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One Week in China
by Robert Linnet - Jan 12, 2015
Tasting Vinegar in Beijing Why do I love China?
Why do i love China? One answer to that question is that sometimes I don’t. Sometimes, like when a thousand blaring car horns wake me up at 6:45 am or riding a subway in the morning packed and squished in like a sardine, the situation is definitely less than ideal. In my weaker moments during such times I just want to tell China how much it’s pissing me off. In my stronger times, however, the small annoyances are not annoyances but part of the wild experience that is modern China; an experience that’s dynamic and different depending where you go, but always challenging and never boring. This is why most times I love China in a deep way, and in fact it was an old master from China who first taught me how to love life and adventure in the way that keeps me pumped on the excitement to be found here every day.
There was a day 20 years ago, when I was nine years old, and my dad came to me and said, “I have a book I think you might like. It’s called The Tao of Pooh.” I looked at the red book that he handed to me and studied the cover. There was Winnie the Pooh, the old A. A. Milne bear that hung out with a handful of other animals in a forest and wore a red shirt with no pants. Except this Pooh was different than I had ever seen him: he still was having an issue finding something to cover his lower half, but instead of the red T-shirt he wore a yellow and red traditional Chinese shirt complete with knot buttons and was flying a kite emblazoned with the yinyang symbol. I was intrigued. My dad explained that this book introduced an ancient Chinese natural philosophy called Taoism (pronounced “dow”, like the stock market) through Winnie the Pooh.
That weekend we went up to my aunt and uncle’s cabin in the mountains outside Denver. I brought the book, and though I was still unsure why my dad wanted me to read a book about some dumb bear that I felt I was way too old for, there was something about the Chinese imagery on the cover that stirred me. So, on a lazy Saturday afternoon I tromped up to the cozy loft upstairs and opened up the book to see what this bear could teach me about the wisdom of ancient China.
Foreigners pursuing Taoism
The founder of Alibaba, Jack Ma, is practicing Taichi
In a nutshell, the books explained a few of the basic Taoist tenets, specifically the Tao, or the Way, which is the fundamental way or nature of things, life and the universe; the natural manner of everything. It also talked about wuwei: action through non-action or effortless doing. Apparently, Winnie the Pooh and his mellow, easy-going, go-with-the-flow attitude was a prime example of the basics of wuwei, at least according to Benjamin Hoff, the tree-pruning author. Everything Hoff explained about Taoism really hit home with me; that the more we force things the more they tend to become over-complicated, stressful and unharmonious; that achieving the same goal but without exerting unneeded effort is a high virtue (it isn’t being lazy, it’s just not wasting energy); that humility, kindness, and living as a good example are the best ways to positively influence others, not by forcing their hand or creating mandates; that the more we can flow with the Way like water instead of fighting it upstream, the more contentment and balance we can find in life; and that looking too hard to find the Way is the best method to miss it completely.
I was loving this idea of just being instead of doing, and how if we can just be then all things will naturally flow from there. The concepts were so innate and obvious, I felt liberated, like I was finally being shown my true nature. There was one thing, however, that struck me most of all, a story that I always try to remind myself of when I take life too seriously. It’s the story of “The Vinegar Tasters” and it has been represented in countless paintings throughout Chinese history.
The painting depicts the three founders of China’s major philosophical and religious traditions: the Buddha (aka Siddhartha, founder of Buddhism), Confucius (founder of Confucianism) and Lao Tzu (founder of Taoism). Each man is standing around a vat of vinegar and giving it a taste. The vinegar is an allegory for life, affecting each man with a different expression upon tasting. Confucius wears a sour expression at the flavor, Buddha’s expression is bitter, and Lao Tzu just smiles. Because of his view that rules were needed to correct the degeneration of people and that the world was out of step with the past, Confucius saw the vinegar as sour. Buddha believed that life was suffering because we all hold tanha, or desire, and to free oneself of this and achieve nirvana it’s necessary to shed tanha. Because of this, to him the vinegar was bitter. Lao Tzu, on the other hand, believed that life and all beings are inherently good if they follow their true nature, and instead of passing a value judgment on the vinegar he simply smiles at the experience and says “Ah, so this is vinegar.” By experiencing the taste of vinegar as vinegar and nothing else his experience passes in harmony with the natural world.
Statue of Lao Tzu in Lao Jun Shan, Luoyang, Henan
Upon reading this, a profound change occurred in my nine-year-old mind. I wondered what kind of value judgments I was passing in my daily life that were distracting me from experiencing the world and life simply as they are. I thought of all the miniscule ways we must pass such judgments every minute, most of the time without even knowing it. I wanted to free my mind and my soul and learn to experience life with more intrinsic joy, a joy that comes simply from having the experience. I suddenly realized that everything is what we make of it, the way we view the world and life must be the biggest influence on how we experience it. I wanted to taste the vinegar with a smile.
Flash forward 16 years to 2009, I was about to embark on the trip of my life: a flight to Beijing for two weeks of traveling, and then a train ride 15 hours to the northern province of Jilin where I was to train in Shaolin kungfu and Mandarin at an academy for 7 hours a day over the course of three months. I was a little nervous. In particular, because this was my first trip outside the US as a lone traveler, and I wasn’t just heading to Europe or somewhere with Western familiarity, this was China, straight up on the other side of the world. I really didn’t know what to expect, so I tried not to expect anything and just let the experience happen.
Landing in Beijing I pulled one of my classically smart Robert moves and didn’t put the address for my hostel in any kind of place that I could find it. Maybe I didn’t even bring it, maybe I never printed it off, but just hopping on a plane without that info to a land where I didn’t know my way around or speak the language was an outstanding way to turn my initial excitement and giddiness into that terrible sinking feeling that says, “You really are a dumbass. What are you gonna do now?” That was a great question, what the hell was I going to do? As I walked through the Beijing airport with my huge backpacker’s pack and my side suitcase I remembered that the hostel was very close to the Forbidden City, so if I could get to that area and find a place with wifi I could just check my email and get the address again. Sweet! Problem solved! First I tried the airport wifi, but it seemed to need me to sign up for the service and pay for some time. Buying this internet time turned out to be more dubious than it should be, so I just decided to get over to the Forbidden City area first and take it from there. Off to the bus area I went with a renewed sense of confidence at my ability to improvise.
When I got out to the bus loading zone, guided easily by all the English signs inside the pristine modern airport, I hit another snag: all the bus signs were in Chinese. WTF? Where was I again? Oh right, CHINA. Of course they were in Chinese! Didn’t really think this one through too well either. I thought, “Well, the Forbidden City is so famous, someone must know what I mean even if I say it in English.” Wrong again. I tried several times to explain Forbidden City to the lady selling tickets, and finally she said something in Chinese, awaiting confirmation. I didn’t understand her, but I assumed she finally got the message, and once again I smiled as I nodded my head and bought the bus ticket for what I thought was a trip to the Forbidden City area.
It was hot and humid in Beijing that day, and carrying those bags around as I tried to make my way to somewhere in Beijing besides the airport was working up a mad sweat on my face. When I got my bags on the bus and climbed inside the air conditioned coach it was bliss. I could take a rest and sit back as I rode the bus towards the Forbidden City in Beijing, China! It was too exciting to be here, and now I could finally kick back again and enjoy it. The bus rolled on…and on… and on… And though I didn’t exactly know what the neighborhood around the FC looked like, I began to realize that where I was going could not have been old Beijing. My brow began to furrow again, but I told myself that I just needed to bear with it and figure out what to do next. First things first, I’d better get off the bus that’s taking me in the wrong direction.
Back into the hot muggy weather with my heavy bags (one of which contained a 35 pound kettlebell that I planned to use for training at the kungfu academy) and no idea where I was. All around me were tall steel buildings that looked more Western than Asian, shops and food courts along the bottom floors selling cell phones and lunch dishes that looked like they were from an Indiana Jones movie, a busy street with cars whizzing up and down and an endless stream of people hurriedly passing me but taking time to give me a good stare, and suddenly the smell of… rain. Just what I needed. The people on the street began busting out their umbrellas and I busted out my computer to check if there was any wifi in the area since it seemed like a pretty developed district.
No wifi, and the computer was getting down to 15% battery. This was not good. Depending on how long it took me to find internet my computer could be dead by then. I had been walking for a while now, and decided to start ducking in some restaurants to look for wifi and maybe a place to plug in. The first eatery I tried looked to be in the middle of their 6 pm dinner rush, and the flustered white guy who suddenly popped in with two large bags drew more than just a few gawking faces. I plopped the bags down at a table and went up to the window to order an orange soda, one of the few things on the menu I could recognize. Apparently, I went to the wrong counter to order because the girl looked at me like I was from Mars and then exasperatedly pointed me to an area far away that did NOT have the orange soda picture but was the place that I could get one. Obviously! I sat down with my drink, which didn’t have any bubbles and seemed to just be some weak Hi-C, and once again failed to get internet access. As I tried to ask one of the servers if they had internet in broken English, ridiculous hand gestures and some pointing to different words in my tiny Chinese-English dictionary, a local girl eating in the restaurant came over to me. “Um…can I help you?” She said.
“Yes! Thank you so much!” I said with obvious relief and gratitude. “I need to get to the Forbidden City area, can you tell me where to go?”
“Oh!” She said, totally shocked, “you are very far away from there now. You should take the subway train; do you know where it is?”
Of course I had no idea. But with her awesomely friendly demeanor and superbly kind heart she told me that she would be happy to take me there.
She grabbed her boyfriend and the three of us were off to the subway line; she warned me that it was about a twenty minute walk. No problem, I was just happy to finally have an English speaker to help me.
We chatted casually along the way, and I learned that she was an English student at a university in Beijing. Her boyfriend spoke less English than her, but it was a hell of a lot more Chinese than I spoke and they were both just so nice. Hearing about my plan in China – going to the martial arts school and taking some time to travel around – they were impressed with my “bravery”, as they put it, and wished me well. When we got to the station she gave me an old one-way subway card and pointed out my destination on the small map on the back. I thanked them from the bottom of my heart and headed into the station. The human connection – not to mention the help – from the interaction put me in good spirits; I was quickly feeling less isolated in a strange land because of their kindness.
The subway ride was long; 30 minutes or more, which confirmed what she had said: I had been a long way from my destination. Getting out at Wangfujing station as dusk began to roll in I knew I wasn’t out of the woods yet. But, seeing my helpful friend point out Wangfujing station on her old subway card had reminded me that I was staying at Wangfujing Youth Hostel. I was so close I could practically taste the beer on my tongue and feel the soft couch that awaited me in the lounge. I pulled out that dictionary again and headed over to some security guards on the side of Wangfujing’s walking mall. When I pointed out the Chinese word for hostel in the dictionary he looked at me like “Are you serious?” Then he laughed and pointed with sweeping gestures to the buildings all around us. I got the idea, there were hotels everywhere, just pick one. I could see I wasn’t going to get anywhere here, so I turned to plan Z: just find a cheap place and get a room, and forget about my reservations at the hostel till tomorrow.
I moseyed over to a place and up the stairs inside. The prices seemed reasonable, ¥100 per night for a private, but the gaudy red carpeting on the lobby walls, the dim lighting and the claustrophobic design were making me wonder if it was worth the cheap price. I was sure it must have doubled as a brothel. But, the folks inside were exceptionally friendly and as I pulled out my computer to check if there was any battery left it informed me that there was wifi in the building! One guy in the staff spoke very broken English and he gave me the wifi password and took a look at the address of my hostel. Turns out it was just around the corner, and he was practically jumping out of his seat with excitement with me. I grabbed my stuff and we went out the door to get me on my way – finally.
Just around the corner it was, and I gave that man a hearty hand shake and invited him to come in and let me buy him a beer or ten. He had to get back to work anyway, so I gleefully checked in to my room and dumped my stuff with a huge sigh of relief. It was 11 pm by the time I made it to the Wangfujing Youth Hostel, more than five hours after landing in Beijing; what an adventure it had been already.
And that’s when I thought back to the vinegar tasters. I certainly knew people who would have been sour over the experience I had just been through. I knew people who would be bitter too. But even though there were times during the journey from the airport when I was worried or frustrated, I did see it as all part of the experience. I had begun the long adventure with a powerful mini-adventure, and somehow I could see it was part of my Tao, part of the Way that was meant for me that day. Not only did I have a new story and a rich experience, but I also learned a lot that day, in particular, not to be an idiot and misplace the vital info for my hostel. I smiled as I headed to the lounge to chill with a beer, all the while thinking, “I can’t wait for the next adventure to make me smile, just like vinegar.”
The Temple of Heaven
Photo with Great Mao
I’m the hero who climbed the Great Wall
Yummy broiled scorpions at Wangfujing Food Street
Have lunch at the hostel
The Road to Siping
With so much to see and do in Beijing my two weeks of travel turned into two weeks of getting into the nooks and crannies of the city. It was hard to leave, especially after easily filling a week’s worth of time just seeing the main attractions. On top of that, an old buddy was in town, I was making friends and getting to know the neighborhoods, and there were a ton of interesting parts of the city I hadn’t even touched yet. Besides, I had two more weeks of travel planned after I left the martial arts school three months later, so I decided I didn’t need to force myself out of Beijing early if I was still feeling the local vibe.
Soon it was May 31 and time to board that train to Siping for my June 1 arrival at the Northern China Shaolin Martial Arts Academy. My nervousness was only beaten by my excitement; I knew the training would be super tough, but since I was a boy I had dreamed of experiencing Shaolin Kungfu training. I had saved a couple thousand dollars for my four months in China, but to make the dollars go as far as I could I had bought the cheapest train ticket I could for the 15-hour journey. That, it turned out, meant I would be sitting on a hard plastic bench all the way to Siping. But this wasn’t even the best part…
Train stations in China are madhouses. Even the tamer ones are packed to the brim pretty much all the time with everyone from traveling businessmen and families to countryside hillbillies sitting on giant burlap sacks, staring at you with mouths full of missing teeth. The sound of people hustling around and the constant buzz of thousands chatting it up are only broken through at times by some muffled announcement over the loud speakers. It seems that just about every corner of the station’s dozens of waiting areas are filled with people – half of them sun-scorched farmers – and every now and then you see a lady milling around selling newspapers, which are used almost exclusively for individuals to place on the dirty floor and sit or sleep on. Chinese train stations are rugged and awesome; a true adventure in travel.
I wouldn’t say it was easy to get over to the train with my large backpack and suitcase, but I made it okay. The real challenge, however, was once I boarded the train to find a scene of people in seats and splayed out into the aisles like something out of a Looney Tunes cartoon. Everyone was yapping, passing bags around and eating, and kids were climbing all around the seats. It was like they took the scene in the actual station and stuffed it into the train car. The overhead shelves were nearly all full and bags had been stuffed into just about every other crevice people could find. Hoisting my stuff through the crowds was looking pretty daunting. Fortunately one of the locals decided to do more than just stare at me and actually help me get my bags situated.
The bags were put up and I moved to my seat, which was on the end of a bench in the middle of a large family of about seven people. They had clearly never seen a foreigner in this part of a train before (or maybe never seen one except for on TV) because they all just sat and stared at me. It totally wasn’t awkward at all. I said “ni hao” and smiled, which encouraged them with big smiles to begin jabbering away in Chinese to me and all I could do was shake my head and shrug my shoulders. Then, they started eating.
Now, keep in mind that not only was I not used to Chinese eating, which often includes a great deal of chomping and smacking with wide open mouths, but also I grew up in a home where if we made the slightest chomp or smack sound my parents would remind us to chew with our mouths closed. I was raised to get chills at the sound of loud, open-mouthed eating, and these good-natured country folk had filled all seven of their mouths with food and pulled out all the stops as far as eating with complete open-lipped smacking freedom. I couldn’t decide if I was hearing or seeing more of their food as they ate. Finally, just as I was about to start smashing my face on the seat to distract me from the sounds of their eating they began to put the food away. “Sweet,” I thought, “I couldn’t take much more of that.” That’s when the father pulled out a pack of gum and handed a piece to every member of the family. Perfect, now their loud chewing could go on indefinitely.
There were times through that gritty train ride when things went a little bit sour for me. Besides the unbridled eating I found the ten-minute intervals of sleep I got from the sitting position on my hard plastic bench seat to be a bit trying, and the fact that I couldn’t seem to find anywhere in the car that was comfortable for 15 hours made me less than smiley. But the farming family was friendly, and a couple times they invited me to play their game of cards, which I couldn’t do long, you know, since I spoke about two words of Chinese and they spoke even less English. At one point a young fella on the bench behind me invited me to check out his NBA magazine with him and he practiced his basketball English with me. It was nice to have something to do besides fidget and roll around restlessly on the bench.
At long last 1:30 am arrived and I grabbed my gear and hopped off the train in the middle of Jilin countryside, just outside a small city (by Chinese standards) called Siping. The fat Chinese man waiting at the gate with a sign that said “Robbertt” was one of the best sights I had ever seen. He hustled to get my bags in the trunk and we were off to the Northern China Shaolin Martial Arts Academy, driving a long and winding road through hillsides of nothing but corn crops and bumping Chinese techno music into the cool summer night. I was exhausted but couldn’t have been happier as we headed to the school. Though to this day I will never buy a seat on a 15-hour Chinese train ride again (beds are the way to go, I sleep like a baby on trains) I wouldn’t trade that experience for the world, and I feel that everyone who travels by train in China should do it just once. It’s a great way to earn your stripes, sort of a China traveler right of passage.
Siping, I am coming! (Siping Railway Station)
Northern China Shaolin Martial Arts Academy
Pulling into the martial arts academy at around 2 am, the sight of the buildings training halls and front courtyard made me feel like a little boy. I was finally at a Shaolin training school in the middle of rural China. How much cooler could it get?? It couldn’t get much cooler for me at that moment.
My pot bellied driver (I later learned he was called Sange, which means “number three”, since he is the third brother in the family) helped unload my stuff and showed me to my room. Through the dark hallways I saw pictures of foreign faces on the doors as we walked, surely they were to be my training brothers and sisters during my three month stay. My room was basic, but less so than I would have expected at a Shaolin school: two hard mattressed beds, two desks, and two open faced clothes shelves squished against each wall in the rectangular room and a decent amount of floor space in the middle. The window overlooked a small grass yard down below that lead to the Chinese students’ dining hall.
Northern China Shaolin Martial Arts Academy
Out to the front courtyard I went and lined up with a troupe of about 15 foreigners.
The students were scheduled to wake up in about three and a half hours at 5:30 am, so Sange bid me goodnight and informed me that I could get up at noon since I got in so late and start my classes in the afternoon. Perfect, I had hoped I could get some reasonable rest for my first day.
5:15 am: “RING RING RING!” The loudest damn school bell I ever heard jolted me out of a sound sleep way before I had been told I could get up. It was one of those old school kind of class bells that you see in 80s high school TV shows or boarding schools. “Fine,” I thought. “It’s their normal wakeup bell, I can go back to sleep.”
5:30 am: “RING RING RING!”
“Alright, no problem, the first was the warning bell, this one is the class bell.”
6:30 am “RING RING RING!”
“How many bells are there??”
7:30 am “RING RING RING!”
8:00 am “RING RING RING!”
This went on until 10:00 am, when they finally came in my room to say “Get up, time for class.” It was fine. I was told I could have more sleep, but the sleep I was getting was crappy anyway since I was terrified awake every 30 minutes by a loud and abrasive bell.
Out to the front courtyard I went and lined up with a troupe of about 15 foreigners. Taking a foggy-eyed glance down the line I saw everything from white people to darker Middle-Easterners and a couple African students. I was digging the international nature of what I saw so far, and before us all on a little raised terrace stood three stern looking Chinese. Two of them were older men and one was a young guy, a couple years younger than me even, and I was a bit surprised. The student next to me introduced himself in a low tone as we waited for all the students, “Hey man, where you from?”
“I’m from the US,” I said. “You?”
“I’m from the UK, my name is Aaron, nice to have you.” He was a nice dude, and I appreciated the warm welcome. Aaron informed me that there were three groups I could choose to train with, Shaolin, Taichi and something called Baji Fist. I figured since I was there to learn Shaolin I’d better join that group. Aaron was Shaolin too, and before we finished our conversation the masters – called Chen Shifu in Chinese – in front began speaking.
The translator told the group that we had a new student – me – and everyone gave a low clap and welcomed me. That was that. Then the youngest instructor, the Shaolin guy, shouted with stunning intensity some Chinese to all the students and put his palm on his fist in front of his body and bowed, the students shouted something back and everyone broke off into our groups. Baji and Taichi headed to the indoor training hall, and the Shaolin Chen Shifu (his name was Chen Shifu, i.e. Master Chen) just pointed to the road heading out the front gate and said “Run.”
Aaron ran with me; down the hill outside the school and along the road that ran off into the cornfields. I was only on a few hours of terrible sleep and the run to the village and then back uphill to the school was rough. Aaron kept asking me things the whole way and though he was nice I really wanted him to shut up since I didn’t have the breath to respond. At least Chen Shifu wasn’t chasing us with a stick yelling “Kuai! Kuai!” (faster) and whacking us on the ass, like he tended to do during the runs later in my stay.
Finally getting back to the school Chen Shifu took us inside the training hall where we proceeded to line up and do sprints with all manner of kicks, jumps, squats, and tumbles thrown in. It was exhausting but invigorating. I thought back to my days of kungfu training back in the US and how what I was learning right now definitely seemed a lot more gymnastic than martial. The tumbling was cool, and I liked beginning to learn how to kip up and do some impressive spin kicks and flips, but it wasn’t sure if any of it could be used very effectively in combat. I was getting my body in impressive shape though, lining up to kick across the room with arms out straight to each side and my fingers pulled up and towards my body as I kicked straight-legged towards my forehead. This went on for hours each morning before more jumping and squatting.
One day Chen Shifu had us forego the normal training and threw some mats down on the floor. He told us it was time to do some sparring, and though I was there to learn how to fight, I wasn’t sure if I had been taught anything I could use yet. He paired me up first with a Russian who had been there for something like two years. “Alright, let’s do it,” I thought. We stepped onto the mats and locked arms. I tried to throw my foot around his for a takedown and before I knew it I was being slammed into the mats with tremendous force. BAM! I felt my head hit the mat and a sting ran all the way down my spine and out to the nerves throughout my arms. The Russian was strong and knew what he was doing and I had a lot to learn, but something about the teaching method from this guy was making me raise an eyebrow.
In my couple weeks with the Shaolin group I did learn some effective fighting techniques. On one particular occasion we threw the mats down and learned how to catch a side kick and then throw the attacker to the ground. It was a great technique, and as we were practicing it Chen Shifu pulled me in for a demonstration. He was to kick, and I was to intercept his kick and throw him down. His kick came and I grabbed him and cocked my hip, threw my weight up through my shoulder and put him down. But as he went I realized he was going to miss the mat and hit the concrete, so I quickly balked my throw and tried to catch him. How honorable I would feel, being the good student and saving my master from a concussion on the concrete. It was my thumb that would take the brunt of the fall, however, as it got caught between Chen Shifu and the cement floor and the top of the digit bent all the way back to my hand. Broken thumb. I didn’t know it at first, I thought maybe it was just sprained, and when I showed Chen Shifu he grabbed it and began bending it back and forth rapidly – he had no idea what he was doing, and I trained the rest of the summer with a broken thumb.
After about two and a half weeks I decided the Shaolin group wasn’t for me. The kicker came when Chen Shifu saw me spinning a staff, something I had learned to do quite well back in my Shaolin training at the school in the US. Shifu was impressed, especially with how I could spin it in quite a few different ways all around my head and behind my back. He began teaching me a form, employing all my spinning skills and having me jump around the floor in all manner of directions, shouting and cracking the stick on the ground as I moved like a whirlwind around the training floor. When he had me practice the form the entire training hall would stop what they were doing and watch. It was very impressive looking. But it wasn’t kungfu, it was wushu, the fancy dance-like kungfu derivative that most people associate with Shaolin Kungfu these days. It’s less martial than it is performance, and I wasn’t buying it. I wanted the real Shaolin. I wanted to sit in stances till I collapsed, learn to direct my qi (energy) to create a body that could resist any blow, practice fighting techniques for hours on end, and build an energy, focus and fundamental skill set that would give me confidence in a time of urgent self-defense. I had seen one group that seemed to be working on that: Baji Fist.
I told Chen Shifu that I wanted to try Baji, and with a sad reluctance that I could see through his forced smile he said “of course.” I went on to Li Shifu in the Baji group and immediately began learning a set of 54 quick attack redirection movements, all which took the energy of an attacker and set it back towards them with takedowns, palm strikes, kicks, punches and nasty eye gouges. He taught me five per day in the morning for two weeks, and doing them across the floor for an hour was my warm-up for each of the four class periods we had each day. Every strike sounded with a thud as he set sit stance and a powerful “hmmff!” as he directed his breath and energy into the strike. After the warm-ups when my heart was racing and I was nice and sweaty he would teach me a form and then have me cross the room in painfully low stances. As I hit the stance with my thighs burning he would come behind me, set his hands on my shoulders, push me towards the ground and count slowly backwards from thirty. When he hit zero I would move one step towards the opposite wall and begin again. This was what I wanted.
Every day my training with Li Shifu was intense. He taught me two-person fighting forms, block and redirection techniques, breathing and iron shirt techniques (where I would sit in a stance, make my body hard and direct my qi and he would beat on me for minutes at a time), staff, spear, takedown and empty hand techniques and always, always working on deep and painful stance training. I loved it deeply and Li Shifu and I grew very fond of each other. My three training partners were Prashant, from India, Michael, from France, and David, from Columbia. I cared for all of my Baji brothers, and Michael and I had a very strong friendship, furthered by our interest in qigong (energy manipulation) training. But surely my best friend at the school was Prashant.
Prashant and I spend most of our time together. He was superbly funny and we eventually created a bi-weekly tradition of heading into town for haircuts together. There were kids at the school too, Chinese students who learned language, writing, math, and the staples of elementary education and then spent the rest of their time learning wushu and running around the province for shows. Prashant and I spent a good deal of our time playing with the kids, who were as friendly, curious and terribly charming as anyone possibly could be.
One day our group was asked to do a performance, and though Li Shifu wasn’t interested in performance kungfu, he had little choice but to please the headmaster, so he signed Michael, Prashant and I up. The performance was at a huge gymnasium at Siping University, and we were just one snippit in a huge performance showcasing China’s minority groups and traditional cultures. The song and dance extravaganza featured the foreign martial artists and the children wushu dancers over two days of shows, all broadcast around the area on local news and television stations. I never got a tape though.
Eventually the day came for me to go. It was bittersweet. I had grown deep bonds with Li Shifu through his intense training and incredible skill, as well as my Baji brothers Michael and Prashant. But, I was about to head back to Beijing to meet my brother for two more weeks of China travel, and I was surely excited for that. My time at the Northern China Shaolin Martial Arts Academy had been full of adventure. I knew 15 different Baji forms, 54 fighting techniques, could touch my head to my knees, do a full split, and break a staff over my body. All in all, I felt as much like an old school kungfu fighter as one could after three months of training. With a tear in my eye I hugged Li Shifu and my Baji brothers as I got in the taxi for the Siping train station. I couldn’t wait for what would happen next, because I knew more than ever that the experience would be unforgettable.
Jumping and squatting
A happy and unforgettable birthday at the Academy
The performance was at a huge gymnasium at Siping University, and we were just one snippit in a huge performance showcasing China’s minority groups and traditional cultures.