Falling in Love with Tai Chi

As I signed up for extracurricular activities at the beginning of the semester I was particularly excited about the possibility of a gongfu (kung fu to any Westerners reading this) class, envisioning myself copying the epic moves from martial arts movies.  However, a few days later we received an email: “Gongfu isn’t available, how about taijiquan (Tai Chi)?”  Disappointed (I’d seen elderly Chinese practicing taijiquan in parks in the U.S. and it looked pretty dull), I was planning on picking a different activity – but during a free afternoon I decided I’d give it a try.

From the first lesson I was hooked.  I was surprised by how soothing it was to glide through the poses – but it was also really difficult!  The smooth ease with which our teacher demonstrated the routine turned out to be much more demanding and challenging to replicate than I had initially assumed.  There was always a palm or foot at the wrong angle and instead of a smooth progression my version of taijiquan was a jerky string of movement followed by a long pause as I forgot what came next….Instead of being frustrating, the challenge was absolutely absorbing and I left class glowing with the excitement of something new.  When I told my roommate where I’d been, she responded “that’s what old people do here,” and seemed slightly surprised when I said “they’ve got the right idea.”

Since that first week I’ve been to every class.  My technique is definitely improving but unfortunately the sequence doesn’t seem to be sticking in my brain – as my teacher succinctly put it, “you do it well but you have no memory at all!”  He also chuckles a little as he demonstrates a leg lift – this man in his late fifties or early sixties casually sticking his leg straight out at hip height – and we all topple over trying to copy him.  Taijiquan is generally quite relaxed and low-impact in terms of physical effort but my hip flexors were in a lot of pain after practicing that move.

Every week we reliably attract visitors.  I guess I shouldn’t be surprised given that we are a group of young foreigners practicing an “old people’s” exercise in front of Yunnan University’s most famous historical building.  It’s a popular photo opportunity but their cameras often surreptitiously drift from the beautiful facade to our group and several passersby will stay to watch.  I was very amused when we happened to be sharing the space with a taijiquan practitioner in the middle of a photo shoot.  He clearly had no idea we understood Mandarin and every pose for a photo was punctuated with comments about our poor form and demonstrations to his companions of the proper technique.  He looked very confused when I started laughing!  I was baffled how someone who clearly was very skilled himself was so concerned with our little class – maybe it was an insult directed at our teacher or maybe he was offended by foreigners attempting taijiquan?  Or maybe we were just that bad…

My classmates and I have turned into Tai Chi nerds – while on a bike trip a few weeks ago we stopped for a rest break and I found myself pulled into a Tai Chi practice session on the side of the road.  Everyone who drove by stopped to stare – but luckily they had nothing critical to say!ImageImage


Top Ten Most Awkward Things About Being an American Liberal Arts College Student in China

Anyone who’s at Swarthmore with me knows that I’m fairly obsessed with Buzzfeed, which, for anyone over 30, is the most brilliant time-waster since Facebook.  I’ve been thinking a lot about the specific culture shock of coming to China from a liberal arts college (like most of my classmates on this program), which have very distinctive cultural aspects.  Buzzfeed’s fondness for top 10 lists inspired me format-wise.  Pictures to come!

The Ten Most Awkward Moments of Transitioning From a Liberal Arts College to a Chinese University

10.  Everyone gets really excited about seeing squirrels on campus and you have to suppress the urge to chase them off screaming “don’t steal my lunch!”

9.  You get in trouble for walking/lying/cartwheeling/doing yoga on the grass (slacklining may potentially get you arrested).

8.  The university cafeteria is crowded with outside middle-schoolers and elderly neighbors who actually choose to eat there.  Oh and the noise levels are at sports stadium grade.

7.  The student radio station blasts gospel-sounding nationalist music during lunch, getting progressively louder throughout the hour.  None of the local students complains about the music choice, or even bats an eyelid.

6.  It is customary here to greet people (of your own age) by name when you see them; no longer can you get away with the dismissive “hi” that works back on your tiny American campus – but neither can you remember your friend’s roommate’s name….

5.  While there is a Chinese word for “male chauvinism,” Chinese girls think it’s weird that you feel the need to use it on a regular basis.

4.  There is no flaxseed, chia seeds, wheat germ or unsweetened soymilk. Anywhere.

3.  Sarcasm is not an accepted, or even understood, form of humor in this country.

2.  People take surreptitious photos of you, and then pretend they didn’t.

1.  There is no Chinese word for “heteronormativity.”

Conversations with my Tutor (part 1)

One of my favorite parts about the CET-Middlebury curriculum is the opportunity to design your own one-on-one tutorial.  I asked to study the history and current concerns of relations between China and its northeastern neighbors, Japan and the Koreas, from political, economic and cultural viewpoints.  The graduate student brave enough to try and encompass all these demands in a single class is Li Yan, who gave me quite a surprise the first class.  First of all, he’s huge – while most southern Chinese are short and slender (this applies to both men and women), Li Yan hails from Shandong, a northeastern province, and easily clears six feet, plus he’s very stocky.  His size is matched by his effusiveness – as I read from the first lesson he frequently interrupted me for a mini-lesson on the background of the events discussed, in very rapid Chinese with much finger-jabbing.  This wonderful enthusiasm also strays beyond the immediate topic at hand; in my tutorial I’m also learning a massive amount about the state of Chinese-American relations and Chinese culture.

At the beginning of class last week, he asked whether I was used to the food in the university cafeteria.  When I replied dismissively that it was fine and I had a lot of experience eating Chinese food, he smiled mischievously and responded “no steak though.”  This immediately triggered a long debate as I tried to explain that many Americans, including myself, rarely eat red meat and that American food choices are much more varied than steak, while he insisted that every American film he’d seen featured steak at every meal.  I howled with laughter when he mentioned that a nearby restaurant features “California Beef Noodles” on the menu; when I responded that such a dish is hardly a California signature, he said “sure, but that’s what the menu says!”

After a pause, “so if you don’t eat steak frequently, what is American food?”  I stumblingly explain that Americans eat food from lots of different countries and cultures and that only a small amount is distinctively American.  Li Yan seemed utterly perplexed that the US doesn’t have a rich national cuisine, a situation completely at odds with China’s highly diverse and intricate food traditions.  He also asked me about how American fast food chains differed in the States and in China; unfortunately I couldn’t help him here either as I haven’t set foot in a fast food restaurant (except to use the bathroom) in years and could only explain that many American stay away from McDonalds etc. because we think their food is unhealthy.  Li Yan was absolutely bewildered and has brought up on several other occasions that every American dish Chinese people eat I don’t!

Yet on Thursday I was the one left baffled as we got into a discussion about the Chinese love of brand names and American athletic apparel.  Li Yan has worn a tracksuit/sweats every time we’ve had class and today he was clad in a Kobe Bryant brand Nike set and high-tech tennis shoes.  But it turns out he doesn’t wear these clothes to play sports.  When I protested that those clothes are designed for athletics, he replied that he was not going to waste expensive shoes by wearing them down through working out and instead wore lower quality sneakers to play basketball.  Plus, getting his tracksuit dirty would require doing laundry, which not only was annoying (typical guy) but also risked damaging the fabric.  So why spend a significant portion of your income on athletic clothes you don’t use to exercise? Li Yan’s answer is comfort and “面子,” or “face”.  His example was, “if I drive a BMW everyone wants to talk to me but if I drive a beat-up car no one wants to interact with me.”  While many Chinese are highly exposed to Western brands these days, it’s clear the enthusiasm hasn’t faded and the importance of acquiring these items is key to many (for example, the rush to snatch up the newest iPhone, despite the large fraction of an average Chinese income the price represents, or the fact that several people have enquired whether Louis Vuitton purses are as popular in the US as they are in China).  It’s a fascinating contrast to the culture I’m used to at Swarthmore (though not representative of most of the US), where shabby chic is popular and those dressed in clothes from Goodwill are just as likely to be the children of business executives as on full financial aid.  I’m a little baffled as to how a tracksuit/sweatsuit (sorry, writing for two sides of the Atlantic) counts as “protecting face” since the West tends to see that outfit as pretty sloppy but I guess that brand cache is stronger.  

The (Not-So-Much-Of-A) Workout Experience

Anyone who has ever gone for a run in China quickly realizes that this is not a local pastime.  In my experience, the usual stares of curiosity become ones of astonishment as I jog past.  I have to weave past strolling couples as there is no concept of getting out of the way, while cameras flash on either side (not an exaggeration).  One would have thought I was going the same speed as Usain Bolt or at least looking really beautiful while exercising.  Safe to say neither of these are the case.

Given how odd going for a run seems to be, I guess I should have expected my test drive of the indoor exercise facilities at Yunnan University to be equally strange.  I’m a big fan of the Nike Training Club app and a few other girls on the program also really like the program’s HIIT workouts.  So we trot off to the athletics building only to find that the all-purpose exercise/dance room is occupied.  But next door is a weight room with just enough space to do some lunges, burpees, etc.  To my amusement, the room is occupied by four Chinese guys who are shirtless, but wearing jeans.  One of them is “pumping iron,” grunting as if he is lifting a car (the weights can’t have been more than 50 pounds).  Another is smoking.  But we decide we’ll make the best of it.  As we start our squat jumps a few minutes later, I hear the smoker on the phone, mentioning something about foreigners, but think nothing of it.  

Within five minutes, the supervisor appears, halting us mid-pushup.  “You can’t dance in here,” he informs us, as the men look on, a little smugly I think.  DaNi bursts out laughing as I indignantly reply, “we’re not dancing, we’re exercising!”  He seems to protest that we’re not using the weight-training equipment, to which I answer that we’re not disturbing anyone or blocking anyone from using the (few) machines.  

“This is for men, the women’s room is next door.”

“But the women’s room is currently being used.”

“Well, you haven’t bought a ticket.”  

At this point, I start laughing too.  There was no sign about a ticket and when we had run into the supervisor earlier he had suggested we use the weight room without mentioning a ticket.  But clearly he was determined to remove us from the facility so as I’m preparing my grand speech accusing them of sexism and/or xenophobia, DaNi and ShengHui yank me out of the room.  The rest of the building seems to be offices, so we find ourselves outside on a small patch of grass outside the cafeteria.  

We resume our workout, BUT two minutes later, in the middle of a set of “Crazy Ivans” (which basically meant we all resembled upside-down turtles) a security guard appears above me and announces that we can’t be on the grass.  Again, no sign, and I’ve seen plenty of people walk across the grass on campus.  But arguing is just as useless as last time so we indignantly traipse back to the dorm, laughing at how thoroughly we’ve been reminded that we don’t properly belong here.  

Maybe it would be more accurate to say that we still have a lot to learn about systems and institutions in this country, where official authority is never questioned and the rulebook is often hidden.  I still have no clue if we were actually breaking rules in the weight room or just violating the men’s sense of sacrosanct space.  Either way, most of us now stick to working out in the activity room, our bedrooms or the corridors of the dormitory, much to the surprise of our roommates.  Somehow their once-monthly jogs just don’t seem enough with all this rice we’re eating….