China’s Adjustment Period

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PREFACE: This article is me trying to stand up and speak out for the “unpopular, uncool” kid in HS who suddenly becomes extremely popular and “cool”, much to the despise of the current establishment, the “rich, cool, popular” kids. In this case, the kid who all of a sudden becomes popular is China.

I have met many individuals both living in and outside of China, both Chinese and foreign, who when speaking upon the subject of China, would often incessantly indulge upon its lack of political transparency, plethora of social injustice, and the ever-mounting environmental and judicial issues. Yes. These problems do exist and sometimes are far worse and widespread than they are advertised. And No. One shouldn’t use the standard of a developed nation who has had 230+ yrs of history, no warfare on its mainland in the past 150 yrs, with a population of 300 million to judge a developing country with 60+ yrs of history, 4 major warfare on its mainland in the past century, with a population of 1.4 billion. Individuals who move into a new environment (college, new city, college to pro sports, etc.) would often need some time to get acquainted to the new settings, let alone an entire society of 1.4 billion.

And this society hasn’t really been raised under the “best situation” since Mao won the civil war and establish the People’s Republic in 1949, Chinese society has been put through a roller-coaster ride filled with ups and downs of hunger, poverty, nature disaster, and political turbulence. Soon after 1949, Mao started the 5-yr Plan followed by the Great Leap Forward, which turned out to be absolutely failures sending the already backwards China even more back in time. After that, natural disasters hit China severely for several yrs, then followed by the “Red Flood” of Mao’s own personal vendetta rampages aka the “Cultural Revolution” in the 1966-76 that literally wasted a generation’s youth while sending China back another 30 yrs in economic and agriculture development as a nation. Only after 1978 did they abandon the crazy-ass Maoist reforms under Deng Xiaoping, and thus resume the now crumbling education system with only a few universities to serve as centers of higher education. It was only since the middle 80s, when Deng’s policies of “gai ge kai fang” (economic change and openness), did China really open its doors to Capitalism and began to expand and grow as a nation, now known for its cheap labor and hard-work instead of famines and poverty (though both still pervades some areas).

It seems obvious, but look at all the bullshit that the new China has been through in the since it’s inception 60 yrs ago. Sure they are but history now, but they impacted generations before they came and went, and those scars can never be undone. It has been only 30 yrs since China has actually had a relatively stable environment to grow and prosper and look at how much has changed in such as short amount of time. When I was born, the train stations in most cities rivaled that of refugee-camps in third world countries (minus the Red cross tents), now there is an airport in every major city and most are far more extravagant  and lavish than its American counterparts.

I know what I’m saying might not be entirely accurate, but I am trying to be a nice guy, trying to speak up for the “new kid” as he adjust to his new life. All I’m saying is “give him a lil more time” and everything will get better.

Same-sex Closeness in China

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No, this is not an article about homosexuality in China.

This is a story about bros and sis, you know, those people who didn’t come from the mother as you, but somehow they just understand you so well and love you so much, that if they were to be gone you won’t want to be alive in a world without them. This is an article about those people.

After spending most of my free time observing and being a part of different schools in China, I have come to meet an interesting observation. In China, kids from the ages of elementary to high school often hangout and associate the most with kids of the same gender, this doesn’t mean that boys don’t play with girls or vise versa. It’s more that when they are free from the confines of class (when they have their own free will of choice), that these kids tend to play with kids of their same gender. You will see groups of boys all with their hands around each other walking down the street and you can see large groups of girls all holding hands walking around town as if they were like the cheetah-girls reincarnate, and this occurs very often in age groups that go up as high as 19. It is definitely not a common sight to see a young boy and a girl holding hands in public or walking together after school, the ones you do see are probably 20 or older (they just look young). It is only when one goes to college, do one observe more co-ed associations outside of class and required activities. As if all the influence of the parent’s nagging of “focus on school” and “study more” all go deaf to  these Chinese kids when they attend college at the age of 19 (national avg.), unless you are a momma’s boy, which is a popular choice among the current generation.

Contrast this to western kids, I do see more co-ed involvement starting as early as elementary school activities and developing into more social interactions between kids of different genders in middle school aka those “first crushes” or promotional dances, then materializing into actual relationships with events like prom and other little things in high school. The same cannot be said of Chinese student, where small tests in elementary schools develop same-gender study group, and bigger tests in middle school creates even stronger bonds with the same kids you studied with in elementary school, eventually materializing in huge tests in high school(where the scores will determine where you go in life) ,  this is also when students just get so into studying that they ignore human interactions in general. Ok, that might be slightly exaggerated.

But the point is the cultural difference between the seemingly more “free” and “open” West and the supposedly more “strict” and “controlled” East can be observed in the frequency of same-sex closeness and the age groups in which they occur. It’s much more interesting to see the phenomenal in person than to read about it from my choppy non-edited writing. So next time, instead of people watching in Starbucks, you should go people watching at schools, in China, and look at the same-sex closeness that would probably not occur in the US or other western societies.

But as usual, I might be wrong, about this whole thing.

What is a Sifu?

I would like to dedicate this piece to the many confused individuals/tourists/westerners/people I see randomly calling everyone they see in a monk suit a “sifu”, which in direct translation means (teacher/master/craftsman).

So who do you call a sifu? Well to be honest, it’s like the word “kungfu”. Just like how you can have “kungfu” or skill developed over time, in any art, activity, or skill. You can literally be a “sifu” in anything. In China, it is mainly directed at those who uses their hands and body to perform a certain skill, for instance, a plumber, a chef, a handyman are all referred to by the term of respect called “sifu”.

Now enter into the martial arts world and a sifu is basically someone who commands enough respect from those around him, that he has been able to have many disciples study and train under him. But nowadays, you lose this type of respect and culture due to the growing commercialized, modernized, and westernized culture, and you get people who are basically just coaches being called a “sifu”. So yes, the word has lost some of its meaning in today’s world.

So what do you call monks? well nowadays with amazon and the internet, it is very easy to get your hands on some monk robes, which means the possibility of you meeting a “not-real monk” is rather high. But if you do meet a real monk, the proper term call be “sifu” for those who are working on the pass to enlightenment, and for those already established you can call them big monk or “da heshang” or just “sifu” cause most of them would not care. Those who really care about these things, probably aren’t that “real”.

Life @ Shaolin: What I Actually Do

With the backdrop of an rapidly advancing China led its new open-minded leaders and the rise of the commercialized enterprise called “Shaolin Temple” lead by its political minded abbot Yongxin, I think it is important to talk about why I am here and what I really do.

I came to Shaolin, not because of the flashy kungfu so often wrongly portrayed as voilence in action movies, but because of the “spirit of shaolin”; it’s essence of a peaceful mind centered around three parts the chan ( Zen Meditation), wu (martial arts), and yi (Chinese herbal medicine). These are the reasons why I came to Shaolin, and these are the principles that, many say, have been neglected in preference for tourists dollars, commercial deals, and personal indulgence in the name of spreading the Shaolin name. But just because many say it isn’t here, doesn’t mean I will just pack my bags up and leave (the thought never crossed my mind), and now after months of work and working my connections, I ended up with my own version of the “Chan, Wu, Yi”.

A typical day looks a little like this:
5:30-6:30 am: Morning Prayer Class with the few monks that actually wake up early enough for this, most tend to sleep in till much later.
7:30am: Breakfast at my current residence, a flat I rented on a nearby hill just beyond the temple’s view.

9:00-12:00pm: Traditional kungfu training with my master in the mountains behind the temple, away from the swarming tourists.

12:30pm: Lunch back at my place, follow by meditation then a nap till 2:00pm.

2:30-5:30pm: Training in the mountains, sometimes we train among the thousand yr old buildings in the temple to get a bit more feel.

6:30pm: Dinner.

7:00-9:00: Tea time at my master’s tea lounge, where I meet and learn from all kinds of people from Chinese medicine experts to martial arts film directors, it is truly one of the most enriching experiences of the day, even after all the training.

9:30: Usually when I go to sleep, once a wk, I will take time to reply to all my emails, fb msg, and etc. But most nights ends in me sleeping soundly.

This happens to me Monday through Friday, sometimes I have more Zen-centered conversations with my master during training, so I have to train more on my own time, but this is a rough sketch of my life here. On Saturdays, I head down to the Shaolin Orphanage a couple miles down the mountain to spend some time with the kids, they are just the cutest, weirdest, most awesome-part of my week. I play basketball with them, teach them how to rap to Tupac songs, educate them in the art of sarcasm, occasionally some formal English classes when the head of the orphanage is looking, but en general just spreading that “Jerry Wisdom”. On Sundays, I wash my cloth and myself included, clean the uncleaned, unwrinkled the wrinkled, write the unwritten, blog the un-blogged, and check usually send a call to my mother telling her that I am still alive and well and that I hope she knows how lucky and unlucky she is to be living in Amurica.

Surely, I did not expect to experience 90% of the troubles I have met so far, but life has a way of circling back to where it begins, so eventually I did end up with the Shaolin spirit of (chan, wu, yi), just in my own unplanned, unexpected, and unique way. And I made a whole bunch of friends along the ways, who are all in some way connected to my past.

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In China, learning is moral; in US, cognitive

For Chinese families, Education is the emperor. Education is like respecting your ancestors. Education is Morality. No matter where you are in the world, as long as you are of the Chinese heritage, you must have seen/heard/tasted/smell/experienced a snippet of this during your early days of moral education (unless you have misfit parents like mine). Your parents might say “oh, you know the killing is no good, stealing no good, lying definitely no good”. But what is good? “Oh you know, the honesty is good, humility is good, but if you can’t do those two at least get good grades and straight As, understand?” Alright, that might been slightly exaggerated to an effect, but you get the point. The activity of Learning in the Chinese culture is not only a choice of whether to increase one’s knowledge and cognitive capacities (like it is in the West), but also a choice of being morally righteous or not.

But things weren’t always this way. China had a plethora of schools of thought during the period of/before the warring states, and people learned simply because they wanted to or had an intellectual question that they wanted an answer to. Then this dude, later named Confucius came along and had this whole “Confucianism” ideas along with his own “entourage” comprised of students, friends and family. And it was great, it was a new school of thought and added to the selection pool from which the rulers of each state would select his central principle to guide his policies. Flash forward 1,000 yr to the Song Dynasty, when some crazy-ass Education Minister named “Mr. Zhu” decided that it was too time-consuming to deal with so much variance in opinion and it might confuse the students to have more options in terms of education, so after some thought, he decided to select a few collection of writings (9 to be exact) and put it all under the umbrella of Confucianism and just shove it at all the aspiring young Chinese students. What of the other schools of thought? Well, most were politely banned until it got too tedious so he ended up burning the rest of the “variety of opinions”, so no one would end up being Confused by so many different opinions and it would create harmony. This was the first major act of standardized education in the history of China, and it forever altered d the educational landscape of China and deprived those who came after it (us and all the other Chinese students who lived since that point in history) of the opportunity and resources to re-create the Renaissance-like learning environment of Old China, which happened 2,000 years before their European counterparts.

Anyways, the main idea is that education’s role in the Chinese culture wasn’t always like it is now, and learning wasn’t also a moral issue. This cultural trend took time and many stimulus along the way to develop and catch-on, just like any other cultural practice. So it is a “safe bet” to assume when you meet a fellow Asian student, that their family probably values education somewhat A LOT, hell I mean they are in college, with you. But it is also a nice and considerate thing to probably read and research a little of how that cultural significance came to be, just a thought.

Things mentioned in the article above might not be entirely accurate, since I wasn’t alive to see all of the events unfold. But to be honest, who was?

A New Breed of “Monks”

Long story short, a long long time ago, like 495 AD during the Northern Wei Dynasty when the Shaolin Temple was first built, there was only one kind of monk, the monk. These monks read scriptures, had prayers in the morning, and spent most of their time sitting down with a scroll in front of them (similar to the hard-working modern desktop cubicle fanatics). So as a result, they had similar problems to those who sit in front of their laptop all day; back pains, shoulder issues, flabby skin, weak physical health, and lethargic attitudes. A few yrs later, an Indian monk named Damo came to the temple and saw this, and he thought to himself “nah man, if y’all ain’t even physically fit, how can y’all carry out the road to enlightenment and spread the practices of Buddhism with passion and diligence.”  So he decided to teach them meditative physical exercises similar to yoga, which concentrates on breathing and increasing the internal movements within your body, this combined with the physical labors of farming and cleaning the temple helped the monk greatly. As the centuries went on, it slowly developed into two groups of monks who both studied Buddhism, but one spends more time dealing with the scholarly and the academic called the Wen Sen, and the other group spends more time keeping their bodies strong and fit to protect the safety of the temple from bandits, called the Wu Sen.

And those have been the two groups of monks ever since, until recently. Nowadays, there’s a new breed of monks in town called the performance monks or the Biao-yan Sen. These people are more actors and super-skilled martial artists than actual monks, most of them don’t even have deep connections with the Shaolin Temple.  But the deceptive part of this for tourists and non-insiders is that these performance monks  dresses the same and has the same bald head as all the other real monks, and when they partake in activities such as drinking “gatorade”, consuming large amounts of red protein,  going to KTVs and nightclubs, spending time with beautiful woman (materialistic activities that they have the right to partake in), it often sheds a bad light on the temple and the name of Shaolin. This is not to say that ALL the real monks don’t partake in these activities as well, some do, but at least they are very discrete and private about it and won’t do it within the vicinity of the respected temple. Most of these performance monks start out in small private martial arts schools all over the country or in Deng Feng, and after a few yrs of fundamentals, the super-skilled and athletically gifted ones with connection to people around/in the temple,  are brought to Shaolin to try-out for the performance team, if they make it, they will practice and eventually travel the world and perform with real martial monks and fellow secular but “I am really good at martial arts and acting, so I made the team” counterparts like themselves, but to the foreign eye they are all monks.

The reason for the creation of this new breed of “monks” is the exponentially expanding popularity of Shaolin kungfu that just took off the late 1980s and is still going strong today. Skilled martial monks are scarce in numbers to begin with, and as the demand for more performances, shows, and martial arts schools increase all around the world, so does the demand for more martial monks. But skilled martial monks, well-educated in the culture and history of Shaolin, aren’t made in a year or even years. So to supply the demand for all these newly needed bodies, the Shaolin temple used it’s allure of a “better life” with opportunities to go overseas and perform to attract the athletically skilled and mentally tough and  hardworking young men of rural China, who through martial arts are seeking not only a better life for themselves but also for their families back home. With the influx of the new performances monks, Shaolin has been able to spread its influence all over the world today from Europe to Australia, South America to Singapore, it is literally everywhere. Before this “Shaolin Fever”, neither kungfu nor Buddhism has attracted this much popularity in this many places around the world at this rate, it has truly helped to spread the Shaolin culture and sell the Shaolin Franchise as one of the most well-ran associations in the world, right up there with the NBA and the NFL (without the unions and the lockouts). And this is how we come to have a new breed of monks, and there is really nothing wrong with it, China has got to catch up and adjust to the world, and so does Shaolin. That is a fact. The End.

PS: Please note that what I write is purely my opinion and a projection of what I perceive to be the truth; a collection of fragmented personal observations, blurry interviews, and self-connected dots. So seriously, take this with a grain of salt, as you should with all things written by people with a mind of their own.

Happiness in A Sieve

Preface: I haven’t really wrote about Buddhism on this blog, but it is also a big component of my time here. This is a little snippet about it.

One of the most important “goal” in Mahayana Buddhism is to escape from the continuum of the Six Realms of Existence (God, Titans, Ghosts, Hell, Animal, and Human), in street lingo, when your ass dies your soul leaves your current body and enters another realm where you will live again in another body as a different being, and this all depends on your “street cred” in the current life, so if you did lots of good shit in this life, you will live well in the next life, if you did lots of shady stuff you will have to suffer in the next life, if you really didn’t do much, then you follow the natural order and continue to not do much, in the next life.

So how do you escape this never-ending cycle? There are countless ways and each individual needs to attain enlightenment through personal expressions of insights from Buddhism teaching, basically you can’t just read them books, you also have to actually go out and do things and through personal experience, obtain knowledge that is purely original to you. Kinda like research in college, or not. One of the main doctrines in this quest for enlightenment is understanding that “Happiness lies in a Sieve” (pls don’t confuse this with Nectar in a Sieve, different audience, different meaning). No matter how happy you feel at the moment or throughout your life, it is ephemeral as it is literally slipping through a sieve as we are speaking. Sadness also lies in a sieve, it too slips gently through the holes without a moment of rest. What this means to the Buddhist trying to gain enlightenment is that “emotions” are just products of our thoughts meant to trick us into feeling a certain way or reacting in a specific manner, the tricking begins with the mind and ends with the body and our actions. What regular normal folks can learn from this, is that we can’t place too much weight on things in life, lighten up a bit, don’t stress too much on things, if things don’t go our way “oh well then, no biggie”, if things do go our way “oh well then, no biggie”. You know this makes sense, cause people nowadays can be a little “exaggerated”, and over time that exaggeration becomes a habit and it becomes real.

Now why do we need to escape this continuous cycle of the 6 realms? Well you don’t need to, no one will force you, and you will live a perfectly awesome life without doing so. That’s the chill part about Buddhism is there ain’t nobody telling you to believe this or that, or this is the ultimate truth, this is the creator, this is why we are created, this is what you have to do. No, there ain’t none of that. They has something called “yuanfen” which is basically similar to Swiss psychologist Carl Jung’s concept of synchronicity, it literally means that what we experience and do in this life is influence by our actions in all of our previous lives. And only when the time is right, the person is willing,  and the “yuanfen” there, may you be on the pass to learning Buddhism.

Personally, there are still way too many awesome things in this life that I haven’t experienced or learned (you know what I am saying?), so I ain’t really interested in enlightenment at the moment, but maybe when I am older and have seen this world, maybe then will the “yuanfen” be there and the timing be right.