To Simply Go

Things are never really predictable here. Half my classes have been canceled for the next couple months, and nothing else has really gone as planned. Sometimes better, sometimes worse, but life goes on either way. From the joys of trying to explain in a simple way how the federal government works, and not really succeeding, to having a class go better than I could have hoped. More importantly, my fridge broke down.

I don’t think I would normally care, but this is the first time I have seen them take away the appliance for repairs instead of bringing parts here. It’s a small fridge compared to the ones back home, and it’s cold enough on the porch that I can just put things outside. They might freeze overnight, but it’s not quite that cold.

It snowed earlier in the week, I’m told that it came early this year. Heavy wet snow with scattered hail, but not enough snow to cover the roads. The relative warmth of the day kept the snow from building up except in the grass and on the line of cars outside. There were a few small snowmen built on the track, but sadly, no snowball fights. I don’t know if that’s a thing here, and I didn’t see anyone I knew well enough to start one.

It’s been hard to wake up, the air almost frozen in the room. The heat doesn’t get turned on for a couple more weeks from what I hear. It’s frustrating not to be able to control the heat, but I don’t really have enough money to buy a portable heater. I’m just glad I packed the winter clothes, and I just sleep in my sleeping bag to keep warm. It’s almost too warm at times. Just makes it harder to get to the parking lot at 7am.

Tomorrow I start with a more professional teacher, but I’m not sure how it will go. Some believe language is important, some do not. I spent a lot of time in Mexico practicing before I spoke much Spanish, but the right teacher makes all the difference. We shall see.

In the mornings we still practice bits of everything. A dozen fragments of forms, techniques, and weapons. I’m actually used to it by now. Most of the best schools have been in backrooms and parking lots. Kung fu done well, in the classic style, rarely fits into a storefront. Most people don’t connect to, don’t invest in it, or simply choose a different style.

I didn’t think it would be this easy to find so many people who practice, but I had practice searching in San Diego, and in Guadalajara. The first took a year to find my school. The second took six months. I’ve been here less than two months, and I have found more than I have time for. I know someone else who has spent the last year looking and still hasn’t found one.

I don’t know what will come, but I think that is the point of travel, especially this far into a country and a culture. To simply go wherever things take you. I practice that as much as I can, simply because I know there will be times that I fight against the river. Times when I feel like I’m drowning. Learning to let go hasn’t been easy, but I do what I can.

In a way, what the Peace Corps has really required of me has been the easiest part of being here. The hard part is really becoming part of this place. Of seeing people I know, and being seen. To do more than survive. Other than the cold, and having to wear layer after layer, I am starting to feel like this place really is home.

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Posted in 2017-10, Lanzhou, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Linze (临泽)and the Rainbow Mountains

Danxia is on the edge of the Gobi Desert, just outside of Zhangye (张掖) several hours North of here. It’s beautiful. The desert is a soft brown, spotted with green and purple plants. The natural landscape is amazing, but sparse on the way to the city. The train cuts through scattered buildings and cities, the fields covered with corn husks or the last of the crop that is there before the harvest.

It’s late in the year, and during National Holiday and the Mid-Autumn Festival week, the city was almost empty. The roads in Linze (临泽) are massive, six and eight lanes on the major roads. It’s not something I’ve seen since I left San Diego. It’s like it was built for traffic in a way that all the old cities of the world are not. There are lakes and rivers, but the water doesn’t really seem to change the desert look of everything.

This was a trip with my boss and his wife, so as much work as adventure. We ate, and wandered, but I always felt some hesitation. What I would have done alone and what I did with them was very different. More practice with English than with Chinese, and much more food than I am used to.

The meat was amazing, perfectly cooked lamb, simple seasoning, and more than I could hope to eat. Curried vegetables and noodles, and what they called the Harvest. Root vegetables, corn, and pumpkin, unseasoned and roasted perfectly. It was noted that I didn’t eat much of the other vegetables, but I chose what I liked and tried to finish it all. I failed, at two different meals. I can’t eat like I used to, and it was more than worth trying to meet the challenge.

Danxia is the name for what we call the Rainbow Mountains. The place is busy, with a feeling at the entrance like when I went to Teotihuacan, of the false face of the culture and sales booths. The park and the entrance are two very different things. You can get the cheap ticket, taking busses with everyone else from one stop to the next, wandering through the crowds and pushing to get to the top, but we took the expensive route.

Four times the price, but we had a private van and a tour guide for some of the remote passages throughout the park. For four hours we wandered, seeing the masses of people gathered at the main sites while we cut off onto gravel roads to see the Buddha’s retreat and the striped mountain. We picked at the multicolored rocks on the edge of the trail, and since my boss is a Traditional Chinese doctor he pointed out various plants and what they are used for. I’ve never seen them growing in the wild, it’s a very different experience.

It’s not as far into the wild as I wanted to go, but it was enough to get away from the city for a while. I could ignore the helicopter giving tours overhead, and the paragliders flying in the distance, but as amazing as it was, I miss the silence of hidden places.

We wandered the park after, catching the sunset lighting one side of the mountains. The light affects the colors here, and what you see depends entirely on the time of day and the weather. I’m told that when it rains in summer it washes away the top layer of soil and the colors are the most vivid. This time, the sky was pale and the colors of the desert were still amazing.

We were up early to eat and visit people, so by the time we got to dinner the doctor decided I was tired and I should eat alone and rest. I have climbed much higher mountains, and done so much more before I ever need rest, but I hadn’t been alone all day, so I accepted the invitation to eat alone and rest in his brother’s hotel room.

The next morning, we returned to Danxia to see the morning light hitting the other side of the mountains. The sun was harsh both days, and the air is thin, but it was beautiful. Sometimes I wish I had a better camera, but I have no interest in carrying around anything more than a point and shoot. The park was beautiful, and we left before most of the tourists arrived for the day. Heading back for lunch with my waiban, whose parents still live in Linze.

It’s strange seeing people with their children in a different culture. Trying to feed a child without pretending to steal their food, or playing the yumyum train. Children aren’t really expected to be children here, there is too much at stake in their future, too many tests to prepare for, to allow for the chaos I am so used to. The goal is focused, so the children must also be. In America, we are raised to believe we can be anything, do anything. It may not always be the truth, but it is the ideal, so we are raised to see the world differently than most children here. A trade, giving up creativity for focus.

After we wandered around the wetlands of Zhangye. I don’t know if they are natural or manmade, an oasis of reeds, birds, and insects in the middle of the desert. The water is a pale green, and I had forgotten how annoying flying insects can be. It’s an amazing contrast between the desert and the oasis, of life hidden and life in your face.

It’s nice to be back home, to rest and do nothing, but I miss that desert. It’s the kind of place I want to stay in, to feel, and absorb. I doubt you can camp there, the terrain is too soft and ever changing, quickly collapsing even as the earth is pushed up from below. That is the one thing I still look for here, places off the map where I can rest. But there is plenty of time.

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Love and Pain

For a long time connecting to people was hard for me. Not understanding them, or wanting to connect, but stepping past the fear that comes with dealing with people. I still don’t have that fearlessness that people talk about. I can never stop the whisper of anxiety in my life. Honestly, I’ve stopped trying. 

Fear is always there, like when the Doctor mentions he is going to Zhangye in a couple days and he invites me along. I say yes, but the fear is there. We will be staying near the rainbow mountains in Danxia national park. The fear whispers about what could go wrong, but I am going anyway. The fear whispers that it won’t be vacation since I will probably be with people the entire time. I am going anyway. It’s a weight I always carry, I’ve just gotten used to it. 

I’ve had invitations like that in Mexico too, to lakes and spas, to Pueblas Magicos, but I still held back in those days. In San Diego and New York, no was the default answer. Better to stay home than to go anywhere and deal with the weight on my shoulders. Here, it’s more like I’m watching myself do things, like the catalyst in an old movie. I drag myself into situations, but that was always my goal. Now I just need to stop worrying about where I’ve landed before I deal with it. 

It’s the same with giving out my number here. I give it to everyone. All my students, the other teachers, kung fu people, the guy I bought my teacups from, some random doctor who talked to me during lunch, it really doesn’t matter to me anymore. If someone contacts me, I answer them. Mostly it’s people with a quick greeting, then silence. There are a few people I have really connected with though, and it is easier for me to communicate since autocorrect is amazing here. 

There is even someone I can talk to about philosophy, about life, and about things beyond the basic conversations I have here. The questions of what is love, what is fear, why do we feel and do the things we do. I come from a background of philosophy and sociology, so these are the things that fascinate me. The questions of who we are, and how do we find what makes us happy.  

I find that the most important thing in my life is still the people I can help, the people care about, and the people I connect to. To be a part of life here isn’t just teaching, it’s connecting, being someone beyond the guest. It’s the question of love. 

A friend asked me what I think love is. The answer is simple, and complicated for me. In a relationship, it is work, not just the emotion. The emotion comes and goes. We are happy, sad, in love, in lust, but it will always change. Love is finding someone who you care about, who makes you happy and you can make happy. The person you can spend time with in sound and fury or in the calm nights. Your compliment, not just your missing piece. All of that and more, based on emotion but built by effort. 

If you only hold to the emotion then when the passion fades, so does the love. If the person is worth being in love with, they are worth the small moments where you connect and remind them that you love them. The moments where you show that they are important to you. Not just the time at work to earn money and build a future, but by filling the void in between. Deeds, not words or emotions, show who we are to the people we care about. 

If love is an act, the silence is its death. I have lost love to silence. It’s the one thing that guarantees there is nothing there. There can be no relationship in total silence, the total absence of connection. And the longer that silence goes on, the harder it is to repair. Mine died, and so I left the world I knew and found a new one.  

It was hard, but I am thankful for that death. Without it I could not be here, I would never have met the people I know now. I would never have found this passion, this ability to bypass fear, this fulfilment in compassion and service. All that I am and will become begins with that death, that silence. It’s still a scar, and there is fear tied to it, but I always remember something I once heard. To live your life like an open wound is a beautiful thing. To be vulnerable is a beautiful thing. 

It’s not to let yourself be bullied or destroyed, or to let others take from you, it’s simply keeping your pain close, as a friend rather than an enemy. It’s to let that pain make you powerful, and to protect others from being bullied or destroyed. One of the beautiful horrors of life is that a great deal of compassion can come from suffering. 

Then there are the other people here, the kung fu friends that I have met in every country I go to. Dirty mouths and dirty minds, challenges and playing at violence, more family than friends. Sometimes I don’t understand their questions. Sometimes I pretend not to so I can avoid answering the question. Sometimes I play dumb just to see how far they will push it.  

Today there were seven people trying to translate something to me. The last probably could have, if he wasn’t so embarrassed by the question. I know what it was, it was just entertaining to see them struggle to find a translation from Chinese slang to English. The same questions have been asked by my kung fu family in Mexico and the States. In the end, I just act confused then tell them that yes, the women here are beautiful. So are the women in every country, but I am just as interested in the mind and heart. 

It gets me through the situation without ever having to give a straight answer, and that answer annoys the men who ask it. So far, I have never seen men talk about sex in front of women here or in Mexico. But sooner or later, they always ask. 

Life here has been busy, but in a way that has meaning. In a way where I can connect. Kung fu every morning, passing the people exercising and dancing in the drainage ditch and being stared at for carrying a staff through the street. Watching a ping pong tournament and talking with the security guards, trying to figure out what they are asking beyond talking about Koby and basketball. Meals with friends, some awkward and some relaxed. Strangers, volunteers, and dozens of others. 

There is always that feeling that I don’t know what I am doing, even as I do it. That question in the back of my mind. I hear it, but I am here, and this is exactly where I want to be, doing exactly what I want to do. I am thankful for the friends I have found, and for all the people that may become more. I love this. 

Posted in 2017-09, Lanzhou, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

What We Have. (Updated)

The first week of teaching has had its ups and downs, but not in any way I expected. Sometimes the differences in culture and personality are extreme, and, I don’t know, confusing, depressing maybe. Most of what I have found here is amazing, but it is a trip sometimes.

I started the week with kung fu every day. I am learning Xingyiquan now, one of the four internal styles of kung fu. I am learning quickly, and the people here have a tendency to call me “clever.” The translation is specific to someone who is a fast learner rather than the more vague English term. Xingyi is a lot of fun, very simple and yet extremely difficult. To know kung fu is not to do kung fu.

We train in a parking lot near the MacDonald’s, mostly locals who are older than I am, but also a few students train with us when they can. Medical school takes up a lot of their time.
I seem to have found a place that is home once again. Excellent kung fu, no real order or rules, just practice when and were we can. A lot of the best teachers I know have taught out of garages and parking lots. They are hard to find, but they always feel like home to me.

A couple of the men there also teach Bagua, so I usually practice that with them after my teacher has to go to his clinic hours or the school. One of them is also teaching me how to use a staff, just basic techniques but different from what I learned in Taipei. Sometimes we practice body hardening, or hook swords, but all of them are my teachers in some way. It’s like when I first started learning back in San Diego, half a dozen teachers and only a few students.

On Tuesday there was no class because it was raining, well, raining for Lanzhou. The ground was wet but it was barely more than mist in the air. The Doctor invited me to his clinic hours to help teach some English to the students in their residency, so I wound up there for three hours seeing patients. That was hard in its own way.

Medicine here is very different from back home. I might be allowed to sit in with the patients because it is a teaching hospital and the patients are warned that people might be there to learn from them, but there is far more too it than that. No one washes their hands between patients. No one wears gloves. The first two rules are always personal safety and patient safety, but the potential for the spread of disease can be scary.

We would also never have our personal phones out to take pictures of patients or their medical history. That alone could guarantee you never work in medicine again, but here it is common. I have heard other volunteers complain about having their photo taken in public, but it is just part of the culture here. Your personal privacy and rights are secondary to the desires and needs of the group. They take pictures of patients and injuries endlessly, and no one seems to think there is anything unusual about it.

That difference between personal freedom and the group mentality can be stark sometimes. We had a variety of patients, about a third with some form of cancer. Some getting better, some worse. All of them had been treated with both Chinese and Western medicine, so the students had a lot of language they needed to learn. I sat there taking basic notes on my phone so I could write-up more details later for the students when an older man came in.

The patient was around my parent’s age, with an aggressive form of cancer in his right lung. Two months ago there was one tumor one centimeter in diameter. This month, there were five tumors three and a half centimeters in diameter. I assume the patient cannot read. I assume this because he didn’t know what was wrong, he didn’t know he had cancer. His son was in the room dealing with all the medical information, and he had not told his father.

I know that happened in America before the HIPAA laws were enacted. I remember stories about it in medical school, lawsuits and arguments. But to see it, to know it is happening, is horrifying. I understand why someone would hide that. I understand that to protect their loved one from fear when nothing more can be done might be considered mercy. I understand the compassion, and what it must be like to hide something like that. It’s still horrifying.

What do we really have beyond our life and our death? Everything else is just borrowed, shared, gained, and lost. What truly defines us beyond how we choose to live, and how we choose to die? Death is not something we discuss much in America. We make it comical, lustful, or horrifying, but we rarely make it real. I have just hit the age when death is coming up to the horizon, and even with practice and study I don’t really understand my place in reference to it. But when it comes, it will be mine. Something I cannot truly share, however many people are there, even though everyone dies.

I don’t know how to really deal with it. There is nothing to fight, or make better or worse, just something that I, as the outsider, understand but cannot agree with. That’s the first time I have come across something like this outside of the States. I’m sure it won’t be the last. I did well, so I will be there every Tuesday from now on, helping the Doctor and his students learn English.

The rest of the week was easy after that. Class on Wednesday and Thursday, basic introductions and getting to know the students. The semester will be easy enough, and the hospital work gives me ideas on what to teach the post-graduate students. Whatever trouble they have in the hospital I can address in the classes.

Being here is everything I wanted it to be, even though I didn’t really know that it was what I wanted. I just go back and forth between the surreal and the real. I told one of the teachers that I needed turmeric, so she bought me tumeric, black pepper, white pepper, Sichuan pepper, five spice, a bag of star anise, cooking wine, vinegar, soy sauce, salt, sugar, chicken bouillon, sesame oil, bean paste, and tofu milk. I have no idea how to cook with most of those items. I feel bad for taking it, but at the same time it is awesome. It’s the kind of gift I don’t really know how to properly accept.

That is one of the strange things about being here. I’m not used to gifts. I told Blue, one of the Xingyi teachers that I wanted to buy a spear, so he gave me one. Something I would never really expect in America is common practice here. Pushing each other out of the way to pay for food, buying more than is needed, always trying to be humble and generous.

It’s not that Americans aren’t generous or humble, it’s just not really a cultural goal. Mild arrogance and personal property tend to be harder lines, but people will move heaven and earth for you when you really need it. It tends to be less of a show, I think, because the show can easily become arrogant in its humility.

I am glad for this week, and all that came with it. I’m glad when it’s hard, and I’m glad when it’s easy. This is why I really here, to experience and try and understand the world beyond my home.

(UPDATE): So, someone close to me who has been a nurse forever tells me that hiding illness from parents happens in the USA sometimes too. I guess I was never in the field long enough to see it myself. It’s horrifying that it happens back home too.

Posted in 2017-09, Lanzhou, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment