9/11 survivor left New York to follow his dreams


Antonio Graceffo, formerly of Elizabethton, left his job as an investment banker in New York following the 9/11 terrorist attack to pursue his dreams, one of which included the study of kung fu at the Shaolin Temple in China, where he trained eight hours a day.

By Kathy Helms-Hughes
STAR STAFF
khelms@starhq.com
The Shaolin Temple, the birthplace of kung fu, is the oldest and most mysterious kung fu school in the world. In the history of the temple, few foreigners have passed through its doors.
"Foreigners have been allowed to study in many of the Shaolin schools near the temple, which have taken the Shaolin name as a marketing ploy, but less than 50 foreigners have studied at the original Shaolin Temple," according to Antonio Graceffo, formerly of Elizabethton, who spent five years in New York working for the Israeli Bank before terrorists hit the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001.
In earlier years, Graceffo attended Sullivan Central High School and East Tennessee State University, then taught English and speed reading at Happy Valley High School in the Upward Bound program before joining the Merchant Marines. A published author, he had taken off from his work on Wall Street the week before the terrorist attack to write another book. Afterward, he decided not to return to the financial district. By some quirk of fate, his life had been spared. Why? It was a wake-up call.
"After 9/11, I just decided to live out every fantasy I have ever had. And I want to share it with the world. Maybe it will encourage other people," said Graceffo, 36, who decided to traipse halfway around the world to Southeast Asia to teach English.
An Italian American from Brooklyn, N.Y., Graceffo had 25 years' experience in martial arts and studied at The American School of Empty Hand Fighting in Blountville before traveling to study at the temple. He has been chronicling his adventures and then pitching his story to publishers so he can earn enough money to finance his next adventure.
In August, he hit pay dirt.
"Your article is now up on the site http://www.martialartsplanet.com/magazine/articles/monkfrombrookpt1.htm.
"Will there be a part 2?"
Graceffo was exuberant. From Taiwan, where he now resides, he forwarded the e-mail to friends. "Hey guys, my first big publication. Click on the Web address below and check out my article and photos online.
"I am so happy!!!!!"
When 9/11 dawned, Antonio was an investment banker in New York. He was living large. He has since divested.
"I don't really have any of my investment banker money anymore. What I have left of that is in my stock accounts in New York, and God knows what those are worth. Probably I could buy a cup of coffee if I liquidated all of my stock and borrowed a little from a friend," he said.
"But working as a teacher in Taiwan and China, I get a tax-free salary, which is small for American standards, but here it is worth a lot. And when I go to China, forget it. My monthly salary is double the average annual salary of China.
"My whole Shaolin adventure, including air fare, tuition, room and board, spending money, uniforms, photos, bribes, and robberies, came to less than $2,000 U.S. My rickshaw cost $36 U.S. and I spent about an average of $15 a day out there.
"Basically, this means that if a magazine gives me even a small amount of money, or a book advance of $2,000 or $4,000, that is enough to go back into China or to Indonesia for a period of months, have more adventures and write more articles and books.
"This whole career change is only made possible because I live in Southeast Asia where things are very cheap. And I don't buy personal things like clothing and cars and stuff. My motorcycle is my only means of transport, and it cost me $4,000 NT (about $125 U.S.), and I have been riding it for two years. I spend about $10 a week in gas.
"I feel lucky, and blessed. I remember how I struggled in New York. My average monthly restaurant bills in New York exceeded the average salary of a worker in the U.S. Any one of my business suits cost more than most people earned in a month.
"Now, I earn a fraction of that salary and live better. Still have to work as a teacher sometimes, to eat, but I think the writing will pay off soon."
On March 2 of this year, Graceffo found himself at the Shaolin Temple in Deng Feng Village. "I have trained in kung fu and boxing since I was 11 years old. My first and most important teacher was David Collins. He is over in Blountville and runs a school called The American School of Empty Hand Fighting.
"I originally got into kung fu because I was the only Catholic Italian boy from New York going to my school in Tennessee," he said. He was also a know-it-all who got beat up every day, he said. "I took kung fu to learn to defend myself."


The adventure continues for Antonio Graceffo, who left Kaohsiubng Sept. 7 to ride a bicycle around the island of Formosa. His next feat will be to climb TaiwanÕs highest mountain.

Collins encouraged his students to excel in everything. "David taught a whole program of martial arts, rock climbing, rappelling, survival, whitewater rafting, scuba diving ... These are all skills I am using now to write my books."
Graceffo said kung fu has different schools of thought and different styles, "but now when I say the word 'kung fu,' I just mean martial arts. Chinese kung fu has two paths: One is internal, one is external. Internal kung fu ... has meditation, breathing, and slow movements. External martial arts are any that involve hitting and fighting."
He spent 18 months in Taiwan training three hours a day. Next, he went to Shaolin and trained eight hours a day, then on to Hong Kong where he trained every day in stick fighting. "Now, I am not training. I am just thinking about my explorations and my publishing," he said.
Just this week he received a contract from "Kung Fu" magazine to publish an article. "I submitted fiction books to 400 agents earlier this year -- total of about 1,200 submissions," he said. "They were all rejected."
But the adventure format appears to be working for him. "It looks like it may pay off," he said. "I wrote a whole book about my Shaolin experience. Then I made a series of articles and am trying to sell the series."
The further adventures of Antonio Graceffo all have a surreal quality about them. He crossed the Taklamakan Desert on bicycle and wrote a story which was snatched up by newspapers and magazines. On Sept. 7, he left Kaohsiubng to ride a bicycle around the island of Formosa -- 1,500 km. He's thinking that experience might lead to a book.
Graceffo plans to climb Taiwan's highest mountain in December, followed by a 540 km ocean kayak trip, rowing from Kaohsiubng, Taiwan, to Taipei. Next May he will return to the desert for sandstorm season, riding a full-size bicycle from Aksu, China, across the Taklamakan Desert and over the mountains into Pakistan, where he will climb a glacier in June. In July, he plans to cross the interior of the desert by camel.