*I didn’t take my laptop with me to Shaolin Temple (biggest regret) so this is an entry from last Tuesday (June 7)
My fingers are the only part of my body that isn’t sore.
Today was our second day of learning kungfu at the famous Shaolin Temple. I am here on the HBA social study trip, which acts as sort of break between the two semesters we cover here. All students have the opportunity to experience a different facet of Chinese culture on this week-long trip: of the options including inner-Mongolia, Shanghai, and Huizhou (hiking up Yellow Mountain), I decided to enroll at one of the oldest kungfu schools in China. This is an amazing opportunity to learn the traditional Chinese art and to gain a better understanding of Buddhism.
On Friday, right after our midterm exam, the Shaolin Temple group set off on our journey via high-speed train to Zhengzhou. The first thing I felt as our bus rolled onto the campus were eyes. We had 11 females on the trip (including two teachers), and nine of us were foreigners. We couldn’t be more othered. It was fascinating to experience this mutual curiosity between us and the students: we all looked at the Chinese boys in their identical red and black uniforms wondering how they could all look so alike, while they blatantly stared at us as if we were the most alien people they had ever seen. We were just simply so not-them. An African American student from Long Island named Xiao Bao that I befriended today told me that even after three years, the Chinese students still come up to him to ask for pictures.
On Saturday, we got an early start with a morning run—at 5:30 am. Here at Shaolin Temple, a regular day of training starts with a run at 5:30 and includes seven hours of training in total. In these last few days, we have all been so exhausted that we fall asleep at 10 pm and nap whenever we’re not training. Getting up in the morning isn’t generally a problem for me, but my body has been so sore from training it has been physically refusing to move. Our daily runs are my favorite part of training though: they help me loosen up my body and wake myself up. The air is so fresh, and the campus is so quiet in the morning.
After our run on Saturday, we went to the actual Shaolin Temple (because we are studying at a school in the temple’s vicinity). Afterwards, we climbed Song Shan Mountain for five hours. I’ve decided I don’t like hiking in China because it is literally just endless stairs. We basically climbed up stairs for three hours and then came down stairs for two. The scenery and the breeze at the top of the mountain were beautiful, but I honestly wouldn’t do it again.
That night around 10 pm, as tired as I was, I put on my new kungfu uniform (just like the boys!) and explored the campus with my friends Rachel and Alex. We had planned to watch a movie, but the Internet was so slow we couldn’t bear the buffering. From our window, we discovered that the students were gathered outside having their own movie night! So we decided to join them as inconspicuously as possible. In the dark, we explored the campus, found fruit stands (a true luxury!), and watched some of students practicing kungfu in the yard.
Sunday was our first day of full training, and it was difficult, especially after Saturday’s hike. That night, we watched the performance group, and I befriended a little girl who just arrived at the school this week for the summer. She is a 12-year-old girl but looks nine, and she was so nervous about starting her first day on Monday. I hope I see her around; I want to hear about her experiences.
Our itinerary was set so that we have kungfu every other day. On Monday, we went to see Buddhist temples and then went to a nearby neighborhood to interview the country locals. We sat down with three households in front of their homes and had casual conversation. Most of them were old couples. Just as our textbook said, the country doesn’t have many middle-aged people because they often go to the city to find work. Talking to these people, I was very surprised to see how starkly different the country life is from the city one. I knew that there were differences, but I didn’t realize that the majority of the countryside has no constant interaction with neighboring cities and modern developments. I asked one of the elderly men how and how often he keeps in contact with his children. He said that when they need something, they call their children who bring supplies to them. They themselves rarely leave the countryside.
Across the three interviews, I noticed two interesting attitudes. The first is that all of the country people we talked to seem to believe that leaving the countryside is the only way to improve one’s quality of life. The one middle-aged man we spoke to wished this upon his children, and the elderly all had already sent their children to bigger cities. Why is there this sense of stagnation and hopelessness in the countryside? Thinking back, it could be that the village we were in is particularly poor and underdeveloped, so this kind of notion exists.
The second mentality I noted is that all of our interviewees were filled with a sort of tired practicality. This could be just because they were old, but they seemed to disregard all the frivolous things in life and focus only on living day-by day. One man told us that he did not send his children to Shaolin Temple because learning kungfu is useless. Another told us that he could sum up his life in one sentence: Meiyou qian (I have no money).
Yesterday’s interview experience was the first time I had ever been to the countryside in Asia. I have been to more underdeveloped areas in Nicaragua and Mexico before, but what startled me about the Chinese countryside was the poverty relative to other parts of the very same country. To me, one of the best aspects of travel is applying observations from the foreign country to my own home. Seeing such a stark wealth disparity in China reminded me of the very same social issue that plagues America.