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.

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An Ideal

Time is strange these days. It feels like I’m always late, always running behind, like every hour is actually two. It feels like there is always someplace to be, something I should be doing, something I have forgotten, but there never really is. Time is the one thing I have plenty of right now.

I think part of that is left over from training, when every moment seemed to be filled with sound and fury, but now there is so much time filled with silence that it’s confusing. I feel like I should be planning, preparing, getting something done, but there really isn’t that much to do. The classes I have are easy, and I only have two real classes. The other three are basically group study for the University professors, and I’ll start co-teaching in a couple weeks, but neither of those are things I need to do homework or finals for.

Preparing for classes is relatively easy, between the practice in Taiwan and the Peace Corps’ training. Most of the time is taken up by typing. The rest is looking for pictures or videos that suit the class. It feels like it should be so much harder than it is. I can’t wing it, but as long as I prepare, it’s simple.

I think the rest has to do with my dreams of late. I can’t always remember them, just fragments of places and people I feel like I know, but I don’t. Wars, flying, old buildings, nightmare creatures, amazing and wonderful things. I can feel them all, like I story that I know I’ve forgotten. Like a word stuck in the back of my throat.

I sleep more up here in the mountains, but I think that will change soon. The first teacher I was practicing with is moving to Liverpool in a week. However, through him I learned that the Dean of the English department apparently teaches Xingyi, one of the four internal styles of kung fu. They practice in a parking lot outside of Macdonald’s here, every day at 7am. Every day. I tried to weasle out of one day a week, but it didn’t work out. I’ll just have to work a nap into my schedule.

That’s how things are out here, more often than not. Everything just seems to slide sideways, like a bucket sliding back and forth across the deck of a ship in an old cartoon. I just go my way and try to catch whatever I can as it passes. I wonder if that’s what it was like back home and I just never really noticed it. Maybe I spent too much time making life something rather than just letting it swing past.

Maybe I’m still doing that, regardless of what I believe. I am still making assumptions about life, trying to make it what I expect it to be. I’ve gotten better at letting things slide, but I’m a lot older now.

That was one of the sayings in the Teachings of Don Juan, that people only make you angry when you think what they do is important. Don Juan is seventy in the book, twice my age and far less caring of what people do. I did find that to be the case though, that when I find what someone is doing is important, whether they are doing it well or badly, that it is far more likely to make me angry. People rarely make me angry, but I realize that is because I don’t think most of what people do is important anymore. Most of us simply exist in our worlds of emotions and though, convinced that we are the hero, or at least the main character of our story.

Here, I think that is different for me. The locals don’t upset me, this is their home and their lives, I am a guest that could easily become unwelcome if I treat them poorly. But I do think that the Peace Corps is important, that it is what the American ideal could be. Go to foreign countries and help, not with bombs and freedom, but by going where we are invited and teaching what we know. Not trying to change the world, but just trying to create connections.

So much of what our country does is questionable, in the reasons, the methods, or the results, that I want this to be something pure. I guess that’s just the Quixote in me. I come in a world of iron to make a world of gold. What we do here is important, but my attachment to the ideal is my mistake. I am the only one I can expect to live up to it, and the only one I should expect to.

Maybe that’s part of why time is so strange here. I am here, and I can do good. I have made a lot of friends, found a lot of what I am looking for, and have begun to build a life. But I know I only have two years, maybe three at the most. I know I won’t change China, and I don’t want to, but every moment is one less I have here, one less to do what I can.

I think it’s because I can look back on all the time I wasted in so many other places, so many times I could have done more. I don’t want this to be the same. If nothing else, I want what I do here to matter, even if I only change one person for the better.

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Ying and Yang

I don’t really know who I am becoming out here. There are so many things that I am doing now that I never could in Taipei or Guadalajara, much less back home. The fear is still there, I’ve just gotten better at not thinking about them, ignoring the possible consequences. It’s hard to know what’s wrong or right about it, but it’s definitely the job I was hired to do here.

I started teaching last week, and the old anxieties are still with me, whispering of the unnamed fear that I could never see. The darkness just beyond my vision, but that’s where it always is, beyond reality. If it’s always so far away, why does it really matter? It’s like with my practice forgetting things, or at least not holding on to the memories. I’m sure there will be bad to it too, but letting go of things is not something I was ever good at.

I still find reality to be a fascinating place, and not somewhere I ever really belonged. I think there is a reason all of my heroes are madmen. Maybe too much sanity is madness. I headed out to the mountains on Saturday, planning to be at Wuquanshan Park around 9. I woke up after ten, and the only other person who might have gone already made other plans. So off I went alone.

It’s really dry here, as bad as San Diego ever was, and the air is filled with the fine, soft powder that comes off the mountains surrounding the city. The sky was white, but in the way that Guadalajara was, where you can’t tell if it’s the threat of rain or just overcast. I wandered through the vegetable market to get dumplings and bananas for the trip, then caught the bus across town.

I have gotten back into the habit of practicing my horses on the bus, shifting and flowing through the turns and construction zones in the city. I can’t surf here, but there is always the feel of the busses. I wandered through the entrance to the park, a large concrete space surrounded by restaurants and shops selling trinkets. There is a cable car to the top, and a road that goes up the back way, but I miss fighting my way up the mountain.

I made my way past the majority of the people and past the temples and the prayer flags before it started to rain. It was California rain, a few drops here and there that were sucked into the dry earth before they could do more than leave a small mark in the dust. That’s when I came across my new friends.

It’s easy to think people here are unfriendly, especially when they first look at you. The blank faces, maybe showing slight surprise are easy to take offense to. I choose to see it as surprise, and nothing more. Most of the time, eye contact and a simple head bow gets a smile. Sometimes it’s a quick greeting. We are strangers here, but the people are almost always friendly.

Ying and Yang are both college students, Ying studies in Shanghai, her husband here in Lanzhou. I spent the second half of the mountain climbing with them, talking about everything and nothing in English and Chinese. Their daughter lives with her mother back in Hunan, only one year old, but they probably won’t be together again for any long period of time until they both graduate in a couple years.

I don’t think that’s something our society would really accept, leaving the child with the grandparents so the parents can finish building their lives. I know it happens, but I think it’s more likely to cause trouble than to be accepted. More than money, presence is love. I’ve seen too many people who believe money is enough, but I’ve never seen that to be true.

We went to dinner, and they followed the tradition of buying enough food to feed twice the number of people who were there. We caught the lights on the Yellow River before heading back to the University. Yang studies at the University next to mine, so it was easy for us to travel back together. Of all the people on the mountain, all the ones I nodded to or said hello to, the ones that I connected with happen to be next door. If I had left when I planned, or waited til the next day, I never would have met them.

The chaos of life seems to be in it’s simplicity. Change any one thing and everything changes. I am always on the border of believing in fate over chaos, but I think that’s where karma really exists. Our lives are ruled by the fate we create for ourselves, and changing that fate is as simple and impossible as it sounds.

I feel time passing here, both slowly and quickly. I have vast amounts of time since my classes haven’t yet begun, but I know two years will be gone before I can breathe. For now, this is where I belong, and I will learn everything I can while I’m here.

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Making a Life

Everything is practice, and I have gotten better at this, at moving and building a home, at making a place mine, and at finding when I explore. My classes are all post-graduate, so I won’t be teaching much for the next couple weeks. Right now, I am teaching the professors of the university, not so much a class as an English club, but I’m treating it as a class so I can get more practice planning lessons and building powerpoints.

The area around my home is like Guadalajara in a lot of ways, the air is dry and thin, and getting colder as we approach winter. When the sun is out, you can feel the intensity of it on your skin, and it’s absence in every shadow, including your own. The streets and buildings are old and cracked, with ancient, beautiful temples and architecture scattered throughout. Some of the most beautiful structures are the government buildings, a mix of the old and new styles, but like in Mexico, some places you don’t take pictures of.

The one thing I don’t see here is the art I found in Guadalajara. The street artists painting or teaching, the musicians in the middle of the market, the endless street art spread throughout the city, and the feeling that art is everywhere. Here, it seems to be that the artists are hidden away in schools, the art on display without them, and street art is very rare. Beauty must be found here, or at least art must be.

The terrain is the familiar brown and green of Guadalajara and San Diego. I speak the language as well as I spoke Spanish when I left home, and I was able to vastly improve in only a year. The best part about that is my new boss only speaks Chinese and Spanish, so I can actually practice sometimes with him. I was worried that my skill would fade, and I’ve noticed that my Spanish has become laced with Chinese as I went through pre-service training. I plan to start practicing again, but having someone to speak with is so much more useful.

I found a kung fu teacher as well, someone who moves well and has the personality I look for in a teacher. His lineage is through Ma Xian, and so far it looks like a long fist style, but it’s energetic and we already started practicing in his office. Kung fu is life, and that’s all it really takes for me to make a home somewhere.

I was able to go to the opening of a school here with a couple other volunteers over the weekend, partially for the accepting of invitations, but mostly because the 35th floor gives an amazing view of the city. The sky was blue, the mountains brown, and the conversation was excellent. To the North and South there are walls of mountains, but to the East and West the city seems to go on forever.

It was a school for children, for language and art, but some of the inspirational quotes on the wall were unusual in that setting. I’ve studied Marxist philosophy in college, but class warfare is not a topic I would present to children. I wonder if that is common throughout schools here or if it was just that privately owned school’s choice. Then again, they had a box made to look like a copy of Trainspotting in their sitting area, so maybe it’s more of a translation error than intent.

Right now I have time to wander and explore, further into the city and beyond. I’m to a park South of my home tomorrow to start looking into hiking trails, maybe over the weekend if there is time. I collect contact information whenever I can, plan to do everything, even if it falls through, and consider whether I want my fridge filled with more than just water and spices. Right now I have time to pause, to consider things, and to build a life I want to live for the next couple years. Practice makes everything easier.

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