Travel Journals - China - 1991

excerpt from China Pennywalk

My Tai Chi Master

Man performing Tai Chi

Its 6 A. M., not quite light, streets misty, Xians waking up. People are scattered over the broad sidewalks, swinging their arms, stretching, doing tai chi, sliding into their personal exercise routines. A man behind me walks fast and rhythmically, chanting ahhhhhhhh, joggers and walkers dominate the bicycle lanes. How many millions of people all over Asia are doing this now?

I join a group, and after a while the leader, a balding man in his 50's, chin hinting at a beard, ready smile, steps aside to give an old man and me a private lesson. At first just the feet, the positioning, the distance between, the shifting of weight, soon we're expanding to the hands and arms, the movement of the hips. He's expecting me to remember a lot, as if I'd trained my mind by learning the Chinese language. I won't let on that I'm exhausted. Finally he indicates that I should watch, and he performs a slow and graceful tai chi routine, glances at his watch, and rushes away.

That was yesterday. This morning I wondered how he'd feel if I reappeared. As soon as I arrived he broke away from the group to teach the old man and me, several women in their 60's joining in. Afterwards they all wanted to know my age, were fascinated that I'm fifty, were frustrated that I couldn't talk to them. Somehow I didn't mind. I felt calm and relaxed, enjoyed their spirit, their friendliness untarnished by words.

At 6:30 A. M. the sweepers are out in force, billowing dust as they drag their straw brooms over streets and broad sidewalks. Trucks wet down the roads each day; the dust is still out of control.

Keeping my eyes half-closed, I strode through the dust to my usual tai chi spot. Again my teacher stepped out of the group, four others joining in. I really like that man, like his glow when he smiles, can see how much he cares about the people around him, how much they care about him. He exaggerates his gestures and uses mime, hoping I'll understand his explanations. Part of me wishes we could communicate; part says maybe it's lucky we can't. With no words, I know that his interest is only to teach me without asking for anything more, and that seems rare in Xian, where tourists are fair game.

I got into the elevator, but it wasn't working properly, was suspended by a thin string similar to the broken clotheslines in our bathroom at the Renmin Dacha. I ended up on the top floor of my son's dormitory. I wanted to unpack for him but his suitcase contained only plastic bags. I noticed a slight fire in his mattress which I quickly put out. I guess it was still smoldering, for a few minutes later the mattress burst into flames. I yelled for help, a useless thing to do in China. Someone did come, but the mattress had disappeared. I forgot it had been thrown down the stairwell, as Primo Levi, survivor of Aushwitz, threw himself down a stairwell this week. The woman who'd been sleeping on the mattress was Chinese. Though she looked normal, I knew she had to be smoldering inside, had to be, after lying on a burning mattress. She danced around lithely, back straight, knees bent, like a Chinese dancer in the NUTCRACKER SUITE, claiming over and over that if she kept on dancing, the air currents would put the fire out.

Then Adolph sneezed.

I remember that dream because of a sneeze at 6 A. M. We're both allergic to this room. I dressed, went downstairs, hotel still dark. I almost tripped on two employees sleeping on the floor.

Grey day, warm, dusty, the first sound I hear is straw sweeping dry pavement in the distance. Joggers walkers runners bikers, limber men and women do little dances with their swords or sticks or brooms on a sidewalk as broad as the Shorewood Pool is long, everyone dressed in loose clothing, relaxed, each perfecting his own technique or helping to perfect someone else's. I cross the street, bicycle traffic heavy, no cars. My teacher sees me, says Ah in the special way the Chinese say Ah, long and abrupt. He steps out of the group, the women smile at me, then the instruction begins. This time there are twelve of us.

I try to internalize the movement, legs hips arms working together, try to make it automatic and flowing rather than merely rote. Whether or not I'm succeeding, it feels right. This hour each morning is my most moving experience in China... Damn, a cockroach is crawling on my pen. There's hardly anything in this room that doesn't have one crawling. I drink my water in the dark at night, knowing I'm taking a chance.

Words can cover up as much as they expose. I'm sensing the essence of the man teaching me tai chi, picking up signs from the tone of his voice, the look in his eyes, his laugh, his body language, his relationship with others. He's doing the same with me. Though we'd see the drastic differences in viewpoint, which clearly fascinate me, the things we do see now would fade under words. As a blind person uses his ears, I'm word-deaf and using my eyes. If I did tai chi, then went back and spent the day in my room, which I might do today, that would suffice.

"Thank you for making my mornings so special." I had only a minute to inscribe a copy of my book, MEMORANDANCE, for my tai chi teacher, and he wrote me a quick note. Then he placed his hands in prayer position, bowed slightly, and disappeared like Cinderella as he does at 7:30 every morning.

I don't know his name nor have I tried to find out. And all we've said is Ah, and Ah hah. I don't know his profession nor if he's very wise. What I do know is the movements he teaches are in tune with the way I move, his smile in tune with mine. When I look back on China, it will be my relationship to him that I'll value most.

Four years later.

I got up dark and early to search for Mr. Ma, my tai chi master. Now that I have my son Eli as interpreter, I wonder if I'll be disappointed.

I walked onto the still-gloomy street, already filled with work-bound bikers. No one was doing tai chi. Maybe they don't in winter, though it was in the upper thirties, warmer than Milwaukee. Some solitary men were stretching in a strip of park. Hundreds of people filled the main square. I did tai chi with about fifty men and women near the spot where I used to follow Mr. Ma. No sign of him, though. Afterwards I wandered around, looking for his gentle face, his balding head, his lithe body moving with grace and assurance and joy.

At least a hundred couples were ballroom dancing, another large group had taken up swords. I joined some people who moved in tandem to a rock beat, just the kind of music that inspires me to make up my own steps. Several glances told me improvisation isn't big in Xian, so I left and continued to look for Mr. Ma. I circled the square twice, then returned to the hotel

Mr. Ma wrote his business address on the letter he gave me four years ago. So Eli and I went to his office this morning, handed someone the letter, and indicated that we wanted to locate Mr. Ma. His colleagues took turns reading his offer to teach me tai chi, and I hoped it wasn't subversive. Or embarrassing. Finally someone phoned to notify him we were there. Then everyone gathered around to talk with us as we waited. There was none of the fear of being seen with foreigners that I expected in post-Tiananmen China.

Finally in came Mr. Ma. I was startled to see how much he'd aged. He was still energetic, and now that he had the chance to talk to me, he couldn't stop. He launched into a speech about teaching me tai chi, an ancient version, not written down, different routines for every age and every illness, he's studied it since 1970. I was fascinated by the expressiveness of his face. Even when I more or less know what he's talking about, something about him moves me.

Mr. Ma got time off from his employer to come over at 8 A. M. to begin my lessons. For me, meeting people like him is what travel's all about.

Mr. Ma no longer does his tai chi near the Renmin. His work unit moved to the city's outskirts, which meant he moved too, or he'd have no place to live. He now bikes several kilometers into town every morning. There's still almost no private ownership of cars in China. This country will be unlivable when that happens. And so, I suspect, will the earth.

Eight o'clock came and went, and I worried that the hotel management had refused to let him in. Then Mr. Ma knocked. He looked younger today, more like his summer self.

Though it was raw and raining, we went outside for more space and better light. I photographed his positions as he dictated relevant notes to Eli. Until he noticed I was shivering.

I was concerned about his getting to work on time; he was more interested in having me look up a certain Buddhist monk in San Francisco. People come from all over to study with this monk. Though I told him I live a couple of thousand miles away, he gave me a letter and reproductions of religious paintings for the monk, to be certain he'd take me on as a student. Eli finally got so aggravated he began to translate in very simple terms, "He's talking about the monk again." I gave Mr. Ma another copy of MEMORANDANCE since a friend had taken the one I gave him last time. He's anxious to introduce us to some artists

Mr. Ma brought three friends to visit us today. A clerk telephoned from the hotel's front desk and awkwardly said, "Uh, there are some locals here to see you." I knew the staff would wonder about Mr. Ma, especially since he always wears his Mao jacket. He's a working man, not a businessman.

"Yes, I'm expecting them," I replied.

One of Mr. Ma's friends was an artist around sixty years old. He brought photos of his paintings, which imitated every style in the history of Chinese art. Mr. Ma gave us two original paintings, awful, and the photos. They expect me to sell the work in the States. I told them I can't even sell my own.

The artist's lovely daughter also came. Perhaps she hoped to escape China by marrying Eli. The third friend was a cook who wants to invest in Eli's bar and move to Hainan with him.

Mr. Ma was supposed to come yesterday to teach me tai chi, and he did show up. He brought the artist's daughter who brought her paintings for me to critique, which I was glad to do. She tried to give me one, and I told her she needed it to work from. I wish everyone would stop giving me things to carry back. I don't like luggage, especially with strings attached.

Mr. Ma did a little tai chi and talked a lot about that Buddhist monk in San Francisco. Mr. Ma has all sorts of expectations from his tai chi. He says you sleep better and have no dreams, I didn't tell him I love dreams. You don't catch cold, your mind's clearer. He says that eventually I'll be able to hold certain positions for several hours at a time.

Eli says Mr. Ma is more interested in doing business than in teaching me tai chi. I know he sees us as a way out of the system, and he's probably never before had any hope. His enforced move was to worse, not better, conditions. Without contacts and without money for bribes, no one has mobility. So Mr. Ma lives in a dream world where Buddhism tends to his body and soul, the Buddhist monk in San Francisco tends to mine, his artist friend becomes famous in America, the daughter marries Eli, Mr. Potential Investor cooks in the potential bar, and we all do business and get rich.

Eli asked if I'm disappointed, and I said no, then realized I might be. Yet I can't blame the man for his dreams.

Mr. Ma and his gang stayed late the first time they visited, so I'd suggested they have supper with us. Though I hadn't extended a rain check, they said they'd do it on Monday night instead. And today is Monday. When Mr. Ma was here yesterday, he asked whether we were paying for the dinner in dollars or tourist money or renminbi, and he offered to set up the meal somewhere ahead of time so we wouldn't be cheated. Eli told him we can take care of ourselves, and mentioned that we'd spent only two yuan on lunch. That's less than forty cents. We each had a bowl of homemade noodles in the produce market.

Eli says Mr. Ma is making a big deal out of this dinner. I said he'd probably never been invited out like that before.

Mr. Ma suggested a nearby restaurant owned by a friend of his. On the way there, he kept saying that he would have liked to treat us, but there isn't enough time.

Mr. Ma frequently eats at this place, it turned out. In fact he sat at the next table with the owner and the menu, and he ordered eight dishes plus soup for the six of us. We'd glimpsed the menu and had an idea of the price range, which was reasonable. Though I repeatedly told him no, once the food came Mr. Ma kept shoveling portions onto my plate, as if he were the host. Finally I grabbed the serving spoon and served him as he'd been serving me. Everyone laughed each time I did it. And that solved the problem.

As we ate, Eli and I had a little conversation in English, unintelligible to the others, about the size of the check. He figured 75 yuan, I figured 85 at most. Neither of us figured 114 yuan. Neither did Mr. Ma's friends. When he announced the tab, there was a shocked silence.

You'd think he would have been more careful of the price. After all, Mr. Ma wants to do business, his friend wants to invest, the artist wants sales, the daughter wants some art lessons, the restaurant owner wants our friends to be his customers. I imagine they thought we'd consider 114 yuan, $20, cheap. In the States it would be.

Actually, I do like Mr. Ma's gang. If they didn't have such blatant agendas, I'd enjoy them more. I guess blatant is better than hidden.

I took a walk in Xian yesterday, enjoying my meander as I tried to figure out where to have dinner. Well of course! We should eat once again at Mr. Ma's favorite restaurant.

The owner was delighted. He immediately handed us several copies of his card. Then Eli examined the menu and asked him to point out the tofu we'd had the night before so we could order it again. Three and a half yuan, Eli muttered to me. He asked what chicken we'd eaten. It was so delicious he wanted to memorize the characters. Nineteen yuan, he told me. And what excellent fish, which one was that? Ah hah. Eighteen yuan. Chicken and fish were the only big-ticket items, so we knew the check could never have come to 114 yuan. Maybe they were double portions, we conjectured, and we waited with great curiosity to see our plate of tofu. It was the same size as the preceding night. We had tofu, peanut chicken, rice, and tea; the check was 17 yuan. Eli found a mistake and got it down to fifteen. Then he said, "Isn't it strange that tonight it's so cheap and last night it was so expensive." I was enjoying this immensely.

While an embarrassed waitress stood outside the door to save face for the owner, Eli sat down with him and the menu and went over last night's dinner, giving him the benefit of every doubt, like ten bowls of rice when we knew there'd been only seven. Even so, the owner couldn't get the bill to add up to more than 90 yuan, which means it should have been around 75.

I thought Eli was very kind. He simply paid for our second meal and said good-bye. He figured we'd made our point.

Now I'm left with the question, did I misjudge Mr. Ma when we couldn't communicate with words? Or did I see something in him that his words, and actions, cover? He'd been anxious to teach me tai chi four years ago, though he had nothing to gain, except perhaps a convert. Of course he must have had a secret hope that one day I'd return with an interpreter. This society is based on doing favors and getting favors in return. Mr. Ma did all he could for his friends, including the restaurant owner, and not including me.

Yet there was a moment in our hotel room when he paused during his chatter to demonstrate tai chi, and I remembered it was his enthusiasm, his love for what he was doing, that drew me to him. And still does.


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