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Posts Tagged ‘travel’

Stomping Ground Culture, part 1

12 Nov

If you’d asked me before about the culture of northern Minnesota, or America even, I’d have suggested it better described as a lack of culture. Growing up, we never had our version of a pow wow or exotic clothing—nothing drawing back to the days of ancient ancestors.

Removed from lederhosen and the German language (though not entirely from polka) my family didn’t identify with the “old country” in any traditional sense. And actually, I saw our lack of strong, cultural identity as an asset.

Fewer divisions between people existed, and with all the ethnic conflicts around the world, attachment to the activities of others in one’s group, I saw the whole idea of “culture” as over-rated. Hence, I was grateful that America gave humanity a chance to “reset”, individuals less defined being in a group.

(I’ve since, however, realized the strength gained from such attachment–the depth and tradition of a practicing Jew, the community of the Chinese, the spirituality of the Native Americans.)

And I neglected something else by not looking right before my eyes: that just because the bright colors of indigenous-wear and exotic moves of cultural dances all over the world makes their history bright and obvious, this doesn’t remove the fact that culture is made everyday, everywhere. It may not be as “romantic” or “other-worldly” as 3,000 year old ceremonies, but movies on a Friday night, the X-box 360, and your church up the road are examples of culture just the same.

My nephew, Robert, already developing his ushering skills at church.

My brother's church

What’s more, some of the cultural events of northern Minnesota are unique and as expressive as an Indian’s ornate head-dress. I experienced them when visiting my old stomping groups of Beltrami County, and they exclaimed the social vibe, the emotional release, and the identity with its participants that good culture offers anywhere in the world.

So let’s get to know my old neighborhood by seeing them at their best.

Before I stepped foot back on American soil, my father said I had to drive up to Blackduck the weekend of the 14th of August to see my brother-in-law, Kevin, compete in the contemporary rural version of the gladiators—the demolition derby. I did; and it was cool. And I’ll describe it shortly.

First, I’ll say that it was just one of many events at the annual gathering known as the county fair. Like gatherings worldwide, these fairs are about having fun and camaraderie–some drinking, music, a lot of socializing, and games.

County fairs are great cultural markers because they demonstrate two traits of America–its agriculture and competitive spirit.

Farmers from around the region bring their best crops, livestock, and rodeo skills. That’s right, rows of pigs, poultry, cattle, horses, and more are lined up for the judges to determine the best of the bunch. Cooking Cassanovas and Baking Bigshots also bring their A-game to compete in contests of cuisine: the best pickles, pie, or pumpkin bread.

I reflected on this activity and how uniquely American it is. The idea of a Chinese person taking pride in how well their pig or carrots stand up to others brought a smile to my face as it seemed so out-of-place. Hmm, so America does have a unique culture, after all.

Here's two older gals hearkening the culture of a generation or two ago as they sing classic country music at the fair.

If there’s one fashion ideal of the American that sticks in foreigners’ minds, it’s the image of the cowboy:

cowgirl

Indeed, this is a fashion and lifestyle belonging to America and stretches across all it’s fine, fifty states. (except maybe Hawaii)

I spoke with this women for awhile about her life on the farm:

She was preparing to compete in the horse-riding competition.

For many of these folks, it’s a family operation they maintain for hobby. It’s fun to farm. :)

In the evenings, the fair goes from animals and food to games and rides. Moonlight replaces daylight, and is accompanied by thousands of small light-bulbs that stimulate the rides. My family and I enjoyed some time there, especially my other nephew, Garret:

Him and Dad (Kevin, the demolition derby driver) buying tickets for the games and rides.

Now go play and win a prize, Garret!

Garret is eager as the carnie looks on.

And here I’ll mention that America’s distant past does have old-school culture living on through the Native Americans. There are many who live in northern Minnesota, and as their ancestry in these lands goes back countless generations, some retain pieces of their old ways.

Here’s one family at the fair:

And here’s me and my little brother, Anthony:

Yee haw.

The following day was the big event that Dad told me to come for: the demolition derby. For those of you who don’t know, here’s what it is: take an old car and drive it around other people driving old cars. Crash into each other until the last car is moving.

Cool, huh? :)

Well these people thought so:

getting ready for some smash action

You get a nice crowd at these things:

C'mon, man, just kiss her. You know you want to.

He's a good listener.

Alright, enough jibber-jabber. Time to crunch, smash, destroy, destroy!! Ahhh!!! (sorry, had to get that out of my system.)

Okay here come the cars:

pink car looks okay now...

For my readers in China, Americans like to customize their cars to be louder, more powerful, and look cool. This demolition derby is no different.

green car looks okay now...

And they’re off!

uh oh

Finally one vehicle remained, and the proud owner came out of the wreckage to claim his prize.

This is pretty American--a 15 year old driver: ) Here's being interviewed these as he took 2nd. Atta boy.

After the cars beat themselves silly, it was time for the trucks (themselves an American icon). So this was some super-saturated American culture here!

And they’re off.

My brother-in-law, Kevin, there in the middle.

uh oh #2. The firemen had to come at one point in the contest.

When the trucks wound down, Kevin’s displaced driveshaft put him in 5th place. He won a few bucks.

Afterwards, it off to Kevin’s parent’s place to eat, drink, and be merry. Cousins and friends from all over the rural land came to have a good time. Good ‘ole northern Minnesotan fun.

(I’ll also add that in the western part of Minnesota, my friend, Kelsey, tells me that they blend the theme of agriculture the idea of demolition derbies by having combine-tractor demolition derbies!)

A “reset” button was pushed when all the Europeans came to America. It provided a chance to start fresh with some separation from the old ways. There is still a culture, though, and seeing it right after being in China for a year allowed a good look.

I hope you had a good look and can appreciate the culture that you live in and that you create each day: )

to new plateaus,

-Brandon

 
 

Home Sweet Home: China in Minnesota

05 Nov

All the pictures and words and emotions regarding China came to an end, folks. This post is about my arrival back and experiences being re-introduced to Minnesota.

I left Zhuhai on an unusually clear, beautiful, warm, sunny day. The car ride to the airport featured lush green palm trees and bright blue skies that lit up the brand-new housing developments being erected along the highway. It was a helluva lasting impression, and it kind of made me sad to leave. It always is a little hard and weighty to leave behind a place and the people you may never get to see and experience again, especially after being there for a while.

From the little Zhuhai airport I flew to Shanghai. A couple hours in the Shanghai airport had me wandering around looking for food that wasn’t silly expensive. I talked to one tall, red-headed American/German girl who just had the time of her life working in Shanghai for the summer. She’d probably be the envy of many-a-situated adult in America who wished they’d studied/worked abroad in a land so different and freeing. Heck, I envied her with her care-free spirit.

Finally I left Shanghai (and China)—on the day my visa expired—to Chicago. The American flight differed from the ones I was used to in Asia. Food was worse and flight attendants grumpier.

Lastly, it was a jaunt in the air from Chicago to Minneapolis.

I was home.

My brother picked me up from MSP. (He also dropped me off here 11 months prior.) I saw his car approach and his face behind the wheel. He stepped out. What do you say when you haven’t seen someone in a while? There’s always that neat reunion vibe.

Driving out to his house in Buffalo, MN, it struck me how everything looked the same back here in the Twin Cities. China was always building. My brother, Jerald, responded that China is developing and America is developed. I suppose he’s right, but in the coming days and weeks, I’d feel the lack of growth-energy here in America.

A box of Grapenuts, which I missed so much in China, was waiting for me at Jerald’s house. He’s awesome. I had a bowl that night and stayed up much too late as it felt like the afternoon hours to my China bio-clock. I then got up (at 5am) and did my tai chi routine established back in Hubei province.

This first, fresh morning where I practiced some calming, meditative exercise revealed the stark contrasts between American life and that which I was used to in China. It was the clean neighborhood—which seemed sparkling; the single-family homes—which seemed luxurious; and the quiet environment—which seemed silent.

Not only were these attributes exaggerated because, in significant ways, China is the opposite. They also seemed sharp because being away awhile allows for fresh eyes upon return. And this is what this and next week’s blogs are all about—a revelation of the life here in Minnesota.

I’d spend the next few weeks visiting my family around the state and documenting the culture I grew up with—but perhaps didn’t see so vividly as I did being re-introduced.

So for you readers living in Minnesota, enjoy the fresh view yourselves. For my readers in China, it’s time to turn the tables and let you experience a different land and culture through the lens of New Plateaus.

:)

And perhaps especially for my Chinese readers this post will be fun because I unexpectedly (though life is reliably cheeky) had pieces of China retain their place in my life even here, on the opposite side of the world.

I settled into a groove at my brother’s place in “suburban-like” Buffalo, Minnesota, a small town 45 minutes west of Minneapolis:

map

He lives in a development of three-story single-family homes. A neighborhood like this is a rare site in China where almost everyone I met lived in an apartment complex.

I admit it was nice to feel the space.

Though affordable in America, it doesn’t come cheap. Debt is the key word as Americans live on borrowed dollars and are contented (and motivated) to put in long days and nights working to stay above the red. I don’t think people back in China know this kind of lifestyle so well. Nor am I sure they’d want to.

Different folks, different strokes.

One thing I can say, though: it’s nice to have nice things. And it’s nice to provide a nice home for children:

My nephew, Robert, and a lovely pair of twins that my sister-in-law babysat.

Getting outside, I visited the local coffee shop, “Buffalo Books” where I’d write and observe:

'Your move, Ted.'

Seeing the foundations of a community in most places in the world is sort of challenging because you’ll have to dig deep. But in America nothing’s too old, and downtown areas of any town–particularly smaller ones–are not too different than the ways they were erected 150 years prior. One-story, uninterrupted buildings line the streets and house small businesses such as bakeries, bookstores, and hardware shops.

Here’s a view of my hometown, Blackduck, Minnesota:

Indeed, a “3-D” view of a town (the history recognized) is quite doable and refreshing, for it provides an understanding that normally goes unnoticed when caught up in the hustle and bustle of daily living.

As a matter of fact, I headed up to Blackduck a couple weeks later to visit family. And it was way up here, of all places, away from the big city, that some residual “Chinese” experiences occurred. Here’s a map of Bemidji, Minnesota, the biggest town up there.

map

My mother and I decided to visit Itasca State Park on a Saturday. It’s beautiful nature reserve full of lakes, hills, forests, and most notably, the headwaters of the Mississippi River:

headwaters

That’s right. That’s the “mighty Mississippi”. All mountains start with a slight incline, all fires with a spark, and similarly, the Mississippi with a creek:

Go ahead and cross the river for fun.

Others enjoying themselves:

Mom and I

We started driving home, but decided to make one last stop to enjoy a beautiful view over a lake. Walking down the path, I heard some talking. It was definitely foreign yet strangely familiar. I caught a word or two and thought, “that’s Mandarin Chinese”. We encountered three folks from China along the wooden walk-way. A middle-aged woman who works for 3M drove up this weekend to see the park. With her was a friend and her son who studies in London:

Son took the picture

I gave them my blog address and hope they checked it out, perhaps are even reading this one: )

That night, I sought out another China interaction in northern Minnesota by getting a taste of the local American-Chinese food:

I entered and greeted the host:

host/owner, perhaps

It’s a wonderfully typical American-Chinese restaurant: Chinese inspired art, family-style restaurant layout, and of course, as much yummy, goopy food as you can stand:

Though Americanized, the food is still the creation of home-grown Chinese-folk. None of the employees knew English, but these two did:

While I ate, the fella and I spoke. He’s been in America for quite sometimes—was originally in New York City. He came to Bemidji several years ago for another Chinese restaurant. He doesn’t like the cold, originally being from SE China (as are the employees), but as happens in life, in any country, his children and wife keep him grounded.

How interesting to go from place to place, country to country to find people of all colors in “each other’s” countries aspiring for the same goals in life. (I met Americans settled down with family in China, as well.)

Being in China all those months, there were times I longed for the chance to eat “normal” food, see the things I was used to, and be around “my people”. Now that I’m back, I’m excited to say “Ni hao” to Chinese people every chance I can. :)

And I look forward to next week’s post where I share with you some pure, untainted northern Minnesotan culture: county fair and demolition derby!

until then,

and to new plateaus,

-Brandon

 
 

Impressed With China

28 Oct

Days before I left to go to China a liberal friend of mine said he was interested to see if my political views might change upon being in China. His angle was, “yeah, they’re communist, but look at their impressive education and transportation projects. We could learn from them.”

The New York Times was/is fond of saying the same things, touting initiatives the country efficiently institutes that it considers “forward thinking”. China should be imitated.

Then there were the detractors.

Other folks told me to watch out because the government could, and does, arrest and imprison people for small, unpredictable reasons. “Don’t do or say anything they might not like,” they’d tell me. A friend of mine who taught in China spoke with displeasure about her experience, her mail being opened and People magazines confiscated.

(America is funny because the views on China are so polarizing—sometimes both ends being held by the same person!)

Not settled into any “pro” or “anti” camp, I went with an open mind. And I found that the pro-Chinese sentiment was right. But so was the anti.

They were both truthful in that their considerations were valid. It’s just that people choose to pick the areas of concern that happen to catch their eye.

I did find myself going back and forth while in China. My first month there I was impressed with a pro-China vibe. I was surprised to see people seeming so peaceful and content. I always felt safe in the city. I never saw a car getting pulled over by zealous police. I immediately saw signs of freedom not present back in America: kids regularly out by themselves having fun in the streets, no one giving a guy a hard time for lighting up a cigarette in public, drinking a beer on the sidewalk wasn’t against the law.

I saw a country of people living their lives as they saw fit. Meanwhile, I’d read headlines from American news about the U.S. getting on China’s case about human rights, environment, economic reasons. And the crazy part was that the U.S. just had the oil spill, had the banks all fail in ’08, and was/is guilty of its own human rights issues.

I couldn’t blame China for what they’ve come to believe over the years: that they’re always being targeted and picked on by the West.

Then a few months went by.

My blog was censored. I went to perform a transaction at the bank, and it took all day and cost me unanticipated fees. My mail was opened, and I couldn’t send things home that I wanted.

I saw a people complicit with government policy. I saw an unkempt population who thoughtlessly threw plastic, styrofoam, and glass into the ocean creating floating rows of litter. I encountered a protest and was pushed away by police and plain-clothed men. These examples, of course, spurred on some dislike.

Now I’m back, and when people ask me about my feeling towards China I don’t give the good or the bad, indicating placement on the anti/pro-China continuum; I have to give them both.

I like to say that I was impressed with China. The good parts were impressed upon me; the bad parts were as well. The truth was deepened.

In a controversial land like China, people look for the drama of “terrible” or “great”, but traveling and living there wasn’t about defining a position. It was about getting to know China, and my world, better.

There’s a pull to taking a side on a topic and falling down into the depths of an allegiance (at least I’m susceptible to this.) One has to take a side on social issues, I suppose, but before you do, take as long as you can to hold out and see all the truth. Or take a side (commitment and sticktuitiveness are honorable, and there’s a time and place to make a stand), but don’t forget that there’s merit to the other side. The expense of missing out on a hemisphere of truth can be very costly.

In the experiences and issues that make up our lives, don’t let your made-up mind prevent you from seeing all that is there.

to new plateaus,

-Brandon

 
 

The Faces I Lived Amongst

22 Oct

Home: where routines are made, and the places and people are familiar. It’s a location that let’s you get into your groove of life and feel comfortable.

The hunter-gatherer peoples of pre-civilized humanity had a “home” of sorts: it was the people they kept close. Then when farming, domestication, and cities sprouted, humans came to know the comforts and productivity of staying put, of enjoying the regularity of a homestead.

For the most part, this holds true today.

Feel the difference when away from home—more alert and present, more uncomfortable, excited, or anxious? Then as you’re within striking distance on the return trip, you get that groove back, and the familiarity of the environment puts you in a new state.

Regardless of your specific reaction, the impact of home makes Dorothy truthful when saying there’s no place like it—wherever it is. Bemidji, Minneapolis, Buenos Aires, or Zhuhai. That’s right, even if just a temporary home, like Zhuhai was for me, these points all held true to the degree that a year in China can allow.

Whereas my last slideshow boasted a wider geographic breadth, I’d argue that the variety of this slideshow is greater. Because when you get to know an area, when it’s your home, you delve into its crevices to reveal what really makes it tick—just as a matter of being there and living the day to day. So it’s a matter of depth.

Here are the faces that made me feel at home in Zhuhai. It’s appropriate that I finish my China posts with this ode to my home there.

Enjoy:

(oh, and I really wanted to give you an audio option with this slideshow, but my tech skillz are sour this morning. So do yourself a favor a play a nice melody to go along with the show: )

Boy, looking at pictures and seeing the times that you had really has you appreciate the moments past!

I’ll be honest, though, I can specifically recall some of those pictures, and the moments had weren’t as enjoyable as the pictures tell me they could have been. In other words, sometimes I wasn’t all there when taking or being in the picture. I was thinking about something else–worrying, anticipating, pre-occupied with something.

Each picture captured a precious moment, and the degree to which I wasn’t soaking in that singular experience is the degree to which I missed out. It’s the point made in that old adage: life it what happens when you’re busy making plans.

I realized when reviewing the slideshow that I had an incredible year, but am guilty of sometimes living the moments as a means to an end–a paycheck, a resume builder, a time-filler. The reward of my time in China wasn’t just something to gain “down the road”; the trip itself was the reward!

Here’s to not wasting a drip of life.

And as a treat to my China-based readers (and heck, a self-reflective treat to those in America, too) next time I’m going to write a post about my return to Minnesota. Re-introducing myself to county fairs, Chinese buffets, and state parks with fresh eyes was a revealing and enlightening experience that I look forward to sharing with you.

It’ll be a introduction to Minnesota for the Chinese who read this blog; and maybe for you Minnesotans, it’ll be a fresh re-introduction for you, too.

Until then,

and to new plateaus,

-Brandon

 
 

Feminine Power

19 Oct

Greetings Readers,

An article of mine about China was featured on the website: The Good Men Project. I want to share it with you. :)

I will say, though, that it’s a bit different than the travelogueing you are used to. In the spirit of “reaching new plateaus”, I sometimes delve into deeper themes of humanity. Here, I talk about the idea of feminine power: how I became introduced to it, how it was clearer to see in China, and how we lack its understanding in America.

Enjoy!

http://goodmenproject.com/featured-content/feminine-power-the-recognition/

 
 

Letting Go; Letting Life

06 Oct

The trek was over.

I got back to Zhuhai, my home in China for the past eleven months. But though I was done trekking, I wasn’t through with traveling. See, these were my last 48 hours to prepare for my final departure back to Minnesota. This preparation included the boring stuff like getting all my money out of the bank, squeezing all my things into two suitcases, a carry-on, and a personal bag, and selling some things I accumulated over the year.

As well, there were lots of goodbyes and reflection, the latter being triggered as I spent my final afternoon walking the docks of Zhuhai:

Because it so happens that my first afternoon in Zhuhai I also wandered the docks. Almost to the day, 11 months prior:

The day before I took this shot, I arrived to China fresh, not knowing what to expect. I simply exited the plane alone with my pre-conceived notions of hectic traffic, lots of Chinese people, and smog.

Thankfully, these stereotypes weren’t too common.

I anticipated a year of boundless travel and exploratory possibilities. (You know how it is when you make loose plans to do things “in the next six months”. It’s exciting because you really can do anything, but you gotta realize sooner or later that you can’t do everything!) Then as “these next six months” are upon you; you gotta start actually doing these things. Time to buckle down…kind of.

You learn to play that delicate game of planning while being open to the possibilities.

I was awkward those first weeks, as well as anxious, excited, and clueless. I don’t usually mind this when I travel, actually, but something about the “temporary permanence” of 11 months shook me a bit. I was irritable and bothered by others staring at me and grew tired of struggling through the simplest transactions at the market.

Most of the time, though, I chilled and went with the flow—open to the possibilities, as I said, and I honestly can’t recall an instance where this rhythm ever brought me to a place where I didn’t leave a better person. (Gosh. Think about that! If we could always just move through life, each day, to this beat.)

My first week in China, my clueless, go-with-the-flow self was up on stage dancing for a community festival.

The following months, I’d be in the spotlight several more times:

The Zhuhai Daily's English section

Emceeing our school's Chinese New Year's Celebration

In a TV studio audience

Cooking at my school's food festival

Modeling for my school's literature and outdoor advertising

I didn’t create these scenarios—at least not in the sense that I went to China trying to be an emcee or a show-cook! Life brought them my way. But I did come to China, and I took advantage of the opportunities that surfaced. I guess that’s the delicate game I spoke of.

[Here I am, regurgitating the script for living that's been taught to me by a compilation of spiritual role models. It's about finding that balance of self and “other”, doing the work assigned to you when you and Life collide. As you make your way, sometimes it's seeing only enough in front of you to take the next step with certainty---or sometimes even walking off the edge and trusting a foundation to be there.]

Belief, faith, letting go and letting Life.

This corresponds a level of serenity in one’s entire life—as well as in each infinitesimal moment. It has been written about and defined differently in spiritual terms, secular terms, self-centered terms, human-worshiping terms from every corner of the world for all of documented human history. And the weight of this lesson is no lighter today than it was 5000 years ago.

(This is not to say that we don’t have to sometimes be more aggressive, creative, manipulative in getting the outcomes we want, but the year for me was an exercise in relinquishing. And as a matter of fact, by this process I found myself more apt to insert my ideas and organization into the mix.)

If you’ve read my blog, you’ve seen that this year wasn’t spent in one city. I traveled around quite a bit. From the regional sights of Yangshuo, Doumen, Hong Kong, and Macau:

Yangshuo:

Doumen:

Hong Kong:

Macau

Senado Square

The Venetian casino

Then were the far away locales of Beijing, Henan and Hubei provinces:

Beijing:

Rural Henan province:

A family farmstead

And to the mountains of Hubei province:

Where I practiced Tai Chi:

Finally, I also visited the international destinations Vietnam and Cambodia:

Hanoi, Vietnam

Cambodia:

Life with the monks

Cruising down a river

In each place, near and far, the surface images parted to reveal deeper meanings behind the environments and people I encountered. This was more than an education about these particular people and places. It was an education about humanity in general—about you and I.

A fish/animal market in Zhuhai

The treatment of animals here in Zhuhai had me asking about all of humanity’s treatment of animals. Indeed, how/can/should we seek to prevent the deaths of animals? I also discovered a window of animal edibility–ones too distant (spiders and snakes) are looked at with questionable appetites; too familiar (horses, dogs) and most find it inhumane. But just right are those in the middle—cattle, deer, chicken. Funny how that works.

Then from animals to people, in many places it was the locals who were on display. I always felt a bit funny realizing the double-standard: how would we react if an Asian tourist came and took pictures of how we lived?

Yet here I am in Guangxi province:

Cattle herders

And here I am in Macau at a Buddhist funeral service:

Getting more personal, I arrived to China admittedly jaded from the politicization of education in America. In my ideological division I realized the common phenomena of taking a side of an issue and then disregarding anything that resembles the opposition. Faced with my bias while undergoing my teacher training, I quickly saw my veil and worked to remove it.

In China, I freshly realized the importance of education and the immense importance it plays in the continued progress for humanity. I’m grateful for this as my open mind and heart allowed for the infusion of youthful energy:

Two of my students

I wondered how much of this “child-like” enjoyment can be recaptured, after the initial shock of adulthood has been realized, by getting back to finding pleasure and contentment in the little things. Of course, I did have to say that children have something going for them that us adults don’t—that magical blurred sense of reality and fantasy.

Then referring to a deeper self in all of us, my time outside the cities and towns and into the untouched-by-human arena of nature, I could sense that mental division we have between our appreciations for both realms. Part of us likes the technological; part of us the natural.

I learned that humans are called by nature. Part of us “is” nature and that sense that you get when hiking or fishing or camping seems to be a resonating of a deep part of our identity…harkening to a past time when human all lived with nature, perhaps an homage to this part of the mind that still exists today.

And a nugget of wisdom—actually quite a gem—I came upon one random day was the lesson that if armlessness can’t stop the painter, what’s ever stopping all of us from expressing ourselves?

And indeed, our efforts, as he exemplifies, with the opportunities Life presents along the way, as my experiences exemplified, reveals that we all have a lot going for us.

Next time, I’m going to offer a look at all the people. It’ll be an album of eyes whose expressions all come together to create what we know as the Chinese.

to New Plateaus,

-Brandon

 
 

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:

 
 

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: