Just standing in front of a group of people to give a speech is enough to scare the bejesus out of anyone. According to an oft-quoted 1977 study, Americans claim it’s their biggest fear.
Try standing up before a group of teenagers slouched on couches, biting their thumbnails, giving the “make this snappy, I’ve got people to text” bored look. How much more does that ratchet up the fear factor?
Bullying counselor, martial artist and licensed therapist Chuck C. Nguyen does it all the time. Whether he stands before a classroom of teens or before an entire auditorium, when he walks “on stage” he is just as poised and collected as he is standing before an opponent on a mat.
October marks National Anti-Bullying Awareness Month and Nguyen is intimately familiar with the subject. On stage, he tells a story about how he and his family had escaped war-torn Vietnam in 1980 on a rickety boat as they made their way to America. He was a small kid for his age. He didn’t have the right clothes. He didn’t know English very well and he had to walk in to a brand new school as the new kid. It’s easy to guess what happened next.
“I knew I was being stared at when all the locker doors stopped swinging. Every kid was looking at me, mouths open,” Nguyen said to a hushed audience. “I remember hearing footsteps behind me. This boy kept following me. Finally, I turned around and said ‘What?’ in broken English. He jumped back, took a deep breath. Everybody was watching and he said, ‘Man you’re ugly!’”
After this line, a burst of laughter follows. Nguyen allows a small smile. He knows what he’s doing; he has his audience hooked right in.
“You know that old story about sticks and stones might break your bones but names will never hurt?” Nguyen continued. “Well, it’s a lie. Because, while it may not break your bones, it’ll break your heart. I remember feeling so hurt. I became angry. I wanted to kill this kid," Nguyen said, letting the pause draw out. “And I knew five ways to do it.”
More laughter, but with a palpable undercurrent. The body language of the audience said all: eyes riveted, leaning forward, hanging on the next word. This man standing before them wasn’t just a bullying counselor. He'd told them he was also a martial artist. As a child, he trained in a variety of styles such as traditional Vietnamese Kung-Fu and Korean Taekwondo. If he said he had five ways to kill someone even at age nine, no one in the auditorium doubted him.
“Everybody was watching,” he said. “This was important because whatever happened next would determine how kids would view me for this point on. I took a step back and as my hand went back into a fist, I remember the last thing my grandfather told me before I left Vietnam. He’d told me, remember, the monks still exist today because they destroyed their enemy by making them their friends.”
Solemn faces on all of the teens, now. They had all experienced this part of the story in their own lives before — or knew someone who had.
Growing up, Nguyen's grandfather had taught him about the Shaolin monks, who had created a system of self-defense to preserve their peaceful way of life. Their system copied animal movements and forces in nature such as a tiger, an eagle, a snake, money and water. It was the elusive and adaptable ways of water that the monks found were most effective. With the right amount of momentum and shift, water can be the most resilient, effective and powerful form of energy.
“I wanted to hurt this kid back, but something just came out of me and I look at this kid and I say, 'You think I’m ugly now, try this—' And at that moment, Nguyen parodies himself by throwing his hands up in the air and making the goofiest face he can. “That kid jumps back, confused. Then he starts smiling. Everybody starts laughing. Guess who became my best advocate for the rest of the year?” [To see more short videos of this story click here.]
Chuck Nguyen has an extraordinary effect when speaking to audiences, especially to teenagers. The exclusion, racism, and bullying he endured in his younger years could have molded an entirely different man, but Nguyen had the built-in gifts of training, skills, and an evolved spirit on his side. He has not only come through his experiences as a survivor, but has also used it to help people forge new paths of understanding and compassion in their responses to bullying.
The Power of Water is, in essence, a philosophy about the choices a target has after being emotionally injured by mistreatment. One can strike back with retaliation, but reacting blindly with violence tends to make one hardened like rock over time (like so many criminals Nguyen has worked with over the years). Or one can respond like water, moving with flexibility, creativity and with the desired outcome of peace in response to the conflict. This is what Nguyen teaches his students: being creative and peaceful yields better results than being violent, impatient, and intolerant.
“It was the same strategy that I used to face the challenges of a new country, a new language, and ‘rocks’ who had no understanding of who I was, or what, I was about,” said Nguyen.
After earning his clinical degree in counseling, Nguyen worked at the Maine State Prison. While there, he developed and facilitated a program that utilized Yoga, Tai Chi, and Zen mindfulness for prisoners. In 2005, Nguyen began his clinical intervention and prevention work in schools in Midcoast Maine. Nguyen has presented his program, Power of Water, throughout Maine schools and conferences such as the Maine Guidance Counselor Association Conference and Maine Alternative Education Conference. In the summer, he travels to summer programs such as the Cardigan Lacrosse Camp in Canaan, New Hamphire to teach young men the importance of being peaceful and cooperative in athletics and sports.
As a husband and father of two little boys, Chuck divides his time as clinical social worker working with kids with emotional and developmental disabilities for RSU 40.
He has also contributed strategic advice to a recently published cyberbullying book in the Midcoast called Cyberslammed: Understand, Prevent, Combat and Transform The Most Common Cyberbullying Tactics. Nguyen’s experience provided the book with a resource so far no other bullying or cyberbullying book has offered. His timeless philosophies borrow from martial arts in how one may transform a traumatic cyberbullying experience. For each cyberbullying tactic listed in the book, he instructs how to practice facing off an opponent ethically and how to be like water—that is—how to choose resiliency and personal growth over loss of self or suicide in the aftermath of a horrible experience.
For a small handful of teenagers on the national front who have made the hard-line permanent choice in response to their bullies/cyberbullies, it’s too late. For so many others facing the same traumas, the message is clear: there is a peaceful way to get beyond your suffering and you will be the stronger for it.
For more information about The Power of Water and Nguyen’s speaking schedule for his Peaceful Martial Art programs for adults and kids, visit Chuck at http://www.powerofh2o.com