Prior to this blog, I’ve written two short stories which I sent by email to my friends, to let them know about this new martial adventure I was undertaking.
It started with the tale of my first Tai Chi retreat, in October 2010, to which many responded with enthusiasm and interest. As I decided to get more training, I went back to Master Fu’s school in January 2011, and with that second stay came along “Episode 2”. The idea of creating this blog was born just a few days ago, when I decided there would be an “Episode 3” and probably more…
For those who did not receive those two tales, I’m reproducing them here.
Inner Peace and Tai Chi Retreat in Yangshuo – November 2, 2010
As some of you know already, there have been some tremendous changes in my life for the past couple of weeks: quitting my job to jump into the exciting but scary adventure of becoming a full time writer, being kicked out from my lovely apartment by my witchy landlord (but fortunately having guardian angel friends who generously offered me a shelter), and deciding to go for another adventure: a Tai Chi retreat in Yangshuo (Guangxi province, in the south of China). The latter will be the main topic of today’s story.
Every time I go on a trip, the entire world seems to conspire to bring me the best things and to put them on my way. I always come back recharged, fully energized, with lots of hope and love for nature, fate, the humankind, whatever there is in this world that makes life such a wonderful journey. And this time was no exception.
But let’s begin with the beginning!
For that trip in Guangxi province, the plan was to do one week of sightseeing, hiking and trekking, and one week of Tai Chi retreat in one of the most reputable schools in China.
The sightseeing part is always great: getting lost in the countryside, not being able to understand the local dialect and accent, being scared off by dogs coming out of nowhere, falling down in the dark night because, for the nth time, I forgot to bring along a torch… The real face of Beautiful China!
During my trip, like always, I got to meet other backpackers, most of them foreigners. Talking to them, I was reminded of that one question that really bugs me. Today, I’d like to ask for your help. Probably some of you will be able to bring me an answer…
I’ve always been taken aback when I hear foreigners exclaiming about a touristic place in China: “It was packed with Chinese people everywhere!” Here’s my question: What do you mean behind that simple statement? Do you mean you were surprised to find so many people? That you wished you were alone? Then, why saying “packed with Chinese people” and not just “with people”? Are you annoyed, surprised, to find so many Chinese in China? Would it have been different if the place was packed with foreigners? Do not see any sarcasm in my question. I just want to understand what’s behind because I realized that, personally, I never say “It was packed with Chinese people”, but instead, “It was packed with tourists and some of them were annoying.” Probably because I’m myself one of those “Chinese”.
What a perfect transition to tell you about something else I got to realize during my trip:
After almost 6 years in China, I still don’t know what to answer when people ask me “Where are you from?”
Scenario 1: asked by a Chinese local
– Chinese guy: Where are you from?
– Me: I’m from Shanghai (instead of “I’m from France”, to avoid being asked “But how come you look Chinese?” and then having to explain the whole family history)
– Chinese guy: Oh, but how come your accent sounds like Cantonese and not Shanghainese?
– Me: Because my roots are Cantonese.
– Chinese guy: Oh, so you speak Cantonese?
– Me: Not exactly, we didn’t speak Cantonese at home.
– Chinese guy: Oh, but how come? That’s weird.
– Me: (damn! I’m screwed, gotta tell the whole family history anyways).
Scenario 2: still asked by a Chinese local
– Chinese guy: Where are you from?
– Me: I’m French of Chinese origins.
– Chinese guy: Oh, so you were born in France?
– Me: Not exactly, I was born in Thailand.
– Chinese guy: Oh, but I thought you said you were Chinese?
– Me: Yes, my parents are overseas Chinese born in Cambodia.
– Chinese guy (slightly confused): Chinese? Thai? Cambodian?
– Me: (damn! I’m screwed, gotta tell the whole family history anyways).
Scenario 3: asked by a foreigner
– Foreigner guy: Where are you from?
– Me: I’m from France.
– Foreigner guy: Do you speak Chinese? (Hmm, I’ve always wondered why that question always comes next… I’ve never heard any foreigner asking another foreigner “Do you speak Chinese?” as a second introductory question. Is it because, from my looks, there must necessarily be a Chinese part that the guy needs to find out, otherwise he doesn’t feel comfortable talking about anything else?)
– Me: Yes, I do speak Chinese.
– Foreigner guy: Oh cool. So you grew up in France?
– Me: Yeah… (Come on! Is it so hard to believe?)
Scenario 4: me being the only customer with Chinese looks in an international guesthouse
– Foreigner guy: Where’s the restroom?
– Me: I don’t work here.
– Foreigner guy: Oh sorry!
Okay, enough of my double culture inner conflict and anecdotes! Back to the main topic now.
After a few days of relaxing wandering around the stunning Karst landscapes of Yangshuo and its surrounding areas, I finally decided it was time to go and check in Master Fu’s Tai Chi and Kungfu School, located in a small village outside Yangshuo. Master Fu, a short but impressively imposing guy in his forties, is one of the four best disciples of Grandmaster Chen Zhenglei, one of the top ten most famous Wushu Masters of our time.
People with interest towards Chinese martial arts, but also students with several years of experience, and even Tai Chi teachers who are looking to refine their practice, come from all over the world to train at Master Fu’s school. It’s open to everyone, even to people like me who are just trying to escape the daily life’s boredom by jumping into the most eccentric experiences and who don’t know better than to make impulsive decisions.
So I got to the school on a beautiful sunny day and the guy in charge on that day looked like a schoolboy who seemed pretty scared of girls. I gave him right away the whole speech: “I’m French, Chinese origins. Grandparents from Canton, moved to Cambodia when Japanese invaded China in the 1930s. Parents born in Cambodia, escaped civil war. Myself born in the camps at the Thai frontier. Ended up seeking refuge in France, and now live in China”. I thought by telling him the entire story before he even gets the chance to ask, it’d break the ice. Well, I was wrong. The guy rolled his eyes and responded: “And now you’re in Yangshuo and you want to learn Tai Chi, huh?” LOL. I gave him my brightest smile, but still, it didn’t help the guy to ease up. Well, I just needed to wait for another couple of hours: as soon as he started to do his Tai Chi moves, he was definitely no longer a schoolboy, but one of those impressive warriors you would see in kungfu movies. And I was no longer a weirdo from God-knows-where, but one of his humble students.
The life at the school is one of a warm community. Each day is organized around the Tai Chi classes: 5 hours/day, morning and afternoon. Delicious meals cooked with love by a talented Chef, sharply scheduled at 8am, 12pm, 6pm.
I wake up every morning at 6am. Not difficult when you’ve been sound asleep since 10pm. While insomnia has been my loyal companion for the past 12 years, we broke up at soon as I stepped into the school.
I start the day with my favorite activity: writing. A lot. Within 10 days, I consumed 2 notebooks and 4 pens. I knew that peaceful environment would help me to reconnect with my creativity.
Then at 7am, I go watch the Chinese boys, who are also our instructors, practicing. You should see their graceful movements, their powerful kicks, the expression on their faces. So beautiful, so intense.
Then time for breakfast. One of my favorite moments of the day. It’s like family time, when everybody meets again after a good night of rest. Meals are privileged moments during which we share experiences, knowledge, stories, jokes, all coming from different backgrounds.
During my stay at the school, the other residents that I have the chance to meet form like a microcosm of the kindest people on earth:
A lovely Slovenian couple in their fifties (and in an amazingly good shape); a very warm Canadian man who knows how to make you believe in your own abilities; a British guy with a distinguished style, so typical of the Englishmen; a strong but clumsy, adorable, Spanish guy in his sixties with the busiest agenda; the King of flexibility and of the best jokes from Israel; and a very cool Swiss couple doing a round-the-world trip on their bicycle, with whom I immediately clicked. All of them so friendly, kind, healthy and with strong ethical values. Obviously good people who spontaneously opened their arms to welcome me and make me feel at home.
And of course, the Chinese crew. Master Fu, Lao Si (Master Fu’s nephew, the guy who was at the front desk when I checked in), and 3 Chinese instructors in their early twenties, training to become masters. As I was a total newbie in Tai Chi, I was given my own private instructor: Ah Qiao.
Ah Qiao is a young Chinese guy who grew up in a humble environment that did not offer much opportunities for him to broaden his horizon and not much hope in a bright future. At age 23, he decided to refuse the “promotion” that his company was offering him (to move from factory work to office work), and quitted to come to the school and learn Tai Chi. He’s now dreaming of soon being able to make a living as a Tai Chi Master. The boys train 365 days/year, 6 hours/day. Their school fees consist in being in charge of the housekeeping and maintenance of the school, cooking for us when the Chef takes a leave, entertaining the annoying residents like me who keep asking questions about everything.
Ah Qiao is this shy guy, but with that determined look in his eyes that says: “I’ll get there. And better sooner than later.” He has this eagerness to learn whatever there is to be learnt, to discover as much as it is possible for him to discover. I cannot remember when was the last time I met someone as sweet and as touching as Ah Qiao. Touchingly simple, amazingly generous with all his heart. As the days passed by, a real friendship grew between us. I feel grateful I got to meet him, someone whose true kindness makes you want to believe that everything is not lost in this world when it comes to genuineness.
Okay, about Tai Chi now. What I got to learn during the classes and with Ah Qiao.
Tai Chi is that martial art that has been popularized by images of old Chinese people practicing flowing movements in parks. Practicing Tai Chi allows you to exercise your body by relaxing it. How paradoxical, isn’t it?
By coordinating movements which flow smoothly and gracefully into each other, the practice of Tai Chi stimulates your internal energy (referred to as “qi”, which means “air” in Chinese). When you practice Tai Chi, your consciousness, breathing, and actions are all closely connected. Tai Chi uses coordination and relaxation, rather than muscular tension, in order to neutralize your opponent or to initiate attacks. It stimulates the body and calms the mind, bringing an overall sense of well-being, while having a positive effect on personal growth and physical fitness. We could also describe Tai Chi as an art that resulted from many Chinese philosophical principles, including the yin and the yang, combined with the science of traditional Chinese medicine such as acupuncture.
It was fascinating to notice, day after day, the tremendous effects on my body and my consciousness, of what was only a week of intense training.
Day 1: Getting a taste of what that martial art is. Like some of you may have, I’ve often seen Chinese people in parks doing Tai Chi and I’ve always thought: “This looks easy !” Well, let me tell you something: it’s not ! All those flowing movements are not random or just aesthetic. They all have a purpose or a meaning, whether it is to help your “qi” circulate or to attack your opponent. I started to learn the basics on that day and, again, I confirm that what seems the easiest movement is definitely not easy.
Day 2: Waking up in the morning with pain in my legs. My instructor tells me it’s normal, it’s because I still haven’t find my “kua fang song” (literally, “relax the hips”), which is one of the basic posture of Tai Chi. I’ll try to describe what it is: basically, it’s a standing posture, but with the hips opened (to let the “qi” circulate) and the knees bent a little bit. The whole thing feels and looks like you are about to sit on a chair. And you need to keep that posture during your whole practice, while making your movements. You’re not supposed to stand up, NEVER, not as long as you’re not done with the whole sequence (which can take 15 minutes, or even more, I’m not so sure). I told you: looks easy, not easy!
Day 3: Waking up and feeling that somebody during the night exchanged my body for a block of concrete. Uuugh… How am I gonna climb down the 10 steps that separate me from the dining room and my breakfast? That third day is horrible. During the class, I suffer a lot because of my every single muscle feeling sore, because I can’t focus since my body is screaming to me to stop torturing him, because after already 10 hours of lessons, I still can’t memorize the sequence. I’m getting impatient and angry at myself. I think I can’t do it and I even consider giving up. That night, I make an appointment for a massage and this is when the weirdest thing happens… As soon as the wonderful massage girl is done relieving my body from its tension, I start to have big fever. Out of nowhere. Cold. Hot. Sweat. Cold. Hot. Sweat. Horrible night.
Day 4: I wake up and I still feel a bit dizzy from the previous night fever. I decide I’ll attend the class and see how I feel. As soon as we start doing the warm-up moves, I have that very strange physical feeling: it is like a flow, doing all kinds of funny stuff to the different parts of my body, moving around as if to catch the last bits of tiredness and to finally chase them out of me. After half an hour, I feel “refreshed”. No more fever, no more tension, no more pain, neither in my body or my mind. I do my 2.5 hours Tai Chi practice without any problem. All of a sudden, the movements and postures are much easier and I realize that I’ve finally memorized the sequence! I tell the Master about that weird phenomenon, he explains that my “qi” was probably stuck and the first 3 days of practice helped stimulate it. The massage must have finished unblocking it, liberating all the bad “qi” (the yang, as opposed to the good “qi”: the yin). That certainly explains why I felt amazingly good during that morning, and why I could finally integrate the moves and reproduce them (let’s not forget my hard work either!).
Day 5: I wake up and I feel brand new. Not a single trace of any soreness. I feel like I can fly. I start to really enjoy my practice. My improvements suddenly grow very fast. I’ve also become quite close to my instructor. We are serious when it’s time to focus, and we keep laughing when it’s fun and relaxing time. I feel great, I feel at home, I feel at peace. I feel like I want to spend the rest of my life here. And this is basically how the rest of the days will pass by until I’ll have to leave.
Sunday is the only off of the week. During that day, lovely instructors drove lazy Christine to all the beautiful scenic spots around Yangshuo by motorbike, so that I didn’t need to cycle. We went fishing, BBQing, they taught and showed me all kinds of stuff that the city girl I am has no clue about. We talked, we laughed, we kept silent and just enjoyed the scenery. Everything felt so natural and so comfortable.
It’s funny to realize how our society creates all kinds of artificial needs that make us the prisoners of our own material world. My stay at the kungfu school showed me how, in fact, our vital needs consist in the least. Happiness is not in how much you can spend and how much you possess, but in what lies within your inner self and in your own ability to see it, expand it, share it with other people. It was not even hard to go back to the essential and get rid of the superficial. It was just natural.
I left the school and my classmates while they were starting a new morning class. I left with the image of their concentrated looks. I left with tears in my eyes and so much gratitude in my heart.
I still can’t get rid of my bad habit of questioning my life choices, even though every decision I make, I do it from the deepest core of my instuition, as if there was no other way. But with the Tai Chi retreat, my instuition proved right once again. Before going, I knew it will probably bring about a big turn in my life. And it did.
I’m going back to the school in a couple of weeks and this time, I’ll stay for 2 months approximately. Then who knows what’s going to happen next?… The “qi” will tell!
Tai Chi Retreat – Episode 2 – January 20, 2011
I’m writing from the Tai Chi school where I’ve been back since last Friday. As you know, my first retreat was such an amazing experience, a landmark in my spiritual development, that I decided to come back for a new and longer stay. And after my Tai Chi skills saved me from being robbed by a pickpocket in Shanghai on New Year’s Eve, I just couldn’t wait to get more of that martial art training.
Upon my arrival, my instructor offered to come to the bus station to pick me up with his motorbike, but I decided to take that 40-min walk to the school in spite of the rain. I wanted to feel the excitement of getting closer and closer to the school, I wanted to recall all those beautiful memories from my previous stay while walking on this path which I took once, thinking of the person I was before I passed the school gate for the first time, and of the new person I’ve become after a week of training and of learning so much about my inner self.
The moment I stepped into the school again, I immediately felt like being back home. The place, the scent, the atmosphere, the small details, the familiar faces, even the rooster which sings at whatever hour of the day, and above all, the feeling of peace. Everybody stopped training to come and greet me, but I begged them not to: the sight of the Chinese instructors’ graceful moves put me in total awe. My admiration for their mastery of Tai Chi and kungfu hasn’t changed a bit.
It was a great surprise to find that the Swiss couple I got along so well with last time was still here. They love the school and the training so much that they feel stuck and don’t want to leave anymore. This time, the feeling of being part of this small family is even stronger, because it’s only us, the Swiss couple and me, and the Chinese crew: Master Fu and his “boys”.
Training last time was tough because I had everything to learn. Training this time is like struggling every minute to stay alive, because of the cold. OMG. In addition to being a Tai Chi student, I’ve also become a cold-fighting student. Wherever you go, it’s so freezing cold that you almost feel like there’s a blizzard blowing inside your body. In the training area, in the lobby, in the dining room, in the TV room, in the bedroom, in the bathroom, under the blanket… there’s nowhere to hide. The cold is everywhere, all the time. It takes much tenacity not to runaway from this place. Outdoors, where we spend most of our time, it’s -1°C to 4°C. Indoors, it’s 6°C with AC running at maximum speed and temperature. But thank god, the boys are full of creativity when it comes to fighting the cold. They come out with all kinds of tips you would never think of.
Tip #1: The only way to keep you warm is to keep moving. So training is no longer 5 hours per day now, but rather 6 to 7 hours. We also train at night. After that, because it’s still so cold, we start playing all kinds of stupid games like hide-and-seek or blind man’s stuff (colin-maillard in French). You may think this is regressing, but I can tell you there’s nothing like laughing and the magic of being back to childhood to warm you up.
Tip #2: When it’s so cold that you’re shaking too much to remain seated or to hold chopsticks, start your meal with a bowl of soup (preferably served in an iron container because it will help to unfreeze your icy fingers) and get used to the standing position while eating.
Tip #3: When taking a shower, start by washing your head and arms and finish with your back. Why? Simply because that way, you can start drying your arms, rubbing them with a towel, while hot water is still running on your back, thus keeping your body warm.
Tip #4: Make excessive use of those Chinese medecine patches (膏葯 gao1 yao4) all over your body. Not only do they work wonders for muscular pain, they also produce a burning effect, so bad that it makes you think “I’d rather go for the cold.” Seriously.
Tip #5: When my instructor is driving me to the city on his motorbike and the wind is blowing me off, the tip is to put my hands in his pockets. This helps to keep us both steady and warm. Must be a Tai Chi-chemistry reaction, a kind of fusion of our “qi”, or something like that…
And so on.
Today was my 5th day of training, and when I woke up this morning, I was horrified to discover that my body was already a complete wreck. With intense Tai Chi training in an extreme cold, you get to become conscious of muscles (and pain) that you would never imagine you have. Somebody has to explain to me how laughing can make me feel pain in the arms…
Morning class: after 40 minutes of miserable attempt at waking up my body and mind (it takes that long to either warm up or to get so frozen that you no longer feel the cold), I had to admit I needed a break. So I asked Master Fu for a morning leave. In the afternoon, the millions of pains and the soreness were still killing me, but come on, I’m no softie. This is what I was trying to convince myself of. A more powerful motivation to push myself out of bed and go to class is the special bond I have with my instructor Ah Qiao. I am so glad that the connection we have has remained intact. Whenever I train with him, I feel like I’m on another planet. The world of zen. When I’m losing patience and start to be angry at myself because I’m too tired or cold and can’t get the move right, he manages to calm me down with few words or just his benevolent look. Not only has he the unique ability to bring me back to peace and focus, Ah Qiao also has the most beautiful soul I’ve ever got to meet. Sometimes, just looking at him, I’m being so touched that I’m about to cry.
This time, because there are few students, I also get Master Fu to teach me, which is quite a privilege since he normally only trains people with advanced level. With him, I really get the meaning of what it is to learn the hard way: for several hours (which seem ages) a day, Master Fu would correct my posture by replacing every part of my body, and then I have to hold the position until I memorize it… Wasn’t I supposed to keep moving in order to avoid freezing to death? But today, my hard work to improve my Tai Chi and cold-fighting skills have been rewarded: I received my first positive feedback from Master Fu. He said I had a beautiful Tai Chi style. Yay ! It’s also very heartening for myself to see that I’m progressing every day.
Spirituality-wise, the development is not as tremendous as it was last time. In comparison to my first stay which was everyday intense in terms of internal reaction and changes, this time my body and mind decided to be more focused on the technical and physical aspects. I guess the cold doesn’t help to meditate and to turn to the inner self. But I do love the technique too. I find it fascinating to learn how Tai Chi has two different applications: if done right, each move can help relax your whole body, and at the same time, knock your opponent down. I’ll show you one day if you ever try to mess up with me. Gniark gniark.
Sometimes at night, we gather in the smallest room of the school. Everybody in 10sqm in order to keep us warm. Or we make a fire in the courtyard and everybody sits around. Even the kids, Master Fu’s son and niece, come and join us. And like this, we squeeze against each other, we talk, we joke, we play, we live in the moment, we enjoy the beauty of simplicity and serenity. Last night, Master Fu told us the story of his boys. How each of them came to see him a few years ago and asked for his training and mentoring. Master Fu said that sometimes he had been reluctant to accept a disciple, being doubtful about the boy’s potential. But for the 6 of them, now the instructors of this school, he said that after giving them a hell of a hard time for a whole month, he could only acknowledge their fierce determination. This, all these small but precious moments, the talks and the emotions shared, I would say, is the spiritual part of my stay. It really makes you think. I’m convinced that going back to more simplicity and authenticity is the way to happiness and to a more meaningful life.
Having said that, I hope you did enjoy every single word of this email, because then I can say it was worth having my fingers turning into little ice cubes!
See you soon in a warmer place!