April 22, 2011
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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!
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…