The memorable, but often misunderstood phrase, appears in The Karate Kid (1984, the first of a trilogy) written by Robert Mark Kamen about a boy named Daniel, played by Ralph Machhio, who learns karate from an unlikely teacher, a quiet and eccentric apartment handyman, named Mr. Miyagi played by Noriyuki “Pat” Morita. Miyagi’s peaceful, humble demeanor belies his tormented past — the loss of his wife and son at an internment camp, a stint in the army during WWII (where he earns the Medal of Honor for his bravery), and mastery of karate (and fish). The film reveals the deep bond that forms between these two characters — Miyragi starts out as an eccentric loner, becoming a teacher/mentor, surrogate father, and by the end of the film, a cherished and trusted friend.
Some of the most famous scenes in the film involve Miyagi’s rather unorthodox way of teaching karate to an eager student — by having his student perform back-breaking, tedious chores around the house like sanding a wooden floor, refinishing a fence, painting a house, and most notably, by waxing cars. Miyagi explains the process of waxing a car as if it were a Zen meditation: “Wax on, right hand. Wax off, left hand. Wax on, wax off. [Miyagi makes circular motions with each hand] Breathe in through nose, out the mouth. Wax on, wax off. Don’t forget to breathe, very important.” The labor-intensive projects go on day after day, week after week. Daniel’s patience finally wears off and he explodes, accusing Miyagi of turning him into his “goddam slave” and breaking his promise to teach him karate. Daniel comes to realize that through this labor he has been learning important karate defensive blocks.
You’ll have to disregard the salacious definitions you will find on Urban Dictionary, because the meaning of “wax on, wax off” is a rich multi-layered metaphor that is profoundly beautiful and meaningful. Early in the film, Miyagi provides a critical clue when he tells Daniel, “Not everything is as [it] seems.” The essence of “wax on, wax off” is that one can learn valuable lessons from seemingly simple or mundane tasks. Or expressed another way, it means learning something important as a byproduct of doing something that is partially or completely unrelated — without realizing that you are learning something. Genius.
On another level, the phrase expresses the trust and patience that an overly-eager student must have for his teacher/mentor. Perhaps Miyagi is channeling another great teacher: recall the pivotal scene in Star Wars (Episode IV), when Yoda is teaching Luke to be a great Jedi Knight. Like Miyagi, Yoda summons the very same twin concepts: patience and trust. What Miyagi and Yoda are trying to teach their young, ambitious students is that no one becomes great overnight — it takes time; so be patient because you cannot rush it.
Finally, on a philosophical level, “wax on, wax off” expresses the paradoxical duality of nature, what the Chinese call yin and yang — how contrary forces in the natural world are interrelated, complementary to one another. Think of fire and water, night and day — you get the idea. And more directly, the concept of yin and yang is central to Chinese martial arts. In this way, Miyagi is directly evoking the central tenet of karate and Daniel is too young, too naive to understand that he must master this important lesson.
So you see, “wax on, wax off” packs quite a bit of punch in just a few words.
A related phrase is “to Miyagi someone (or something)” which means one of three things: 1. to teach a student something, while the student does not realize he is actually learning a valuable lesson or 2. to work someone very hard or to work something very hard. 3. to beat up an opponent that is bigger and meaner than you.
For further reading: Introduction to Classical Chinese Philosophy by Bryan Van Norden (2011)
The Philosophy Book by Will Buckingham and Douglas Burnham (2011)