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Archive for April, 2011

Tai Chi Me: Martial Arts Madness and ‘hey! i made the paper!’

Jiangmen, China

April 22, 2011

Up early to welcome in the day with Tai Chi Chuan

So in an attempt to gather all things local culture, I started doing, or as they say here “playing” Tai Chi in the local park square, the place for activities ranging from ballroom dancing, Chinese Jazzercise (a term i obviously created…ha), concerts, all sorts of Tai Chi forms and people generally mingling about. At all hours of the day Donghu Park is filled with  people singing, playing music and performing all kinds of varied and some-quite strange-looking exercise routines. The place gets packed! Often there are even official concerts, contests (i’ve seen choral contests and even a ballroom dance contest, oh yes) and movies playing on a big screen for people to come sit and watch outside for free.  Nice!

dance! the square at night draws in the locals to come have a play

another view of the square at night. notice all the people on the left doing tai chi

The mornings and nights are when the action really happens and the place comes alive…there are masses of people everywhere! I love it! In the mornings, people are up to welcome the sun with tai chi chuan (actually “Taiji Quan” in Chinese…well…actually it’s 学太极 (i think that’s right!)) and i talked to one woman who practices from 7 to 10am every morning! Impressive…i’m still sleeping ha. I went for a run in the morning and there were groups of people all over the park practicing, letting the chi flow. People definitely like to get up and about.  At night people haven’t gone home to plunk themselves in front of a television…although i’m sure some do, but instead they mostly come in droves to the park square  for a bit of exercise.

some of the ladies in my group

Just a short trip around the square and you’ll see people wielding fans and swords practicing different forms of Taiji or Kung Fu, others jump around wildly in a kind of exercise dance, some people sing and others walk around clapping…. whatever you like…you can find it here and just join right in! No pay…just people getting together to exercise, sing, dance, chat and enjoy each others’ company….get some “fresh” air and a bit of energy moving.

inside the park now. people gettin into the martial meditation everywhere you look

Each group has it’s own teacher so you just kinda stroll up and welcome yourself to the class and begin learning. My host family helped me find my current Taiji (dat’s Tai Chi remember) group with the most awesome Shifu (“master” or “teacher”)…i love him…cracks me up.  But most importantly Teacher Li is an incredible master of Taiji! Whenever i watch him i just say “yes! ahh…soo amazing…woow..yes…incredible! i want to look like that!” But in contrast to his vast skill, looking so grounded and conected with the universe, at every break he lights up a cigarette!  He’s given up offering me one hahaha. During one of these breaks while he watches and corrects our form he jumped in to lead with his superior skill, cigarette and cell phone still in hand…classic.

He’s been practicing for over 30 years and the smooth perfection of his motions shows it. The man is tiny but he could kick my ass, he’s kinda that perfect Chinese Martial Arts Master stereotype. Love it. The depth of his knowledge is incredible. Every time I’m gawking at another group doing a different form, he will see my interest and immediately start showing me how to perform it! I can’t wait until i get a sword (“jian”). ha. Learning the full ins and outs of the style is  a bit tricky as the only english he knows is “Ok??” “Ok, ok!” “no! no!’ “uh-yesah” (yes) and “bye bye!”  and well, we all know my Chinese is anything but fluent.  But it’s amazing how much you can understand just visually focusing on the form and copying. Simple Chinese worded/guessing game/body-language-assisted conversations are also helpful.

i was a bit late getting out. i think this place is usually packed in the mornings

But even for my complete lack of skill Teacher Li seems to have taken a real interest in helping me (most of the people who do Tai Chi nowadays are older…and not typically a foreign American girl!) and he often takes me aside for private teaching and instruction which i desperately need! Trying to focus on the form is one thing, but i can’t even remember what comes next! oh dear…. And when he does take me aside, don’t look now but  i’ve  immediately got a crowd of onlookers! As they circle around, baffled and interested by what they see, i try to remember that this is supposed to be relaxing! ha…i usualyl just start laughing and making fun of my awkward movements set in contrast against the master.  But people do seem really interested! I’ve been the feature of many a cell phone photo ha. The older people seem very excited that I have an interest in something so traditional and Chinese and usally excitedly start talking to me in Chinese once i’ve finished. Just smile and nod…smile and nod.

workin with my Shifu, Teacher Li

Once, when i finished one of the forms, everybody clapped! I guess i’ve made some progress! There’s also a few people who come back to check up on me and make sure to proclaim “hen hao!” (“very good!”) to which i point to my teacher and say “ta hen hao! (and then point to myself) Wo bu hen hao!” (my teacher is good but i’m not!) Haha.

I think people are half perplexed/shocked by the sight of the young white girl doing tai chi and half mesmorized by the strength and finesse of my teacher. Watching him makes me want to practice tai chi the rest of my life…especially once you move into the more advanced forms, it looks so hardcore and you can really see the relation of the moves, once a fighting form, turned into steady meditation. If you do tai chi quickly, it looks like kung fu and some of the forms can be practiced with contact. Woooah…be cool to get to that point!

say "yea!" Chinese Jazzercise

And maybe word got around, because the next thing i know a photographer ffrom the local newpaper has come to take photos. At first i noticed another person standing to stare  but then he began fervently snapping photos with a fancy camera. Ok, man…let me in on this…this ain’t free entertainment!..i want one of those photos! Ken came over to chat and was so incredibly nice, showed me his newspaper badge and he could speak some english!

Later that night, Teacher Li, the photographer  Ken and I all went out for tea, chatted and a week later he sent me the link! Ken is a great guy and I thank him for all the great photos, the article and for being such a lovely stranger, now friend! People loveto go out for tea here.  Late at night, take your friends, go  to a restaurant, sit around eating dim sun…all sorts of little bite sized foods…chatting and of course, and drinking lots of tea…way better than a bar! Teacher Li often invites me to go drink tea with him after class and we’ll go with some of the other people in the class..big groups getting together to eat…so Chinese!  Of course no one can speak english, but it really doesn’t matter…amazing how food and drink can make anyone socialize in some form or another.

so badass. i watch in awe with concentration face #3

I’ve never done a martial art but have always been interested so was pretty stoked to see that the opportunties were more than ample to get started! I love the combined strength and style of a sport with the balance, flexibility and inner meditative strength of a dance. I’m diggin’ it for sure. If you can find someplace to learn tai chi locally, i highly recommend it. It’s slow, graceful and challenging…i’m  always sweating by the end and definitely find myself relaxed (well, when i’m not laughing or cursing myself for messing up). I started with the most basic form, #24, and am now workin on 42, 48 and 88 if you’re really keen to check it out!

i couldn't quite get this one. haha...it's all just a lot of fun with friends at the end

The beginnings of Tai Chi, this healing and martial art, are a bit shrouded in mystery;  no one is quite sure when it began or who founded it. Well, there are facts but they are all up for debate.  We do know it started in China and that for many years students were taught in secret by their masters. Sneaky… but one master evtually decided to make his style, the  “Yang” form available for the public. He shortened and simplified this form and is what you see most people practiciing today. It soon became a daily routine for many Chinese and it’s awesome to see it still living strong and spreading round the globe.   It’s pretty sweet to get out in the evening, play some Tai Chi, practice my Chinese and make some new friends. Let let the power of the Qi guide thee!

The online article! Check it out! Hilarious…



Teacher Teach Me! (On teaching in china and being a jr. high celebrity)

Jiangmen, China

April 12, 2011

Warning: Long and rambly…maybe i should split it into two entries…

School Day Begin!

just a sampling of my students...they couldn't all fit in this pic! and some were a bit reluctant to join in

So I had a feeling it might be a bit like this…I’m uh…well, ya…I’m a bit of a celebrity around here. I may have missed my chance at movie stardom…but now I’m a Jr. High School Star (city-stardom is coming along too, oh yes)! Oh, you’d like me to sign your homework paper for you? You want my email, my MSN, my QQ (Chinese version of MSN chatting), Facebook (wait…you can’t even get facebook in China!), “anything teacher please!” Hahaha. I’m surprised people haven’t started bringing out the camera phones. You see, I’m a rarity in these parts, a desperately desired commodity, but curious oddity none-the-less: an American girl in China…light skin, curly-crazy hair (speaking of hair) and the ability to speak English!

at the jr. high. a gathering of some sort...

Jiangmen, the tiny town of 4 million in which I currently reside does not boast a tourist industry (industry? Yes. Lots of factories for sure, but tourists are not interested in seeing where their cheap goods come from or experiencing the resulting smog of “development” that blankets this region), so I’m pretty much like a glowing beacon of whiteness. Which is decidedly inconvenient when I’m aware that I look like bumbling idiot most of the time (illiteracy does that to a person): Hey! Everyone look at me pretending to read a label in the grocery store again! Now watch as I try to communicate with someone! Ok, now everyone turn because, look out! She’s trying to eat something! Oh lord…how I love to emphasize all of my social blunders. Hopefully this hopeless stage blunders to an end soon.

living up to and beyond my foreigner duties. quick snap a photo! (my host brother and I pretending to do tai chi)

As for the celebrity status, well, that may be here to stay; daily routines become exciting cameo appearances, “halloos!” follow me around. I might as well walk around with a flashing neon sign above my head or draped in an American flag with a statue of liberty head-band. The way people gawk, stare and giggle, you’d think I already was! Actually maybe they’d pay less attention cause they’d just pass me off as a crazy person…hmmm. But unlike Africa, people here thankfully don’t overwhelm me in a chorus of “white-lady!” calls. Well, I do get people saying “hellooo!” a lot (and yes…mostly men and kids/teenagers) but that I can easily ignore, smile, nod or respond depending on the sincerity. Actually because people often don’t say anything but instead overwhelm the air with their curiosity, nervousness and excitement it makes me really feel that celebrity status; bizarre for someone who finds themselves utterly dorky and unworthy of such immediate praise.


a spot where i like to chill out/hide on campus. the chinese are very good at making attractive rest/leisure spaces!

And because I’m a teacher (daoshi), while I’m on campus I get the FULL force of A-list celebrityness. I think that given the chance, the students might actually swarm me to ask questions and get my autograph…oh wait…that has happened! I’m teaching at Jingxian Jr. High School (7th and 9th grade) and at Zi Cha Primary School (1st grade). The little kids who are insanely adorable….I kinda want to take a few of them home with me (one little boy almost had me in hysterics when I made a comment that the “chocolate car” in our book was “mmm…yummy!” he responded “teacher’s yummy!” and being one of the few kids that excels he clearly knew what he was saying! classic). The little ones generally start hopping around and going crazy when I arrive…shouting out “hallo! Halloooo! Haaaalllo!” constantly. But much more than that in a conversation and they are lost. For these 1st graders, English is their third language. The local language in Cantonese, then they learn the national language, Mandarin…and then…English…phew…I’m amazed they can speak even a little bit and some of them have an impressive reading ability.

this dude was soo excited about getting this pic...notice kids goofing in the back

Surprisingly, I really enjoy teaching the jr. high kids (even though I recall telling myself that should I ever want to teach I should avoid jr. high like the plague) because we can actually have a conversation; the kids have a genuine interest in America and what I’m all about and on the other hand I can ask them about their own interests and discuss China.

But it was the very first day that I got a taste of my newly acquired celebrity status. I should first mention that the lines between teacher and student are much more blurred here than in the U.S. Teachers office? Teachers lunch room? Umm…no. No privacy…they’re all swarmed with students!  You also have to remember, there are A LOT of people in China…think of the amount of people at a normal school in the U.S. and then triple it! But although these lines seem blurred, students definitely recognize the evevated status aof their teachers and are very respectful…of course some of them are little brats…but it’s Jr. High…whadya expect? they just want to get chatty with their friends and eat junk food…haha…universals?!


oh my daily walk from the jr. high to the primary school. "here she comes again!"

But let’s return to that first day, and the first few weeks while we’re at it. Cafeteria…a hustle and bustle of noise as one would expect (some kids go home for lunch…the lunch break lasts 2 1/2 hours because people take a nap after lunch…the Chinese siesta! Who knew?!) and being my first day, I grabbed my food and sat down at a table. Little did I know that the teachers sit in my area that I was not in…I was completely surrounded within seconds of sitting down…I would get the food halfway to my mouth and another question would be fired at me as another mass of children descends on my table to see if this new, rare creature was not rumor but was indeed real! Bombarded with questions, pointing, touching, shoving to get a space and a look…this was my first school lunch in China…welcome to Jr. High stardom. We all know that little bit of funny celebrity aura we feel around our teachers when we’re younger…and especially when you see them doing something “normal”…”oh my gosh I saw her in the supermarket! And then she bought food!” “no way! Did you watch her eat! What was she wearing!” hahaha. But as a foreigner and an American at that (Chinese LOVE America) it’s like they’ve watched me on TV their whole lives and now have the chance to talk in person…ahhh! Guess that’s it…i’m a representative for all they fantasize about in the U.S….oh boy…haha

another class! i should have set the lens wider!

The first few weeks while I was teaching the 7th girls would come up to me after class and ask for me to write my name on their paper. My name? Sign it? Just write it out? OK sure! I would do different designs and they’d get all excited. Some of the boys even get just as starry-eyed and their nervous energy while their asking me my favorite sport or if I really know how to play guitar, shows their adorable innocence. Sometimes it wouldn’t happen, no one would approach me after class, and I’d think…huh…guess that class wasn’t as excited as the one before…but I think it’s just shyness…once one person approached…15 others would follow…all giggling and hanging onto my every word. So cute…how can you not get a little energy high from that?! Still…I’ve never been comfortable in positions of authority and to be thrust to the head of the class and immediately revered like a star is totally insane! No really! I’m just as weird, insecure and nerdy as you guys…really! Of course, part of you has to love it and I’ve gained the wonderful sense that anything I can do for them will be great…exciting even! Need a self-esteem boost? Come to China and teach!

explaining a few things with pictionary art. a few of them complimented my pictures (now that's a strech!) and added their own embellishments after class haha

So now that we know I’m a school celebrity, what am I actually doing?! Well, teaching…you know…English…and to a whole lotta kids. I should have guessed….China: population 1 billion. Average class size: 50+ kids. “So how big will my class be?” I innocently asked before my first day of teaching (note: I still had no idea what the hell I was actually going to be doing at this point). Also note: I’ve learned to be skeptical of every promise or guarantee I receive…especially in a place where the majority of people start their sentences with “I think that….” or “Maybe this….”. So when I heard “oooh I think 50 kids in a class…but…um…no…I think they are so too busy…so together…we put two together…I think 100, 110…100…no more than 110…ok?”…well, can you feel my eyebrow of skepticism rising? 100 kids! Whoa! What! Are you going to stack the desks or hang them from the ceiling?? And then I saw my classroom which was more like a lecture hall, complete with a massive screen, projector and microphone (still, I have no idea how or what exactly I’ll be teaching…class starts the next day). Oh dear…good luck! After one week of that they halved the class size (now I was just winging it with power point presentations I put together to learn new vocabulary and little conversation exercises).

After another week they moved me to teach the 9th graders (50 kids in class and in a normal sized classroom yay!) because they have an oral exam in May. I now have 6 classes a week at the Jr. High…that is 6 different classes. So that’s 300 kids, yow! But easy to prepare for since it’s the same lesson all week (is this making sense?). At the primary school, I have 2 different classes i teach twice a week…so there’s 100 more kiddies! Remembering names is pretty much impossible but I’m starting to get to know a few of them who come up and chat after class (this is apart from the crowd mass wanting my autograph and email haha).

this post needed some color. cool laterns hanging in a restaurant off of a buddhist temple

Teaching is going great and even when I think the class has been boring kids come up to me to tell me how much they enjoyed it! Definitely gives ya a boost…I thought I might be getting a fan club when I couple of students brought me little presents and one even wrote me the sweetest letter saying that she “feels happy” because I “teach with a smile”. The kindness and welcoming spirit I’ve received here has been amazing and clearly a bit overwhelming at times. For now…teacher must rest. But really…who wants a signed photo? hahaha

Hair to Stay

Hair? Let it grow, grow, grow! Grow it out ya’ll! Why all this talk of hair?

Well, I’m going to grow mine out for the remainder of my travels until i hit home soil (whenever that may be), and from there, chop it all off for donation! Check out this radicool link for this radicool charity: Locks of Love

1. So…some of you may remember when i left for my trip I looked like this:

Sporting a freshly shaved 1″ buzz cut (tail included) provided ever-so-eagerly by my good pal J.P. in the back of a bar after her awesome weekly Craftnight event, I took off for Africa. Outcries of shock from family members and a cool breeze on my neck. Perfect for traveling and oh-so hip.

2. Then we got to this: Shag-mop with multiple tails. Niiiice. (poor KT had to look at this all day long. DO NOT TAKE THE BRIADS OUT!! MULLET ATTACK!)

(Since i can’t get a crazy vegabond beard going, i kinda like watching my hair get wilder every day…)

3. Aaaaand a little longer here (during the bicylce/WWOOF trip i have yet to blog about. Mmmm kale…):

4. Currently!: Now I’m a master of awkward hair stages. Also…attempting to master awkard Tai Chi poses.

My teacher is amazing…this photo might deceive ya, as i usually have a crowd of people watching the white girl doing tai chi!! I may also be in the local paper HA! Photo credit and possible newspaper fame maker: Ken Wang

Long hair kinda drives me nuts, but I’ve done it once before and i’ve decided to do it again…and I want anyone and everyone out there to join me! Locks of Love is an awesome cause…so come on…grow it out and chop it off!

For now, enjoy tracking my travels through my ever-growing crazy-hair! I’ll post more photos as i go along wooo

*And for those interested: Yes, i wash my hair with a vinegar/water mix (1/3 to 2/3)…check out that curl and shine! In China, my host father helped me find the right stuff and didn’t even blink an eye when i explained (through awesome hand motions) my purpose. I dare ya…

Proper blog entry coming tomorrow…are ya psyched or what??!