and power in the moves – that’s what it’s about. It’s like classical music,” he explains.

Shmuel Shoshtari competing in kung fu competition

Shmuel Shoshtari during the international kung fu competition in Zhengzhou, China.

Shoshtari eventually met an older student who’d studied in China, and found the notion of spending a year at such a school irresistible. He learned some Chinese, saved some money, quit his job in software development, and went at the end of December. “My father thought I was out of my mind,” he recounts.

Perception of Jews, Israelis is phenomenal

Living in a dorm under fairly stark conditions with two 12-year-old Korean roommates, Shoshtari wakes at sunrise for intense power training – sprinting, running upstairs, jumping – to increase stamina and muscle development. After breakfast and a break, there is another long session on techniques and forms, then more training following a break and lunch. Twice a week, night sessions are added. “I couldn’t run before I came here,” he confides. “I was totally out of shape. This place really changed my body and was a great experience.”

Fortunately for Shoshtari, who tries to observe the Sabbath, the schedule is more easygoing on Saturdays. He spent the Jewish holidays in Shanghai, where there is an organized Jewish community.

“As a Jew, it’s amazing to be in a place where the perception of Jews and Israelis is phenomenal,” he says. “They all want to take pictures with me. They consider us very clever, and they respect us. I’ve met people here from all over the world who never met religious Jews and they’re all very nice.”

At the opening ceremony of the Wushu competition, national flag-bearers stood in alphabetical order. That put Shoshtari next to the athlete from Iran. Though Israel and Iran are not on good diplomatic terms, Shoshtari has found that such tension is irrelevant on an individual level, and he gets along just fine with an Iranian student at Shaolin Wushu.

Shoshtari plans to return to Israel at the end of the year and pursue studies in electronic engineering. He expects to return to krav maga roots as well, while keeping up with kung fu informally. “I think I’ll be reviewing what I learned here for years,” he states. “Like playing a classical piece, you can always improve your speed, power, and precision.”