Sunday, July 29, 2007

Broken Intermezzos: Henan and Shaolin Temple

Note: Written during the week of July 13th through July 20th, 2007

July 14th, 2007

We arrive in Henan Province about 5 o’clock. Through the window, I see real fog for the first time since I arrived in China. It hugs the earth, encroaching over the grasslands and seeping through the bamboo trees. After getting off the train, we take the tour bus provided by the martial arts school to the hotel. We get to the hotel around 7 AM – my legs are sore from the cramped seats. I’m worried about my left knee – it’s cramping easily. The rain isn’t helping very much either. Wang laoshi takes us to breakfast at the hotel restaurant. Some porridge, a couple eggs, too many salty pancakes, and I am back in the room for a nap. At 10 o’clock, we set out to buy our uniform pants and socks for tomorrow’s training, and get a feel for the school campus. Despite the sullen weather drowning us, the worn down buildings are alive with the unison cries of students going through morning exercises, kicking pads and punching air. Soon, we eat lunch. Some students are concerned about the cleanliness of the dishes, so Luo laoshi uses the boiling tea to sanitize them. The tea seems like something out of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, a clear green concoction still boiling out of the teapot. Still not completely rested from the rough morning, I retreat to my room for yet another nap.
At two in the afternoon, we hike the stone road to Shaolin Temple. The gray path is amazingly even; the stones evenly spaced, ancient bamboos and trees straight down along the path. At the temple, we meet our tour guide, an actual Shaolin monk. The man takes us through the architecture and charismatically explains the significance of the different statues of Buddha, and the relation (or lack thereof) of kung-fu. We go where normal tourists cannot enter – we stand right at the foot of the Buddha relics made thousands of years ago, wall paintings closed off because of public abuse. The monk and I share a little sparring moment, comparing the stances of Tae Kwon Do to kung fu. The rain has slowed down, and time has already flown to 6 o’clock. We follow the stone sunflower path out of the temple, where we gather for a picture with the monk next to the stone guardians of the main entrance.
Dinner is again at the same restaurant. The waitresses are absolutely zaogao. No matter – it’s the food that matters, right? Of course, when you find two flies in the vegetable dish and a strand of black hair that you know can’t be yours, appetite wanes. I finally take a shower before we gather once more for the night to watch the Jet Li movie Shaolin Temple. I smile to myself as I follow the dialogue with my limited vocabulary and knowledge of the temple. After seeing too many lambs killed by the evil goons, I excuse myself. I must wake up at 5 AM tomorrow to run hills, and it’s not going to be pretty. The green and purple hair bracelets on my wrist provide the only comfort for the night.

July 15th 2007

Harley wakes me up at 5:00 AM, as mandated by our martial arts teacher. I curse the weather for not raining. A quick splash of water on my face, and I leave the room. The rest of the group is already waiting for me outside. The teacher is late. We run.
We run through the tattered walls of the school. Already, young children in their school uniforms are crossing my path, heading to perform their chores. We run down the stone path. In the early morning, it is serenely empty of tourists. The calming green on both sides of the path make the run less of an eyesore. A couple runners dash way up ahead, but I stay with the middle pack. I see Harley with our teachers way in the back.
At the gate of Shaolin Temple, we wait for Harley and the teachers to catch up. While waiting, Wang laoshi suggests that I lead the group in learning a Tae Kwon Do form. After refusing, she makes me oblige – nothing really better to do. Teaching the form is hard, as many (if not all) have experienced martial arts. After teaching five moves, the teacher arrives.
First, plyometrics. Quick sprints and jumps are followed by light stretches. Finally, the teacher guides us through simple Taijiquan. The slow deliberate movements make me sweat faster than the everything else we’ve done. It’s nothing like Tae Kwon Do – everything is slow, each move taking time.
On the way back to the hotel, I talk to some monks. One is seven years old, a couple are teenagers, and one’s the adult guardian. They are on their way to spread their knowledge of Buddhism. The seven year old started studying when he was four years old. I ask the guardian if starting at such a young age is effective. “It’s not a matter of understanding, but getting accustomed to the life first.” 习惯.
After breakfast, we meet students from the Shaolin Wushu Vocational Institute. The school director and Feng Laoshi are friends, so we are fortunate to talk to some of the school’s best students. I’ll save the comments that were exchanged for my bao4gao4.
For lunch, we go out into the city. Wang laoshi takes us to a restaurant where we are provided soups in which we boil everything we want to eat, like thin slices of meat, potatoes, cilantro, lettuce, etc. While eating, Wang laoshi teaches me how to speak like someone from the countryside – “Za3 le?” – and Bo2An1 teaches me how speak like someone from Taiwan.(我有吃饭了!). Upon return, we begin our first Shaolin kung fu lesson. It is like the morning, but faster and sweatier. Harley, Bo2An1 and I learn how to back flip, and we learn a Shaolin form. The moves are supposedly simple, but complex. Because of the sweat, I place my glasses on the ground where I think no one will step on them, but the teacher accidentally steps on them. Wang Laoshi has sent them to an optometrist. I ate dinner with my face and the food about three inches away from me. I write this entry incredibly blind. My eyes are horrible – I really didn’t expect my eyes to be this 糟糕. Besides this unfortunate event, there is one point that I won’t forget – the after-massage. For the first time in my life, I get a massage to relax the muscles sore and worn from the training. It takes the teacher several “fang4song1”s get me to calm down, but I relent to the pressure relieving itself from my body. I intend to pass on this Shaolin massage, but for now, I need sleep. Those wishing this Oriental massage must at least a week.

July 17th, 2007
Yesterday was gongfu training all morning. From five o’clock to about one o’clock in the afternoon, we practiced wushu and shaolinquan. We performed flips, kicks, stretches and punches beyond our comfort zone boundaries. In the afternoon, we visited a Taoist temple. The biggest difference between the Taoist temple and Buddhist temple is the abundance of trees. The trees are old and bountiful, hundreds taking up an entire courtyard and beautifully lining stone paths. However, I really couldn’t wring myself to gather much interest for the religion. It’s very…mortal. Kings from ancient times are posthumously worshipped for their wisdom.
I don’t worship other people. I may love, I may infatuate with, I may idolize, but I do not worship a fellow human being.
说实在的,the entire temple felt rather fake to me, renovated for the sake of tourism. But, millions of Chinese people still make pilgrimages to this temple every year to respect this statues and enhance their Taoist belief. From an ideological standpoint, Taoism sounds fascinating, and has many honest values, but the temple feels flamboyant.
I got about five hours of sleep… not enough.
Today, some students didn’t wake up for the 5 o’clock morning run and wushu. No matter – the morning jog helps to clear my mind. The final steps of the wushu form are complex, and I still do not comprehend some of the movements. I hope that the laoshi will give a better explanation tomorrow morning.
At eight o’clock, we went to visit Songyang Academy, the oldest and the most famous Buddhist-Taoist-Confucianist Academy in China. For a sense of the school’s elitism, the Academy in ancient times is like Yale today. The school grounds harbor beautiful stonework, including famous stonework of 95 Buddhas and stone calligraphy. Also, the oldest 白术in China, estimated to be older than 4500 years. If looked at very carefully, one of the aerial stumps resembles Confucius holding up his hand in prayer form.
Afterwards, we climbed Song Shan, the geographical center of the Chinese universe. The experience is hard to describe in words, so I shall save descriptions for the video I have made and pictures I have taken. All I can say is, my legs 疼得厉害.I must sleep. Tomorrow will be gongfu all day long, and I haven’t rested decently.

July 18th, 2007
I haven’t rested as well as I wanted to. Cold sweat and a couple of mosquito bites greet me when I wake up. The falongshui seems to have no effect on Henan’s mosquitoes. No matter – another 5 o’clock run awaits. Today, I get to teach some of the students that didn’t wake up yesterday how to perform the next few steps in the form we are learning. Teaching the form is tiring, but it feels great to see my limited Chinese and body motions passed on to and understood by another being.
After breakfast, we’re back in the training room. Today is all tumbles, somersaults, and aerial flips. I seem have mastered cartwheel with two hands, and have accomplished one hand cartwheels. No hand aerials are, at the moment, impossible for me. Maybe by the time I tried to do aerials, my body was already too tired. After accomplishing a high one hand somersault (but nearly running into the sharp tables on the side of the room), I stop. “Fang4 song2” is heard a lot from our teacher.
Lunch tasted great, but the service was as crappy (if not crappier) as the first day. Our room has no hot water (it’s been about three days now), but the cold water showers feel great after sweating out gallons. I’m supposed to work on drafting my investigation report, but I’m too tired. Nap is essential.

July 20th, 2007
I’m on the bus. I’m going back to Beijing.
Since the afternoon of the 18th, I’ve had precious little time and energy to use the computer. The afternoon workout that day wasn’t as intense as I had expected, but still exhausting. After working out, we all succumbed to dinner on the first floor of the hotel, still sweating in our uniforms. Showering was a bit of a joy because hot water was finally available. Harley and I rested on our beds with our laptops on our laps, trying to figure out what to prepare as drafts before Wang laoshi dropped by to check up on our progress (what progress….). I’ve decided to comparison, but I’m not exactly sure what I’m writing. I’ve forgotten so many words, I’m afraid I may have to write my essay in English, then translate into Chinese.
Yesterday, we visited the Longmen Caves. Against the wall of mountains, Buddhas are carved. Words are not enough - I hope my pictures help. We also visited the first Buddhist temple built in China, called 白马斯,or White Horse Temple. There are still monks using the temple to this day. I’m confused by all the Buddha statues I’ve been photographing. They all have different faces. One monk told me that the different faces signify the omnipresence of Buddha, another told me that whoever made the statue picked a famous contemporary person to create Buddha’s face. I like the first explanation better, but frankly Buddha looks better when he has a feminine face.
In the evening, we went karaoke-ing. It was nice to really relax for a change, Beijing style. The beer tasted funny, but we trusted its cleanliness. Wang laoshi let us sing a few English songs, but the karaoke system was horribly outdated. I ended up singing 98 Degrees’ “I Do (Cherish You),” but it was still fun to kneel in front of Wang laoshi to make her blush.
This morning, Kaiyue and I woke up at 5 AM to take in the sights one more time without sweat on our brows and tourists in our faces. We talked about the difference between traveler and tourist – the tourist is led, the traveler leads. I’m not sure if I was led much during this entire week. I’ve talked to so many kind kungfu students, heard first-hand perspectives, eaten first-hand food (beware) – I don’t want to define myself as a tourist.
Parting with our teacher was hard. I was surprised when Harley pointed out on his business card his birth year was 1987. He’s just one year older than me, two years younger than Harley. The girls said they wanted to marry him. I can’t stop them. Even I think he’s hot.
The bus in shaking the laptop a lot, and my hands are getting sore from typing in this uncomfortable position. We still have quite a few hours until we reach Beijing, but there is always this report to write, and classes to prepare for. I’m not sure what I want more – to return to an old life of repetition, or to constantly experience something new, no matter how painful or strenuous it is. But, then again, I’m in China. I’m always experiencing something new. Every word I study, every breath I take (Chinese air pollution, whoo!), is something new.

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Saturday, July 7, 2007

Friday Night Musical: 天安门和故宫, 在一次 (Tiananmen and the Forbidden City, Again)

The beauty here cannot be replaced,

and the Chinese understand.

On honoring the past through museums -
Americans honor by elevating an artifact's importance through glass walls. A wall of polyglass and laser security sensors makes something important.
Chinese have very few, if any, glass walls, and no security sensors. As I walked around the Forbidden City, I could only summarize the behaviors of tourists with this Chinese proverb:

"Tell me, I forget. Show me, I'll remember. Involve me, I'll understand."

The serenity of Beihai Park. Lakes on lakes, green on water.

We were slightly late for the flag ceremony, but no matter. For the five minutes that those soldiers took the flag down, the soldiers' faces said nothing but grave honor as they saluted to the falling flag. If their crisp marching, every person's step exactly 75 cm per step, is traditional dancing, it makes walking seem like contemporary expression.

Following the fall of the flag, Tiananmen and the monuments illuminated like a ride from Disneyland, complete with different colored lights. "Welcome to Beijing. There are no Fasttrak lines here - that would be unfair to your fellow citizen. However, enjoy your stay, and don't forget to take a picture of Mao!"

How can I resist Tiananmen while it looks like Christmas?

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Etude - 习惯 (getting used to it)

4 months later (technically 3 weeks, but considering each day's like a week) . . .

Through my window, I look over the tall trees of the university at never-ending construction in Beijing. The sky deceivingly looks to be covered by fog, but the locals are kind enough to tell the stupid foreigner that they are blanketed by polluted air. Inside my dorm, the air conditioner is always on, but outside the temperature spikes several tens of degrees, the humidity getting inside your shirt and shorts. As much as I relish the comfortable conditions of my room, my lessons demand my full attention.

The process is simple, but tedious - for every character and every new word, I write it over and over while pronouncing it correctly until I can remember it without sweating. The Chinese education system calls it 死记硬背 (rote memorization). I call it masochistic learning. After the second week, the process didn't torture as much as the first few days, but there's always that occasional character that looks ridiculously hard to remember.

With each new day, the grammar gets tougher, the characters harder to remember along with all the characters that I already had to learn. The phrase "越来越多" (more and more) is heard amid complaints from students, but this is what we signed up for. This upcoming week, we will finish one semester's worth of Chinese, and have our midterm exam. Oh joy.

Chinese food is good. Really. The only problem is, when you start to detect MSG (monosodium glutamate - makes food taste good, but gives killer headaches when too much is digested) in your food, or you wonder what your meat would taste like without all the oil, other cuisines start to look delicious. I forget what a burrito takes like. I crave bacon. A couple Chinese yogurts and stuffed buns in the morning, fried rice in the afternoon, and oil-laden meat and vegetables in the evening doesn't exactly bode well for the stomach. Thankfully, my Chinese has improved enough to request the cook to not add MSG and sparingly use oil, and I can eat without feeling too guilty after every meal.

After our midterm is our society survey week. Students will disperse throughout China and study the local culture, development, and economy. Some will go to Shanghai, some to Inner Mongolia, some to Shanxi. I will go to Shaolinsi in the Henan province to study gongfu, Eastern religions, and hopefully get a chance to talk with the locals. According to my teachers, Henan is one of the poorest regions in China, and is the home to a substantial percentage of Chinese with AIDS. It'll be nice to get out of the city.

Studying all the time sucks. I missed some instrument to relieve stress, so I went out with my friend to Xinjiekou and bought a guitar. After some bargaining, I got one for about 70 American dollars. The street was littered with every kind of instrument, from saxophones to clarinets, from trumpets to trombones, from violins to erhus. I'm tempted to buy a saxophone here - the best tenor saxophone in one of the stores is only $300. Ridiculous.

I don't think I'll ever get used to a daily routine at HBA. Everyday there's something new to take care of, whether it's buying groceries at the local supermarket or trying Chinese-made McDonald's. Not that I want a routine, of course.

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Sunday, July 1, 2007

Weekend Concerto 2: 天安门和京剧


"This is the 4 o'clock early bird economy news! In national conc--" screams the radio before my hand slams a few buttons.

I quickly shower, dress, and meet LeVan (fellow classmate) . We rush to the University's main gates and grab the first taxi we see. "Tiananmen Xi," LeVan says to the driver. I look outside the window. The sun doesn't seem to be up, but I can't be sure. I just hope we're not too late for the flag-raising ceremony.

Twenty minutes later, we are at Tiananmen Square, and already we see thousands of tourists crowded around the flagpole, but they're making way for a sharply dressed brigade, marching 105 beats per minute, 75 cm per step. I sit up in excitement, and get my camera ready.

But the brigade marches away from the pole. A glance up at the pole, and the great Chinese flag laughs at me, the red cloth fluttering in the light breeze and morning shower. I try not to say anything, as LeVan gasps and shakes her head, wondering why she woke up so early. The flag still taunts me, and I can't do anything but stare at it. If it weren't for the guards at its base, the Square would see more red than back during the mass revolt of the 1980s.

The throngs of tourists have retreated to the comfort of their tour buses, feeling satisfied for watching the rare spectacle at the center of the Chinese universe. I stare at the flag, swearing in English.

But of course, being a tourist myself, I feel obligated to take the risen flag.

With nothing else to do, we head for the Forbidden City. The entrance features the smiling face of Mao Ze Dong, and at his portrait's foot are smiling tourists, feeling obligated to take a picture with a picture of a man that launched China into cultural chaos. LeVan asks if I want a pose with the man, but I spare myself.

The Forbidden City, so-called because it was closed off to the public for 500 years, features the living quarters of the Ming and Qing dynasties. The roofs are exquisite, every ornament overdecorated, every dragon sparking gold over the ramparts.

We get as far as the meridian gate, and we are stopped by a ticket booth that will not open until 8:30. It is only 5:30AM. I look up at the buildings. The living spaces are built on large blank red walls. The royal families must have thought walls would stop assassins. I'm not so sure about the walls, but I want my future house to have these palace roofs. The oriental beauty is astounding, the corner ornamental dragons majestic, guarding the dynasties from ancient spirits.

We walk along the outer walls, and find ourselves bordering the palace moat, yet another man-built defense of the long-gone dynasties. Old men cast fishing rods into the green water. I wonder if any fish can survive in such polluted water, but they know better than I do. As we stroll, we pass by elders singing with deep long vocals, swinging their bodies in beat to their music, synchronizing to the commandments of their taijiquan.

The gray sky overlooks the palace, but the palace's fierce colors seem to challenge nature's hues. However, tree and water make the color fight serene, their green soothing the eyes.
(Same day, evening)

Recovering from the early morning trek to Tiananmen takes nine hours of sleep and a cold shower. Tonight, the HBA is going to see Beijing Opera, or Jingju.

The first act is entitled, "The Goddess of Heaven Scatters Flowers." After the overture, featuring Chinese instruments such as the erhu and Chinese flute, a piercing, high-pitched note screams out over the audience. The goddess comes out from stage right, holding that same note. She stops. Now, the small pit orchestra joins her as she wails high-pitched notes that sends shivers down everyone's spines. My ears hurt for the initial few minutes, but after getting accustomed to the strange musical style, I can bear to look at the goddess, twirling the long rainbow silks across the stage. According to my teacher, Beijing Opera traditionally starts with an introduction from the goddess, her flowers scattered throughout different worlds. Our mortal minds can only see the growth of one of her flowers - in this case, the story of a nymph who married a scholar.
The story is of two warring factions - that of the scholar and that of the nymph. The two decide to marry on first sight because the nymph thinks that scholar is smart. Seriously.
But of course, the general of the nymphs is not happy with such a rash decision. He sends out troops with a warrant for arrest, but Chinese nymphs don't go down as easily as the Greek counterparts. She calls up backup, featuring her maids and an incredibly agile turtle (the green-clad man on the right).

The general sends his best marshals against her. One marshal can't stab her down - she merely kicks the spears back to the marshal. (Literally kicks the spear.) So another one joins. Two can't get her down, so three. Then four. Now each of these marshals has two spears. She only has one. But they can't get that nymph down - she's too agile for these pure earthly beings. In the meantime, the turtle fights off the rest of the troops. The maids show up for one fight and run.
The story nearly ends in failure, when the scholar is nearly stabbed by the general, but the nymph saves the scholar in distress, waving her magic amulet. The couple chases the troops away, the nymph waving the magic amulet and the scholar waving his long ponytail. The end.
A bit too Americanized, methinks. A glance over the crowd, and I see more Europeans and Americans than Chinese locals. Perhaps the locals wanted to spare themselves of the goddess's lovely high-pitched eardrum-breaking voice, or perhaps they knew that the Opera was geared for American idiots who are used to Hollywood-style action, expecting nothing less than a good dose of martial arts and a simple plot from Chinese entertainment.
Nevertheless, we really enjoyed the spectacle, for what it was worth.
(I know, my face looks noticeably boney. I've lost considerable weight since I've been in Beijing. Blame the food, not me.)
After the show, we furiously making plans for the night. Some are heading to Latino, a dance-bar club feeling (surprise) Latino music. Some are heading to Houhai, the scene of music and alcohol debauchery lasting into the night. Some are headed to sleep. As for me, I'm getting ready for singing karaoke for the first time. I don't know any Chinese songs, but whatever. It's always the company that I seek...though, it would be nice to sing something I know. Afterwards, my friends and I will go to Vic's, the hottest nightclub in Beijing, to dance the academic stress off.

Oh, it's been two weeks, but life is going so fast. So much change already - I like it. I only fear the consequences on my mind of trying to live a year in nine weeks.

("Weekend Concerto 1: The Great Wall," will be written at a later date.)

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