Homecoming In The Smoggy City

10 weeks ago I said I would write soon, so, sorry about that. Starting soon after my last post, I started feeling uninclined to sit down and write out what I have been doing. It wasn’t any sort of decision or rejection, it just became a prolonged comfort of putting things off and getting caught up in my surroundings. Recently I’ve been on the move again, and now I’m feeling the need to update folks back home as well as summarize some experiences in my own mind. I find that it is a good tool for reflection.

Here we go!

Last I wrote, I had just arrived in Beijing and was living with my Chinese family. I lived there for about six weeks. For the first five I worked at FineYoga, a studio pioneering the spread of authentic yoga practice and culture in Beijing, as well as throughout China. The business was started by two good friends of my family, Andy and Sherri, whom we used to visit every summer in China. It had been a number of years since the last time we met, so it was great to reconnect, and to build a friendship with them myself as a now mostly grown individual. In past summers it was only ever a day or two that we would see each other, so being able to work closely with Andy every day was very special. We would practice yoga together early every morning, have conversations over a café breakfast, and then embark on the days work. Sometimes it was scoping out local neighborhoods for workshop locations, sometimes it was me acting as a translator in meetings about new studio designs; regardless of the task we would always laugh and have fun doing it. Before I may have said he was a family friend or an uncle, but now he is truly a friend of mine as well.

“The Gate Posture Chain” – John Scott leading an Ashtanga secondary series practice during a five day workshop, the first ever led secondary series practice in China

This job was a great opportunity to experience an authentic Chinese work environment. I can’t say I made great friends with any of my Chinese co-workers, but they were friendly and curious all the same and we got along well. They would often ask about life in America, which led to conversations comparing different aspects of our two worlds. They tended to focus on what life was like for young people in each of our countries. We discussed college tuition, how students pay for school, what working through school is like(something that is mostly unheard of in China), and occasionally politics. After the US presidential election, most folks I met wanted to know who I had voted for and how I felt about the president-elect. It soon became a conversation that I avoided having because it felt so surface-level in China, and every Chinese person who asked me had the same opinion to share which I got tired of hearing. Through all of these interactions I learned a lot about Chinese culture and how every day people are, but my favorite part of the employee community there remains the communal lunches. Whereas in the US and other places every person may bring their own lunch to work, here we all had the same meal together, in true Chinese fashion. Around eleven or noon every day, someone would arrive at the office with several large tupperware containers all filled with different authentic dishes. In the backroom there would be a full steaming rice cooker, and a shelf of assorted bowls and chopsticks. The food was pretty consistently delicious, and all the people gave a warm communal feeling to the whole affair. It was a moment of the day where I could just sit back, enjoy the cuisine, and watch the Chinese world happen around me. It only took two weeks or so for people to stop staring as I entered the room.

I call my Chinese parents MaJie马姐 and BaiBai拜拜. In China, what you call someone depends on your relationship to them. BaiBai is a familial term for an elder male caretaker, sort of like calling someone your uncle, but there are different names for an actual related uncle. Jie means big sister, and Ma is my Chinese mothers family name. It is a unique case that I call MaJie that name. Because of our age difference and her elder family status, traditionally I would probably have called her Ayi阿姨 or maybe even NaiNai奶奶, both familial terms for female elders. Nevertheless I have been calling her MaJie since I was three years old, and that’s the way we have grown to be. MaJie and BaiBai ran a family daycare located on the university campus where we lived when my parents first brought us to China. Almost every day for the first year they would watch me and my little brother play and eat alongside a gaggle of local Chinese kids while the parents worked. One of my favorite pastimes back then was to play badminton with MaJie out on the street, seeing how many times we could hit the birdie back and forth between us before it landed on the concrete. The second year there I joined my older sister at YoErYuan幼儿园, the Chinese equivalent to kindergarten. After two years living in Beijing, the SARS epidemic hit China and our parents brought us back to the states. However, our relationship with our friends and family in China remained strong due to our annual return trips during the summer months, tagging along with my dads high school study abroad groups. When the group was in Beijing they would stay at hotels, and us kids and mom would stay with the family. In this way MaJie and BaiBai watched us grow, and we watched too as their twin sons grew up, married and had kids almost in unison. Now almost everyone in the family has moved out of ErWai二外, the university campus where we once lived. When I returned to Beijing this past October, after over two years of absence, I went straight to where MaJie and BaiBai now live in the eastern suburbs of the city.

family photo with BaiBai and MaJie in the middle, DouDou and I goofing off on one side, and DouDou’s mom DiNa on the other

It was lovely and grounding to be living in a real family home, and to be mostly taken care of again. MaJie and BaiBai were overjoyed to have me around, as was I to be there and to be able to connect with them. Every week day I would wake up just after 5am in order to make it to the morning yoga sessions where I first started practicing with Andy. BaiBai would always wake up with me and make sure I didn’t leave the house without one of his homemade ManTou馒头(steamed buns) or an apple for the day, and saw me out the door each morning with a smile and a laugh. I would usually come home sometime in the mid-afternoon, rest with MaJie a while until BaiBai came home from work on his bicycle, and then shortly thereafter sit down for dinner. If you were to ask me what my favorite kind of food in the world is, I would tell you BaiBai’s home cooked meals. To me the most amazing thing about Chinese cuisine is the stupendous variety it contains. Every city in China has it’s own special food, every province it’s own distinct flavor, and every family their own unique style. I would say that there are common methods of preparing food throughout all of China, but the end product varies immensely. BaiBai’s cooking was simple and delicious. I don’t feel like I can describe it succinctly in written words, so ask me about it some time. In the evenings after dinner we would relax, chat and watch TV. Since I suddenly had so much free time again, I got into my old habit of playing computer games. I hadn’t had a reliable computer with internet access for a while, so that was fun. I also finished some college apps in that time, and got relatively caught up on news back home.

The weekends were either family time or made into short excursions out of the city. Oftentimes my little nephew or niece, or maybe both, would come over to spend nights with their grandparents. The children of MaJie and BaiBai’s twin sons, they are almost the same age at around 5 years old, but KaiXin开心 the little girl is slightly older. DouDou豆豆, my nephew, I saw more often. In China grandparents play a significant role in raising their grandchildren, watching over them most days while the parents work, so living with MaJie and BaiBai I got to play a special part in that. DouDou is a funny kid. He has definitely figured out how to exploit his grandparents love for him and can get pretty self-confident sometimes, but is mostly fun loving and innocent. We would construct buildings with cardboard bricks together, and I taught him how to play Minecraft on the computer, which made him very happy. His favorite English word is dinosaur.

just hangin’ with the kiddos (KaiXin on the left, DouDou on the right)

I had some fun adventures on my own too, like going over to a friend of a friends house for a full-blown traditional thanksgiving dinner, turkey and stuffing and all. Now that was something I thought I would never get in China. An old camp friend took me out to see Chinese opera a couple times, a very intriguing theater experience. There was one long weekend I took to visit a family who’s son is currently living in my home back in Minnesota. That was a unique adventure; I went on a business trip with the father and ended up going to ShaoLin Temple, watching a rifling tournament, and then having dinner with a bunch of Chinese Olympic athlete trainers. Another weekend I was invited out to a ski resort by a woman I met at a yoga workshop, and ended up being her and her friends snowboarding instructor all day. Later that night they took me to a metal show by a Chinese band, which was quite the case of cultural diffusion. The food was good, the friends were friendly. All in all Beijing treated me quite well.

The only really constant negative aspect about my stay there was the air pollution. In six weeks of living in Beijing, I remember only a handful of days with blue sky. Of course this is a factor of the season as well, as there is much less clear sky in the north during the winter, but it was the smog more than anything. On a decent day, the most you could tell of it would be a white haze to everything in your vision more than a couple blocks away, but there was one day where it felt simply apocalyptic. I remember it well because that day BaiBai and MaJie woke up early to go out with me. They were visiting some friends outside the city and decided they would drop me off at work along the way so I didn’t have to get up as early to catch the bus. There was no indication of what the weather was like until we had gone down the twelve floors to ground level, and then stepped out the door. It was early enough that it was still dark, which added greatly to the effect. As soon as I was out the door a thick brownish yellow smog appeared around me, blocking out everything more than three meters in front of my face. The only things I could actually make out were the part of the building immediately behind me, MaJie next to me, and the concrete under me. The stuff was thick and swirling, and with the dark it seemed that all sorts of horrors could jump out of it at any moment. Luckily, BaiBai knew just where the car was parked and was able to lead us to it without much trouble. Suffice to say, it was shocking. I had never thought it could get that bad. Even though I trusted BaiBai completely, riding in the backseat that morning with next to zero visibility beyond the car body had me pretty freaked out. By the time we got to where I worked the smog had lessened considerably, and by mid-day it was once again at a pretty average level; just enough to make it seem like life was a video game where a mist gently enshrouded all the places you did not go.

a late night street view with average smog

At first I had thought that the heavy smog was quite contained to Beijing, given the industry presence in the area and the geography of the mountains around the city that trap the air and smog between them. That idea was quickly proven wrong after I rode a train for four hours to a province southwest of Beijing one weekend(the same adventure with the Olympic trainers) and did not see a change in the air the entire way. It was the same the entire way farther south the next day, and the entire way to ShaoLin temple the day after that. I would encounter similar smog in ChengDu成都, after a twenty two hour train ride south weeks later. Weeks after that, I would see the second heaviest smog I have ever encountered on a train headed out of Kunming昆明, the capitol city of China’s most southwest province Yunnan云南. It was not until I arrived in the small ancient town of ShaXi沙溪 in the mountains of northwest Yunnan, where I am writing this, that I would escape the smog completely.

smog covering the distant mountains at ShaoLin temple

By the end of the six weeks in Beijing, I was stoked to get a move on. At the beginning of December my close friend Maya Pierick flew out from Kenya, where she had spent the last six months or so studying, to Beijing to meet me. We spent a little over three weeks travelling and working together, and had some great times. Maya writes her own life/travel blog here, and once we’re both back stateside we plan to co-write a post about our experiences together, so stay tuned! I won’t wait until then to post updates on my most recent solo adventures, so there will be a fair content gap between this post and my next but don’t worry, it will all come out eventually.

In Tall Buildings

I’ve been moving a lot since my last post, but I’ve recently arrived at the destination where I will be spending the next five to six weeks: the city of Beijing, China.

This is the third big central city of asia I’ve hopped into in just about as many weeks. My last post was written in Taipei, the capitol city of Taiwan nestled on the northern tip of the island. After six days there I flew straight west for a couple of hours and landed in Hong Kong, a sensational city that is that is the heart of it’s own little world. Similarly to Taipei, Hong Kong is surrounded by mountains, but the boats and the bays and the islands make it quite unique.

a view from the shiang kai shek mausoleum in Taipei, behind me is what I can best describe as the taiwanese equivelant to the lincoln statue in DC

In Taipei, I bedded down in a lovely little hostel in the center of the old city called the Banana Hostel. This place was the highlight of my days. It was comfortable, not too fancy, and just artsy enough. Funny manifestations of banana art hung all over the walls, and they even set out bananas for you to eat for free every day! The clientel and the workers at the hostel were all very friendly. Like most travelers and people working in the hostel business, they were always eager to learn more about whoever happened to walk through the door and exchange stories, especially over a couple of beers.

funky banana art

I spent my days at the hostel doing a lot of lounging around, happy to not have to work and appreciating the freedom to just relax. Most days I would go out, with my friend I had traveled to the hostel with or with someone I knew in the city, discover a nice public park or a temple or some sort of museum. We would walk, talk, see some things, and then return to the hostel with tired legs and a satisfaction that what we accomplished that morning legitimized another afternoon and evening of laziness. At night the hostel workers we had befriended always wanted to go out to a local bar or club, and the friend I had known in Doulan was always stubbornly saying that I would come along, but I mostly prefered staying back. I enjoyed drinking and socializing with the people around the hostel, and I did plenty of it during the evenings, but I was tired enough from walking most days and appreciated sleep more than a night out. One night I watched a movie that was profoundly touching and inspiring; it cleared my thoughts and reset my determination. The next morning I got up early and went for a run. Two days later I flew to Hong Kong.

My experience in Hong Kong was different. There, I stayed in the small vacant flat of a generous friend. It was located on Lantau island in a residential area seemingly made for foreigners called Discovery Bay. For anyone not familiar with Hong Kong, I suggest you take a moment now to open a new tab and google map it to check out the geography, it’s pretty cool. So I was in one of the new territories, a ways removed from the city itself; I could only see it from atop a nearby mountain on a very clear day. My primary purpose there was to obtain my chinese visa so that I could enter the mainland. I don’t think I would have visited otherwise.

approaching downtown Hong Kong on the ferry

So the second day after I arrived(because the first was a Sunday), I woke up to take the ferry into the city with the rest of the working folks of discovery bay, and headed for the visa office. When I first arrived to where my phones map told me the building was, I found a walled lot under construction. But I had learned already that my phone map was not extremely reliable in this part of the world, so I looked around and found the building I was looking for just down the street. That day was spent, almost entirely, in said building. It took six hours of gathering materials, waiting in lines, re-gathering after rejection, running between floors to print materials, and more waiting before my application was finally accepted. I would have to come back in four days to retrieve the visa, given that they decided to issue it. It was a rough day, but victory tasted sweet at the end of it, and in the struggle I made friends with some fellow travelers who were having similar experiences. After the ordeal, a few of us went out for dinner(since there wasn’t food allowed in the office we hadn’t eaten the entire time) and walked around a lovely public park afterwards. Before long I was feeling very tired, and so said farewell to my new friends and headed back to the ferry.

visa celebration dinner!

The rest of my short stay in HK was calm. I went to the central public library, which one of my friends from the day before had told me about. It was a very nice library, and I spent a comfortable four hours nestled into a padded chair reading english comic books. It was a great way to spend the afternoon, and the familiarity of it all had a grounding effect which helped to lift me out of a mental funk I was feeling at the time. When evening rolled around, I grabbed some street noodles and took the subway over to the HK Space Museum, where I met up with another friend whom I had worked with in Doulan. She is a Hong Kong native and invited me to join her university astronomy class at the museum on a field trip. The museum was cozy, and I enjoyed a lengthy presentation on the universe under a large planetarium projector. Though the presentation was entirely in cantonese and I didn’t understand a word, I fully appreciated the visuals and my friend helped me to understand the jokes that everyone laughed at. When the class dispersed my friend led me on a walk around victoria harbor. We stopped to listen to some street musicicians, one particularly talented and warm-hearted performer was a man from Tokyo dressed almost exactly like Waldo. He calls himself Mr. Wally, I can’t say if that’s a coincidence because in all the videos I looked up afterwards he was always wearing the same outfit, hat and glasses and all!

Eventually I got my visa, gave myself one day to rest, and then flew to Beijing. Truthfully I was glad to be out of those unfamiliar cities. I had good times for sure, when I was out and engaged in activities with my friends, but I also felt trapped on my own between the walls and tall buildings around me. Especially in Hong Kong, it seemed that everything was made for business and consumption alone. This constant reminder of our runwaway consumer culture was quite draining; I missed the woods and open spaces of my home in the Northwoods.

Oddly enough, here in Beijing things are different. Here, I am grounded by family, and I have discovered that makes all the difference.

I’ll be writing more soon!


*the title of this post is inspired by a song of the same name by John Hartford, check it out 🙂



A Month In Doulan

Two days ago, I left the small town of Doulan on the south east coast of Taiwan, and hitchhiked my way to a train station in the eastern rift valley, where I hopped on a coach and road six hours north to Taipei city.

It was the end of a month long stay in that cozy town, a place with one main street on which most of the businesses were located, and where I could walk through and see the same familiar local faces every day. Under the mountains and next to the ocean, Doulan is full of natural beauty. I was lucky enough to stumble across a host on workaway.info, a site I have been using to find room-provided volunteer opportunities while abroad, who runs a café just outside of town and was looking for helpers. I was drawn in by offers of free use of surf boards and kayaks, and the description of the location, which sounded like a paradise.

And it was.

A small Spanish café and bar, situated right on the coast. A lush green lawn extending from the terrace, 60 meters to a cliff dropping down to the beach. Hammocks hung on palms by the edge, looking out over the water. A small dirt road leading around the lawn, down to the beach, the extensive soft sandy shore. Waves brought in from across the pacific, culminating in the shape of the bay, to be ridden with the surf boards and kayaks stacked under an awning by the pool. The mountains, so striking on the rear horizon, extending across the sky and ever changing in their figure from the shifting light and clouds. Music drifting on the ocean breeze from the speakers in the bar…

Life there was peaceful and serene. I spent half of my day working, and the other half recreating on the beach or socializing in town. Or just sitting and staring at the beauty around me, I did a lot of that too. On weekend nights the whole team would go into town and hang out at one of the local bars, drinking home made mead over conversations about language, culture, politics, philosophy, or local news. The breadth of experience around those late night tables was amazing. As Doulan is a town with a large foreign population, both residents and those visiting, there were often four to six to eight different countries represented. The discussion was always lively and diverse; some nights I would go from speaking Chinese, to English, to French and back again in the span of ten or fifteen minutes.

On my second day there, I met a girl at the beach whom I got to talking with about music. While we were jamming with a ukulele and a finger piano made out of a coconut, she asked if I played guitar, and if so would I like to perform some music as background for her fire poi show that night at the sugar factory(a local favorite bar and hangout). Of course I was thrilled, and without any sort of rehearsal that night I ended up playing for over an hour on stage, pulling out song after song as my friends encouraged me. After that night, our joint fire and music show became a weekly gig, and with the owner of the bar Brian lending me his guitar to play with on my own time, paradise was truly complete.

Needless to say, I had a lot of fun during that month, but I also learned some very important things about myself. Life should have been perfect there, but after getting over the sensation of the first few days, there was something that started tugging at the back of my mind. I was in paradise, but paradise was not what I wanted.

I started having lingering feelings of uncertainty as to why I was there, what I was doing, where it was all going. This led me to reflect often on my situation, and come to many realizations. In many ways, I felt like I was on vacation in Doulan, but I did not come here for vacation. I came here to learn, to pursue passion and seek clarity on what I want out of life. I wanted time ON, not time off. I found that the ideal of travelling I had in my head was in many ways false. I craved a more structured environment, with teachers and fellow learners, young people with energy and drive, tangible goals to work towards accomplishing, being challenged and making a difference. This has been hard for me because from all these things I have realized, it seems that I am craving school, the very thing I came here to avoid. I am craving all these things, but I don’t want to be back in a classroom, or stuck in a sheltering institution. I want to be out in the world, free in the open air, exploring, seeing new things and building new relationships as I learn. It seems that there are two opposing drives within me, and I must find some way to combine them, or settle. I would strive for the former. For now, these realizations have prompted me to reevaluate some plans for the coming months, and move towards structured Chinese study sooner than I had previously imagined. I have by no means found answers yet, and will continue to reflect as I move forward.

Still, I am deeply grateful for my time spent in Doulan. I made many good friends there, and the reflections that were prompted by my stay are no doubt important on my path towards self-actualization. I was shown so much beauty in that little town, both in the landscape and in the humanity; it has truly touched my heart. To conclude, here is a picture of my last Doulan sunset, taken from the balcony on which I slept in a tent so many nights, through wind and rain, earthquake and thunderstorm.

I hope to return one day.