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

Is There Any Beauty Left in San Francisco

When people told me how beautiful San Francisco was, I wasn’t sure what they meant, having seen the often filthy streets and layers of cement. I prepared myself for the worst, knowing too that the digital gold miners and fortune seekers had likely crushed the flowers of this place under their heavy work boots. To some extent, there are hints that this is true. Certain dance scenes here seem pretty limited and many of the more energetic artists have moved to Oakland to live out the cycle of muggings and stabbings, to bring bicycles to the poor, and to prepare the rubble for wealthy developers.

Flowers from my Back YardOn the other hand, despite my days here being few, already I’m beginning to see glimpses of the resident beauty. The many micro climates dabbed about the city create little beds of fog-sprinkled flora. Succulents like the Jade plants I loved as a kid are everywhere around me, even using their plump rubbery leaves to form flowers. Outside my window is a lush green forest of exotic trees and palms that stretch through a hundred secret back yards towards the ocean.

As with any place, as with with any human experience, it’s just a matter of slowing down for a moment to spot it. When I’m racing for a bus the plums over my head might as well be oil stains on the pavement. When I make plenty of time to get from one place to another, and when I leave my phone in my pocket, and when I say to myself, “hey, there’s time”, I find myself walking and breathing more slowly. Suddenly the things around me, once frightened of my running, emerge tentatively to let themselves be seen. I can’t help but pause to say hello, reaching up to lift a plum or leaf to my face and let it enter and fill my world.

Life goes on beyond the waves that crash and recede over a place. I discovered a pocket of my old college friends. They’ve powered through their sleepless nights and, having found their gold, are still choosing to live here. They talk of theater and artwork, giving me hope that these things can still be supported in a place like this.

At some point this bubble too will pop and the wave will draw back leaving cultural seaweed and human driftwood just as every wave that came before. With its absence there will be space for new life to grow and the cycle will continue. Somewhere in that cycle I, like a tiny crustacean or a grain of sand, am playing my small part. If I pause just long enough, I can see that too.

San Francisco is Back in the Bubble

I had only been in San Francisco for a day before the inevitable. I went from tidying up my new space to being stuffed into the back of a Honda Element, rolled up in an old futon and left hugging a pile of playa dust-soaked stuffed animals as we careened through the streets. The story had something to do with VC and entrepreneurs and tech startups and a dinner party at a mansion turned frat boy brogrammer den. Up front my friends, with matching purple hair, were already back into brainstorming their next app-based get rich quick scheme with intermittent hammering on smart phones to make sure we would eventually arrive.

We walked sideways across an impossibly steep hill and strolled through the courtyard past the fountains into a house that, in another era, wouldn’t have dreamed of allowing us in without an announcement from the butler. Dinner prep was already underway and quick introductions got us into the dining room. I watched as other guests arrived. One in particular, who no one seemed to recognize, went through a series of introductions where he would announce his first name and the recipient would suddenly explode with excitement and hug him. He was like some kind of virtual being who had finally manifest in the world. I imagined him building countless friends and enemies through his online writing over months and years, never to leave his tiny house or trailer on the beach until this moment.

random cool house in sf
not the house

I got a chance to talk to the living avatar later and asked him what he was into. He went into a string of jargon around facilitating electronic manifestations of human and music engagement etc. I was curious about what that really meant to him so I pressed on. “So you’re a musician? You make electronic music? You want to help musicians?” After a series of no, without a whole lot of explanation, he suddenly quit. It was like he had reached behind his ear, peeled off a giant rubber mask, and just tossed it to the floor with a sigh. In a tired voice he said, “listen, I’m recovering from a medical condition right now and I… don’t really have the energy to do the thing right now.” Suddenly I realized what was happening. We were doing a “thing”. Everyone here was. In theory, I knew that, but I’m from Austin, Texas. I was genuinely interested in this person as a human being. But here in San Francisco, every event was about uncovering who among the crowd had access to the edge they needed to take their scheme to the next level. He recognized that I was not a source and needed to save his precious energy. I politely bowed out and hoped to meet him as a human another day. Perhaps this is what online communication is for.

There was much chatter on the balcony overlooking the pool centered around various market segments, large companies, and strategies for working with said companies and segments, avoiding them, or extracting money from them. I actually enjoyed the strategic elements of the conversations. I’ll have to find some level of comfort with the interpersonal power moves of this game, but I’m all down with the actual exchange of knowledge and brainstorming solutions. Thinking, I like.

Around the dinner table the conversation finally dipped into more mundane topics. Amidst a long cycle of comparison of television shows the man who had been cooking earlier got my attention from across the table. “Got ten bucks?” I looked at him confused. “For ingredients.” At first I thought he was joking with me, but he didn’t laugh or look away. “Oh, sure, of course,” I said, digging through my pockets. Of course I have no problem chipping in for a dinner. My stunned response at the absurdity of the request was due to the seemingly opulent surroundings. It was then that I realized that one of several things were going on. One: the residents didn’t necessarily have millions yet. They were all at the point where they lived with little more than beds and computers and the beds were no more than workspaces and computer stands. (I had seen some of the rooms.) They were still gold miners chasing the dream, swinging fingers to keyboard like axes into rock, working late into the night in hopes of finding a big score. Two: the surroundings were, admittedly, also used to meet with potential investors. Perhaps the facade felt necessary to convince people of money that they were worthy of money. Three: old habits die hard.

If I’m completely honest I have to admit that despite my discomfort with tactic-based relationships I did feel, amidst the swarm, the old infectious energy of the startup world. I loved the buzz of it back in the day and I can feel it all around me here again. I left it to pursue more life-affirming passions, hoping to inspire and lift myself and others beyond the sale of computers and plastic toys, but the energy itself has a lively character that I cannot entirely dismiss. As I continue to learn and grow with my craft my longer term goal, should I continue to live on, is to take these skills and scale them to more people. I recognize that this will involve technology and, likely, connections. Perhaps the circle is beginning to close after all. Perhaps I can make use of the scramble for cash to trick the system into bettering itself or its neighbors. At some point I will have to grab the horns of the beast and see if I can tame it to pull a plow.

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