Meet Antonio Graceffo: Antonio is a Linguist and Martial Arts specialist who travels all over Asia teaching English to under privileged children as well as various Universities. He speaks 8 different languages including Khmer. This New York born athlete is also the first to report on Bokator, the lost ancient Khmer Martial Art. He loves to travel and is also an author. What can’t this guy do?
“I was born in New York. My parents are Sicilian. I grew up speaking Spanish Italian and English. When I was 9 my family moved to Tennessee and for the next 8 years I spent school days in Tennessee and holidays and summers in New York. I moved back to New York when I was 17. I went into the army national guard. Went through boot camp at Ft. Benning Georgia and completed infantry school. Later, I graduated from Non-Commissioned Officer’s Academy. Later, I served in the Navy and the US Merchant Marines….
I didn’t do well in school, but I liked to read. I read incessantly most of my life. And I always knew I wanted to be an author and linguist. I graduated from Middle Tennessee State University with a degree in Foreign Language and English. I studied applied linguistics/translation at the University of Mainz, Germany, for four years. I also did an advanced Diploma in TESOL at Trinity College, University of London and did graduate business diplomas through Heriot Wat University, Edinburgh, Scotland. I worked as a translator and teacher in Europe for most of the four years I was in school there. and then worked in Costa Rica for one. After that, I went back to New York and went through a financial training program and worked as a financial planner, and then a wealth manager. Eventually I became assistant head of private wealth management for one of the largest private banks in America. Then, after 9/11, I left New York and came to Asia. Through my whole life, I studied martial arts. I started boxing when I was 21 and I had 44 fights in the military between the merchant marines and the navy. I won 43 of them. I had a few professional fights in Asia and a lot of challenge fights, particularly in Asia where I would turn up and often have to fight my first day.” - Antonio Graceffo
When did you realize that you wanted to practice martial arts and why.
Antonio: I began martial arts when I was about 12 years old. I always wanted to learn it, but when my family lived in New York, I didn’t have the opportunity. After we moved to Tennessee, I got picked on a lot at school. So, I went to learn martial arts from H. David Collins, my first martial arts teacher.
How many different languages do you speak and which one was the hardest to learn?
Antonio: I speak about 8 languages and have studied many others. Khmer was hard because of the pronunciation, the writing system, and the complete lack of learning materials and qualified teachers. Chinese writing is by far the hardest writing system to learn. But Chinese grammar is really easy. Korean writing is simple to learn, but the grammar and social registers are so difficult. I had a vocabulary of 2,000 words and could only barely communicate. Korean is considered one of the hardest, if not the hardest of the asian languages. BUT, Vietnamese, is, by far, the hardest language for me personally. And I don’t know how the people who determined Korean was hardest, I don’t know how they decided that. But Vietnamese is tonal like Chinese, but with 6 tones instead of just five. Then the grammar is difficult and the social registers make it difficult to communicate. Vietnamese is a Mon-Khmer language, like Khmer, so it has all of the difficult vowels, like Khmer, but then it is tonal also. And there is a dearth of learning materials. There are much more materials than for Khmer and more teachers who have been through training courses, but still, compared to learning English or Chinese, there just aren’t many support resources.
What inspired you to teach English in a foreign country?
Antonio: After 9/11 I realized someday was never going to come. Most Americans tell themselves that they will travel the world and have adventures, or study martial arts or languages someday. But 9/11 taught me that for most people, someday will never come. So I went to Taiwan to learn Chinese so I could go study in the Shaolin Temple. And the fastest easiest job to get is teaching. I had an advanced degree in teaching English, so I already had a lot of experience. But it was funny. While I worked in financial industry in New York, I had even forgotten about that diploma. I found it when I was cleaning out some old papers. And I remembered that that diploma could take me anywhere in the world. So, I went.
Tell us a little more about Bokator and the history of this lost martial arts.
Antonio: The sad thing about the history of Bokator and Khmer history in general is that there was never much history written in Cambodia. The only written record of Angkor comes from the memoirs of the Chinese monk/ambassador Zhou Daguan, which only span about thirty pages of text, are the only written record of Angkor.
So many Khmers and people on the internet and in Cambodia tell me this and that about Angkor and how people lived and such. But in reality, in my book, Re-Discovering the Khmers, I had access to the top experts who all agreed that we have very little idea of what life in Angkorian Cambodia was like. I have heard Khmers say Angkor was bigger than New York. No, the temple complex is larger than Manhattan, but not even close to the size of New York. And since it was a temple complex, not a single person lived there. even the king of Cambodia, at that time, lived in a wooden palace. And all of the wooden palaces have been reclaimed by the jungle.
The only ancient record of Bokator is about 6 bas relief, carved on the walls of two temples. In my writing about Bokator, and in my recently released book, Warrior Odyssey, and the new book I am working on now, Khun Khmer, I focus on what I personally observed. King jayavarman VII is the patron saint of Bokator. Grand master San Kim Saen is the modern father of Bokator. Since he has become famous, a lot of people have popped up to say that they have an older art, a better art, a realer art…the reality is. Grand master san kim saen was the ONLY one when I first went to Cambodia in 2004. when I did the story on him for black belt magazine it was the frist story ever about Bokator, all of these other styles and masters have only popped up recently because grand master has been on discovery channel and history channel and oher shows.
As for what Bokator is, it is an all inclusive art. It includes bradal serey, Khmer boxing but also Khmer wrestling, weapons forms and animal forms. I am sure boxing in Cambodia goes back a thousand years or more. but the first recors are in the 1920s. I interiewd khru heut hok before he died. He was in his seventies. And he told me that the bare knuckle fights were still going on when he was a kid. He watched men fighting in the ring with their hands wrapped in cords. And there were very few rules. At the same time, the French introduced the ring and rounds and rules and gloves to khmer boxing.
What is your favorite Khmer dish?
Antonio: I love pork stew and bread for breakfast in Cambodia. And I love any kind of Khmer grilled meat for dinner. And I like the deep fried crunchy frogs for a snack.
What do you love most about Cambodia while you were living there?
Antonio: I go back all of the time. I was there for the first two months of this year and will be filing there again, later this month. I like the people a lot. And I like the fact that I Cambodia you can be the first outsider to discover things. I was the first outsider to see Bokator but I was also one of the first to write about the Cham in Cambodia and about a lot of other subject like my articles on pchum ben or vasa Buddhist lent. And also the tribes, I have written about the tribes and that is something that even a lot of Khmers don’t know in their home country. I wrote about the cao dai temple and the burial spot for the cao dai founder in Phnom Penh. Cambodia is exciting. Always something new to discover and write about and photograph.
Was there an initial culture shock when you decided to travel to Asia and work, and what was the weirdest thing that you’ve seen?
Antonio: Yea there was a lot of culture shock. I remember walking into McDonalds in Taiwan and everyone was Chinese. That was a crazy shock because it looks like home, but its not. Learning to use a squat toilet and a bucket shower were hard, living without air conditioning and sometimes with black outs in Phnom Penh, taking cold showers. There were a lot of things to get used to. Plus in Cambodia you always use two currencies, dollars and riels, so you had to keep them boths straight. But in Lao they use three, Thai bat, Lao kip and dollars
What other type of humanitarian work have you accomplished while in Cambodia?
Antonio: In Cambodia I did stories on the children living in the garbage dump and children addicted to glue living on the streets. I filed reports about some suspicious orphanages. I wrote about the cham and did stories and videos on cham villages that needed sponsors to build wells. I did stories on a young man who started a school for street children near the killing fields. I reported on young boxers from broken homes who needed sponsors. Reported on a one man NGO from America who buys fire trucks for Phnom Penh.
I did a lot of reporting and in many cases donors were connected with people I reported on or volunteers turned up because of the stories I wrote.
What would you tell the Khmer youth who have never been to Cambodia and why they should visit?
Antonio: They need to study Khmer, not just speak it at home, but actually study it. And they need to study English, seriously study,. They need to challenge themselves academically. Education is the only thing that will get them out of the ghetto. And if they have any dreams of ever going back to Cambodia or helping Cambodia, they need to complete their college education first. Turning up in Cambodia without an education and nothing to give isn’t going to help anyone.
They should study medicine or teaching or some type of community health. Those are areas where Cambodia needs a lot of help. The Khmer young people look up at the overseas Khmers. So it is good for over seas Khmers to visit. But please be a good example and help inspire those young people. I have two khmerican friends who have done great things. Hong chor who became a Fulbright scholar and Patry Derek Pan who has won countless awards and scholarships. These are Khmericans who have something to offer. And of course patry has more or less dedicated his life to helping the Khmers on both sides of the ocean.
But yes, I believe Khmerican kids should all go back to Cambodia for a summer or for a year. They should work as teachers, help the locals and learn modern spoken Khmer language.
Also, I would like to tell all of the Khmer kids in long beach and Lowell and wherever else, there were five kids in my family. My mom died when I was a baby and we were poor. BUT, look at my life today. I am still poor, but I get to travel all of the world and do interesting stuff.
I got these opportunities because:
1. I have a clean criminal record.
2. I have a good education.
3. I have my diplomas.
4. I speak and study languages.
And I am 43 but I am much more athletic than many people in their twenties.
1. Because, I don’t drink alcohol,
2. I don’t use drugs, and
3. I don’t stay out at the discos at night.
4. and I train every day in the gym.
So, I just want to tell the kids, study hard, stay off of drugs, stay out of trouble, and the world could be theirs. Don’t worry that you have no money. If you get great greats you can get scholarships. If you have your degree and you are smart, you can find someone to pay for your travel. You can get jobs overseas and earn money, while seeing the world.
What is your book Warrior Odyssey about and what made you want to write a book?
Antonio: Warrior odyssey is my sixth book. It covers my first six years in Asia, traveling from country to country studying martial arts. Two of the chapters, two large chapters, are about Cambodia. They cover Bokator, Khmer wrestling, and bradal serey. I have always wanted to write, since I was a child. But one of the main reasons I write now is to share my adventures with people ion America who cant travel or don’t have the opportunity and to educate the overseas Asian communities about the countries they left behind.
Who was or is your mentor?
Antonio: My first martial arts teacher, David Collins was really important to my education and formation. My grandmother was also a huge influence on me. When my mom died, I went to live with my grandma and she was a school teacher and linguist. She taught me to lover literature and languages, and that has really helped shape the person who I have become. Along the way, during my journeys, there have been so many people who had a huge influence on me, for example, Pra Pru Ba, the monk, who was my first Muay Thai teacher. And Paddy Carson, my bradal serey trainer and of course grand master san Kim Saen.
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Originally Posted by Tyan Y.
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