The 'monk from Brooklyn' carves out post 9-11 life in Asia

By Thomas Wilson
star staff

  The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 have faded somewhat from the nation's mainstream memory, but for millions it is a date that can never be forgotten.
  Like practically every American who witnessed the attacks first hand or on television, the events left an unshakable effect on Antonio Graceffo.
  "I sometimes think I am over 9-11, but when I saw the Reagan funeral on TV or saw Giuliani speaking at the (Republican) convention, it all came back to me," said Graceffo.
  The native New Yorker had taken a leave of absence from his job as an investment banker on Wall Street two weeks before 9-11 after questioning his career path. He was in a yoga class near his office when he heard that an airplane had crashed into a World Trade Center tower. Minutes later a second plane hijacked by terrorists of the al-Qaeda terrorist group crashed into the center's south tower. Both towers collapsed within two hours of being hit killing thousands of people.
  Before the day was over, terrorist hijackers had crashed another airplane into the Pentagon while a fourth plane went down in rural Pennsylvania. Graceffo imagined the pressure conversations between bankers and clients before and after the planes struck the towers, just as he had been doing weeks earlier.
  "I didn't want to die that way," he said. "I didn't want my last contribution to humanity to be the fact that I closed Mr. Jones, and bought a million dollars worth of mutual funds."
  Intent on living his life at full speed, Graceffo made a decision to change his life. He left his job to begin a spiritual quest that has taken him to most rural areas of Southeast Asia during the past three years. He now lives in Cambodia dividing his time as a freelance writer, adventurer, and professional kick boxer.
  Graceffo has climbed the second tallest mountain in Formosa, and lived in the last remaining Muay Thai (Thai Boxing) monastery, where he learned boxing from the monks. He has lived with native tribes of Thailand and Cambodia and documented their plight for publications across Southeast Asia. He also wrote of children living in garbage dumps around the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh.
  Graceffo also has a starring role in a Cambodian action film loosely translated as "Buffalo Protecting Child". The role made him the first foreign actor to have a major role in a Cambodian film.
  He journeyed to China to study martial arts at China's legendary Shaolin Temple. Graceffo is not a kung fu novice - he studied and competed in martial arts and boxing for over 25 years.
  He says his illusions of Shaolin met harsh reality once he reached the temple. Living conditions were deplorable and the temple's mystical ballyhoo quickly wore off. He also faced government censorship connected to the nation's widely-publicizied SARS outbreak that killed hundreds of Chinese.
  "The Chinese government was trying to confiscate film shot by foreigners," he said. "I almost had to fight my way out of the temple."
  Graceffo spent seven years in the U.S. military. He speaks four languages fluently and holds diplomas from several national and international universities including Tennessee State University in Nashville. He has learned to speak Chinese and is picking up the Cambodian languages of Thai and Khmer. His first book, "The Monk from Brooklyn", relating his experiences at Shaolin, was released in the United States in August.
  While his life sounds exciting, Graceffo acknowledges it is hardly easy.
  "There are days I am too tired to get up and do it again, but I do it," he said. "I am as determined as ever to continue on my quest, experience everything, and write and publish as much as humanly possible."
  The transition from investment banker earning as much in a month as most people do in six months to living hand-to-mouth as an adventurer has taken its toll. He admits to having second thoughts about being so far from his home and family.
  "I do miss the money," Graceffo said. "I also miss being in the USA ... where I can just walk down the streets of Brooklyn and Manhattan, eat in restaurants, hang out in cafes, and see my friends."
  He says despite the U.S.-led invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, the Muslim population of Cambodia held a favorable opinion of America. The Cham, ethnic Muslims living in Cambodia, have resisted fundamentalist Muslim doctrines practiced by the religion's radical groups in Middle Eastern nations.
  Graceffo said he initially "wanted blood" of those responsible for the attacks. He has lived with Buddhists for three years and is now cooperating with the Muslim minority of Cambodia by helping them by writing stories about their situation and educating the world that there is a difference between terrorism and the religion of Islam.
  "If I can successfully live with the Muslim people in Indonesia, form friendships, romances, human interactions, learn their language and religion, then maybe the ghosts of 9-11 will no longer haunt me," he said. "Maybe then I could let it go."
  Had the 9-11 attacks never happened, he says he probably would have stayed on Wall Street, "trying to get rich", and hoping to have an interesting life when he retired. Graceffo says he wants the experiences shared through his writing to inspire people regardless of how minor it may be.
  "None of us knows how long we will be here," he said, "and our writing may be the best legacy we can leave for future generations."