THE REAL A WITH SERENA
Sam’s Club buyer by day, martial arts instructor by night: Terence Lee is cultivating the traditional spirit of martial arts in Bentonville
Terence Lee is not afraid of hard work. In Taiwan, the country he was born in, he was a sergeant in the military then an international translator for a PVC powder manufacturing company. Since moving the US, he’s worked past midnight as a co-owner at a couple of different restaurants, stocked shelves at a Walmart Neighborhood Market, and now, he’s a buyer for Sam’s Club, responsible for all the tropical fruit consumers see in store.
Two years ago, Lee added another job to the list: founder and chief instructor of GSH Elite Martial Arts. He still works his corporate job, but after he clocks out, he runs the school and teaches black belt, kickboxing, and taijichuan (also known as taichi) classes.
Lee moved to Northwest Arkansas in 2005, to help his mother with a restaurant ––Lin’s Garden in Bentonville. After he got off around midnight, he enjoyed going to a nearby 24-hour gym to work out. Three years later, the gym changed their hours, so he couldn’t go there after work anymore. Around the same time, he was looking for some extracurricular activities for his kids.
“There was the ATA martial arts right across the street from Lin’s Garden,” Lee said. After a few trial classes, he enrolled his kids, aged four and five at the time. “And the instructor over there told us, ‘One good thing about this is we only charge for two memberships.’” Since both his kids were enrolled, he was handed a uniform too. So was his wife. So was their nanny. Since he had no where to work out, he gave it a try.
“At the beginning it was very awkward, because my flexibility was zero,” said Lee. But he fell in love with the discipline and structure associated with learning martial arts and saw the good it was doing in his kids lives.
“My son Nathan was diagnosed with Aspergers, and through martial arts, I can see myself that it helped him quite a bit with interacting with people and following rules,” said Lee. For his daughter Jasmine, Lee thinks martial arts helped her build confidence. This combined with the rush of winning at martial arts competitions kept Lee going.
Since 2008, Lee has become a fifth degree black belt and won 5 world champion, 4 global champion titles and a grand champion title. He’d been teaching taekwondo at ATA since 2011 and had dreamed of opening his own school for years.
“When I was a third degree [black belt], I started to apply,” said Lee. “Because that’s my dream.” He applied 3-5 times and was rejected each time. ATA didn’t want to spread business too thin, he said.
During the pandemic, he taught ATA classes over Zoom.
“I will be very candid and say that it was not enjoyable,” said Lee’s daughter, Jasmine Lee who worked with him at ATA and currently works as the marketing director of GSH Elite Martial Arts. She watched Lee teach his classes online. “It’s so difficult to teach technique and stuff through the screen.”
“Most of the time, you can’t see their whole body, so you can’t fix their feet. You can’t fix their hands,” she said. “There were some funny instances where instructors would watch kids sit there and eat their dinner during class. And you can’t do anything.”
But in 2021, ATA split into two organizations: ATA and GTMA, and Lee saw an opportunity to finally open his own school.
“He was like, ‘I’m gonna find a place, we’re going to open up the school and you’re going to come with me?’” said Jasmine. “And I said ‘Absolutely. Of course.’”
The Lees got to work, remodeling their garage as a potential classroom space, applying for permits, recruiting teachers and designing logos and a website for their business.
According to Lee, martial arts is not about fighting. His school is called GSH Elite Martial Arts after a Mandarin Chinese phrase “高手會” which roughly translates to elite group.
“We’re not mixed martial arts,” Lee said. His school teaches multiple kinds of martial arts (taekwondo, taijichuan, kickboxing) but MMA is a different discipline altogether. “The mindset is very different because MMA teaches you how to fight. I’m teaching you how to stop fights.”
GSH Elite Martial Arts is a family business, and it’s also a place that serves families. For Deihl Betz, that looks like taking kickboxing classes with his son, Holden, 14, who is in both Lee’s black belt and taijichuan classes. For taekwondo instructor, Brian Bredehoeft, his 73-year-old mom is in his noon adult class, and his daughter is testing for her black belt soon.
Lee still works full-time at Sam’s.
“This job [running a martial arts school] doesn’t bring your money. It brings you honor. It doesn’t bring you anything else,” quipped Lee. He purposely arranges his class schedule so it can accommodate his nine-to-five. Sometimes, when things come up, he even works from the office in the back of the school instead of from his office at Sam’s. After days full of negotiating prices and a fast paced mentality, Lee sees martial arts as a way to slow down.
“Doing martial arts, I don’t sugarcoat anything. I just want you to be good,” he said. “And that makes me feel great.”
This philosophy guides Lee as a business owner and differentiates GSH from other martial schools.
“Too many martial arts schools don’t do their students any favors because they just pass them,” said Bredeoeft, who grew up with a more traditional philosophy of martial arts. “It’s a what we call a belt farm, where you pay your money, and you get your belt.”
“One thing I really liked about him [Lee] as an instructor is that his expectation is that people train hard. We still have fun in class. We crack jokes in class. We don’t take it super serious. But we do expect people to work hard and earn those ranks,” he said. “It should be difficult––not everyone gets their black belt.” When his original instructor closed his school in Rogers, Bredeoeft had to start attending other ATA schools, and he thought that old way was gone.
“With Mr. Lee,” he said. “I went back to feeling that old school feel.” Recently, he invited his retired instructor to watch one of the belt testings, and the retired instructor texted him to say that he was thankful because Lee was carrying on the “true spirit of martial arts.”
“I agree wholeheartedly,” said Bredehoeft. “And that makes me want to do it that much more.”