T-Shirts and Lost in Translation

Even though I have been to China and Beijing a dozen times, I still felt lost three weeks into my four month stay in the capital city. My language skills were frustratingly limited. And all of the things which as adults we take for granted were just out of my reach. Every day I set myself a list of tasks to accomplish and returned home having failed to accomplish most of them. I felt like a 5 year old. I could walk and talk, but irritatingly unable to fend for myself on a basic level. Setting up a Chinese phone? Nope. Buying a subway pass? Think again. Depositing money in the bank? Only if you fill out these forms, correctly, and even then, probably a hard Failure. Purchasing a rug? Still haven’t accomplished that one! Adding to the challenges of setting up a living situation in China was that everywhere things seemed so foreign-so alien. Even something as familiar as T-Shirts often didn’t make sense. So I decided to document my “lost in translation” moments by photographing the various shirts walking past me on the street or sitting across the subway aisle. The funny thing is that looking over these shots they actually do make some sense now! So maybe it’s just that the feeling of misunderstanding between cultures is a period of adjustment rather than something fixed and always. Maybe it just takes a bit of time living together for people to understand each other. My father always used to me when I was young, ” Don’t judge someone until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes.” Well, I’m revising his statement slightly by changing the article of clothing but the sentiment is the same. Enjoy.

This is a box of napkins. Totally befuddled by this one.

Walking and Time

“Thank God I won’t be driving for a while!” It was with some relief I said to myself before heading off for a five month stay in Beijing. I’ve been driving since turning 16, which translates to over 40 years of that activity. I suppose that doing something for that length of time should guarantee one a measure of skill at that task. Over the same length of time, I’ve become very solid at shaving my face for example. However, by the time I left for China, thirty years of driving in the Garden State had become a burden I was happy to give up. Driving felt like it was a large contributor to a life which felt too fast. Racing from place to place felt as if I was passing “over” life rather than as a part of it.

I also didn’t like the sense of self-righteous entitlement which came over me while driving. I often had to remind myself that the pedestrians walking across the street, the cars in front of me, etc all had just as much right to be on the road as I did. What’s more, they had a right to move at their own pace as well instead of following an imaginary self-serving rule that everyone should be moving along at a pace which suited my need to rush everywhere. But my own anxiety, coupled with 26 years of commuting in one of the most densely populated areas of the country had fostered attitudes which were becoming more and more unwanted. I didn’t like feeling angry at slower drivers, or competitive with people driving fast. So that’s why I felt so relieved to abandon an activity which is so, “American.”

The reality of life without driving took on a very different meaning upon my arrival in Beijing. I had rented an apartment in an older section of Beijing. My 5th floor rental was spacious and equidistant between White Cloud Temple, a Daoist temple where my “shifu” or teacher lived and the #2 subway line. There was even a grocery story in the basement of my building! Everything was within arms reach. What I discovered after settling into my routine is that a life of walking can be exhausting! No need to attend spinning classes now, I walk anywhere between 2-3 hours every day. My morning commute alone consists of a 15 minute walk to the closest subway, a 10 minute walk within the subway when I change lines, and then another 15 minute walk to Beijing Language and Culture University from the subway. Add to that all of the stairs, particularly the final killer five flights back up to my apartment and I’m practicing my own version of Jane Fonda’s old workout, “Thighs of Steel.”

While walking that much every day is a daunting task, it’s helped reset my approach to time which in turn has developed inside me a deeper sense of quietness. As my teacher, Meng Zhiling, has said, when driving, one’s focus is outside of yourself. Your intention, your self, is outside of this body thus causing one to be out of balance. I’ve found that the act of walking is even more of a natural activity than driving. that in my daily movement from one place to another, I am able to lower my consciousness to what the Daoist call one’s Lower Dantian. I’m not able to maintain this for long periods of time, but the practice helps keep my focus internal instead of external. The problem with driving is that my focus became more and more towards the outside-quite naturally. If I were to focus on my Dantian while driving the outcome wouldn’t be pretty.

I remember hearing something which has stayed with me for almost 20 years during a sermon at a Congregational church I used to attend in NJ. The minister said that we had to eliminate those things in our daily lives which filled up the time we could be using to listen to God. My first action after the sermon was to stop listening to the radio during commuting time. I liked the effect. Now, without the availability of a car to solve my transportation difficulties, I’m finding not a chance to talk with God, but to practice a moving meditation which may be close to prayer. My focus, my intention is more and more internal. Whatever else I gain from my time in China, the moments alone with myself may be the greatest treasures.

A Day of Labor on Mount Tai

I’ve been hiking in the sacred Daoist mountains of China since 2007. As luck would have it, the first one I visited was probably the toughest: Mount Hua ( Huashan-shan means mountain in Mandarin). Since then I’ve been to 8 different mountains associated with Daoism. All of them have involved strenuous hikes up and down man made stairs which are usually too low and too short for my 6’2″ proportions and size 13 feet. The views are always beautiful but what’s always amazed me is the lack of a road to the top of these beautiful peaks. This is quite puzzling since I stayed at a comfortable hotel on several mountains, including my recent visit to Tai Shan last week. One can visit these mountains without ever thinking about how your bed, or dinner, or water bottle made it to the top of the mountain but the answer is there for everyone to see. It’s the men (I’ve never seen a woman) who carry all the food, and water and concrete, and steel, etc up and down these mountains every day. I once asked one guide if everything was brought up by porters and he told me about the time he saw four men carrying a grand piano up the path! I didn’t think to ask if they were bringing it up in one piece or in parts, but it’s still an amazing story. Dennis Hu and I were hiking up Yellow Mountain several years ago and we came across two huge bags of rice a porter was bringing up the mountain. Just for fun I picked one up to see how heavy it was. except I didn’t. Because the bag weighed in excess of 60 pounds. I sheepishly stopped my efforts so as not to embarass myself further. But the realization that the man who sped past me carrying about 120 pounds of rice made two trips up and down the mountain every day left a powerful impression.

The most amazing thing I saw a porter carry was two 4’x6′ pieces of sheetrock on the hike up Huashan. This mountain is rated as one of the most dangerous tourist sites in the world. Articles indicate that almost 100 people die on this mountain every year. We passed him just after I had down-climbed the most dangerous section on Huashan aptly named The Thousand Foot Precipice. In 2007 I had been a skilled rock climber for 24 years climbing up to the 5.12 grade. This section of trail was one of the most dangerous things I’ve ever done on rock. And I wasn’t carrying two bulky and heavy sections of sheet rock as I ascended it!

So anyways, this is mostly a photo essay homage to the porters who bring everything from sheetrock to cases of beer, to vegetables, and anything else which needs bringing up or down these mountains. It is with a great sense of appreciation for what they do that I offer up some images.

Buying a Knife in China

So there it is, what is known in China as a standard kitchen knife. In America we might call it a cleaver but in China the name for this particular knife is, “cai dao.” It’s a very traditional design in China. While it doesn’t look like much, as you regard this knife, know that it took me the better part of ten days to purchase. So I thought I’d take you through the journey which finally led to a very self-satisfied me taking this photo in my kitchen.

There are supermarkets everywhere in Beijing. Obviously, there has to be to service the 24 million denizens of this city. On my second day in country, I had just brought a ripe tomato to my apartment meaning to cook it up for dinner. Upon realizing I had no way to slice it, I went down five floors to a local store housed in the basement of my building. Curiously, there were no knives for sale in the Household section so I returned home somewhat frustrated and proceeded to cut/mash up the aforementioned tomato with a spoon.

The next day I had other household items to purchase so I headed off to find a Wal-Mart. Surely, this household giant would have a knife? Sadly, the answer was again a resounding “no.” This time I was met with anxious looks from store employees when they realized what I wanted to buy. More than the absence of knives, it was those anxious looks which concerned me the most. This was now a challenge! I had a quest to follow. Too bad there wasn’t some lady of the lake rising out of the watery depths to hand me not excalibur, but a simple kitchen knife!

After checking into several other supermarkets, and becoming increasingly worried that my best option was to somehow sharpen one of my spoons, I began doing research on where to buy a cai dao- or any knife for that matter. Turns out there is a venerable old knife maker, Wangmazi Scissors, in Beijing. However, they had apparently gone out of business!

After searching through several articles about knives, I found out the problem. In 2012, two or three knife attacks occurred in Beijing by individual men. These attacks were not linked to each other. In one, four people were attacked and one was killed, a two year old boy was struggling and near death because of wounds suffered in this attack. So the government authorities decided that supermarkets could no longer sell knives and confiscated some knives and guns throughout the city from certain individuals (not all guns or knives).

So where did this leave me? Well I found a shop which sold Wangmazi cai dao and bought a knife.

It would be nice if that was the end of the story but it’s not. You see, in order to buy a knife, any knife, one has to present id. So before buying the knife, I had to present my passport to the seller who dutifully made a copy. And that would be a nice ending but the saga continued. . . . .

Because one can’t ride the subways with a knife of any kind! So I had to take a more expensive taxi home. Finally I was home.

In reflecting on the serpentine path my quest took me on, I thought a great deal about how this compares to America and our challenges with the second amendment. China is a one-party controlled nation which is not a democracy. Many Americans believe that the Chinese people are terribly oppressed and unhappy. That is not my experience after thirteen trips over 13 years. And when a threat emerged to the Chinese citizens, what did this government, which supposedly doesn’t care about the people do? It put in place regulations which made it incredibly difficult for an episode of mass violence to occur again. It responded to protect the safety of the people. It saddens me that the US lags behind literally every other nation in the world in restricting citizens’ rights to own guns after overwhelming evidence which indicates government action would be in the best interest of our citizens.

On a lighter note, there was one small consequence of my new purchase. As I happily cut up more tomatoes and vegetables for dinner last night, I reflected on how nice the feel of my new cai dao was. And how efficiently it cut through all of the vegetables and shrimp, etc. Then, as I cleaned up after dinner, wanting to be sure my new purchase was well cleaned I realized why maybe some people shouldn’t be allowed to own sharp objects!

Seeing More

For the first ten years of my time at my job, a private school in Montclair, NJ, I never stopped at the window I passed every day on the way to my office. I’m sure it had to do with the challenges of a new job, raising my son and attempting(but ultimately failing) to be “handy” around our first and second house. Be that as it may, after my tenth year at MKA, I began to slow down while passing the 9 x 12 foot floor to ceiling window and notice the view of Montclair to Newark and right on in to NYC. At first, my awareness of what laid before me was as simple as a quick understanding that it was indeed, a million dollar view( or more- the surrounding home owners would have jumped at that price for a view of the City). But more and more I noticed smaller things about the light show daily playing out for me. For example, I began to notice that at a certain moment in the sun’s ascension, reflected light from the Freedom Tower acted as a second sun beaming out onto the plains of NJ. I enjoyed the days when clouds lay over New York as then the light show changed colors; adding purples and beautiful reds in addition to the beautiful shades of orange and yellow. Periodically, other teachers and students would stop what they were doing and watch the sun rise as well. It seemed like a measurable period of time but probably lasted no more than ten seconds as we hurried off to copy tests or prepare lesson plans.

In China, I found myself watching the sun rise on top of Mount Tai, Tai Shan, with close to a thousand Chinese. We had arrived at the summit of Tai in various ways: some of us hiked up and stayed at a hotel for the night, others hiked up and slept out in the open, and some people had taken the early cable car ride. However people got there, it hadn’t been easy. I saw 85 year old grandmothers helped along by their children, groups of friends, couples, and some who were photographers. But everyone was interested in experiencing a moment. That moment of transition from night to day. In China it’s a special tradition to greet the rising sun in the East on top of a mountain. Appreciating these moments of natural transition which help us directly connect to the natural way can be an important basis for a healthy life and healthy mindset because too much of what we do today obfuscates what is natural and upsets our circadian rhythm as a result. So here are some photos from Tai Shan to demonstrate what appreciating the big and small of nature actually looks like.

Photographing an Artist at Work

Hisako Kobayashi is an artist living in New York City. Her work is atmospheric, meditative. She creates an entire world through abstraction. She’s represented by a gallery in New York City and had individual and group shows all over the world. Recently she agreed to let me photograph her thinking about, and adding to one of her pieces. It was a very special experience to see how she approaches painting. Humming to herself, talking and pondering, Hisako demonstrated what I would consider mastery of her medium adding a stroke of paint here or rubbing some paint to create a mark which represents a different addition by the artist’s hand.
The way Hisako changed her work space from on the side of the wall to the floor was another fascinating aspect to shooting the artist. Her ability to “feel” the painting and how it worked or didn’t work demonstrated the subtle aesthetic of an artist.
In the end, I came away understanding that the eye of an artist is hard to quantify but it was a privilege to watch someone who possesses this quality at work!

Guns and James Bond

There is a disease in our country which derives from fear.  It seriously affects our current national debate over gun ownership.  I’m going to avoid delving into the murky waters of what our Founding Fathers intended when creating the Second Amendment.  I’ll save that topic for constitutional scholars and the NRA because both seem more comfortable focusing on the minutia of word by word analysis and legalese terminology. 

            I wish to avoid this type of discussion about guns because neither side can win this debate.  The reason is that both have motivations which are based upon the emotion of fear.  This is something particularly prevalent in the messages spread by the NRA.  The’ve specialized for years in selling fear as a way to gain power and influence.  They’ve proven quite adept at side stepping any responsibility and blaming others.  Whether it’s Muslims, the mentally ill, the FBI or some other group, the NRA leadership apparently forgot some of the most basic lessons our parents taught us which is:  take responsibility for your own actions.  And most recently, in what must embody the most desperate and convoluted of thinking, the NRA has decided that giving firearms to teachers is the answer to our national crisis in mass shootings. 

Guns have been packaged as the answer to some people’s deepest fears.  If you’re afraid of a home invasion, you should buy a gun, if you’re afraid of the U.S. government becoming a tyranny and coming for you-buy a gun, if you’re afraid of being attacked on the street, you should definitely buy a gun.  Last year, the mother of a friend of mine, an 80-year old woman who lives in Minnesota, and three of her friends, were out having lunch and the conversation turned to guns.  Each of these women, all of whom were well into their 70’s or older, said they owned at least four guns.  His mom represented the low end of the scale with the three guns she had inherited from her father, a decorated World War II veteran.  One woman at the table made the startling revelation that she had recently purchased a laser sited hand gun but was never planning on opening the box it came in.  She continued, explaining that she just felt more comfortable having it in the house!

I think that story speaks volumes about many people’s attitude towards guns in this country.  And it’s also the reason why no constitutional scholar will ever convince gun rights advocates that their ownership of guns should be limited, or in any way restricted.  The reason why that woman, and many others like her want guns is not because it’s one of their constitutional rights, but because they want something which will stop them from being afraid.  Guns are the new pacifier for many adults around this country!  What else explains some of the logic used to defend gun rights?  Protection from a home invasion for example.  Will any of those women or their octogenarian friends have the clear thinking and hand dexterity to load their weapon, turn the safety off, and fire with accuracy should someone illegally enter their house?  Worse, and possibly more likely, is that they wake up in a confused state, just like most people, and make a bad decision which results in tragedy. 

Like pacifiers, a gun will allay some fears but not teach us how to deal with the root of the problem: what’s causing our fears and the faith we put in material items to solve them.  This is not a new psychology for Americans.  During and after the Vietnam War ended, some cultural observers noticed that there was a correlation between the U.S.’ increasing reliance on the latest technology (ie. Agent Orange ) to defeat the Vietnamese forces, and the use of greater and greater technology in James Bond films.  In the first Bond film, Dr. No, the evil antagonist has a flame throwing tank but Bond relied on his small Walther PPK hand gun and some nifty fighting skills to defeat the bad guys.  Three years later (1964) Bond was relying on cars with ejector seats and machine guns in Goldfinger.  By 1971, Bond was driving space vehicles in an effort to defeat the evil Blofeld who built a Star Wars type laser system.  All of this while the United States was pouring more and more money and man-hours into creating military technology which would end the war in Vietnam. 

As a historian, maybe the most important lesson we can learn by studying the Vietnam War relevant to the gun control debate is about what guns can and can’t do to solve problems.  One of my friends served in the military of a South American nation about thirty years ago.  During their weapon training he was told very clearly the worth of guns.  The sergeant pointed to his head and told the men, “Here is your weapon,” and then pointed to the gun in his hand “and here is your gun.  Don’t confuse the two!.”  Of course, I’m painting with a broad stroke when speaking on this matter but maybe the Viet Cong understood this point better than the leaders of our military. 

Having a strong mind is much more important than owning many guns.  In fact, the mere idea of owning lots of guns for purposes other than hunting implies that one is abandoning reason and committed to solving problems by using violence.  The Buddhist monks at Shaolin Temple in China avoided owning knives during the T’ang dynasty because having a knife implied that one had violence in his/her heart.  This is the real cost of our gun culture.  As we rely more and more on an object outside of ourselves to solve problems, we give that thing power over us.  In this case, by fetishizing guns as the solution to our problems, we limit our possible responses.  More and more, the logical answer seems to be violence.  During one of my trips to China a Daoist priest gave some advice which helped me understand how to approach tense exchanges with people in a different way.  He said, “All conflict is internal.”  I think there’s a lot of truth in this as it relates to guns and fear.  If one buys a gun with an underlying motive of fear, there’s already a conflict in their mind that makes it much easier to turn towards violence. 

Let me pause for a minute and explain what I mean by violence.  I don’t just mean the actual shooting of someone, I also mean the words we use and thoughts we have in our mind.  In the Chinese belief system known as Daoism, even thinking about violence is already a violent act because your mind has already gone to that place.  Some people might respond to this by saying that you have to be prepared for an attack or risk being caught unawares.  I would argue that it is far better to be surprised by a confrontation rather than planning my life around something which may never appear.  It seems like something from one of Dante’s levels of Hell:  walking through life always looking over my shoulder for that one person who will mug me, invade my home or accost me.  It would be exhausting preparing for that possibility.  But once you go down that road of relying on things to solve problems rather than a direct human to human relationship, there’s no end to the possible problems one will need to solve:  flooding, tornado, snow bound, nuclear holocaust.  I remember practicing nuclear fallout drills by hiding under our desks in the 1960’s.  That’s about as effective as keeping guns in the house to fight off home invaders or the government.  My colleague asked his parents in Arkansas during one phone conversation why they were going off to a gun show.  His dad responded, “In case the government comes for us.”  My friends rejoinder was fitting, “Dad, if the United States government comes for you, it will be with tanks and an Apache helicopter.”  In other words, one armed individual, or even group of armed individuals, will never have the firepower to forestall the United States government.  Nor should they!  That would be a portent of bad things for the United States if they could 

So, all of this preparation-buying guns fearing attack, stockpiling food in case of a winter apocalypse, building bunkers in case of a nuclear attack, are all based on fear of the possible worst outcome.  But more often than not there is no worst outcome.  There is just an outcome.  Yes, sometimes they are terrible consequences, disease, a stroke, a terrorist attack.  But most of the time, we just live our boring lives without consequential things happening to us.  And that’s just fine. Living a simple life is much better than the alternative.  I used to imagine I was a spy like James Bond.  Going to exotic locales, fighting, running, driving fast cars, etc.  But at the age of 57 that life doesn’t seem so attractive anymore.  James Bond certainly lives an exceptional life.  But now I’ve noticed some downsides to being James Bond. For example, JB never has a steady relationship with anyone but his co-workers and gun.  And he has to be suspicious all the time because he never knows who is lying to him. He drinks a lot and is addicted to adrenaline rushes.  He only seems happy when life is moving very fast.  And finally, James Bond is always in conflict with someone.  This is no way to go through life. 

While I know he’s a fictional character, I believe Bond reflects some of the most concerning elements of gun culture in particular. We have attached a great deal of importance to guns and problem solving with guns.  But guns aren’t the answer to problems, they’re merely violent version of a pacifier which gave us so much comfort as toddlers.  As we grew out of the toddler stage our parents weaned us off of them saying simply, “You don’t need this anymore.”  And this wisdom still holds true, most of us don’t need guns for anything more than hunting.  Of course, there are exceptions that come to mind.  I’m not talking about people who need to own a gun for their job.  I’m merely raising the possibility that too many people are operating out of fear.  Eva Wong says in her book, Seven Taoist Masters, “Attraction is not in the object itself, but in the attitude that we carry around with us.”  Her point is that once we eradicate our attitude towards an object, then it will no longer have any power over us.  That is what I would like to see for our nation.  That we simply let go of our attraction for guns solving problems and then the object will cease to have power in our society.  People will walk around with less violence in their hearts and our society will be a better place. 

Introduction

My background in Travels, Teaching and Taoism

“The More You Understand, the More You See”

Yien-Koo King (Tai Ji practitioner) quote from her father.

While I would prefer not to talk about myself, the history teacher in me understands that background information is vital for readers to develop an understanding of authors. It’s as if you and I are beginning a conversation which could last the length of this sentence/article/indefinite period of time. I’ve been teaching history in private high schools since 1986. Teaching students how to write research papers has been an important part of my classes over the years and one of the key things to teach students is that every source they use has an author who, unintentionally or intentionally, has injected their own bias into the article/document. The real skill of any thoughtful person is not to reject some author wholesale because they have a bias, but to understand his/her point of view. Then factor that in when trying to “see” a historical event or person a bit more clearly.

So, this introduction is really an insight into my biases or beliefs. If they have some interest to you, then we can have a conversation. Possibly one that carries on for a while.

As mentioned above, I’ve been teaching history to high school students in private schools for over three decades. During that time I’ve lived/taught in: Tennessee, New Jersey, New York, and back to New Jersey. My love of history has compelled me to travel all over the globe including trips to: South Africa, Kenya, England, France, Spain and China. I’ve taught European and United States history courses throughout my career. Moving to New Jersey in 1989, I began teaching Chinese and Japanese history courses. Since then I’ve traveled to China over 12 times(visiting various parts of the country), developed some facility with Mandarin and discovered the Chinese religion of Taoism. I’ll write more about Taoism in future posts but it’s become an important part of my life since first traveling to China in 2007. Since then I’ve traveled to China every year. Sometimes I’ve brought students on cultural tours to places like: Beijing, Datong, Xian, Hangzhou, Huangshan, Chengdu. Sometimes I’ve gone alone to pursue my informal or formal studies of Taoism. In 2013 I was invited to attend a two week seminar for International Students of Taoism by the Chinese Taoist Association. During that seminar I formally became a student of Master Meng Zhiling. Master Meng is Vice-President of the CTA and head of the Taoist College in Beijing.

After 26 years at the same school I’ve decided to take a year leave of absence and go live in China for a semester while furthering my Mandarin studies and working more closely with Master Meng. I’ll be leaving for Beijing in late August and look forward to writing about life in China for such an extended period of time.

So, there you are! We’ve met. I look forward to resuming our conversation soon. I’m just starting up my blog so please bear with me while I sort out some more aspects of it. Best Wishes.