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The Final Leg

29 Sep

My 11-month stay in China ended with the three-week journey you’ve been following me on. This three-week journey ended with a brief bit in the historic city, Xi’an.

After this stop, my trek through central China was over. I returned to my China home of Zhuhai for two days of preparations, reflection, and final good-byes to all of China.

But first, a thing or two about this Xi’an place: for starters, let’s learn to pronounce it, shall we? In the pinyin (alphabetized Chinese), the “x” sounds like “sh” but tighter. So “Xi’an” sounds something like “She an”. And then remember that Chinese is a tonal language so you gotta sort of sing it.

Go ahead and give it a try….

An ancient capital and the eastern point of the legendary trading route, The Silk Road, Xi’an has 3100 years of history! There’s a week’s worth of sites to see here; I only had 40 hours. And beings it was the tail end of my trek, I had the anticipation of returning home on my mind.

But, I did get out to see some interesting things here in Xi’an:

And for you photogeeks out there, a pretty cool, albeit accidental, shot here:

Being an old, old city, Xi’an has an old-school security measure—the city wall. Of course, now the once-contained urban area sprawls far beyond this boundary, and automobiles make their way below it. Nonetheless, it stands strong:

It’s a big wall, as they like them here in China. Atop this construction is a wide walkway/bikeway—heck, even a roadway if needed. It was wide.

When up there, I saw some white tourists who struck me as the Yankee-type. I was half right. They were from the American south:

Nothing screams southerner like that shirt: 'Stuck on a Truck at Toad Suck'.

Let me explain that shirt. Toad Suck is a festival down in Alabama. It’s like the Woodcarver’s Festival in my hometown, Blackduck. But whereas Blackduckers carve wood, the Alabamans don’t actually suck toads—to my knowledge anyway. But they do have food, booze, and music. Yeehaw! And the pinnacle of the event is a contest where folks put their hands on a truck; the one who keeps their hand on the longest, wins it.

The winning times have been lengthened a great deal over the years. (100+ hours this last year–no sleep, no drugs.) Some might say it’s the downturn in the economy driving people to new means of owning a car. I’d say ‘pshaw’ to that, and choose to believe it’s the continued evolution of the human race, reaching new heights of physical capabilities.

On another note, I don’t typically see too many Americans when abroad. Europeans and Australians are the usual foreign tourists I see. Maybe it’s the American work ethic, the fact that America is fairly diverse already, or maybe a discomfort being out of their element. Anyway, it was nice seeing this group of young Americans on an organized tour with their high school(or college).

The Drum Tower and the Bell Tower are located in the city center. Forgive me, but I don't recall which one this is!

Heading back to the hostel from the city wall, I heard some music inside a darkened building. Obviously, I had to enter:

They strummed, plucked, and beat the sounds of classic Chinese music. Yet they were just the back-up for the center-staged gal:

She had the voice of a door that needed to be oiled. I don’t say that to be critical. In fact, from what I’m told, this is the standard wail of classic Chinese opera. I may not get it, but apparently they certainly do. And artistic tastes aside, for the Chinese it’s also about identity and culture.

Tell me what you think:

The next morning I went to breakfast and noticed another compelling T-shirt:

Oh boy

You can bet she wasn’t an English speaker. The ones who wear these shirts rarely know what they say, let alone what they mean. 99 out of 100 times English on shirts say something hip, funny, or inspirational, though often typoed. But once in a while a jokster must put out a few of these pink eye-catchers to make the English speakers laugh and the wearers of the shirt clueless.

And on this strange note, this three-week, central-China trek comes to a close. But let’s have a ball looking back:

From Zhuhai:

I started right down there.

This train took me part of the way.

To Beijing:

A lovely summer Sunday at Temple of Heaven Park

I believe it was the right side of this path that only the emperor could walk upon.

Forbidden City

CCTV Tower in the business district

The historic, 'hutong' alleyways of Beijing

The Summer Palace

After a week in Beijing, I took a train to rural Henan province:

station in Beijing

"Zao sheng hao": early morning on the train

Here in Henan province is where I met 99-yr old, Jing Yuan:

And kicked it with the locals:

By train out of the plains of Henan:

my train company

To the mountains of Hubei province:

The town of Wu Dang Shan

Where I practiced tai chi for 8 rich days:

what form!

And after this, it was back to civilization in Xi’an.

It’s incredible where life will take you if you go with its flow. Getting on the bus out of Zhuhai with my luggage, a couple rough plans, and an openness to meet others and follow curiosities, opportunities were presented, situations arose, one thing led into the next.

I see my trek as an example of what life as a whole can be. Of course, this fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants kind of traveling is all well-n-good given the resources, time, and lack of domestic responsibilities I had. But now stretch this three weeks to encompass a lifetime and then dilute the relative drastic nature of my experiences—going from urban to rural, from wealth to squalor, from modern to ancient—to include the broader, real-life endeavors such as marriage, parenthood, and career. I do think it’s translatable.

And though our fantastic journey called life does not, as a whole, take the form of such concentrated movement and variety as my recent trek, these real-life endeavors delve into a deeper need for personal and professional growth and fulfillment. So no, I don’t believe the drama and excitement of life’s journey decreases with responsibilities, occupation, or age. It ends when you use these events as excuses to feed your hunger of activity and adventure with the food of vicarious existence–living solely through others or the television.

With that in mind, I flew back to my Chinese home in Zhuhai. Facing “real life”, I had 48 hours remaining to prepare for the travel back to Minnesota and to say goodbye to all of China.

Next time, I will reflect further back—encompassing the entire previous year.

to new plateaus,

-Brandon

 
 

Wild Monkeys

21 Sep

It was my last day at the Wu Dang Shan Tai Chi Academy. I was leaving at four o’clock that afternoon. And the anticipation of my exit gave a new vibe to my remaining hours.

One thing I wanted to squeeze in that day was to explore a creek that flowed down in the valley below. Unseen, but told to me by other students, I wanted to walk beyond and withing the hillside forests and discover this creek for myself.

I love creeks—especially in the woods. And this rocky, hilly landscape gave me higher hopes yet.

These hopes were met. The creek was gorgeous. I drank from it, I walked along it’s length. I… Well, let me just show you. And at the end, as there was for me, there’ll be a clan of monkeys waiting to greet you.

We started down late that morning—myself, my teacher, and the two boys:

The often-written-about, intense, nun-chucking trainer

And his two pupils:

Soon after we got underway, the group of middle-aged women students there joined in. The tone jumped from a few guys on an adventure, to a more leisurely, family stroll. A narrow, weaving trail wound down the mountain. Sometimes level, sometimes steep, sometimes along the cliff, we made our way.

At the bottom was a homestead. This reminded me of cabins my brothers and I used to explore on our deer hunting land back in Minnesota:

Home of the Chinese hillbilly

And like the woodsmen back home, I had to wonder how they built this structure way out in the middle of nowhere.

A look inside:

After this detour, parade of cabins, I had to catch up. Pacing toward my group, I found what they had already found:

The creek

Gosh, it was pure and clean. The crispness was so sharp and vibrant; this seemed as much a calling to one’s own artistic and true self as it was a simple observation about its clarity and potability.

I’ve written before about the depth of this image: the stream lapping along the rocky creek bed. It’s an artery of the forest. It’s a statement of the ever-flowing water, the never-moving stone, and the unique, but nonetheless effective, forces that they are, but also represent in humanity.

The boys went back up the cliff after some time. I wasn’t keen on that return trip, so I opted to follow the creek out to the road with a couple of the gals.

The walk was beautiful:

As we know, but ought to be reminded, photos are just a square. Imagine these sights in the midst of the 360 degrees of nature around you, first filling your monitor, then filling your room. Your periphery frames these luscious sights within a context in their home on this vast planet.

At the base of this trickling falls was some strangely colored water:

Is there a botanist or ecologist in the house that can explain the blood-red color?

At the end of the walk, a clearing:

It was through this final stretch that we met nature’s ambassadors to this valley:

A couple quickly turned into a clan:

Indeed, I first saw them playing on the ropes stretched across the gorge. They see humans and apparently think food. The stone path we were upon was populated with them to the point where one of the ladies I walked with didn’t cross until I shooed them away.

Do be careful, though. These are some wild apes, and they’re hungry.

This leg belonged to another woman there with her two kids. The monkey went after her purse.

Another stared at me so I smiled back. Not sure why, and it was a mistake. In monkeyese, showing your teeth is threatening, I guess. He showed me his fangs and let out a nice yelp to go along with it.

Kinda freaky so we kept a-walking until we got to the road where a bus eventually came to bring us back to the school.

I left that afternoon back down the mountain to the town below. It was much warmer down there. I arrived back at the makeshift apartment/hotel that boarded me my first night in town. The next day I got on the train and said goodbye to Wu Dang Shan.

The nine days here were incredible. Up on Wu Dang Shan there were many lessons: patience and contentment, living without luxuries, discipline, being “in your body” rather than thinking all the time, and like so many other places in China, the beauty and power of nature. I know it sounds silly to say it “changed me”, but as I said when I introduced the place, I still practice the physical and mental routines that were established on this mountain. (In fact, I’m writing this in my exercise gear, ready for a morning routine as soon as I publish this on the website.)

This stay would be the last major event for me in China before returning coming home to Minnesota. Afterward it, I briefly visited Xian, a city worthy of much time and attention, but shorted because of time constraints. And a couple days after that, I also said goodbye to my China home, Zhuhai, as well as to China altogether.

Next time, I’ll write about this mixed-emotion, reflective parting.

For now, I hope you got a lot out of the wisdom I encountered and experienced on this mountain top in Hubei province. Regarding this post, I hope you see your world a little smaller as the woods in China sort of look like the woods anywhere. Sure, there are different plants in the Earth and animals in the water, but the differences between there and a Minnesota summer aren’t too drastic.

And when you boil it all down prior to technology and even civilization, you realize the universal trait among all people, which is the appreciation and comfort with nature, the realm all our ancestors enjoyed.

to new plateaus,

Brandon

p.s. Here’s a video compilation of the day…there’s monkeys, too:

 
 

Wu Dang Shan Temples: Fantasy v. Reality

14 Sep

Initially, I chose to come to Wu Dang Shan (rather than other sights in China) because I wanted to participate in the culture—by way of doing tai chi. But let’s not neglect the fact that sight-seeing is part of the appeal here, too. Come along and enjoy the scenery that is also the history at Wu Dang Shan, stretching way back and housed in a series of Taoist temples, one of which is used by my school.

Revealed here is that the lines between the past and present; the artistic and the real are beautifully woven on this mountain…

Taoism is quite similar to Buddhism, another version of the Eastern spiritual practices of meditation and harmony with all that exists. For more info, here’s the wikipedia link: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Taoism Just make sure to click it after you finish this article. ;)

The first of these Wu Dang temples was built around the year 0.

Straight out of a movie, isn't it?

(By the way, that “movie” hint is a foreshadow.)

We, the students and teachers, made a couple trips out here to this temple—-it was up the curvy road only a few miles. One time, the staff really encouraged me to come (maybe because I’m a Westerner and there was quite a crowd at the temple.) It appeared to be some kind of press event as there were many folks with cameras.

Yes, from the city to the mountains, from last August to this July, the Chinese always liked showing me off as an ornament. What the heck; I did my best for ‘em. And the event didn’t disappoint.

First some simple stuff:

Then the men separated themselves from the boys:

The headmaster, now airborne, with another teacher--the one who got upset with me last post.

Off camera, I got to play around:

well, off most of the cameras, anyway.

Here were a couple of my younger tai chi peers:

They were also English students of mine while I was here.

The whole setting—the landscapes, and temples, and martial arts masters—feels so fairytale. Of course, I was out of my element. But for the locals, these fairytales maintain their place as the arts and customs are still pronounced in everyday life.

For example…

The second part of the “show” was a ceremony taking place this afternoon. Another student, the one to the left in that picture above, was graduating to discipleship.

The ceremony:

Our headmaster addresses the new disciple.

Elders look on:

She will be training under the tutelage of a new teacher, proud to have his first disciple:

And then what every good disciple does: tends to their teacher’s feet:

Along with the formal bows and gestures there were resonant “boonnggssss” from a stately, cool, and solid bronze bell. Who knows how old that bell was; same with the origins of this ceremony. The press sort of turned it into a spectacle, but the actors didn’t seem to notice. It was a solemn and proud event.

It revealed that though communism stripped much of the country of its religious tradition, here on Wu Dang Shan, culture proved stronger than political ideology. Thankfully it’s difficult to separate a people from 2000 years of history.

Here’s a bit of video of the ceremony:

Lastly, and aside from the usual interplay of reality and art here, there was, coincidentally, another wrinkle in this continuum that overlaps the two.

A movie was being shot in one of the buildings below!

I got the feeling these fellas were extras, soldiers or something in this period piece.

Here’s a quick note about Chinese movies. I swear half are about their old kingdoms and empires; the other half depict their battles with Japan in the 1930′s and 40′s.

Me and a couple movie stars.

Man! Suddenly my analogies of performers and actors and fairy tales was kicked up a notch—or maybe shifted over a few ticks. I don’t even know how to express the strange ball of yarn that was the real actors on this set v. the actors of the real during the ceremony; the cameramen depicting reality in the ceremony v. the cameramen re-creating the historic reality for the movie. Then there’s the living history of these temple walls and present-day customs v. the raising of the past ways for present-day audiences to relive.

I guess I can say that this was all a bit surreal.

And may you live out your fantasies, Readers: as imaginative as a child, as present and grounded as a Taoist.

to new plateaus,

-Brandon

 
 

Tai Chi: What Goes Around Comes Around

08 Sep

It had only been two days on this mountain in Hubei province.

But in a whole new environment—-one that encouraged the focus of every moment, no less—this meant a concentrated, super-saturated 48 hours that provided enough fodder for two previous blog posts. Yes, Einstein, time is relative, and seeing this play out when living on a mountain top somewhere far, far away is slightly mind-bending.

Yet at the same time, for all the infinity within those two days, I knew darn well that I was only scratching the surface; just chipping away at the shell of a constant, racing mind, revealing a calm that I wanted to keep consistent. To do so I knew I had to stay longer, so started getting word out among the students and staff about teaching them English in exchange for room and board. Before long, the headmaster offered me a deal to stay and teach. :) I bid farewell to previous plans to see the Muslim and Tibetan populated areas of western China and stared at another five days of tai chi, kung fu, and calm.

Here’s what happened….

I considered this round two of my training. The headmaster, as opposed to my previous trainer, took me a little more under his wing:

initiation

He liked to show-off a bit, at the goading of some others, by playing with the newbies.

But I held my own:

Sucker. Had him right where I wanted.

It should be noted that this guy was the real deal. He’s won all these competitions and used to coach Jackie Chan. He looked hefty, even a bit out of shape, but that was an illusion. He’s a brick.

As far as the English teaching went, I spent an hour twice a day with just two regular attendees—-a 12 year old girl and a 26 year old guy, my roommate. The classes were fine; and I found it all so interesting how me being a teacher of English, the job that opened the door to China, now allowed me to be a student of tai chi.

What’s more, as a teacher myself, I was later able to relate to my trainers’ difficulties on account of my struggles learning tai chi…

Having learned a couple basic movements by now, I was started in with a more involved choreography. It was hard.

Because though the movements are gradual, proper posture is challenging as you have to hold strenuous poses. And the smooth movement reveals any and all mistakes, a product of me going from my head to my body, from trying to recall the moves to actually doing them. One needs to do this in a simultaneous fashion until it becomes second nature. (Ever learn to dance? Then you know what I mean.) Or like speaking your native language, it requires you to get to that place of mental activity where you just do it and don’t think so much in that laborious sense.

But this kind of “effortful” thinking is how I like to problem-solve!—whether mastering dance moves, when I played video games, or rearranging my room. Think. Think. Think of every facet, every option. On one hand, this kind of mind-activity may help my writing, and I’m sure it’s what helped me help my fellow students efficiently gather firewood from my last post. But back on the concrete slab where we practiced, I was darn near all thumbs.

I kept trying to memorize every angle of every pose, every maneuver of every limb. With two arms, two legs, and a trunk and head, that’s 5 or 6 differnet things that I tried to be conscious of simultaneously. Impossible.

As a consequence, I couldn’t recall even a few moves at a time. It had one instructor (the “sword and shovel” teacher from the last post) shaking his head. And I kid you not, while I had felt pressure and some embarrassment about this already, he added to it with a chuckle in an “are you stupid?”, disbelieving kind of way.

I wanted to react in a “screw you!” kind of way.

But like a good tai chi student, and in a manner I look back on with gratitude, I let the reactive part of me go and was actually able to empathize with him. Interestingly, I recalled my own difficulty teaching in China—-English, to a student who just couldn’t get it. “C’mon!”, I would think and sometimes say out loud as I ran my hand through my hair. This obviously didn’t help the poor student learn. It’s kinda funny, really, cause I’m not sure why I got mad. But I did.

Thus, back on the concrete slab, I went from a defensive state of mind to one of understanding. What a shift! I asked a bilingual student nearby to say to my teacher. “I know how hard it is to teach me. I know how hard it is to teach someone who doesn’t get it. I’m sorry I’m such a hard student to teach.” My teacher’s face softened and he put his hand on my shoulder.

It’s amazing how tight our emotions make us, how much they prevent understanding and the relating between two people. But frustrations were set aside and affections won the day.

It’s a small example, I know, but it represents a lot. Plus, it’s cool to look back and see how my time in China—–as a teacher and a student; in a school setting and in the mountains learning tai chi—–all contributed to this moment of growth.

Here’s to patience in understanding the people you teach to/learn from.

to New Plateaus,

-Brandon

and here’s a video of my teacher kicking it with the nunchuks:

 
 

Studying Tai Chi: The Students, The Landscapes

01 Sep

I attended a music camp back in high school. We rehearsed with this involved, focused presence, only a few days to master our music for a performance at week’s end. These rehearsals were different than regular band class during the school year. There, we were more likely to clock-watch and wish for the hour to end so we could get away. Once that bell rang, “whew!, finally.” I think we were mostly glad because rather than having to put forth our attention and energy into the music, we could drift off into the lazy daze of horse play and daydream.

The difference between that exciting, intense camp and the boring, drawn-out school year is a degree of time. Knowing that we had just a few days at camp made us present and allowed us to wring every moment out of each hour. The school year, by contract was, well, a year! So it seems the tidbits of time, the portions that are allotted, are often better used. Think about how focused and present you get when you go to a retreat, camp, or seminar.

But what then of the prospect of an open-ended amount of time, like say, the prospect of our life?! Well, shoot. Who hasn’t idled away an afternoon (or longer) awaiting the evening, weekend, or upcoming vacation? Who hasn’t measured their schedule in weeks and months and forgotten about the imminent hours? So in the spirit of wringing life out of each moment, I shook off my initial hesitation and got started with the tai chi training here on a mountaintop in Hubei province. My trainer led me outside:

This cement slab across the street was where much of the training took place.

And this is what I worked on again and again….and again:

If you watch, tai chi mimics actual fighting moves that are slowed way down. It’s a meditative challenge, and it’s said to be healthy. Here’s a link to the Wikipedia page if you’re intrigued: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tai_chi_chuan

After my solo lesson, it was group time. Here were some other students and teachers at my school:

Let me also introduce you to the scenery that added to the ambiance in ways only thought possible in movies or imagination:

This was the actual view doing tai chi from this spot.

I was amazed at the how “kinetic” they were. So with it…so conscious of their movement. We in the West exercise, but we like to do it with headphones and even conversation. These guys seemed to truly be one with their body.

Here’s me giving it a whirl:

This was one of our trainers

And here’s where we were on the map:

This was the environment.

Here were some interactions:

It turns out, that cement slab we practiced upon was actually the roof of a mountainside shelter for other trainers and students. One time I heard some commotion over the edge below:

Tai chi landscaping

I hadn’t shoveled dirt in a while and found a spare shovel so dug in. No biggie. But the trainer down there (the sword guy from the picture above) interrupted my work to show me how its done. He took the shovel and blurted, “Ha!”, the shovel prepared for battle, “hoo!”, it was thrust into the pile, and “hwa!” it removed with a load of Earth.

On one hand, seeing this devotion to their practice wasn’t all that surprising—-I mean, it was a tai chi school. Just the same, it provided this striking example of taking this ordinary chore and perfecting it. He didn’t think about how to get it done faster or easier, but how to get it done better. Me? I started shoveling and daydreaming. Heck, if I had a relevant thought, it was “where’s the backhoe?” It seemed to be an illustration of a stereotyped, but nonetheless evident difference between classic East and West thought and action.

I took a walk into the valley forest with five others one afternoon to gather firewood and kindling. Bagging twigs and pine needles was a problem for one young woman because they cut her hands. She remedied the issue by taking two five-foot sticks and using them as giant chopsticks to pinch and lift the pile.

She wasn’t getting too far just as I don’t eating rice with chopsticks. But my fork-using, Western mind saw two rakes and used them to bundle together the pile like salad tongs. It was much quicker and they referred to me as being “so clever”. Well, I just eat different, I thought.

Then as we bundled the wood, we needed a tight packing to hold them together up the narrow and hilly path. Out-jutting branches had to be snapped, and one was proving to be difficult despite the kung-fu trained kicking the men were attacking it with. I saw a large rock and wedged it under the branch. Like a lever, the force of my undisciplined, less-effective kick was enough to snap it. They were grateful for my cleverness once again. I was elated that I could actually be helpful and contribute something. :)

It seemed they thought how to better use their body while I looked for alternatives to my body. These are generalizations, of course, but in the general we see trends, and in the individual people and individual examples, we see illustrations. I couldn’t help but wonder about the connections they played in the development of the East and the West. And best of all, it quaintly displayed the benefits in store when strengths are offered from different cultures. If even just gathering wood.

After work, we took a break:

Two young boys, the only ones at the school, were always together.

Meanwhile, the sword-shovel trainer stayed relentless:

You may wonder why his shirt is so dirty.

Here’s why:

He had another student stepping on his lower back, forcing those hips into the ground.

I’d regularly see him do handstands against a building with fists against the concrete. He was pretty intense.

In evenings, we’d go for a walk and take it easy. Less a participant than an observer, I watched the students and trainers socialize and sing while the head master entertained with music:

...well, tried to sing :)

From teamwork to culture to martial arts, these two days—though full of monotonous tai chi—were incredibly rich with lessons.

With all your heart, mind, and body, enjoy the moments you are living.

to new plateaus,

-Brandon

Beautiful View:

Singing Video:

 

Up the Mountain; In the Now

25 Aug

I had a decision to make. After the small-town experiences of Henan province, was I going to travel north to sight-see the Longmen Caves? There, centuries ago, Buddhist monks decorated hundreds of caves with a museum of sculptures. Or was I to head south, into the adjacent province of Hubei? I read about a beautiful mountain there with an abundance of history itself. Wu Dang Shan (“shan” means mountain) was the birthplace of the rhythmic martial art, tai chi, and more than stunning views and culture, I could do something else—-practice tai chi.

Between the two it was a mental coin flip. But I recall the key factor that swayed my mind: I thought, quite vividly, “yeah, I can go see the art and caves and learn how these monks lived. Or I can go one step beyond, and actually live as they did, practicing a meditative art.”

The train arrived at Wu Dang Shan in northwestern Hubei province. As it chugged off into the horizon, never in my trip had I felt as alone as I did then—-and being an American trekking China for some days already, this is saying something. I wasn’t depressed lonely, just matter-of-factly solo. I was the only one who got off the train! I stood there on the platform in this rural land.

I saw this:

Hello, security guard guy.

and this:

Hello, food cart lady.

I actually missed the crowds of people who usually help indicate where to go. I went down some stairs minus the urban convenience of a ramp for my luggage, lugging my stuffed suitcase in that funny, leaning, swaying way you gotta carry something heavy in one arm. Such a bittersweet reality is this life without modernity! Now it was bitter; later it’d be sweet.

I exited the station out into the town, but rather than a downtown-y kind of happening place my guidebook told be about, it was just a few stores and small eateries. And in rural China, this looks pretty drab. And where’s the mountain!? I’ll tell you what I began to fear: I began to wonder if I got off at the wrong station! A young man approached and aggressively offered a ride. “Wu Dang Shan”, I said, stressing the “shan”. He nodded, which I liked, but offered a price that I didn’t—-as in an I’m-going-to-rip-this-foreigner-off-for-whatever-I-can price. A bit turned off, I couldn’t go with him despite his knocking the price down to less than half. Plus, there was a bus asking just a tiny fraction of what the young man wanted.

It turned out that the train station had moved since my guidebook was written and that this little outcrop of stores and shops seemed to be here as accompaniment to the new station location. Indeed it was a good 20 minutes until I got into the real town. But once I got there, I knew I was in the right place:

The quaint little city, also called Wu Dang Shan, sitting below the mountain of Wu Dang Shan.

I walked along the sidewalks rolling my suitcase along like a pet, looking for a hostel—which I never found. Luckily, the next best thing found me. A lady excitedly approached, motioning for me to follow her. I’ll tell ya, these Chinese are not shy about soliciting. She saw my luggage and all, I suppose. “What the heck?”, I thought, and followed her. I managed my heavy suitcase up another few dusty flights, entering her building. But from the plain, gray stairwell opened the door to a quaint little apartment with rooms renovated into a hotel.

My eager host on the right and a mother/daughter mountain-climbing team staying there, too.

This was great, and now with my base needs met I was able to step upon this platform of comfort and reach for the higher needs of my time here: tai chi up the mountain. I got online and onphone, talking with a school in town. There are a couple institutions and I found one with an English-speaking employee. The next morning, a trainer came to my hotel and took me away….

Before we left town, though, my trainer made sure I was dressed:

Feel free to judge me.

Once clothed, I was ready to ascend.

Honestly, though, I still kinda wondered where the mountain was. My limited, Minnesotan knowledge of mountainology didn’t understand the idea that a mountaintop is a long and windy road trip, and that along the way to the peak, sits several lower peaks and dipping valleys, going up and down and up like a bull stock market chart.

My trainer led the way:

'Come. Tai chi with me.' I didn't know much about this guy except he looked right for the part.

We arrived at the “base camp”, the area where we paid admission and hopped aboard a bus to the school:

On the way up, it started to get gorgeous.

I just had to hold on to my seat between shots. After several tight lefts and sharp rights, the bus slowed and my trainer pointed out the door. We were there:

This was my home for a short while, a modest place on the hillside. Let me give you a tour:

my room

The dining area and doorway to the bathroom and kitchen:

The kitchen:

The pets:

I named it Charcoal. But it didn't stick.

A couple days later, we all named this one 'dinner'.

My trainer and I arranged just a two-night/three-day stay. I know, I know, so brief, but I only had three weeks to trek China. And that being said, a day full of tai chi is a long day! We arrived this mid-morning and after getting settled in, my trainer took me back outside to begin. Not wasting any time. Time to jump right in.

And here I gotta say, I was a little unnerved about starting. (I remember thinking, “uh, can we do this after lunch?”) I found it was easier to talk about doing tai chi on the storied mountain on which it all began, than it was to actually get out here and do it! This truth affects us in many endeavors we wish to undertake, doesn’t it?

Tai chi training was an immediate challenge in that there’s no “escape”; the idea behind it requires you to be right there, as present as possible, as present as you are watching the seconds tick down in a close football game. Focus on the movement of your body (the slow, smooth movements); don’t drift off into thinking about last night’s TV show or what your friend did the other day. Other martial arts may have appeased me from the start with quick, distracting movements, satisfying a short attention span, but not tai chi.

I’d just have to be “there”, just me and my trainer. And knowing the schedule they kept–—hours and hours of this each day—-a part of me had that whiney, “I want to go in” kind of thinking. But “go in” where? To my boring, quiet room? And this wasn’t a health club class that you can look forward to leaving afterwards, fleeing for home and the TV, couch, and refrigerator to lose yourself in. Even if I did look ahead to the end of the training, after this morning’s session, there’s one this afternoon. After this afternoon’s session, there’s one this evening. And as soon as you wake up in the morning—at 5:30—there’s another. AHHH! I can’t wait until three days from now! Then I can go back into the city and…..and what, Brandon? Watch TV? Surf the net? And what would you make of your meantime here?—-always wanting for “three days from now”?.

BAM! Wake up, Brandon. This is the present and tai chi is going to slam it right in your face. How a subtle art like tai chi can slam anything is a wonder, but so is the magic of Eastern thought and practice.

It seemed like a downer, but realizing that I was here and ought get comfortable with it, was the beginning of a practice that I haven’t relinquished since. It helped solidify a way of seeing my life, a way that lessens the trap of living in the past, for the future, and wrapped up in the mind. It put before me loud and clear the initial pain, but voluminous blessings of staying present.

Stay tuned for the practice this Westerner undertook, reshaping my outlook and changing the defaults status of my racing mind.

to new plateaus indeed,

-Brandon

 
 

Small Town Saturday Night

18 Aug

Howl at the moon; shoot out the lights. The folksy folks of small town China reminded me of the communities I grew up around.

As stated in my last post, the reason I chugged along 12 hours of train track southward of Beijing was to meet 99-yr-old Jing Yuan. But though she was the impetus for this destination in rural Henan province, the meat of my time was spent among the the surroundings and locals of the small town of Ruyang. This triggered some unexpected reflections about the joys of living in these cozy communities. Check it out…

I arrived groggy after a difficult night’s sleep on the train. It was one of those mornings when you witness the first light of day, but know you ought to be asleep instead. I hopped off my train car and awkwardly wheeled my suitcase over the dirt and track to get to the station platform. Hanging a left out to the town, I gratefully met my hosts. A former student of mine, June, set this all up. Jing Yuan was her grandmother and it was her family that housed, fed, and showed me around from the time I got off the train on that Saturday morning to the ride back to the station two days later.

It was 8am or so, and a bright, sunny day greeted my arrival:

For some reason these towns feature such wide streets. And only God knows why when they’re driving these things around: :)

It felt like the year 2011 here, but not an “American” 2011. Everything is painted with a thin coat of small-town China: a bit sloppier, traffic sporadic and disheveled, and all the little businesses along the main stretches open up with their garage-door-like front doors.

Here was June’s brother-in-law and his beautiful baby girl who picked me up at the station:

After meeting some other family, we piled in a van and went to their family-owned restaurant. In and around there was where I’d spend much of my time over the next 48 hours.

Here in small-town China, center lines are treated as suggestions.

June’s sister and husband (the brother-in-law) are the owners. Super cool, cause I got to gorge on a bunch of local foods made the way mom used to make. :) Here it is with the owners and employees out front:

Keeping it professional here; the cooks in the white, Sis in the middle, Mom 2nd from the left. (The kids didn't work.)

I kind of wondered about being a burden on them, but June assured me they were eager to have a visitor. I wasn’t too surprised by this as I’ve been treated so generously many places I’ve visited. The Chinese really adore Western people. Plus, June said I’d be their first American visitor. Perhaps I was the first American to set foot in this small town! Ruyang makes Bemidji look as diverse as the United Nations. So, I guess this made me the delegate for all Caucasians.

And there we are for you geography fans out there.

They brought me inside and offered me the goods. Time to gorge.

Children of the family and I digging into the mounds of fish, veggies, egg, noodles, and some seaweed stuff.

That’s the thing about China eatin’. They give you a bunch of platefulls of various foods that you think you’ll never even dent. But half hour later, it’s all gone! Cause it’s good. The crunchy, the salty, the sweet, tender and juicy and greasy, the light and flakey. Chinese food is awesome.

Let’s look at the trouble-makers who prepared the meal:

This restaurant likes their cooks unbuttoned.

And I like them to add that smokey flavor:

'Chinese Kitchen' needs to be on reality TV

Things picked up as evening approached and the kitchen started rockin’ and rollin’:

Check it out:

Small Town Saturday Night was upon us. A group of five dudes lumbered through the door, carrying themselves without a care in the world. They requested food like they owned the place—-not in an arrogant way, but with a warm familiarity. Oddly, the vibe brought me back to my days in high school, where growing up in a small town, I remembered the same total ease and comfort with which I moved through the halls. Like these guys—-like any small town, I think—-there’s no need to be self-conscious about acting the right way among a roomful of strangers.

By contrast, when living in a large city, the familiarity with most folks around us simply isn’t there. We rely on the social scripts we have for how to act in any particular setting. It’s not as natural. And a subtle, guarded nature most of us assume when in the company of many strangers isn’t too calming, either. But even without this defensiveness, it’s at least necessary to create a mode of indifference to the many people in urban life. It seems like you got to put up some walls.

(Gee, maybe I’m a small town boy after all.)

And I find it so darned interesting that I recognized this while here in rural China! After all, I lived 18 years in tiny Blackduck, Minnesota. But for whatever reason, being in this context helped me realize this small town charm. And it all started with these jokers:

They reminded my of my mother's uncles, actually.

A familial familiarity

Later on, I walked the dark streets of Ruyang. Some of the locals approached and looked at me. Some would say “hello” and giggle. To them, I’m a sight; but to me, I’m the observer. It’s a two-way street when you visit a different world. :) I approached an outdoor eatery, the kind I’d seen all over this country and what is known everywhere simply as ‘barbeque’:

Along the right, cooks with raw food and a propane grill set up shop; people then pick out the meats and veggies they want cooked.

Other than this crowd, it was quiet and clear this night. I’d missed that aspect of small-town living, too. The next day was a fresh look at a Small Town Sunday Morning:

And just for fun, here’s a shot of my hometown to compare:

Blackduck, Minnesota

Back in Ruyang, Brother-in-Law and I were on our way to breakfast:

On the way and enjoying the most important meal of the day:

The following day I left—-to another small town. This time not with the intention of reflecting on the past–as was the case with 99-yr-old Jing Yuan–but rather, of getting deep into the present.

You’ll see…

For now, let’s hear it for the small towns out there: the freedom and comfort and openness.

to new plateaus,

-Brandon

 

China: Bone-Breaking Pressure

12 Aug

In China around 1000 years ago, a unique trend began in the area of fashion, custom, and duty. Parents started to tightly wrap the feet of their young daughters so the feet wouldn’t grow large. This binding became extreme enough to require the breaking of the toes and of the arch. And it evolved to become a common practice throughout all the classes of Chinese society for hundreds of years. This practice hasn’t take place for sometime now. And the society it represented was much different than the one we see in China today.

But it wasn’t that long ago–phased out in the 1930′s and 40′s–and the fact that things were so different just some decades ago speaks to how much change has taken place here. I think that’s what intrigues me about ‘xiao jiao’–small feet. They are a marker of this change. Also, they represent the actions people take under the weight of social order.

What’s more, soon after I arrived in Zhuhai, I learned that some elderly women still lived with these signs of old times. I wanted to find one of these women. Then one day in my adult English class we talked about family and student named June said she had a 99-year old grandmother back in her home province of Henan. I asked if she had the bound feet. June affirmed.

Four months later I got off the train in the city of Ruzhou in Henan province. Here I was greeted by June’s brother and brother-in-law. Her family would feed, house, and tour me around Ruzhou and the nearby, and smaller, town they worked in, Ruyang. I’ll share about these experiences next time, Readers.

For now, I want to get to Grandma.

On a Sunday morning, my second day here, that same brother-in-law, along with June’s mother and I, waited alongside a wide, empty road in town. Today they were taking me to see the woman I’d traveled so far and waited months to meet. A small bus approached and slowed. In we went:

Grandma lives outside of town—-outside of asphalt roads, as a matter of fact.

'Over the meadow and through the woods to Grandmother's house we go.'

After several miles of town and country, hills and fields, we stopped along a stretch. Now we had to walk it.

Past animals:

Moooo

baaaa

Past the landscapes:

Brother-in-law brought along baby daughter, too.

Finally, our sunny, Sunday stroll started to slope downward, meeting a few buildings at the bottom. We were there:

Right this way, sir

If curious, here’s some of the journey on video:

It was a farmstead, a compound that housed extended family as well. The queen bee of this hive stayed in perhaps the most humble brick/mud building. Brother-in-law led the way inside:

'Yeah, so we got this American dude out there who wants to check out your feet. You, uh, cool with that, Grandma?'

She expected me, and I entered. At first, I just watched the family interact:

Three of four generations. Mommy (June's sister) had to stay back at work in Ruyang.

I looked around a bit, too, checking out her digs:

Guess she likes corn.

Then I began to speak with her. (With the help of a bilingual friend and a speaker phone.) Her name is Jing Yuan, a 99 year old woman who’s lived around these parts her whole life. When she was six, her feet were prepared for the binding process. From what I’ve read, this meant stretching wet bandages around her little feet, wrapping her toes down and in. Eventually, the arch of the foot is pressured to break upward. It’s that tight. Jing Yuan did say that the pain wasn’t too bad if she didn’t move her feet. Unfortunately, walking on the bound and broken feet was necessary for the little girls to do to secure the shape. For Jing Yuan, this was 93 years ago.

I put her feet on my lap and removed the socks:

Where are the toenails and pinky toe?

Once the shape was set, the bindings would stay on—-for good. It was a big part of a woman’s day changing the bandages and washing—-crucial, too, as some girls died from infection.

There's the nails and the pinky toe.

We see or hear about these kinds of customs throughout the world and accept them without question. But I always wonder how they start. Historians think the wealthy wanted to emulate the small feet of some dancers of the day. But how that got to breaking girls feet is quite a leap.

What’s more understandable, I think, is how this trend could perpetuate and be maintained. This is interesting, too, because we can compare this to us. For one thing, like many trends, foot binding began in the upper class and trickled downward. (In America the same thing happens with baby names.) Foot binding became a symbol of wealth—-of not needing to do manual work. And somewhere along the line it became sexy.

So like a poor woman today with a knock-off Prada bag, the lower classes followed suit. (This was really tough, though, because the women in the these classes did need to work.) But they did it. Now go ahead and put yourself in the shoes (he he) of a parent during that time. If a girl in town has feet twice the size of the others, then according to your world, she’ll have no place in life. And all this in a society that held social acceptability to a level higher than we’ve ever known it in America. (Though we still know it in America.)

It’s such a pronounced example of the powers of culture and tradition.

Supposedly, it wasn't the bare foot that the men liked--for good reason--but the visual of the feet in their shoes.

Can we see the norms that we accept without question? The things we do to fit in? Our desire to be looked up to? The things we find attractive?

Stepping outside one’s culture is a beneficial skill because it’s enlightening—-and this level of actualization helps us lighten up. It’s freeing. :)

But what a sign of change! What was once seen as practically mandatory is now looked back on with interest and curiosity at best, disgust and embarrassment (by some people foreign and domestic) at worst. In a complete turnaround, the wealth and status exemplified by a woman’s bound feet was frowned upon and eliminated by the communist mentality and order. This new ideology praised labor and today you’ll see both men and women work on rebuilding a road or demolishing a building.

As a result of the political and social change, Jing Yuan “only” practiced foot binding for 50 years. She said taking the bandages off for good was also painful. The foot wants to adjust to its new freedom, though she said her feet didn’t change all too much:

There have been a lot of changes in Jing Yuan’s lifetime—-social and personal. I asked her to look back and she recalled being in her 20’s and 30’s and doing outdoor work with a cane. She also fondly remembered Mao Zedong and the founding days of modern China.

Here’s an illustration of the changes in this society: In one generation women’s feet size doubled: ;)

Mother and daughter

Well feet were made for walking–actually, some of these ladies couldn’t walk and needed to be carried. But this gal could, and can. :) Darn near a centenarian, she is!

To me, she’s a symbol of feminism, too, because she represents where China was and is today in the area of women’s rights.

Most feminine of all, I think, is her legacy of life she’s mothered, and grandmothered, and great-grandmothered…

Generations of Chinese women

Unfortunately, at this age, you’ll also see the other side of all this life:

Her son

Here she is on video:

As a child, her whole world was defined by the order that shaped her feet—-which her feet still symbolize today. But more than one social trend, they represent all the cultural sways of behavior humans take part in. And now, ironically, these feet clash with the same world she endured so much pain to fit into.

Only it isn’t exactly the same world, is it? The society, the trends, customs and behaviors that her generation of Chinese defined their lives by—-the whole aura of those days—where did the times go that required her feet to be bound?

They’re gone.

So remember not to get too bound up in the social pressures of our day.

To New Plateaus,

-Brandon

 

A Little China Choo Choo

06 Aug

China train travel. Hmm, what’s that like? Well, that depends on where you are. From Zhuhai to Guangzhou—one city in Guangdong province to another—the train is brand new and the ride pristine.

Elsewhere I went….not so much.

These rides were the stereotype of Chinese train travel. And when I went to buy my ticket from Beijing down to Ruzhou in Henan province, I was in economy mode. So instead of buying a sleeper for the 13-hour overnight journey, I bought a seat.

Uh oh.

Beijing is the star. (Ruzhou, my destination, is just south of Luoyang.)

I was on my way to this small city, because just outside of it is a town called Ruyang. And just outside Ruyang lives a special, old woman who I’ll introduce you to next time.

First, though, I arrived at the train station on the evening of my last day here in Beijing:

Then, I had to see where to go:

Hmmm, let's see......

Soon, the time arrived for us to board, and a nice hoard of riders and luggage flowed toward the ticket-taker gate. Outside we went to board the train; inside we went into our car:

Oh boy...Where's everyone going to sit?

Oh, that’s right. They’re not–at least not on seats:

Sit tight, floor buddy.

It was around 8pm and I immediately began to dread the hours ahead when I’d be restless, tired, and unable to sleep in all this commotion. People were everywhere. One side of the aisle had sets of 2×2 seat-benches facing each other with a table top in the middle. To sleep, these riders could either try to lean back on the erect seats like an airplane. Or they could try to lean down on the table top, their arms or bags as pillows.

They were the lucky ones.

Cause the other side of the aisle had seat-groups of 3 and 3 facing each other. I got one of these, and on my particular bench, I was the monkey in the middle. Still, it was better than the aisle seat, because the table top on our side extended out only so far, leaving the this person with nothing to lean on to sleep. The 20-something guy in this predicament chose to kneel on the floor and lean against his seat as his head rest.

And we were the lucky ones…

Finally there were those in the car who had no seat. It’s better than not getting a ticket, but these poor folks either stood in the aisle, sat on their bags or on the floor, or picked up a makeshift stool that some lady was selling back at the station. (I saw her, too, and wondered what she was selling those things for.) Now I knew.

Looking around as I got comfortable, I met my fellow seat-group group:

These fellas were across from me.

So was this gal:

sleep-smiling :)

Sharing my bench were these fellas:

There were a lot of individual travelers around me. We each had our own destination and story. I inquired with them about their hometowns and such. Just about everyone had a different place they called home. “One China”, as they like to say, is quite true among the variety of peoples in China (with some ethnic exceptions), but even within this “One China” there’s a lot of differences to speak of.

One thing I’m always curious about is whether I can pinpoint a person’s province by their looks. That’s tough. Much more doable, though, is the difference between the south and the north—which I think is cool, because it challenges the idea of all Chinese looking alike.

Outside of our seating section, other travelers rode:

All through the night we journeyed with the intimacy of strangers. White noise hummed along with occasional knocking from the tracks. Our “dance” to this music was random, stuttering upper-body, back-and-forth sway-jerks. And if I can recall correctly, I think the car was lit up the whole time, too. No matter, I got exhausted and managed some sleep.

(And later, I’d have a sort of hindsight gratitude after hearing about the rough ride for a couple Austrian women. Their car was so crowded that passengers on the floor curled up at their feet, using the women’s back-packs as pillows.)

Finally, morning came:

"Zao sheng hao"

And at around 7:00, I arrived at Ruzhou train station:

Straight and to the left. That's where my ride was waiting. (But that's for next time.)

I talked earlier about the “lucky ones”, those who have better conditions than others on the train. But I’d say the lucky ones weren’t in this car at all. Folks in the sleeper cars were quite better off. (And hey, why stop there, right? Plenty opt out of trains altogether, for obvious reasons, and pay a few extra yuan for a plane ticket—where on this plain you have three more tiers of conditions.)

Here’s a peek at a sleeper car that I rode (I splurged) a bit later in my travels. It was fewer solo travelers and more families. Things were more spacious and, naturally, folks were well-rested. Things overall just seemed more chipper. It was a nice illustration that though money doesn’t make you happy, comfort sure helps.

Kids were playing some kind of 'paper, rock, scissor' singing game.

They got a kick out of me, an American. Some gave me seashells for gifts. Here’s one of the boys who was particularly adorable:

When in transport we have the chance to learn so much: the places people go, the stories they tell, the reasons for their travel. Americans, or course, love the automobile. In China, though, things are more public. And in a place that already is generally curious about Westerners, the train provides a fertile ground to nurture the interactions that make travel so special.

I look forward to next time when I get to share about an interaction that few people can have anymore.

to New Plateaus,

-Brandon

 
 

Hey, New Plateaus was Featured!

01 Aug

Check this out, Readers: “A Minnesotan in China” is turning some heads in China! :)

ChinaTravel.net emailed me out of the blue a week ago and asked for an interview. They feature a different blogger each week, and this week is “Minnesota’s” turn.

Here’s a screenshot:

And here’s the link: My Interview

Thanks for the continued support. :) And stay tuned for my next post.

to New Plateaus,

-Brandon