The Heavenly Dice Game

Adventures in Taiji

Chengdu part Three: Schizophrenia
nilasarasvati
We returned to Chengdu. Our hostel was in the Old Town, supposedly the most historically intact section of the city...but it like everything else has been divided and conquered. Every building, temple, ancient house has been turned into an upscale boutique, restaurant---there's even a starbucks. It'd be like hollowing out the Vatican and turning it into the Mall of America.

As soon as we got to the hostel I found out that I was HAHAHAHAH wow, almost 60 days over my alloted stay in China. Because of three factors

1. My overweening stupidity
2. Total unfamiliarity with how these things work
3. The bizarre wording on my Visa

I thought I was allowed to stay an entire year as a tourist. Apparently that's not how these things work. How these things work. How do these things work? Why am I so functionally illiterate with time, space, mathematics, law, and order? Why can I write sentences like stained glass windows but barely comprehend my paystub?

The hostel said they were calling the police and for the rest of my stay I was beside myself. If you've never experienced this expression literally, imagine splitting your soul in two and having one half constantly staring at you with its chin on your shoulder repeating over and over your worst fears in question form. What if what if what if.

We continued on adventures but I was wholly distracted. We went to the Dujiangyan river irrigation place; this huge genius work of human contrivance from like 300 B.C. whereby the temperamental river here was diverted in two and made to irrigate the entire Chengdu Plain. But I was not really interested in any of this.

My body went an automaton here and there, through temples and parks and restaurants and sometimes I would be transported back into reality by how good the food was, but mostly I just thought Maybe I will be stuck in China for weeks to come; the past three months were the worst decision I have ever made. My self confidence and self-worth, even my understanding of my identity, my dreams and aspirations in life, had all been cut to pieces or placed in mortal danger. What the hell did I even want out of life? I had no idea. I am a storyteller, and making the narrative of my life have some coherent meaning, some purpose is always my prime motivation. I could not make sense out of the random, disappointing chaotic stupidity of the last three months.




In the people's park we found an old man playing Bamboo flutes. He had a sword, too, and it turned out he was a Taiji player. He gave us a brief lesson and in five minutes gave me more hands-on helpful correction, support, and instruction than my master has ever done here at Wudang. It seemed as if every positive experience I had here in Chengdu was even disappointing--just a further reminder of all these lost opportunities and possibilities I had failed to find because I was rotting in Daoist Disneyland.






Were it not for my overwhelmed emotional state, the ridiculously laid-back lifestyle of Chengdu would be a perfect match for me.


Finally we went to the temple fair. It was held at a complex of temples where Zhuge Liang (the brilliant strategist and culture hero of the ancient Kingdom of Shu that once existed here during the 3 kingdoms era) is buried. Everything was so beautiful, and I was still so wrapped up in confusion.










For two hours I was spared my miseries and the growing strength of my cold by this meal: Chengdu hotpot. The best thing I've probably eaten in China and also the strangest. On those plates are lungs, brains, kidneys, congealed blood, throat, mushrooms, and Tofu skin. I never thought I would like organ meat, but it was uncannily good.




On the ride home, 17 hours in a hard seat with hundreds of laborer families sitting and sleeping on their luggage in the aisles (getting to the bathroom was nearly impossible--people were seated and standing in every available space) I slept only barely and talked only a little. King had taken such good care of me every turn. He accidentally left his copy of Being and Nothingness in the luggage rack on the train when we broke through the crowds of sleeping, irate passengers at 7:00 AM, and we ended up going straight to the policewoman who currently holds my passport. The first thing she did was call my master and chew him out for ten minutes because I am the third foreign student who has had this problem at his school.




Chengdu Part Two: Sanctuary
nilasarasvati


I woke up in this wooden house on stilts high above a forest of bamboo. There was a tree in the courtyard that grew from between the cobbles, a little pug in a cage, farm implements hanging everywhere, old calendars with tigers and rats and oxes on them.


I slept on this blanket from when Mr. Gao helped the red cross after the Earthquake.



Mr. Gao and his ancient friends (one little old man no more than 3 feet high and a red-faced man who looked like the little Italian guy who sees Cosmo's moon in Moonstruck. Mr. Gao told us his lifestory for like 2 hours over dinner and sickening quantities of Baijiao and I never heard a word of it translated except

"We are talking about foreigners, and he wants to note that he hates the Japanese."



In the morning we returned to the temple. There is no priest here, just a blue collar guy who burns the incense and tends the shrines and does all the rituals as if these things were of the same order of duties as sweeping the floor and maintaining the plumbing. We found him burning a haystack of Ghost money--burnt offerings to one's ancestors or patron deities that is supposed to give them cash in the afterlife.



This temple is amazing; everything was damaged in the Earthquake so the Shrines overlook heaps of shingles and lumber that are part of the reconstruction, and everything is helter-skelter leaky-roofed and mixed up.



However the temple has ample support: wealthy donors from Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore (strongholds of Daoist religion after the cultural revolution) have come in droves to try to rebuild the place. And in China rebuild really means...re build. There is a huge complex of totally artificial tourist attraction buildings planned; the old structures will be torn down if they are inconvenient or, worse yet, not turning a profit. First communism outright destroyed as much as possible of the China's cultural heritage, murdered its protectors and custodians, and now capitalism is turning what's left over into a theme park of total nationalistic artifice.

The moneychangers are in the temple. And where is one to purge them?


A few hours later we are in Dujiangyen, at a hotel called The Silver Bamboo Garden where King once lived for an extended amount of time. The family that owns it is super obliging. I take my first proper shower in 5-6 weeks. It's sunny and cool and we eat outside where bamboos grow and there are 12 fishtanks constantly cycling water down into the drainage to keep things fresh. We will have two of these guys for dinner.

Ahh.

And then we continue to Mount Qingcheng, where religious Daoism was born.



Its in the most beautiful forest...there's this famous old poetry that says "under heaven all green things come from Qingcheng." And green it was...sooooo lush.

We were accompanied by the son of the hotel family--a really nice kid with a mustache.


We saw probably 20 temples, although where one ends and another begins is often difficult to understand.




This temple is in a CAVE. It's built into the side of this conglomerate rock face that reaches up hundreds of feet.



Here we are. If I look distracted and unhappy, its because I am. I walked three miles probably up and down around a thousand feet in cloth martial arts shoes in an effort to keep conditioning my feet...I'll never break my ankle, at least, but my heel was killing me for days thereafter. Also, we found out my visa had expired and maybe I was going to have to pay a massive fine or go to jail or something.

No big whoop.


Finally...the best reason to come to Sichuan (besides the fact that the rumors are true: all the young people here are FAR more beautiful than anywhere else in China. And moreover, these beautiful people are so abundant as to be alarming.)is the food. Hot and spicy and numbing, everything. Magnificent.

Adventures in Chengdu Episode One: The Pilgrimage
nilasarasvati
On the train to Chengdu, we slept hot and uncomfortable; whenever it stopped I woke to lay in my own sweat and cramped space. King had nightmares about existentialism he blamed on reading all that Sartre (or anyway the introduction by Dr. Hazel Barnes). I woke and watched out the window as we followed the route of some river neon green from all the factories; hours of factories on the river; how many hundreds of factories did I see, almost all abandoned, on the banks of that exhausted dying clot of water?

When we got to Chengdu our exit was hellish. Pressing at a snails pace with a hundred thousand people; moving less than a hundred yards in fifteen minutes. At last we emerged into the mad throngs of people outside, part of the gigantic annual two-way hemmorage of people back and forth to their rural homes for The Chinese New Year and then returning again to the ultra-urban coast. King says its the largest annual migration of people on the planet, and every year it gets exponentially worse.



Unfortunately I couldn't get any pictures of the riot police there; the most terrifying military presence I've ever seen. Huge armored vehicles were stationed all over throughout the square and men with huge automatic rifles, full body armor, etc. etc. etc. The government here is SO afraid of the people. And what a doped and sleepy leviathan the Chinese are...

We had a few hours to kill before we headed to the sacred Mountain, Qingcheng, where religious Daoism was supposedly invented (AKA the Orthodox Catholic Church is to early Christianity what Religious Daoism is to Daoism). We had nothing to do. Suddenly King remembered that he was going to pay respects to his late master's grave in a few days (the first anniversary of his death) and we could do that right now--what a thing to suddenly remember.


King had the incredible privilage to study with a student of Yang Chenfu (Above), arguably the greatest Taiji master in the last 200 years. Technically King and I practice the same style descended from this master, only our respective family trees look like this:


Yang Chengfu taught Zheng Manqing taught Wolfe Lowenthal taught Amalia Shaltiel taught Cory Coppersmith.

Yang Chengfu taught __(Kings Shifu)__ taught King.

Big difference. His remains are at the Manjushri Chan (Zen) Buddhist temple in Chengdu. So there we went, massive backpacks and all, pressing through crowds of maimed beggars and tourists and awful vendors (the moneychangers in the temple! Where is one to purge them?!) And inside I found the most beautiful of all the temples I've visited in China.





First of all, everything is GREEN in Sichuan. The bamboo, the ferns, the flowers--it's like winter doesn't exist here. The gardens and green spaces at the temple were the most refreshing place I've been since I arrived in November and found this industrial wasteland of sludge and grey and a total lack of urban planning.

So we found the mausoleum at long last. King went to go buy flowers as an offering and I stayed with our gigantic backpacks, resting and letting the people come by to stare at me. 

When he returned I told him I'd stay with our stuff and he should go down alone. Such an epic episode, I thought; we arrive in Chengdu and our first task is to go pay homage to this dead master who King describes in the same terms as a sage or holy man--the kind of master we both wanted to find on Wudang but failed to.

When he emerges from the catacomb, he tells me he prayed for both of us in our pursuit of gongfu. Thank you, King. Thank you, King's Shifu. 



This library of sacred texts sat just near the entrance to the catacombs. 

The library of texts was closed, but on the top floor we found another type of library: this huge sort of menagerie of all the different buddhist deities, each in its little glass cubby holding aloft this or that many lotuses, or swords, or banners, or all the other icons of Chan buddhism. There must have been thousands.

On we continued. In one episode, as we take a train to Dujiangyen, King tells me how he survived the earthquake in 2008. His school sustained no damage, but nearly the entire town it was in was destroyed. Estimates say 68,000 people were killed but like everything that goes through the telephone game of China's government who knows about the truth...and as the hollow honeycombs of dozens of massive abandoned housing projects go by, he tells me how the Government has poured immense amounts of money into rebuilding very specific but impractical things, like the train station we arrive to: this HUGE glass and steel building the size of an airport except, it's in this tiny little rural town. While millions are still living in shoddy aluminum siding refugee camps, the government has put absurd funding into these unnecessary and facile displays of "generosity."

When we get out of the train station, cab drivers mob us. One man tells us no buses can take us where we are going because the road is under construction and only cars can get through. It sounded like a convenient lie, but King is immediately despondent. We may be stranded or have to go back to the big city. We wander around the parking lot while an inevitable swarm of cabbies is following us like vultures, repeating over and over again their offers. Anytime I go ANYWHERE with my backpack on, I immediately get HUGE negative attention from all sorts of shady entrepreneurs. I hate it.

The cabby is reiterating that the road is closed when another man walks up.

"Do you know who I am?" the man says, "I'll make you disappear."

We are saved by a Chinese Bureaucrat. The mind boggles. He tells us this cab driver has been lying to us and we should take such and such bus to such and such other bus. Hooray. We are delivered once more from ignominious defeat.



This bus is unlike anything else in China magnificently clean because at the front fulfilling a role mysterious in its breadth (collection, cleaning, crowd control, disciplinary enforcement, navigation, moral support?) squats an empress on her hot pink stool.


I have no idea what this is all about. I'm assuming it's a toilet ad.

We reach the back of Qingchen which as become developed with people's summer homes and hideous architecture and clots of car exhaust are slowly creeping up the mountainside. We reach a bridge and get off the bus and find an entirely new environment.




One more like the romantic visions of China I had as a kid. The China you see in the movies.

However halfway up into the bamboo forest of the mountain, I find this:


This hideous development. The government is launching an "urban/rural integration" project, which is their typically Orwellian language describing stripping the rural populus of its traditional housing and planting everybody into these...fucking hideous beach house things. I can't express how atrocious they are. This picture cannot do justice to how tacky and obtuse and artificial they look--and their placement on this mountain is like...augh. I can't even express how offensive it is.

At the roadside, we miraculously stumbled upon this local guy who insisted on taking us all the way up to the temple where we are seeking sanctuary. He tells us, however, that the old master we are looking for is gone. We have come to this super-remote place none of the tourists go because there is a Taiji master here 105 years old. However, because of the Festival, he has gone to preside over ceremonies at a temple in Chengdu. We continue up to the temple because it's almost dark and we need to sleep there--common tradition in China still. Like claiming sanctuary, being a visiting pilgrim or whatever--it's assumed that if you come to a temple they will put you up for the night, at least.




However as we pass through this horrible clot of new housing the government is building for the villagers here, a crowd of patriarchs surrounds us. Where are you going? Do you have somewhere to stay? And then this one hiding in the back, Mr. Gao, insists that we stay with him if the temple won't take us in.

And indeed, we cannot stay. So we go stay in Mr. Gao's house, where

people have been living for the better part of a century. There we encountered the aggressive, medieval hospitality I have always been looking for and never found in China. The real China.



Happy Year of the Rabbit
nilasarasvati


Chinese New Year came with increasing degrees of nothingness. As if approaching a black hole, the school was crushed smaller and smaller each day until nothing was left but me. First, students began disappearing like it was a horror film. Without word they would suddenly stop coming to meals; our practices became less and less regular. Shifu didn't teach anymore, or his van was just gone all the time. I became more of a recluse than ever, discontented with Wudang and furious that I had paid for this emptiness and lack of direction, for basically three months of bad food, lots of sleep, and writing maniacally every story and idea that came into my head...



And then King came along and changed everything. I realized after he arrived, and people began to warm up to me, that the lack of language was really the most critical thing preventing my success and growth here. The only lens I had to see all the people around me was Ken--Ken who was introverted, spiteful, pessimistic, alienated from everybody in the whole school. I've heard just about everybody tell me through King since Ken left that they hated Ken. And I think "So did I, but he was my only guide here the whole time."

So people have now told me: We always wanted to talk to you but never could before! Even though Ken spoke English, he was such a d-bag they didn't want to ask him. And likewise for me the other direction

As the year of the Rabbit dawned, I went to the back woods of the Bamboos with my sword and practiced my form while the fireworks cracked and thundered. Every day around new year's sounds like a warzone--at any moment, 24 hours, you may suddenly awaken to hear the earsplitting cacophony of hundreds of bundled firecrackers exploding for long, long minutes.

Wudang At Last
nilasarasvati


Today I finally returned to Mount Wudang proper; after the terrible misadventure of last time I was reluctant to go back without the help of a friend. I did, and it was really cool. Amazing might be overstatement; but definitely really beautiful. I have none of the grand buildings to show you because, to be honest, they look exactly the same as all the other monumental Chinese architectures I've posted here especially Forbidden City and the pictures do them no justice anyway. Instead here are some of my favorites. Lets take a peek see.



This is my new friend King (I think), who is from Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan I was planning on visiting at this very moment until Mary spent all of her money in Korea visiting her boyfriend's family. King is both a brilliant English speaker and very astute and knowledgable about Daoism and we've had the best conversations I've had in China yet about the subject. Not that conversation is very Daoist. Quite in fact it's the opposite--but we're learning. It makes me laugh when he uses "mad" as a modifier like "It's mad crowded here." 




That precipice thing to the right is the dragon-head incense platform. People used to climb out and put incense in the burner; it was some kind of feat of daring because there's a 200 foot drop underneath it. This specific building (the hall of which is the top picture of this entry) is called the South Cliff Palace and its perched super super high on a cliff. He said redundantly.



Now it's blocked by a fence to keep the mobs of Barneys who come here from trying to go climb out and pray for the top most desired things I think the Chinese public wants: 1. Their children's success in standard examinations, 2. the good health and functioning of their lower intestine, and 3. A Malechild with a Gold Ingot.

Oh, my life is so empty. If only I had a malechild and a gold ingot.



Ah, this reminds me of Thomas Kinkade, painter of light ®



These signs are placed for the public benefit, and of course, (the most overused and often sinister meaning word in China) HARMONY.
And of all the pictures I took today, I still think these roofing tiles are still my favorite. So much shiny turquoise blue. I want to throw them against a wall for hours shouting OPA! OPA! OPA!

Well kids. Tune in next week; I only have a few left.


China
nilasarasvati
Where even the hardcandy has Monosodium Glutamate.

Ever suck on a Werther's that tasted meaty? I have.

The Neighbors are Pigs
nilasarasvati

In my first week here I kept hearing a strange sound in my room; a sort of high pitched whine, vaguely mechanical, but unfamiliar. I could not identify it until a few days later I found out I share my exterior wall with a pig sty. Vociferous long into the night, the two-toned sow and her pink piglet would stay up chatting long after I had gone to bed, often so loud I could not sleep despite my exhaustion. The longer I stayed, the more accustomed I was to stopping by their aluminum-roofed cesspool and scraping whatever remnants I had from dinner or lunch into the stone trough they ate from. Little Piglet would hustle over the second I leaned down the wall, and I often ended up dropping the extra rice or vegetables right between his ears.

I had always expected big Mama's eventual doom: judging by her behemoth size and how close it was to Chinese new year, I thought she was likely living on borrowed time. However, I was still shocked and unsettled to wake to my neighbor's bloodcurdling shrieks one morning, far louder than the usual ones of excitement or whatever warrants pig conversation. It seemed almost impossible not to personify her: the violent alarm in her voice, the screams of her piglet, and the shouts of the men over her. After a volley of good-fortune firecrackers, total silence.

Later I went outside to see her behemoth shape bobbing in a wooden tub the size of a kiddy pool. The villagers turned her still pliant limbs in boiling water and scraped the hair away with cleavers; later they would split her whole body in two red and white halves and divide this leg, these organs, different cuts of her inches-thick fat for the families of the village and for my school.

At a family reunion in Indiana I remember hearing that my Great Great Grandfather would get very depressed every Autumn when it came time to slaughter the pigs, and as I stand in line for another pork-fat-and-vegetable lunch with the Chinese students crowding in front of me, I can understand why.


I Rode to the Wedding in a Giant Golf Cart
nilasarasvati


Once again I found myself grasping at straws. "Where am I going?"
"Whole school! Go to lunch! Hotel!" says Shifu.
"Right," I say, "I don't want to spend my whole Thursday going to lunch at a hotel."
"We go now!" 
"I don't want to."
"Quickly!"
"Okay."



So I ended up at Ayi's (auntie) house in Laoying, once again baffled. While everybody else went upstairs to hotbox themselves in cigarette smoke I stayed down at the plastic-covered tables to sit on a neon plastic stool and attempted to write in my journal.

Young men kept coming over to practice their English on me. One man stood behind me with his face next to my ear staring in wonderment at the chickenscratch flowing from my pen. A little girl probably four just stood a foot away from me with her eyes wide as eggwhites poring over my exotic visage for long minutes. Its great that I can be such a source of excitement, but it does make it hard to focus and I am really really sick of only being given negative attention. It's like permanently being in the village stocks in Puritan England. I thought I was used to people staring at me in America because of my eccentric costumes and hair and mannerisms and all the rest--but I really never realized how much more overwhelming it would get in China.

Ken soon informed me that this event was a WEDDING FEAST! Or something like it. It turns out it was the bride's family throwing a big bash, and a proper wedding ceremony would follow in another place.



I was really excited when I saw all the shrimp--however, they don't peel or devein them in China. Ken kept insisting, smacking as he chewed (every bite he makes he completely opens his mouth--something I promise I've only seen him do in China, thank God it's not a generalized custom) that I eat the whole thing, and the shell and everything was really good calcium. No thanks, Ken.


Rice threads, red pepper, seaweed.



These fish are fried



And then boiled in broth. One great thing about China is that, just from casually glancing around in people's kitchens and eating at this or that restaurant, I've learned probably double what I used to know about Chinese cooking.




Food for the masses. I've never seen a peasant bacchanalia like this. Every table had multiple bottles of rice wine, boxes on boxes of cigarettes thrown down, playing cards, party favors of all kinds--vice, vice, vice! 

We started with a lonely plate of pig ears; that quickly multiplied.



and then the population explosion.

Almost every dish was pork of some kind--some were just heaps of pork fat salted and steamed (gross!) others were organ meats, etc. There was also however duck, fish, eggs, tons of vegetables, sweet rice with pumpkin, and a dozen other things nobody even touched.

And here's the final picture, complete with a little boy who was crying (it seemed like it was because he wanted to open the wine bottle? I couldn't understand.) Mom's solution to this? She just covered his whole face with her hand accompanied with a sort of smothering motion. That's right. Stuff them emotions back down there! Repress that disappointment deep, boy! 



Finally, in the aftermath of feeling sick from inhaling pure pork fat for two hours and being dragged around on non-consensual adventures we go to this amazing Gate even though I'm cranky and want to leave

"I don't want to go sightseeing. I don't want to stay for dinner, I'm going back up the mountain."
"Just stay, man," says Ken, "Just take a nap at Ayi's house. Its the same as your bed."
"I don't want to take a nap; I want to go home,"
"Just stay, man,"
"You don't understand--I don't want to be surrounded by people and feel obligated and get poked and prodded at and "HELLOED" at like some kind of chained American Bear.

I think in spite of the wonders of this place, I'm definitely ready to get off the merry-go-round. Every time I write about it here or in my Journal I end up reminding myself of how much negative stuff accompanies my daily life here; hassles, disrespect, neglect--I have to apologize to everybody who reads this blog for the sheer amount of complaining and moping and moaning I do on here. It's definitely not what you'd expect of a travelogue to exotic meditative mount Wudang! 

The silver lining to all of this:

I have found somebody who may be able to help.


HAPPY NEW YEAR!
nilasarasvati


On new year's eve, a drunk driver made the worst parking job of all time in front of my house in Salt Lake; three of my friends' cars were totaled and this guys insurance can only cover 25,000 of damages far  exceeding that. Nobody was hurt.


As the Greeks say when they smash plates, Opa!

The Faggot
nilasarasvati

Ten of Staves: the maximum proliferation of fire energy. To be burdened with the fuel of your own or another's destruction; overwhelmed with labor or too many obligations; stress in general; carrying an explosive payload to its target.

On Monday morning all the boys were in the courtyard milling around waiting. This is different from the usual routine.

Uh-oh. Changes are often a bad thing around here. The language barrier means that, even if I get told any kind of answer to "What's going on?"
I'm still doomed. People's word, and in general translations, have been about as useful to me as my own wild speculations about where I'm being dragged this time, why Shifu has a twinkle in his eye, etc.

"We're going up the mountain!" Shifu says. Awesome, I think, a hike. However, I brought no water and I have no idea where we are going. It could be just like 100 feet to the top of the hill above the school, or maybe to that ruined temple I can see all the way across the valley that would probably take us like an hour and a half to reach. God knows. As we tramp down the path the nature I would normally be enjoying is somewhat ruined by my roommate who follows close behind smoking and, as usual, blasting tinny pop music from his cell phone. Finally we get to a spot about 500 feet below the school and probably between a quarter and half mile away.

I noticed earlier they brought axes.

We scatter and begin collecting firewood for the kitchen. Not just twigs or logs, mind you, these are full saplings between ten and twenty feet long, and we are bundling them about Yeah-big:



The first ones we made were roughly between fifty and a hundred pounds. More bulky than heavy, I guess. How the hell were we going to get these up the mountain? Me and one of Shifu's silverback disciples heaved one up to the area we were sort of consolidating them in and I was flabberghasted.

"You! Take one!" they pointed at me. OF course! I said, I'm an AMERICAN! Americans in China are expected to all have the stamina of oxes and be built like Mr. Clean even though obviously I look more like Mr. Slim Goodbody. We all laughed "they're such jokers," I thought, and went to help Shifu make another faggot.

I watched him bundle intently--they brought no rope or cord, instead using this fibrous vine growing everywhere that they twisted and knotted on itself. Shifu kept adding more and more to this bundle. "Damn!" I kept thinking, "When is he going to stop? this one is HUGE!" just when I thought it was over he would ask his disciple to go get another bunch of extra-large dead saplings thicker than a burrito. "God. He must be making this one for himself," I thought, "to prove he's the king of the castle."

The feats of machismo are amazing around here--yesterday I watched "uncle" give two spears to the disciples and tell them to "hold them still!" He put the points in his throat, and then used his Qi (and a considerable amount of leg force) to make both spearshafts bend into a C shape. Afterward he had a massive blood blister in his clavicle and two black divots where the points had been.

Anyway Shifu had no intention of carrying this particularly nasty faggot up the mountain.

"HELLO!" he shouts, (my name, as dear readers by now know), "you carry one? This one?"

There was a time in my life, a place, called America, where it was my God given right as an assertive communicator to say "no." "No I don't want ," I could say, "No, I don't want to go to ," or even "No, I don't eat meat." Here if people don't eat meat that means they only pick out the vegetables which are swimming in a heavy lard gravy. Here if you don't want to go, that means you just need to be asked or five or six more times. And there, at the bottom of the mountain with so very much to prove because, after all, I am such an extra-weird foreigner, I could absolutely not bring myself to say no. I have, in China, taken my passive communication to a whole new level. Not only does nobody around me know who I really am, or what I feel or think, I feel less than ever like I can speak up for my needs/wants. I already had shame and hesitation about it before I got here, but now its the lubricant the entire society runs on. No chance now!

OH well, I thought, heaving that thing up on my back, its only about as heavy as my field backpack. Just twenty feet long and dragging on the ground behind me. It got caught on things, it fell off my back, it tore a hole in my favorite sweater, and unprepared for such exertion I had to leave my coat, puffy vest, passport, and wallet at the bottom of the mountain. Fortunately Shifu picked that up for me but initially I expected I'd just have to return for it on my own.

The bitter irony of carrying that object up the mountain was something I will undoubtedly write an essay about later.

When I got to the top like forty minutes later, having to stop at least a dozen times, I encountered the others who had gone before me. Everybody's burden was different; one kid had two giant briefcases, essentially; others had to share the load between themselves. But we had made it to the top. I was parched. Nobody had water, but were insistently passing out cigarettes to anybody over the age of twelve.




This is what our school, with its twenty-odd strapping lads does for firewood. Everybody else in the village is 50 plus, if not 60 plus, and looks like Yoda. How do they manage?



At least the weather has improved. And, more importantly, on Tuesday afternoon I got my karmic reward: everybody in the whole school left. I washed my laundry in sunsine again, in quiet, and watched a two hour documentary with the magnificent Stephen Fry on Bipolar disorder. Left with quite a few questions of course, but the peace of the afternoon seemed like a perfect answer.






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