Circular Motion: Finale

I began this trip in Shanghai for the Shanghai Literary Review launch party, and went on the road with good feelings and a bouquet of flowers. Since then, I’ve left the bouquet of flowers at the base of Mount Everest, and am returning back the way I came to Hangzhou.


Things have gone full circle it would seem, in a trip full of circuits, koras, and circular motion. The spinning prayer wheels, koras around holy places, the mandala that depict the path to immortality, and yes even the Ferris wheel. Here, a circle is a sacred path, and one I was happy to take.

Which is why on my last full day in Lhasa, I decided to make as many circles as possible, starting with the kora around Potala Palace.
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The palace is a very central part of Lhasa, and is completely circumferenced by prayer wheels, save for its front side which faces a public square. I joined in the foot traffic, and spun every prayer wheel as we went around. Some were as large as a room, some big enough to have a railing along the bottom, and most small enough for a deft push to keep it spinning.

Though it sounds easy enough, after a while my arm hurt, and my fingernails caught on the polished wood handle on the bottom, and I felt as though I was actively making callouses. But by the end, I also felt as though I was marching to a new beat than before.
I did this circuit only once, deciding to save a full three circuit trip for Jokhang Temple that evening, when the most people would be walking, and when the believers would prostrate their ways around the temple, bowing all the way to the ground every few steps.


I am a hopeless romantic (in the transcendental sense) and found myself spinning an object in my hand as I walked that holy kora. Those prostrating bent over onto wooden slats on their hands, and it was like wave after wave upon the sand.

In this atmosphere, I decided to take out the white prayer scarf I was greeted with on my first day of the trip. It was a welcoming gesture, and though the scarf was pretty, I also felt it belonged in Tibet. After three circles around the temple, I tied my prayer scarf next to others, and I sat on the warm concrete, watching birds swirl above and listening to passersby muttering their mantras.

Even as I write this, I’m already back in Hangzhou, jumping back into a very different lifestyle — one that probably doesn’t have as much room for romantic wanderings. My phone has gone from the sparse 3G available on the Tibetan Plateau, to a full, nonstop 4G and internet connection. In a series of public transit card switches, I’m back in the groove of Hangzhou, and am unpacking all that I’ve brought back from the road.

But I like to think that the revolutions that were set in motion, the centrifugal force of all these circles will carry their ways into my life and beyond. I like to think that I’ll keep spinning and circling long after this trip and that, like the flowers and the scarf, I won’t need to carry so much with me and can leave it fluttering in the wind, kissing the clouds.

My Kora

In Tibetan culture, believers do what is called a kora, or a circuit, around what is considered a holy site. This can be a temple or even a holy mountain.

In my original plan for this trip, I was going to do a half-kora around the Amnye Machen mountain. But, like that moment in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, many of my plans sank into the swamp when some issues came up, like me getting sick TWICE in a week’s time, and a trekking companion not being able to adjust to the high altitude. (And yes, I had a good facepalm moment when I realized I would probably not use the tent I’d carried for over a week…for now.)

But that’s okay, actually. Because if I had to consider anything “sacred” or precious in all of my travels, I would say it has been the hitchhiking and the people I’ve met along the way. It would have to be that mysterious pulse and momentum that moves me along the road and into new and unforeseen places. Yes, trekking is amazing, but there will be other mountains to climb. A whole lifetime’s worth.

When I had first thought of Qinghai back in 2013, I’d thought of hitchhiking around the famous Qinghai Lake, but ran out of time to visit the province. Now, nearly four years later and just about at the end of my big China travels, it seems only fitting to do just this. Especially given that I don’t plan on hitchhiking anywhere outside of China.

True, Qinghai Lake is not really a holy place, and in fact most people choose to bike around it instead, but I know what stays with me and what doesn’t. This is my not-quite-holy Kora, and it’s my way of getting close to Qinghai, to other people, to the best version of myself.

 

Year of Poetry

As Facebook so often likes to remind me, “on this day X years ago…” I was doing stuff. (And wow, next year, I will have graduated from high school ten years ago! Facebook is going to have a field day). On April 23, it was to remind me that, one year ago, I’d posted about the very first poetry slam my current roommate Katie and I put together.

Not that I needed Facebook to remind me of the milestone.

On our first poetry night, we’d chosen the anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth/deathday, and had poetry lovers assemble at Underline Cafe. For the anniversary, we went to a park along West Lake. A small group of about six people (including myself) tried to find a patch of grass on which to recite spring poetry. I carried an unwieldy box of poetry books (in the hopes of dispensing them like manna), and a friend of mine had two bottles of cooking oil in her backpack. (“It is from my friend’s hometown, which has the best cooking oil,” she said, as if this was reason enough.)

 

In the end, we found a little pavilion. It overlooked both West Lake and the grass we weren’t sitting in. There was a slight mound in the middle, and an inscription on a small plaque outside the pavilion. We settled down on the concrete benches and chatted about spring. Only when a Chinese friend, Helen, arrived later, did we find out what this place actually was.

“Of all places!” she said, shaking her head. “You had the whole park, and you sit in a tomb?!”

Another Chinese friend, Jennifer, got up to check the inscription. “It’s okay!” she said. “He was a poet, so it’s like we’re keeping him company…right?”

We all nodded, mostly because we didn’t want to keep looking for another place.

I read some Wendel Berry poems, a Thai friend named Dew read her favorites from Instagram, and a Jamaican friend Lori read a poem her mother had written that very morning about a flower bouquet.

Around this tomb for the ancient poet, we faded to a hush as the line “life does not understand life” from a Huang Yazhou poem settled in our bones. It seemed too fitting for our day in the park: where a cavalcade of life walked along the lake, where spring erupted in new life, and where we stood around a memorial for the dead.

Life does not understand life, but even in the time that passes along it, people and words find each other as if on a collision course. Friends come and go, and new life emerges in the spaces where others have left. In the life of this year, I have gained a niece, while people around me have lost loved ones. Faces have left Hangzhou, and new faces have arrived in their stead. Life does not understand life, but it keeps going and tumbling along our spinning globe like clouds dancing in the rain.  And I’m glad not to understand life sometimes, because it’s twisted, like our own Earth on its axis.

It’s fitting in a way that our poetry anniversary falls on both Shakespeare’s birthday and deathday. As if both are intrinsically entwined, and that even as Shakespeare celebrated each passing year, he did not know how it would all end, either. Life does not understand life. Death does not understand death.

And that, of all places, is where poetry comes alive.

Until next year~

Meet Me Through the Dragon Gate

For those of you new to this blog, you maybe wondering about the name. Why a dragon gate? Why go through it? And, is this actually a travel blog, with this title functioning as a metaphor for traveling in China, or is it actually a bunch of random things strung together without rhyme or reason?

Maybe it’s a little of both, but the name does in fact come from an interesting Chinese legend.

According to the legend, fish that jumped through the Dragon Gate (a waterfall along the Yellow River between Shanxi and Shaanxi Provinces) could transform into a dragon. Traditionally, the story has been used as a metaphor for scholars facing their examinations. The lowly carp, after making a daring leap, would become something bigger — and more powerful for that matter — than they could have imagined.

Imagine their triumphant flight once their fish scales elongated, smoothed into dragon wings, and they could relish the wind. Imagine, for a moment, the doubt during the leap, and the fear as the waterfall’s pounding deluge slapped along their backs as they had no choice but to keep leaping. Imagine the breath right after the waterfall, when they would either fly or fall back into the water.

I started this blog back in 2012. I had just graduated and had no idea what would wait for me after making a giant leap. At the time, I thought I’d only be in China for 9 months. I had never traveled alone before. I had also never taught English before, or done a master’s degree before, and a host of other things. And here we are. Just the other day, as I read from a Chinese book about ancient Chinese characters, I realized that I understood so much of it, and that it all came from the process of being in China. I hadn’t learned it all in a classroom, but from a collection of experiences and lessons picked up along the way.

When does the fish know it’s no longer leaping, but flying?

Maybe that’s something I’ll never know, but the wind rushes along my scales all the same, and for now, it feels great.

Since you’re meeting me through the dragon gate, I’ll bet you can feel it, too.

Productive vs. Busy

Before I had even landed in China from my trip in the US, a fellow violinist in Hangzhou was asking if I wanted to be in his string quartet.

“We would need to take photos and get recording of ourselves to get gigs, but I’m sure it would work,” he said. I could tell that he was very serious about violin. His profile picture was a professional shot of him cradling his instrument, and every post he made was violin-related. Professional gigging for him would be, well, professional.

About 2-3 years ago, I would have responded with a quick “yes!” and entered the fray, balancing all of my other commitments with coffee and rattly late nights.This time, I said I’d be happy to be a substitute, but that the answer was no.

(“What!” I can almost hear some of my music friends saying, “How could you refuse such a great opportunity? How defeatist! Where’s your sense of adventure?”)

Sometimes I feel like there’s a lot of pressure to “seize the day” and say yes to every opportunity that comes along. It’s the message I grew up with in school, that “opportunity waits for no one” and that if you wait too long, it will disappear and never come back. There is absolutely truth in that, but what I’m increasingly discovering is that “seizing the day” is not about taking every single opportunity that appears, but seizing the best opportunities that will lead you to where you want to be. It’s in part letting go of things, in part making yourself available for the opportunities you want to seize.

In this article from Lifehack, Conor Neill highlights the difference between busy and productive people. Of the 11 differences, mentioned, one sticks out most to me: “Busy people say yes quickly; productive people say yes slowly.” I should mention that when he says “productive” people he doesn’t mean soulless machines, but rather people that are able to achieve their goals, whatever they are. He says “If you don’t say “no” to most things, you are diving [sic] your life up into millions of little pieces spread out amongst other people’s priorities.” I think this is really important.

Contrary to what our society tells us, refusing things and saying no is actually the great secret to accomplishing what we want to set out to do. It’s easy to hitch onto something that’s already moving and then shrug your shoulders when it lands in the wrong place. It’s much, much, harder to wait for the right ride to come along and take it all the way to the end. The difference is responsibility. You don’t feel responsible when your thousands of tasks keep you from finishing your goal. You feel very responsible when you really turn to face that goal and make active efforts to reach it.

Anyone reading this blog knows perfectly well that I do take chances and take advantage of opportunities that come my way. But with the new year in full swing, I’m aiming to be less busy, and more productive, to actually make conscientious steps toward the places I want to go. Maybe this means letting go of certain things, like that quartet, or even an opportunity to go to Morocco (though that “no” was mainly because I straight-up didn’t have the money). I told myself on January 1st: “Do better.”

Do better.

I already know what I want/need to improve in my life and I think many of us do, too. It’s just a matter of making those conscientious steps and agreeing to stop hiding behind busy-ness and begin being productive.

 

Forget the Thesis, Let’s Do the Time Warp!

I think it was fair to say that when I checked the thermostat and discovered that my hometown Lakeville in Minnesota was colder than Antarctica, I felt formally welcomed into a totally different world. (And despite friends’ claims that “Well, Antarctica is in the middle of summer and WELL it has been sunny for a couple of months straight…” it does not change the fact that MN is COLDER THAN FREAKING ANTARCTICA…and the surface of Mars, incidentally).

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You cannot deny the facts, sir!

Ice is everywhere, and though our local weatherman Paul Douglas said such cold is “like being dipped in battery acid” I did feel a distinct glee in every exclamation-point breath I took in the arctic land. It’s bracing. It hurts your face. It’s that elusive slice of home.

But wait…you might be thinking. Aren’t you in China?

Yeah.

In fact, I’m just in Minnesota for the holidays since for once, my schedule is open enough to take Christmas off. It was a decision that made me happy when I bought the plane tickets to make the journey, and then filled with downright manic joy the closer the date came to leave. But in between that time I bought the plane ticket and now, breathing in the ice cube air around me and marveling at our Christmas tree and shimmying to holiday tunes, stuff did happen. China stuff. Stuff not related to Christmas in the slightest.

Thesis stuff.

See, the thing I learned about getting a masters is that you go in thinking “All right, I’m going to LEARN!” and by the end you’re hunched over your computer trying to wrangle footnotes and cite things you might not have alluded to exactly, but sort of have an affinity for and why not have longer footnotes? And then, you have to do it all in Chinese.

Had I mentioned that before? Yes. I’m writing my thesis in Mandarin Chinese. That’s part of the deal with having a China Government Scholarship, though I’ve talked to plenty of international students who give up and write it in English anyway. (But I’m just too damn stubborn to do anything of the sort.)

I mean, I haven’t even written the thesis yet of course. These past couple of months were all about the thesis PROPOSAL, which sounds deceptively simple, and in fact took me a solid month of endless writing to complete a single draft. First, I wrote it myself. Then I brought it to my Chinese tutor, Flora, who was very kind, but also ripped it to shreds to fix grammar and awkward word choice. THEN I brought it to a doctorate classmate of mine who checked for logic/layout/content, and THEN I brought it before my professors to discuss and tell me how I ought to do it instead. On top of that, no one in the department really tells you what you have to do and when, and also neglects to mention what’s supposed to be in the damn proposal, so half of my time was spent bothering that poor doctorate student who probably thought “Are all foreigners this clueless?”

The actual proposal was a bit nerve-wracking because I had to regurgitate the painstakingly-wrought proposal and tell professors in a logical, composed and adult way what I planned to do. Naturally, I panicked and spouted a bunch of machine-gun-speed Chinese that mercifully ended and segued into their critique.

“Aw, don’t worry about it,” a Malaysian student told me before. “They don’t even read the proposals, and if yours is long, they’ll just trust what you’re saying.”

“Ehn, they let us foreign students get away with anything because they’re impressed enough that we speak Chinese,” an Italian student told me.

Both, in the end, were wrong. My professors had both read the proposal and had pointed critiques to make. To be honest, I was grateful, since it meant that I wouldn’t be coddled for mediocrity and would instead be pushed to be better.

So. All that happened. If it sounds time consuming, that’s because it is. As a result, I don’t properly remember the past month or so, though when I look at the facts of what I did, I realize that, empirically, other things did happen, whether or not I recall. It’s an instance of the Time Warp where the days blur and both feel eternally long, but also as if they’re shooting past, where time scrunches like an accordion, and it’s like those long flights I’m accustomed to, when you’re handed food when hungry and told “It’s night now. Try to sleep.”

Stuff happened: Poetry slams, my birthday, a photo shoot for professional head-shots, a music gig, tutoring two children, and oh so much more.

For now though, I’m just going to do the Time Warp and enjoy the fact that it’s now nearing the end of December, that I’m drinking my father’s drink “The Buddy Manhattan” which includes a pickle narwhal (inspired by the movie “Elf”), and that every time I step outside I can think both “Wow!” and “Ai ya!” when the battery-acid air decides to stop on by.

Merry Christmas.

Where the Lightning Trees End

I resisted it for over four years: the silent death of churning wheels cascading over sidewalks. I said I would just as soon ride a bike and take it slow. I said I detested those machines and how they owned the roads, sidewalks, and exhales between cars. But when I saw my friend post an ad for his secondhand electric bike and when I saw the price, I resisted no longer. I gave in to all that my friends said, that those wheels would radically change how I viewed Hangzhou, and would in turn radically change my life.

I took to the roads on my clanky ebike, on a nighttime mission to find lightning trees.

On the whole, I’m pretty resistant to new technology. I remember how long I waited to actually ride a bicycle, how I hesitated before getting a slider cell phone in college, how I debated over getting a smart phone my second year in China, and how I didn’t want to use Alipay, the online payment system that is quickly making cash obsolete in China. I wanted to keep the hum of technology at a low volume, to feel the sensation of money disappearing from my fingers. I wanted to be able to disappear and be unreachable for long stretches of time. I wanted slow, silent days to accompany my thoughts.

Well, life in a city is different. Just trying to get to those lightning trees takes about 45 minutes of biking through congested downtown traffic. Buses are even slower, and when buses get trapped in turn-lanes, it’s hard not to watch those ebikes weaving in and out traffic with envy.

So I listened to my friend explain his old bike to me — how to charge it, how to lock it, how he had added extra power to it and had obtained all of the legal license plates and registration. And I plotted where I would take it for a test ride on my own.

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When the time came, I flicked on the headlights. My roommate helped me put on a reflector armband, and I checked the brakes, letting myself glide to a gradual halt when I saw other pedestrians. Then, I left our apartment complex to enter a Hangzhou that I already knew quite well.

I turned back the handle — oh god! Walkers! Glide, honk, brake, glide, my feet skimming the surface of the asphalt. Up ahead, a stoplight. Oh god. Glide, brake, plant feet. The night was not so much an evening jaunt as it was a blur of headlights, stoplights, illuminated cell phone lights, and dark shapes passing along sidewalks as I glided, braked, stopped, glided along the bike lane. A red light, my heart pounding as I rehearsed how I would get started again. Along Beishan Road along West Lake, turning into bright-light cityscape as I entered the Nanshan Road area.

I already knew the route, and was used to it taking perhaps 40 minutes. In about 20, however, I was already close. Not only that, but roads that I knew felt somehow less congested. I could honk at pedestrians walking in the bike lane. I could glide past silently, too, if there was enough space and I wanted to hear the patter of passing feet.

Then, I turned the corner onto Nanshan Road and Hangzhou was like I’d never seen before. I saw where the lightning trees ended.

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As sudden as rain, the canopy of well-lit trees draped over the sidewalk, strings of white Christmas lights wrapped around the boughs. The streaks of white against black were like negative images of trees, as if by cracking across the sky they became exclamation points in Hangzhou. I scooted forward, enjoying the silence of the motor, and the smoothness of asphalt. I followed the tunnel of lightning trees, underneath the signs that had been made for the G2o saying “Welcome to Hangzhou!” and processed my way toward the other side of the area, where one tree branch flickered, as if being erased and drawn over and over again. Light rain flecked my jacket, but none of it mattered. I had a full battery. I could go beyond the lightning trees and into the dark street beyond it. I could get lost and find my way back, and I could do it on creeping wheels.

I only went along the tunnel and then back, relishing the feel of the “Welcome to Hangzhou” sign as I passed it again.

Indeed, where the lightning trees end, it was as though I was entering a new Hangzhou, where distance was only a concept, and I could connect scattered scenes together and re-map a home I have come to know so well.

It’s never too late to rediscover home.