Martin had been my taiji teacher for eight years when he came home from a trip to Chengdu and announced that he intended to return to Chengdu as soon as he could settle his affairs here and find a way to support himself there. He liked the energy of change in China and, of course, he liked the taiji. He was gone within a few months.
Two years passed. I heard from Martin a few times after he left and then lost touch with him. When we reconnected, he invited me to come visit him and his new wife, Xiao Zhou.
And now here I was, a blithering basket case, telling him I might have bedbugs and couldn’t come to his apartment after all. He looked at my bites and said he knew what bedbug bites looked like and that was not it. He and his wife took me to dinner, settled me in a hostel near their apartment so Xiao Zhou could have a little more time to clean, and then fetched me the next morning and took me with them to Renmin (People’s) Park for taiji.
After that, I stayed at their apartment, which was located in what Martin described as a working-class neighborhood not far from the park. I had expected a shoebox, but it was quite large, with three bedrooms, marble and wood floors and generous windows. Outside several of the windows were wrought iron “cages” for hanging clothes to dry, something I saw all over the city.
Martin is quite tall, but Xiao Zhou is tiny—Martin said she weighs 80 pounds. She has a beautiful light in her face, and when she and Martin smiled at each other, I could see that they loved each other in a very tender way, and I knew that I would be comfortable with them. Xiao Zhou does not speak English, but she went out of her way to make me feel welcome in nonverbal ways.
Taiji at Renmin Park
Xiao Zhou hadn’t done taiji before meeting Martin, but she had become as fervent a practitioner as he. Most days we left for the park at 7:15 a.m. and did taiji there for an hour and a half or two hours. Martin and Xiao Zhou are affiliated with a group of some 30-40 taiji players, although other groups meet at Renmin Park, too. At first I tried to follow along with their group; after a few days I fell in with a group that was doing the form I knew best, the Yang 108 form. It was led by a man in his 80s who Martin said was very good at the things I needed to work on.
I loved watching and being part of this group. They do the Yang 108 form very slowly—my preferred speed. When I move slowly, I can settle into the stream of energy carrying me through the series of moves; to me, fast taiji just feels like a romp, not a lovely place to dwell. My fellow students, most of whom looked to be retirees, were friendly and encouraging, despite the language barrier that was even bigger in Chengdu than it had been in Beijing. I would try to fall in at the back of the group, but invariably someone would make a space for me in the middle.
Eventually I had several private, wordless lessons with the teacher. I would stand behind him and follow what he was doing; if I was off on something, he’d shake his hand or foot to get me to note where I was off. Most of the time it was because we did certain moves and transitions differently; I knew I would keep some of his ways when I went home but abandon others. What was more important to me, and what I hoped would stick, was how he carried himself, and how he sank his weight. Indeed, Martin told me shortly before I left that he and Xiao Zhou had agreed that I was improving, and that if I could continue to study with him another month, I might become pretty good. I could only sigh, because I knew that wasn’t going to happen.
At Renmin Park, Martin said, no one ever says their way of doing taiji is the right way, and it’s understood that teachers have both weaknesses and strengths. Each of the taiji groups is loosely organized around a particular teacher or teachers (although it seemed to me that the most powerful person was really the one who brought the music player that claimed the group’s space). A certain amount of money changes hands within these groups, but most of the sessions at Renmin Park aren’t formal classes, and anybody is welcome to join in.
Although Martin was a teacher in the States, in Chengdu he is primarily a student. While I was there, he and Xiao Zhou were learning a fan form and seemed to be getting help from a number of people, although they also had a favorite woman teacher who came to the park occasionally.
Journalists, taiji pajamas and Tibetan tea
The first morning I was with Martin and Xiao Zhou at Renmin Park, they were interviewed by a photographer and two reporters from a Chengdu newspaper. Martin in particular, but also the two of them together, must hold some special fascination for the residents of Chengdu, because they’d been interviewed before—and, indeed, Martin is enough of a celebrity that once, when we were on a bus, a young woman recognized him and struck up a conversation.
As I watched this interview in Renmin Park, I was struck by how journalists halfway around the world looked and acted like the journalists I had once worked with. The young female reporters asked questions with the same eagerness and rapt attention and scribbled in their notebooks; the photographer stood to the side, holding his camera, watching, waiting. You could have set them down in the Journal American newsroom of my memory and nobody would have noticed anything was odd until they started speaking Chinese.
Following taiji that first morning, Martin took me to buy a taiji uniform. In Beijing, people had worn casual clothing when doing taiji in the park, but at Renmin Park in Chengdu, a majority wore colorful, flowing taiji “pajamas.”
For whatever reason, the taiji supplies store was in the Tibetan quarter, amongst the Tibetan souvenir shops and the maroon-and-mustard-clad monks and women wearing ethnic Tibetan garments. We also went to a Tibetan café to drink tsampa tea, the traditional and unique mix of roasted flour with salty butter tea. Was this on my HMO’s safe-to-consume list? I had no idea.
Sightseeing in Chengdu
Most days we would go back to the apartment following taiji. Xiao Zhou would change and leave for her massage business. Martin might leave for his job teaching high school students or he’d get to work at his computer on a project for a Chinese Internet startup that involved finding pictures and writing poems to go with English words and their definitions. I would shower and head out to explore Chengdu.
Chengdu is smaller than Beijing; it may or may not be bigger than New York. I went to Wikipedia to get population estimates for the three cities and found nine lists, all different: world’s largest cities, world’s largest cities proper, world’s largest municipalities, world’s largest urban areas, world’s largest metropolitan areas, world’s largest conurbations, world’s largest urban agglomerations, world megacities, and world megalopolises. But Chengdu is definitely a very large city, even if most of us Americans have never heard of it. (Indeed, China is full of very large cities of which most of us have never heard.)
My seat mate on the flight from Chengdu back to Beijing told me that Chengdu is a very livable city, and indeed, I had seen the word “livable” used to describe Chengdu before I arrived. I think people are referring to the city’s subtropical climate—it’s a bit farther south than San Diego—and to its having lower levels of pollution than many other large Chinese cities. Also, according to National Geographic’s “Atlas of China,” it has more teahouses and bars than Shanghai, which has twice the population. I was never sure what was a teahouse or bar and what was a restaurant, but I can say with certainty that the two Starbucks I patronized in Chengdu were larger and more pleasant than any Starbucks I have visited in the States. (I felt a bit guilty about my Starbucks visits, especially the second one, which I could not count as research—but I could order in English and knew what I would get.)
Construction cranes and 2,000-year-old pottery
Chengdu seemed vaguely more prosperous than Beijing, although I really shouldn’t say this because I saw only a tiny portion of Beijing and a tiny portion of Chengdu. But Martin told me that until China’s recent economic slowdown, Chengdu had been in the midst of a major growth spurt, with something like 30 percent of the world’s giant construction cranes being in the city.
Like Beijing, Chengdu has many ancient sites, including the 9th century Daoist Qing Yang Gong, as well as some amazing museums. I saw 2,000-year-old pottery at the wonderful, modern (and free!) Sichuan Provincial Museum, and lacquerware clogs and dishes from the Three Kingdoms Period (220-280 AD) at the museum at Wu Hou Memorial Temple. (I tried but could not get my mind to travel back that far to imagine what it would have been like to have been alive so long ago and to have used or owned any of those objects.)
Where Wu Hou Temple is primarily a tourist site, Wen Shu Temple, founded around 700 AD, is an active Buddhist center. My first Sunday in Chengdu, Martin and I went there to participate in a two-hour service comprising silent meditation, chanting, walking and chanting, then chanting and prostrate bowing. The service drew a modest crowd of several monastics, more than 100 devotees wearing brown robes over their street clothes, and another dozen or so Chinese people dressed like Martin and me.
The following Sunday, we visited two nearby Buddhist nunneries and ate lunch at one of them, Ai Dao Nunnery, for 5 Yuan (79 cents). I counted close to a dozen nuns either working or being served, plus another 20-25 people from outside, including a grandma and a little girl. It was a silent, pleasant experience, and we washed our own dishes afterwards. The other nunnery, Jinsha, was older, dating back several hundred years; both were surrounded by tall buildings and construction cranes.
Martin says Buddhism and other religious faiths are not persecuted, and certainly people who visited the temples bowed and burned incense and lotus candles without looking over their shoulders. I saw fewer people at the temples than I had thought I might—but then eastern and western religions are not the same, and perhaps a lack of crowds doesn’t mean much.
Seeing Chengdu on foot
When I was with Martin, we often took taxis or buses, but when I was on my own, I walked, as I had done in Beijing. I got lost walking in Chengdu, too, but I knew I’d always be able to get back to Renmin Park, and once there, I’d be able to get back to Martin’s apartment.
I think walking is the best way to see things; cars and buses are too fast and too distant. As well, a lot of life is lived on Chengdu’s sidewalks. People eat, knit or play cards or mahjong or Chinese chess at small tables near doorways of restaurants and shops; dogs and cats lounge on doorsteps or wait for their owners, tethered to motor scooters or trees.
Walking, I could peer into the little shops along my way, shops often not much bigger than a walk-in closet at home. A shop might sell produce, or wheelchairs, or shoes, or the owner might do alterations or repair motorbikes.
The shops were generally open long hours, but many of them appeared to have very few customers. I hoped this was a temporary consequence of China’s recent economic downturn; I couldn’t imagine how they could stay in business without more customers—although perhaps I underestimate Chinese shopkeepers’ ability to survive on a shoestring. I recall in particular a block of stores that all sold safes—safes in lovely metallic colors ranging in size from bigger than a sumo wrestler to the size of a breadbox. I walked past those stores several times and their glass doors were always wide open, but only once did I see a customer.
I shopped very little in China, because my house is full and I didn’t have the emotional energy it takes me to choose things for other people. But in a couple of larger shops—a bookstore and the place where I purchased my taiji uniform—I saw staff eating lunch together, a meal that had been cooked out on the sidewalk or somewhere in the back of the shop. Indeed, that was how it worked at Xiao Zhou’s massage business, too. Twice Martin and I joined in on the excellent noon meals she prepared for her staff; I think they probably all ate dinner together, too.
It struck me that when you work long hours, your coworkers become a second family. I don’t want to romanticize working long hours, but I got the feeling that the people I saw doing it in China were better than many of us in the west at accepting being where you are instead of always wanting to be somewhere else.
Knitting and drinking beer
Most days, I’d return to Martin’s apartment from my tourist walks at about 4:30 or 5. He would be working, and I would say hello and then go to my room so that he could continue working and I could knit and drink a 3 Yuan bottle of beer (47 cents) for an hour or two until dinner. I’m a bit embarrassed that I knitted and drank beer in my room when I was halfway around the world in a place I will probably never be again—and yet I think that is exactly what I needed and about all I could do.
My ex-husband lived in Scotland for a year, and he said people would come to visit with great plans for what they would see and do, but they’d quickly become exhausted from dealing with traffic on the “wrong” side of the road and trying to decipher the Scottish version of English and would want only to crash. In China, they drive on the same side of the road as we do, but there are plenty of other differences to wear a tourist down.
As a small business owner, Martin’s wife Xiao Zhou works long hours, from morning into the evening, so she was never with us for dinner. A couple of times Martin cooked, but most evenings we went to a six-table restaurant several blocks away for what I came to view as Chinese comfort food: a giant mound of rice with a flavorful-but-not-too-spicy chicken-and-potato gravy for 13 Yuan (about $2). For reasons not clear, each plateful came with a large metal spoon instead of chopsticks, doubling the comfort for me.
Movies and Chinese massage
I was still waking early and needing to go to bed early in Chengdu, but several evenings Martin and I watched movies–“Seeking a Friend for the End of the World,” which I think took us two evenings to finish; the first half of the marvelous Chinese martial arts movie “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” which I had seen in its entirety in the States; and “Last Train Home,” a documentary about a Sichuanese family.
In “Last Train Home,” a husband and wife have been working in a garment factory in Guangzhou for 16 years, sending money home to support their two children, who are living with their grandmother on the family farm. They see their children only once a year, when they take the train home for the Chinese New Year celebration—a situation that makes no one very happy. “Last Train Home” would be worth seeing anywhere, but seeing it in China, where many families are similarly split by economic necessity made it all the more poignant.
While I was visiting Martin and Xiao Zhou, Xiao Zhou was working particularly long hours. Her business partner was ill; also, because business was slow, she felt she needed to keep her doors open late to get every possible customer. However, a couple of times when she got home early enough for me to still be up, she gave me Chinese-style massages.
The massages were quite different from anything I’d had before, with a lot of vigorous kneading of just about every muscle in my body, plus pressing on what I guessed were acupuncture points. I’m not sure whether I like Chinese-style massage or not; as much as anything I felt uncomfortable about letting Xiao Zhou give me a massage after she had worked all day—but I do have to say, tiny though she may be, she is awesomely strong!
Motorcycles, condoms and recyclers
Being in Chengdu with Martin was ever so much easier and more fun than being alone in Beijing—and it was a richer experience, too. Martin would point out things I’d probably not have noticed or understood—for example, that the myriad motorbikes, scooters and motorcycles are all electric because China has banned gas-powered machines in cities and focused on developing superior electric technology. (It was so nice not to hear a lot of vroom-vrooming, but I did have to be careful to walk a steady path because a motorcycle or scooter could suddenly be right next to me when I hadn’t heard it coming.)
Martin and I talked about China’s one-child policy (actually, two in the countryside), and Martin pointed out a condom dispenser on a wall in his neighborhood—1 Yuan (16 cents) per condom—and said you could also get condoms free or close to it at public health clinics. (At least they’re not telling people to just say no!)
We often saw people Martin said were recyclers, people who spent their days going through garbage looking for things recycling stations would give them money for. There were many garbage cans in Chengdu, in parks and on sidewalks, and they always came in pairs—one for recyclables, the other for other waste. But precision sorting, the real work of recycling, was done by these freelance recyclers. Martin knew of one recycler who, in another city, earned 30-50 Yuan a day, an amount he thought could afford a person some sort of shared housing and rice and vegetables to eat.
The money spectrum
Prices in both Beijing and Chengdu were all over the map. On the one hand, you could buy a large bottle of beer for less than 50 cents and a decent dinner for $2. Similarly, Martin pays less than $1 per month for cell phone service and less than $350 for a spacious 3-bedroom apartment.
Wages at this lower end of the spectrum are correspondingly low. Martin said the repairman who climbed out on the air conditioning unit hanging from one of the windows of his seventh-floor apartment charged only 20 Yuan ($3.16) and refused to take more. (I cannot tell you how many zeroes you’d have to add to those numbers for me to even contemplate climbing out on an air conditioning unit seven stories above a busy street.)
And then there’s the other end of the spectrum. China may have many very poor people, but it also has many people who are well-to-do or out-and-out rich. At the Starbucks cafes in Chengdu, a cup of green tea cost the same amount as air conditioner repair, $3.16, while java chip frappucinos were selling for $5 to $6. (And for the record, the Starbucks stores I visited in Chengdu were selling the same bizarre little cake balls-on-a-stick as the Starbucks here in the States are.)
As well, there are several skyscrapers in downtown Chengdu where luxury goods by international designers like Cartier and Louis Vuitton are sold.
I read recently that there is a greater disparity between rich and poor in China than in any other nation—but then a friend pointed out that this country is headed in that direction, too. And overall, the standard of living for the vast majority of Chinese has significantly improved over the last 10 or so years. Most people now have enough to eat; some are even getting pudgy.
Staying and leaving
Chengdu is complex, just as China is complex, and I am grateful that I got to see it for a time through Martin’s eyes. For clearly he does love being in China and, in particular, he loves being in Chengdu. He likes the challenges that come with being in a rapidly changing country and with being a foreigner in that country. He likes the culture and the people, the taiji and mornings at Renmin Park. He has been in Chengdu for two years, and he wants to stay. And because he is now married to a Chinese woman, that will probably be possible.
I liked Chengdu, too. Looking back at notes that I made during my trip, I see that while I was sitting in the Chengdu airport waiting to board my flight to Beijing to catch a plane home, I speculated about returning to study taiji and to perhaps teach a bit of English. I wrote that I could visualize doing it, but that I probably never would.
And indeed, I can visualize it—which is pretty amazing for a stay-at-home person like me. For although I was desperate to go home, I was also a bit sad to leave.