Category Archives: China

Tea That Gives Meaning To Life

我发现真正的茶!我很高兴!I found REAL CHINESE TEA. I am exploding with happy right now. Yes, mindblowingly expensive. But once someone like Kim Hyun Ji gives you a taste of the real thing, you are a wandering soul for life, dreaming of real tea, resistant to even being too near inferior teas that once seemed quite tasty, snobbishly weeping and recalling teas gone by to the perpetual irritation of your friends. I thought I was lost, the last Chinese tea reserves I had entrusted with my extended family rapidly dwindling, scattered across America and far from me. Today, though, today I was found again. Today I was joined by one who knows. Through desperate questions and a series of, “I know this guy” I met up with one Alfred Lee, former San Francisco resident, former physicist, and current enthusiastic tea drinker. Together we embarked on a quest and, stocked with cell phones and a dream, we dove deep into a labyrinth of Chinatown tea companies.

gold thread teaThe ritual was delightfully familiar. We wandered into a place and navigated from polite conversation to seated positions around an artful tea table. The Chinese woman who ran the place began suggesting things and we arrived at something to try, which she then served Gong-fu style. This is the way that I learned to experience and love tea in China. Hyun Ji would proceed with a ritual rinsing of the tea and the cups atop a fancy tea table. The little tables were designed such that intentionally sloshed tea would wash through slots or wind through little river grooves and away. The first steeping would then be poured from the steeping cup into the serving pot and gently poured into tiny tea cups for the tasting. I was so happy just to be around this little ritual again, even having the opportunity to throw around some of my Chinese.

The first place we went was fun, and some of the tea was interesting, but nothing really grabbed me enough to buy without further exploring. Eventually we strolled into a shop that, given the extreme cleanliness and lack of Chinese employees, didn’t give me high hopes. They weren’t especially forthcoming about serving us samples either. When I asked the woman behind the counter she said, “well, do you mean showing you how to properly steep tea?” Eventually we got the point across and sat down at one of the serving tables. While fairly knowledgeable, our server was not particularly well practiced. Her earlier resistance was quickly explained as she managed to both spill tea leaves all over the table and drop several of the cups. Despite this, no amount of her fumbling could prevent or interfere with what happened next; the exploding “YES” that the Báiháo yín zhēn (白毫银针 | Silver Needle) sent rocketing up my spine. A grin exploded from my far too expressive face. This. This. This… was tea. Oh my old friend, I cannot say enough about how happy I am to see you again.

tea heavenBy the second tea, a 大红袍 (dàhóng páo | “Grand Red Robe”) even Alfred could not contain himself. Alfred is Korean American and so it’s not that his face moved, or that there was any sign of emotion whatsoever, but he stated in a complete deadpan, “this… is the best place I have ever been. I will tell everyone about this place.”

We were exploding with joy, each in our own way. I, for my part, kept cackling loudly and rubbing my hands together. And giggling. We tried a Gold Thread Reserve (極品金芽滇紅 | Jípǐn jīn yá diān hóng). We had to stop. Our wallets were screaming. No more.

I am overwhelmed with the joy of knowing that not only have I found a place to fulfill my deepest tea needs; it is also filled with yet unexplored wonders. Where is this place, you ask? (If you haven’t already followed the above links.) Dare I share it with the world? I know they have a limited supply of this year’s crop and already I can feel the fear rising within me that the Gold Thread Reserve will be gone before I can return. Please leave some for me, dear readers, and if you care for your pocketbooks or the education of your children, do not follow this tea link.

as always, photos link to photographer’s website

Death of my Teacher

So much thanks and appreciation to Joshua Shain, who voluntarily translated and read this post at my teacher’s wake in Fuzhou, China.

A rare picture of shifu sitting down

We all thought we had more time. We had so much left to learn and he had so much left to teach us. But suddenly today my Shīfu (师父, teacher/master), an incredibly dedicated and patient father and teacher, moved on. We lost a mentor and China, and the world, lost an irreplaceable treasure.

Contracting

Disolving TreeI’m in Colorado and have just climbed up into the woods to process. It’s a good place to be. Tall, strong trees reach for the sun, younger trees are just beginning to stretch, and older trees have laid down to rest. Everything is decomposing and arising and flowing. There is less distinction between alive and dead and none of the steps are hidden. This dark, wet stump before me crumbles and sighs slowly into the soft earth and pine needles pressing against my bare toes, a welcome and complete part of all that surrounds me.

One day I, too, will lie down and melt into the earth. Even as I write this, parts of what I think of as me are doing just that. Cells from my feet and others from my breath flow outward and into the world to become what we call “other”. At the same time oxygen I draw from outside fuels and becomes my muscles, just as lessons from others shaped those muscles and taught them to move.

Expanding

When I first arrived in Fuzhou, China (福州, Fúzhōu) I was warned several times that no matter how much I wanted to, I should under no circumstances go right up the mountain. After intense jet lag (a complete planetary flip) I would dive in and kill myself with enthusiastic training. I waited one day.

I arrived at the little mountain at the center of the city at night. I walked up long wide stone steps and followed the road up and around a series of old temples as I climbed. Andy Chow was there to meet me and serve as translator, and Rudy Ibarra (my teacher from Austin) arrived soon thereafter. Rudy had made a special trip to Fuzhou to introduce me to Shifu and help me get started in China, a gesture I will never forget. We stretched and talked and I looked around buzzing with excitement as I saw all of the pieces of the training area that I had heard about: the giant clay pot, the forked tree and the old stone animals.

Grandmaster Lv teaching fighting stanceAfter more stretching and kicking to warm up I suddenly heard a sound in the distance that would become deeply a part of my experience: the whine and growl of Shifu’s motor scooter. From that night on I would feel my heart leap, my adrenaline rush, and my mind snap into sharp focus when I heard that little motor pull its way up the hill. Every part of my being prepared to lock into a world, a bubble, a universe all its own for the next two hours.

Everyone was suddenly moving and stretching, none standing still, pretending to be in action as though they had been working away with the same intensity for the last two hours. Shifu appeared and stepped off of his scooter to join us. He refused to allow any type of formality, even the least bit of bowing, and so we individually said hello (你好, nǐ hǎo). Rudy introduced me. We talked briefly (through translation) and I was immediately frustrated that I couldn’t already understand Chinese. I was struck by how simple he seemed. He was straightforward and calm and didn’t appear in the least bit rushed or have any need to come across as some sort of grandmaster or badass. After a few minutes of talking, the words came that I had anticipated for months: “Shifu would like to see your punch”.

At the heart of Natural Style Kung Fu (自然门 Zìrán mén) is what we call Shenfa, the body movement method (身法 Shēn fǎ). This involves a way of moving that draws energy up and out of the core. While this way of moving energy ultimately becomes part of every movement, the secret to learning begins with the basic punch.

Grandmaster Lv teaching young studentI crouched into the Sìliù bù (四六步, forty-sixty stance), my hands raised as two bladed guards before me. Shifu stood calmly in front of me and held up his hand as a target. He nodded. I threw out my first three punches. Yī, èr, sān. (一,二,三, one, two, three). His head nodded every so slightly as he calmly said, “mm” and shook his target hand. One, two, three I threw again, my fists just tapping the palm of his hand. He moved his hand higher so that I had to reach even more. “Mm.” Again. And again. And again. One, two, three. One, two, three. Each time he simply responded with, “mm” and shook his hand slightly, just out of reach before me. I started to gasp for breath. One, two, three. One, two, three. My punches started going wild, missing his hand. I barely had the strength to heave them, one after the other. One, two, three. One. Two. Heave… three… His expression, and his hand before me, never moved. “Mm.” One Two… I collapsed to the ground gasping. I looked up in time to see Shifu look down at me. “Mm”, he said, and quietly walked away. My mind was screaming one thing: “Wait! I can do more! Wait!”

Suddenly I understood what I had been told again and again during my last year and a half with Rudy and Josh. “It’s different in China. Wait till you meet Shifu. You’ll see.” I was overwhelmed with a desire to please this quiet, comfortable little man. It was completely inexplicable. He had said and done almost nothing.

At the same time, I was elated to feel this level of exhaustion, of complete physical drain. In a rush it brought back everything I had ever most loved about sports and training. My first running coach who taught me to love the sweat and the pain. Wrestling practices that would leave every muscle in my body incapable of motion. The purity of pushing to the absolute limits of capacity, to then create even more strength. I was already hooked.

Rudy stepped beside me and whispered. “You’ve passed the first test”.

Grandmaster Lv teaching Rudy and Hua Pin

Floating

I love to describe Shifu’s teaching energy as like Tai Chi Push Hands: meeting each student with exactly the energy they’d bring to him. He responded to mild interest with mild engagement. Casually interested visitors got a casual greeting. At the same time he responded to passion with passion. Once he had a sense of my dedication, he didn’t hold back. He poured energy into my training, moving my arms, positioning my shoulders and back, watching every detail of my movement and making continuous corrections.

His patience was limitless. He would explain the same ideas to me again and again as I struggled to feel or understand. Never once did I see him lose his cool or show even the slightest irritation. He would simply show me through example or by positioning my body, every time with the same enthusiasm, again and again as though I had just begun.

That night, as with all nights to follow, the sound of the scooter whining down the hill was followed by a brief pause and then… a collective exhale. The powerful magical intensity that held the whole garden would release as everyone reconvened at the center of the training area. “Did you see when Shifu made this move with his foot, just as he was turning?” “Suddenly I see it now: I just need to pull back slightly right before dropping…” Now we will spend the rest of our lives doing this.

Sinking

Strong Tree Rests NowHere in the mountains of Colorado, tucked down into a little forest, I choke as I try to take up one of our classic stances. I cry for my own loss, the loss of this person in my life and a future I had hoped to fill with learning from this man. I cry for the loss of the past, my time in China when everything was so incredibly alive and new and clear. I cry for China, as another of their irreplaceable treasures is lost without so much as a ripple in the pond of China’s awareness; China who struggles blindly forward through clouds of modern poison hoping for a better life and leaving their miracles behind.

But I don’t need to cry for Shifu. He lived to the last moment teaching passionately dedicated students who crossed oceans over and over to find him, who wrapped their lives around their time on the mountain. He was also a Daoist (道教, Dàojiào) in the original sense of the word. Despite having literally fought his way through the cultural revolution he found a way to become peaceful even in his passion, his small smile a ready reminder that nothing was ever really that bad. Here in the woods I draw on that way of being, that way of knowing we are earth, will return to earth, and have always been earth.

My small woodland memorial

Shifu was a father to many of us, and a living connection with hundreds of years of learning. Now that learning lives in us, pieces scattered throughout our little group. Rudy Ibarra may be the only one who knows some of the advanced techniques. Josh Shain may be the last person on earth who knows one of the Ziranmen Tai Chi (太极拳, Tàijí quán) forms. We are now the vessels who hold this fragile treasure.

I mentioned earlier that Shifu never wanted any form of formality despite our desire to show respect. The only gesture he allowed us was as he was leaving. When he wrapped up practice, just before he walked to his scooter to disappear down the mountain, we would all pause and say, “màn zǒu” (慢走, go slowly).

慢走师父。慢走。

孟凯

(Màn zǒu shīfu. Màn zǒu.)

(Mèng kǎi)

Videos of Shifu and our conditioning room:

Shifu teaches Shenfa through conditioning
Shi demonstrates Taiji on Chinese television

When Death Chucked Me On the Shoulder

Reva Patwardhan and Orlando Reyes called me out yesterday for leaving out the best parts of my China story. I think in particular they wanted to hear about (not quite) dying. I think it’s valuable for me to share this in a little more detail because it wasn’t what most people might expect. First, though, I’ll give a little context.

Sarita Chawla introduced me to the “Island Where It All Works Out”. This is the idea that if we work really hard, stay focused and don’t screw around we’ll wrap up our struggles and arrive, around age 65, at the Island Where it All Works Out, a beautiful place where we hang around swinging a golf club and playing with grandchildren until we die. Sadly, a lot of people don’t live that long, as someone pointed out by telling the story of their hardworking mother who lived for that dream but died in her mid fifties.

The Island Where it All Works OutI never believed in that dream. I threw some money into an IRA and snuck onto the island early to get a peek. It was kind of boring, so then I ran around playing everywhere else. I made bargains along the way, mixing in hard work so that I could stir in an equal portion of joy and adventure during the time of life where I still had strong working legs and a sharp mind.

It cannot be said that I haven’t lived fully. But an interesting thing happened that, in part, lead me to China. I reached a point where I felt like I had done it all. Oh sure, there were still several businesses to start, hang gliding hadn’t worked out yet, and I had five unfinished book ideas. But I looked back and felt satisfied that I’d taken a good big bite of the cookie and shared it with a lot of other humans. I felt like an adult, like I’d made it, not in a way related to status or accomplishments but as a result of being aware and seeing and doing so much.

Before I flew to China I had reached a point in my life that I can only describe as the “bonus round”. I felt like anything else I took on was just for fun. Life had already happened.

By the time I reached Taiwan, the damage the carbon monoxide had done to me (summary) had me shaking, unable to walk in more than a shuffle, and in a deep fog. The world was a distant place that seemed to be slipping further and further away. I had all of the symptoms of advanced Parkinson’s disease and a general confusion. I certainly had moments of fear. I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to get to the hostel, or to the hospital. I wondered if I would ever be able to speak again. But the overwhelming majority of the time I was… exploring. My old instincts kicked in. I was in wonder at this new experience. The world was strange, which made it new and interesting. I made challenges for myself, like walking a block to the bank. I had to stop repeatedly to remember where I was and what I was doing, but I kept the hospital bill in my hand to remind me. Sometimes it was frustrating. I kept reminding myself to try to stand up straight. I would find myself hunched over, yet again, and snap at myself. Mostly, though, I laughed. I laughed at the absurdity of it all. I laughed at my enjoyment of the strange new experience and the new challenge.

I also felt thankful. Thankful to the many strangers who went out of their way to help me. Thankful for what time I had left.

Mostly, though, I felt thankful that everyone I loved knew I loved them. There were no loose ends. For years I had told my parents and sisters and nephews and niece that I loved them. I had hugged my friends and lovers and told them I loved them. I did my best not to let conflicts sit and grudges take root with my friendships. There was no desperate need to fix anything.

Jade PlantThe only fragment, the one piece that emerged, was that there were still little things that could be done with the gifts I had been given for writing and working with people. Even as I struggled to get my tired, aching brain to focus and my words came out like slow, wet drops from a tightly closed faucet there were people who stayed with me for hours, somehow unable to go where they had planned, staying because they felt like they were learning to see themselves and the world in a new way. I don’t know what I was saying or what I was doing, but somehow my grandfather’s magic was still working through me, through those last thin threads connecting me to the world as they snapped and fell away one by one. I’m working on finding a way to make some use of this now.

I lived. I slept for several months. My brain is still slow. But there is a connection I have with still being here on the planet that has evolved. The idea of the bonus round is even more tangible. Where before every new project was a bonus, now every moment is a bonus. The moment I touch the waxy leaf of a jade plant. The moment I smell fresh basil. The moment I hear a deep, rich note hum from an acoustic bass.

A few months back I was walking in the hot sun, feeling a little cranky about having to go retrieve a car, and suddenly… something happened. I stopped. I straightened. Like suddenly noticing a note left by a lover… a thought appeared. “I’m Alive”. I held up my thumb and second finger and gently, quietly, slowly rubbed them together, immersed in the feeling of their touch. There was nothing else. Everything was in that touch, that moment. Everything that needed to be.

It’s all a bonus. And sometimes I still forget. I get nervous. I get angry. I wonder if I’m “doing it right”. And sometimes, I stop to just touch something near me. One more time. One extra moment. And a smile emerges, and I laugh at the absurd simplicity of it all.

Click on images to reach photographers’ sites

The Mysterious Powerful Allure of China

Having just written a less encouraging view of China, I want to follow immediately with a discussion of one of the things that makes me so eager to go back.

The number one reason to spend time in China is something that cannot easily be put into words. I’d love to find some foreign word that we don’t have in English like, “Fahrvergnügen” or even “Je ne sais quoi” (ironically) that perfectly describes it, but I want something that fits a little better, something that gives a real sense of the buzzing, buoying energy of the place, that magical charge that infects some foreigners for life.

huang shan
Huángshān

Years ago my friend Vince Zappa and his wife (Americans) spent the first half of their honeymoon visiting some fellow Americans who were teaching in a small village in China. She had a decent time, but when the second half of the honeymoon arrived she was ready to head down to the resort in the Philippines. He was, however, entranced and had no interest in leaving a dirty little town to go to a fancy resort. Vince couldn’t get enough of just being in China. He got ripped off at a restaurant he liked and decided he didn’t care enough to stop going, that instead he’d just be more careful. He was willing to put up with hardships in this weird new place because something captured his heart.

When I first visited China many years ago, it was only for a few weeks but that was enough to trap me. Before we went I liked spending time around my Chinese friends in college and being around Weíshí’s parents and relatives. Weíshí’s second aunt taught me how to play Májiàng and I learned the numbers and directions. I liked the sound of the language, the beautiful characters, and the endless (and I do mean endless) “old Chinese sayings”. But something different happened when I arrived in Běijīng and later visited Xī’ān and Huángshān. I was hooked. I couldn’t get enough of the beautiful mountains, the scrappy street venders, the peach orchards, and above all the endlessly chaotic nature of everything around me. The magic hook is somewhere in that chaos and the way that people are so energized to make things happen. The Chinese people of today don’t bother with safety or laws or aesthetics: they charge ahead and build and make and haul and try.

great wall of china
great wall of china

When Weíshí and I visited the Great Wall we walked the whole length of the top of the restored wall. As we reached the far end, we heard grunting and whispers somewhere on the other side of the large stones that surrounded us. The sounds continued and got closer. The section of wall we stood on was a huge distance from the ground. We walked over just in time to see a hand grasp for the top. I leaned over and saw a series of people standing on each others’ shoulders and the person on top struggling to pull themselves up. Mystified, I grabbed onto his arm and helped him over the wall. He breathed heavily for a moment, then reached inside his jacket as a few more people pulled themselves up behind him. He fumbled a bit more and then, like a magician pulling flags from his sleeve, began heaving out pile after pile of “Great Wall” t-shirts. He immediately tried to sell me one. Apparently there was a fee to sell things on the wall, and they were either too poor or too scrappy and cheap to pay it.

Of course in the midst of this scrappiness and chaos there is still a swirling undercurrent of ancient history spinning through the signs, bricks, buildings, language and culture. It’s all still there, like the old tent that holds the circus. Something in the beauty of this whole mess is the China magic, the magic that entrances, lures, and captures the hearts of people like me.