Sunday, August 31, 2014

The Daoist Laws of the Universe

We went to Wudang Mountain in Hubei province this weekend because it's a sacred mountain, and we were promised tai chi and meditation with the monks on the slopes of this special place.

I think it's possible that the main lesson of the weekend, though, was one from Daoist philosophy: According to Lao Zi's book Tao Te Ching, considered by some to be the bible of Daoism, the law of the universe is to "be natural."

In our case, what this meant was that if you happened to visit Wudang Shan in August when the rains were frequent and the mountain was enveloped in a thick layer of fog, so be it. According to a book purchased by one woman on our tour, "the law of the universe is to be natural and not interfered." Or, in other words, it says, "let things take their own course."

Funny that. If we were pilgrims of sorts, coming to a place where various monks, scholars, and acolytes came for centuries to practice Daoism and study martial arts, we wanted that too. In our case, as we squinted through the fog as we rode a shuttle bus up the mountain, we felt we were moving through a cool sauna, so misty and mystical that it was hard to see 20 feet beyond us.

We had a congenial group on our tour, including an Italian woman whose Chinese was better than her English. We ended up having odd muddy-linguistic conversation that mixed French, English, Chinese, and a smattering of Italian. I would say things like, "Zai Beijing, you xia yue bu like this," pointing to the mist. "We have le deluge."

Anyway, we visited Zixiao Gong -- Purple Mist Palace -- on the first day, described as the place on the mountain with the best feng shui, and built in 1413. We arrived toward the end of the day as the mist was darkening and we felt the peacefulness of the place. And then we were to have dinner with the Daoist female priests.

We didn't seem especially welcome at dinner, though. One female priest glared at us when we tried to put two tables together and eat outside. No, go inside, she said, and pointed to a room with fluorescent light bulbs and about six simple vegetarian dishes waiting for us. We were instructed to finish what we ate, not to leave any leftovers, and to wash our dishes after we were done. We quietly ate our cauliflower and seaweed and greens, and took our dishes to a cold water sink to rinse.

After dinner, we watched a group from Singapore chanting and praying in the nearby temple, and then went to meet a tai chi master to learn some meditation. Just let the thoughts flow, he told us. Don't try to fight them. My stomach grumbled.

The next day our meditation teacher brought us through some tai chi moves, as we stood in a misty drizzle on a stone terrace. He took us through the slow movements, and even though my breakfast that day consisted of some lukewarm instant coffee in a bowl, a banana, and two slices of raisin bread, I felt calm and peaceful. Either that or I was lightheaded from the altitude, light meals, and lack of coffee.

After lunch, we climbed to Wudang's highest peak to visit Jin Dian, the Golden Hall, which sits on Tianzhu Feng, the highest of Wudang's 72 peaks. At least I think we did. We certainly climbed enough steps through the beautiful mist. We also visited Jia Ye, a wisened Daoist priest who lived on a mountainside in a little place with a tiny temple alongside living quarters. Volunteers prepared food for him, things like soft rice and vegetables that were easy to eat because he had no teeth.

We were told not to ask how old he was; Daoists do not believe in reincarnation so that you don't want to focus on the shortness of this life. Jia Ye handed out candies and moon cakes and said we could ask him anything. Bob, being a journalist, tried an end run around the question of age: How long had he been a priest? About 30 years, Jia Ye answered.

Remember, our guide said, religion was not allowed in China more than 30 years ago.

So what did you do before you became a priest, we asked.

He laughed. I was a farmer, he said.

Bob tried another question. Do you believe there is an afterlife? he asked.

"Ying gai you," he answered: there should be.

It was as good an answer as anyone could get, and it summed up the spirit of the weekend. Don't ask too many questions, don't try to struggle against the normal course of things, and don't do things like fight for personal gain.

Nanyan Gong
I could get behind that, if only there is coffee. I was told there would be coffee.
Climbing down from Jin Dian.
Slippery, dangerous, beautiful.
More steps down from Jin Dian.
Here's what we saw from the cable car.
Jia Ye offers candies and wisdom.
Our tai chi instructor.
Zixiao Gong
Love the lions.
Nanyan Gong

Saturday, August 23, 2014

News of the Weird

Every chance I get, I pick up a free copy of China Daily. It’s not something you really want to spend money on, but it’s easy to find at overpriced expat-focused restaurants like Element Fresh where a basic salad goes for 98 RMB ($16). (And yes, I know I will have to get used to those kinds of prices back in the U.S., but this is China.)

Anyway, one of my favorite sections of the paper is its “Around China” section, which gathers brief news items from around the country. (In contrast, the front page the other day was less than compelling. The lead story, “Vital deals signed on Xi’s trip to Mongolia,” was illustrated by a grip and grimace between Xi Jinping and his “Mongolian counterpart,” Tsakhiaglin Elbegdorj. Thrilling stuff.)

But the briefs really grab my attention. For instance, “Woman kicked off bus has her baby on road” details the story of a heartless bus driver: “A pregnant woman gave birth at the side of an expressway on Monday after she was forced to leave a bus when she went into labor,” the report goes. “The 43-year-old severed the umbilical cord with her teeth and walked 6 kilometers carrying the baby girl, Guangzhou Daily reported.” Yep. Turns out the driver did not want her to have the baby on the bus. Baby girl is in “stable condition,” the newspaper reports.

And in news from Hainan, there’s “Doctor attacked as he treats injured patient.” Apparently, “a doctor in Sanya continued to treat a seriously injured woman after a friend of the patient started to beat him, Beijing news reported.” We learn that the doctor “was giving the woman emergency treatment,” although it’s not clear what that entailed. “The assailant accused him of giving the woman too much medication.” She’s also in stable condition.

From Guangxi we get, “Jealousy blamed as 3 are stabbed to death.” “A man who killed three elderly people with a knife out of envy was sentenced to death on Wednesday, Nanguo Morning News reported." The man “saw the three victims chatting as they lay in hammocks…and killed them because he felt their lives were better than his,” the newspaper reported.

My other favorite part of China Daily is the horoscopes section. There’s always this sense of chastisement. Take, for instance, the Aquarius horoscope for Aug. 22: “Don’t be so glum,” it begins. “Get out and do something you enjoy. Joining a group that appeals to you will keep your mind occupied and increase your chances of meeting interesting people.”

I’d rather keep my mind occupied with sordid stories of old people stabbed in their hammocks and a woman cutting her umbilical cord with her teeth.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Zai Jian Haizi!

Our 100-percent-Chinese-family-summer is about to come to an end.

When Bob and I first talked about moving to China, our thinking was that it would be an adventure and a way to see Asia. We knew that Daniel had been teaching in China but weren't sure how long he'd be staying. And Joanna was working at a good job, fighting the snow of Wisconsin, and off on her life.

What a surprise, then, when Daniel stayed in China for a while longer and Joanna came to visit (after quitting her job) and stayed. I've told this story many times, but it's a fun one to repeat. One month became two, two became six, six months became a year, and a year became two years. It was a good thing.

Then, last summer, both kids left China to go to grad school in the States, both choosing schools and cities that were as un-China as could be imagined, Daniel in Denver and Joanna in Chapel Hill. We said goodbye to them and re-started life as parents of children who lived on the other side of the world. FaceTime helped enormously with that, and Christmas this year was a great reunion of all of us.

Then, to our delight, both kids decided to land back in Beijing this summer, Daniel to study language intensively and Joanna for an internship (and for a certain fellow who may have had a role in her choice of cities). It's been a lovely summer, even with all my complaints about heat, pollution, the lack of any place comfortable to sit in this entire country.

I have to value the fun times: dinner at Chi for Daniel's birthday where the chef's surprise cuisine turned out to be Japanese, a choice we loved. A visit to the National Center for the Performing Arts to see a Shakespeare production. A pengyou party with our visiting friend Anne, where I  made mac and cheese. Nights of watching "True Detective," "Game of Thrones," "Mad Men," and "Sherlock."  Walking through the neighborhood trying to make out the Chinese characters on buildings, and arguing over that. Bringing Joanna with me on one of my hiking days. Doing Heyrobics with her. Losing at Tumbling Towers to Daniel.

When we move back to the U.S., Bob and I will be based in DC, at least for a while. That's home. But where the kids land after their master's degrees is an open question. So I don't know if there will be a time when we'll all be living in the same city again. It's unlikely, anyway, that that city will be Beijing.

So zai jian, hai zi. I'll have to find other ways to embarrass you in the States, since I can't say that there will be any line-dancing of Chinese grandmas for me to join there, or scarf saleswomen at the Pearl Market to scold.

But I'm sure I can come up with something. See you at Thanksgiving.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Summertime, and the Living Is....

As we work our way through summer in Beijing, I think often of the line attributed to Henry James: "Summer afternoon -- summer afternoon; to me those have always been the two most beautiful words in the English language."

Mr. James never spent a summer in Beijing.

Granted, some of my whining today is the result of my upbringing. I have to blame my parents, who had the audacity to be schoolteachers. For them -- and by default for us kids -- summertime meant lazy days at home. "It's a beautiful day -- go outside and PLAY," my mother would order, and we would. Summer is the sound of crickets, Little League games being announced at the green, the put-put of boats going down the river, and the smell of cut grass.

And some of my whining is the result of the house we own in DC. There, a summer afternoon often meant sitting on the front porch with an iced tea and a pile of newspapers. Or if I was "working," sitting on the patio with a laptop and a cell phone.

Beijing summer is the antithesis of all that. On bad air days, it might as well be winter because most of us linger indoors with air cleaners and air conditioners simultaneously running, amusing ourselves with television series and long whiny blog posts. On good air days, you still have to deal with the heat and humidity. It's impressive that a city that can get so bone-chilling cold in winter can switch around and be so oppressively sticky and hot in the summer.

Rare are the days when both the air quality and the temperature are right. But even on those days, there's yet another dilemma: no front porch. If I want to be outside, I have a couple of options: one of the hard benches lining the sidewalks at Seasons Park; a bench or a wooden chair at a local restaurant, where I might be influenced to start drinking beer at 2:33 in the afternoon; or the Seasons Park pool, where there are four already-occupied lounge chairs and a flagstone patio that is harder than any other matter known to man.

Yesterday I opted for another option. We have a lounge chair, bought a couple years back to solve the seating problem at the pool. It's heavy and unwieldy, but I lifted it out of the closet and took the elevator down to a little pergola area not far from the front door of building 22.

I set up my chair, opened my iPad to the New Yorker, and read for about an hour. I may even have dozed off a bit. Did I get a few strange looks? No doubt, but I get strange looks anyway much of the time. Was it a Henry James moment? No. The ambient noise was construction work, car horns beeping, and old men spitting on the sidewalk.

One of these mornings, I'm gonna rise up singing. Until then, I'll just hush.