Home Sweet Home: China in Minnesota

All of you who’ve read my posts are awesome. Thank you for following along. While I’m sad to see this journey end, I’m excited with anticipation because this was just my first try. I’ll be writing many more travel-inspired pieces as I explore new parts of the world. (Next on my radar is East Africa.) Also, this blog was just a rough draft. A more complete, polished effort is being tailored presently: a book (and a flashy eBook) of all the pictures, footage, lessons, insights, and emotions China provided. Expect it to be available this winter!

Since you won’t be hearing from me any longer on this blog, allow me to keep you in the loop of my travels and book release. Just leave a comment below or follow me on one of my social media or simply visit my blog, New Plateaus, to stay up to date and able to read all my non-travel articles–many of which are being featured in the Minneapolis Star Tribune and MPR.org!  :)

Let us now proceed with this final chapter: my arrival back and experiences being re-introduced to Minnesota. (And how China was back home waiting for me.)

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 wonderful lasting impression; it 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 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 too crazy expensive. Near our gate, I talked to a 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 care-free spirit.

Soon I left Shanghai (and China–on the day my visa expired) en route to Chicago. This American flight differed from the ones I was used to in Asia. Food was worse and flight attendants grumpier. Finally, 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. We greeting one another and drove out to his house an hour west in Buffalo, MN:

map

It struck me how everything looked the same as I remember 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.

It wasn’t just the environment that clashed, but the lifestyle. A neighborhood of three-story homes is a rare site in China where almost everyone I met lived in an apartment complex. 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 around in the days to come, I’d make my way into the heart of Buffalo. Seeing the foundations of a community in most places in the world is challenging because you 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 housing small businesses such as bakeries, bookstores, and hardware shops.  This “3-D” view of a town (the history recognized) is quite doable and refreshing.

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

‘Your move, Ted.’ Not too much of a clash here, actually. Brought me back to my Zhuhai neighborhood where old folks would play cards ot their own board games.

After a couple weeks, I headed up to my hometown, Blackduck, to visit family. 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

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

These are the headwaters coming out of Lake Itasca.

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:

After a year of black hair everywhere, these kids were decidedly Minnesotan.

We started driving home through park, 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 friend and son who studies in London:

Son took the picture with the two Chinese women, my mother, and myself.

They were surprised to find an American in rural Minnesota who knew some Chinese. I was surprised to find Chinese people in a place about as far from China as I thought I could get! I told them about my year in Zhuhai and we shared a nice interaction.

I wanted to keep the theme going, so that night I sought out  a taste of the local American-Chinese food:

I entered and greeted the host:

host/owner, I believe

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:

None of the employees knew English, except these two:

While I ate, the fella and I spoke. He’s been in America for quite sometime—originally in New York City. He came to Bemidji several years ago to open his restaurant. He doesn’t like the cold, originally being from SE China (as were the employees), but as happens in life in any country, his children and wife keep him grounded. (I had met Americans settled down with family in China, as well.)

This day was a strange and pleasant bizarro experience of the few Chinese in rural Minnesota.

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 back, I’m excited to say “Ni hao” when I can. :)  It’s a fitting gesture, representing the lasting impact a trip abroad can have on someone, displaying the eagerness with which I want to share my experiences, and a continuing to live a bigger life open to those who I wouldn’t have interacted with prior.

Unfortunately, with this newfound openness, it’s also time to close the story that is this blog. I’ll say “Zai jian” or 再见 or good bye. It was a blast sharing my journey with you; I hope you got something from it as well.

 

-Brandon

But don’t think for a second this means an end to our interactivity. We just need to change venues. Comment below and I’ll contact you when I start a new travel and when my book is released!  Follow one of my social networks or come visit my main blog, New Plateaus to be notified of goings-on but also to catch a drift of all my latest writings.

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Impressed With China

So did my year in China have me looking back with appreciation for its history and spirit? Or were the pollution and big government detractors of my enjoyment?

Yes.

Days before I left to go to China a liberal-minded friend 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.

People at home seemed to have their idea of China shunted into an anti or pro camp. Myself not settled into either side, I went with an open mind. What I found was justification for both sides; but either was only half right. When it comes to China (and many other topics, actually) people tend to see what they’re looking for.

Throughout the year, I didn’t completely escape the either/or trap myself, however. I found myself shifting between dependent on circumstances. My first month there I was impressed with a pro-China vibe. I was surprised at how  peaceful and content everyone there seemed. 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 the dislike.

So when people ask my feelings toward China, I like to say I was impressed. The good parts were impressed on me; so were the bad. 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.

The lesson here is that there’s a pull toward falling into an allegiance on issues.  In the end, one does have to make a choice on the issues we face in life, but before you do, take the time consideration to see all the truth. Chances are, there’s merit to the other side. The expense of missing out on a hemisphere of truth can be very costly.

’til next time,

-Brandon

p.s. And there is only going to be one more next time. Next Saturday’s post will be the story of my unusual introduction to life back home and a farewell to this blog.

Since I’ve been back in Minnesota, though, the story-telling has just begun! Over the past year, I’ve taken all my stories and reformed them into a picture-rich eBook complemented with video I took all through my year. I’m very excited to complete this work within the next few months and just as excited to show it to you who followed my journey through China each week.

So we can stay in touch, please leave a comment below indicating your desire to do so. I will then let you know when the book is released as well as direct you to my new blog when I travel to my next destination: East Africa.

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Faces of Asia

It might be the single, most powerful image to humans: the face.

In it we see so much; and from it we react so much. Ever examine your feelings when seeing different faces? It’s incredible how the subtle changes and appearance of a face can affect us: from the familiarity, relief, and comfort from a loved one’s face; to the tenseness, anxiety, and even horror from an unfamiliar or threatening one. And apart from these extremes are the countless areas in-between.

The face seems to be so much more than a happenstance of genes. It seems a symbol of the individual, a expression of their character, confidence, passion, and interests. Beyond the shape, we recognize the tells: scars, weathering, tone, mood. We inference their age and experiences. We may even be able to tell their story. We get to know all this with this one image.

The face is universal. The gestures are universal: head tilts, head nods, head back, head forward; smiles, grimaces, scowls, frowns, stares, squints, ogles, glares, glances, sneers, sighs, eye-rolls, winks, blinks, raised eyebrows, jaw-drops, jaws clenched, peers, pouts, and puckers.

This post is pair of slideshows, each offering a look at all the looks I got from the people I met. :) First up is a compilation of the faces I met all year, all over as I traveled around the continent.

Enjoy!

New Plateaus: Chinese Faces pt 1

With all the variations in faces mentioned at the top and seen throughout this slideshow, it’s a wonder we always talk about Chinese all looking alike! Variety is everywhere. And there’s no better way to see it than by looking at it straight in the eye. It’s a big world, folks. Go check it out one face at a time.

Our next slideshow reveals this variety not just all over the country and continent, but within one city, and my home in China, Zhuhai.

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 even 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 the first 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. It’s about depth.

Here are the faces that made me feel at home in Zhuhai.

Enjoy:

(oh, and I really wanted to give you an audio option with this slideshow, but my tech skillz aren’t up to par. If you like, play a nice melody to go along with the show: )

Faces in my China neighborhood

Nothing like a picture to help you appreciate the moments past! The reward of my time in China wasn’t just something to gain “down the road”: experience for a resume, learning a language. The trip itself was the reward!

Here’s to not wasting a drip of life.

Next week, I give my final take on China.

’til then,

-Brandon

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Letting Go, Letting Life

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: I had 48 left in China to ready for a long journey back to Minnesota. This 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 was also spent wandering the docks. Almost to the day, 11 months prior I took this shot:

And the day before this shot, I arrived to China fresh and not knowing what to expect. I simply exited that plane alone with my pre-conceived notions of hectic traffic, lots of people, and smog. (Thankfully, these stereotypes weren’t too common.)

I anticipated a year of boundless travel and exploratory possibilities, making all sorts of 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 transaction 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 speak of.

And here I am, regurgitating the script for living that’s been taught to me by a compilation of spiritual role models, finding that balance of self and “other”, doing the work “assigned” to you by Life. 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 will be there. Belief, faith, letting go and letting Life. This corresponds to a level of serenity in one’s entire life—as it is 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 relinquishment. As a matter of fact, by relinquishing I found myself more apt to insert my ideas and organization into the mix.

Check it out.

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

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

Beijing:

Rural Henan province:

A family farmstead

The mountains of Hubei province:

Where I practiced Tai Chi:

to 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.

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. But I freshly realized education’s immense importance 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.

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.

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?

Our efforts–as this artist exemplified–along with the opportunities Life presents–as my experiences exemplified, reveal that we all have a lot working for us.  : )

So go and work it!

And I’ll see you next week with more stunning summary of my year: a look at all the faces.

’til then,

-Brandon

p.s. My experience in China is also being offered as a multimedia eBook to be ready in the next two-three months! It’s a stimulating and interesting arrangement around the themes I’d encounter: poverty, education, dating, nature, etc. I can’t wait to show you!

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The Final Leg

This three-week journey through central China capped off my 11-month stay in China. After it, I returned to my China home of Zhuhai for two days of preparations, reflection, and final good-byes to all of China.

Bu first, my three week trip ended with a brief bit in the historic city, Xi’an.

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

First, let’s learn to pronounce it. 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.

Being an old, old city, Xi’an has an old-school security measure: the city wall. Today, 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’.

Turns out 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 never saw too many Americans tourists in Asia. Europeans and Australians were more common.]

Heading back from the wall, I caught a shot of this structure:

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

Continuing on, I heard some music inside a darkened building. Obviously, I had to enter:

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 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 sadly (or not) this was the most compelling thing I noticed:

Oh boy

Chinese folks wear shirts with English on them and have no idea what they say, let alone what they mean. Most times the messages aren’t as eye-catching, but this also wasn’t the first crass shirt I saw. But hey, at least there were no typos on this one.

And on this strange note, my three-week, central-China trek comes to a close. Soon after breakfast, it was off to the airport to fly to Guangzhou and then bus to Zhuhai.

Now let’s have a ball looking back on this trek:

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

Then to 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 after riding all night long

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. These real-life endeavors just delve into the deeper drives 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; they just transform.

With that in mind, I got back to “real life” and 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.

’til next time,

-Brandon

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Wild Monkeys

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 provided a new vibe to my remaining hours.

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

I did. And it was more beautiful than I had hoped. 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:

The 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. It 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 I had to catch up. Pacing toward my group, I found what they had already:

The creek

Gosh, it was pure and clean. A crisp, sharp vibrancy emanated. It was as much a calling to one’s own artistic and true self as it was a simple observation about its clarity and potability. There’s just so much one can say about the stream in the forest: lapping along the rocky creek bed, it’s an artery providing energy and life to the body of these lands. While everything around it is still and quiet, it’s moves and slaps. It’s a statement of the ever-flowing water vs. the never-moving stone, and the unique, but nonetheless effective, forces that they are.

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.

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 few quickly turned into a whole clan:

The stone path we were upon was populated with the macaques. They were wild–some more than others. And humans mean food.  One lady nearby had a monkey go after her purse:

It clawed at her leg. And while she tended the cut, it peaked inside her bag.

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 I kept a-walking to the nearby road.

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 there were incredible, offering 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.

This stay would be the last major event for me in China before returning home to Minnesota. But there were a couple more minor experiences. I’ll share those with you next time: ) For now, I hope you got a lot out of the wisdom I encountered and experienced on this mountaintop 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 and animals, but the differences between there and a Minnesota summer weren’t too drastic. And when you boil it all down prior to technology and even civilization, you realize the universal trait among all people: the appreciation and comfort with nature, the realm all our ancestors enjoyed.

’til next week,

Brandon

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

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Tai Chi: Fantastical Reality

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 was used by my school.

Revealed was that the lines between the past and present, the artistic and the real are beautifully woven on this mountain…

Straight out of a movie, isn’t it?

Further Up the curvy road only a few miles, the students and teachers made a couple trips out to this temple:

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.

One of the times everyone went, I was going to stay back and lay low. But the staff really encouraged me to come. I relented and arrived to the temple that was holding a press event. Amateur and professional camera folk were present.

I guess we were putting on a show for these folks, and I suppose my school wanted me to come to show the press that they can even teach a lanky Westerner like me the ropes of tai chi. 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:

also two of the English students of mine

The whole setting—the landscapes, and temples, and martial arts masters—felt 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. The female student pictured 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 “bongggssss” from a stately, cool, and solid bronze bell. Who knows how old that thing 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 also 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 a quarter I saw were about their old kingdoms and empires; another quarter depict their battles with Japan in the 1930′s and 40′s. The other half are a spattering of other present-day pictures.)

Today, it was one of those old “empire” pieces:

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 the 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, a unique blend of art and life.

May you get to live out your fantasies, Readers: as imaginative as a child, as present and grounded as a Taoist.

til next week,

-Brandon

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Tai Chi: What Goes Around Comes Around

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 was a brick.

For the English teaching, I spent an hour twice daily with three attendees—a 12 year old girl, a 19 year old woman, and a 26 year old guy (my roommate there actually). The tutoring was helped out by the 12 year old having some English textbooks from her regular school. In our tai chi outfits we’d in chairs in my roommate’s and my cabin and practice conversations, vocabulary, and writing.

I found it all so interesting how me being a teacher of English, the job that opened the door to China, now opened this door to being a student—of tai chi. What’s more, it was my experience as a teacher that helped me better relate to my tai chi trainers’ difficulties on account of my struggles there.

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 different 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 “intense” 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 when teaching him and even 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 with “it’s okay” sentiment.

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. Next time we see some mountain temples, a discipleship ceremony, and a movie being shot!

-Brandon

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

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Tai Chi 2: The Lifestyle

Last time we looked at the practice. This time it’s about the place and the people, about what life was like there on Wu Dang Shan.

First the setting: life there is encased in a sea of mountain tops and valleys, adding to the ambiance in ways only thought possible in movies or imagination:

This was the actual view.

When mist provided a soft layer over this view, the calm and awe was even greater.

Here’s another shot from the platform we practiced on:

 

 

I soon found out that our platform was actually the roof of a mountainside shelter that other trainers and students stayed in. My first day there, I heard some commotion over the edge below:

Tai chi landscaping

I broke the ice even before I broke bread, and I did so by jumping below, grabbing a spare shovel, and getting dirty. But even for something as benign (so I assumed) as shoveling, I was taken to task. The trainer down there interrupted my work to show me how it was done. He took the shovel and blurted, “Ha!”–the shovel prepared for battle; “hoo!”–it was thrust into the dirt pile; and “hwa!”–it removed with a load of Earth.

He wasn’t being funny, either. He was serious.

Seeing this devotion to their practice wasn’t all that surprising—-I mean, it was a tai chi school. Just the same, it provided a striking example of taking this ordinary chore and perfecting it. The trainer didn’t think about how to get it done faster or easier, but how to get it done better.

Later in my stay, I took a walk into the valley forest with five others to gather firewood and kindling for the kitchen stove. Along the woodsy trail, bagging a pile of 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 like giant chopsticks to pinch and lift the pile.

She wasn’t getting too far, though, just as I don’t eating rice with chopsticks. But my fork-using, Western mind noticed two rake-like tools just sitting there. I grabbed them and chivalrously tried to tell her, “allow me”. I bundled the pile of stick salad with my tongs. Then I hoisted large quantities into the bag. She referred to me as being “so clever”. Well, I just eat different, I thought.

As we bundled the logs we gathered, we needed a tight packing to hold them together up the narrow and hilly path. A trainer found vines that worked as string and tied the logs together, but out-jutting branches still had to be snapped off. 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 “clever”ness once again. I was elated that I could actually be helpful and contribute something.

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.

This board game was played by all:

Meanwhile, my shovel trainer stayed relentless:

You may wonder why his shirt is so dirty.

Here’s why:

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

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

Here’s some footage of our time there:

Each day, we got up at 5:30 and went for a warm-up jog. Then we stretched and started in with the tai chi and kung fu routines. By 8:30, we’d enjoy breakfast–usually an offering of an egg-based dish with potatoes and locally-grown vegetables. Never any coffee. After breakfast, some might squeeze in a quick nap before late-morning practice. Then came lunch and break/nap time; (this is when I got in the best reading of my life, not because of the content–though my book was fine–but because I was so focused from this disciplined lifestyle.) The day wrapped up with the late-afternoon practice.

Sometimes, it was hard for me to stay involved–both as an undisciplined practitioner and as a curious observer.

Sometimes, I just had to watch:

 

After our final session of the day, we’d have dinner and follow it up with a walk. And after this, it was time for fellowship. I watched the students and trainers socialize and sing while the head master entertained with music:

And others listened on:

Or perhaps even sang:

…poorly.

Singing Video:

From teamwork to quiet reading to martial arts to songs at dusk. These days were incredibly rich. The lifestyle was a lust mixture of intense and serene.

I hope you have an intense, serene week yourself: )  See you next time.

-Brandon

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Tai chi: Practicing the Present

My trainer and I arrived at the tai chi school mid-morning. Last time I showed you a few pictures of what this mountainside martial art boarding school looked like. After dropping my stuff in my room, my trainer took me back outside to begin. Not wasting any time.

On the other side of the street was a large, cement slab where students and teachers practiced:

where much of the training took place

I came all this way for this, but I gotta admit that I was a bit unnerved about starting. I remember thinking, “Uh, can’t we do this after lunch?” I quickly found it was easier to talk about doing tai chi on the storied mountain on which it all started, than it was to actually get out there and do it. This truth affects us in many endeavors we wish to undertake, doesn’t it?

Tai chi mimics actual fighting moves, but are slowed way down. My trainer began by showing me a simple choreography:

Tai chi is said to be healthy. It’s also a meditative challenge. Here’s a link to the Wikipedia page if you’re intrigued: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tai_chi_chuan

Not 15 minutes after I put my bags in my room was I face to face with this challenge. And for me it was a fairly intense one because there’s just no “escape”. The idea is to be 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 that TV you saw last night or what your friend did the other day or what you’re going to do afterwards. 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 have to just be “there”; me and my trainer. And knowing the schedule they kept—hours and hours of this each day working on repetitive movements again and again….and again–a part of me had that whiney, “I want to go in!” kind of thinking. But “go in” where? To my quiet room? This wasn’t a health club class that you could look forward to fleeing. Even if I did look ahead to the end of this morning’s session, there’s another one this afternoon. After this afternoon’s session, there’s another 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? Focused on that, 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 was sobering, but once getting comfortable, it was the beginning of a practice I’ve worked to maintain since. It helped solidify a way of seeing my life, a way that lessens the trap of living in the past, for the future, wrapped up in the mind. It put before me loud and clear the initial pain, but voluminous blessings of staying present, reshaping my outlook and changing the defaults status of my racing mind.

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

This was one of our trainers.

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:

I attended a summer 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 wait for that bell to ring so we could get away. I think we were mostly relieved when the hour ended 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.

I also think the difference between that exciting, intense camp and the boring, drawn-out school year was 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:

 

Next time, I’ll show you what life was like up here when we weren’t on the cement slab.

 

have an awesome, present week,

 

-Brandon

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