By Howard Schaefer
Last July my wife, Teresa taught in China for 2 weeks at Shaanxi Normal University (SNNU) in Xi’an, Shaanxi, China. Having learned about this opportunity from her friend, Victoria, Teresa was excited not only to explore China but for the opportunity to teach Chinese students in such a prestigious university. In sharing her SNNU teaching experiences with Teresa, Victoria described how her husband, who accompanied her in the prior year found the experience ‘life-changing.’
Teresa thought a ‘life-changing’ experience would be good for me. At that time, I was out of work, and Teresa wanted me to redirect my energies from simply searching for a job to fulfill a dream. Though I wanted to go, I was reluctant due to the cost and time. However, this was not the first time I was offered an opportunity to travel to China and I was intrigued by what seemed like a second chance. I was presented with the first opportunity as a 17-year-old Tai Chi student. Years later, I wondered how different my life would have been if I had traveled to China back then.
I started studying Tai Chi when I was 15, along with my older brother. I was my teachers youngest Tai Chi student. My teacher, Mr. Sidney Austin, beseeched my father to learn Tai Chi with my brother and me, stressing how good it would be for our family to learn together, in addition to the unrivaled health benefits. He offered to teach my father for free and my brother and I only needed to pay what we could afford. Such kindness. Such generosity. I learned so much from my teacher, money could never repay.
My brother and I studied diligently with Mr. Austin, 2 nights a week, and if our parents could drive us, Saturdays and Sundays too. During the summer, we frequently went to class twice a day, 4 days a week, and weekends whenever possible. As we improved our Tai Chi, we graduated into new found areas of pain.
In Mr. Austin’s school, a blackboard always included the tenet: Learn Kindness, Learn Generosity, Learn Kung-Fu. Mr. Austin had taught Kung-Fu for many years before he started studying Tai Chi with Master Jou Tsung Hwa. On Sundays, sometimes Mr. Austin would pick my brother and I up so we could study with Master Jou. Master Jou stressed a key principle, “To master Tai Chi, you know yourself.” During our 2nd year of Tai Chi, Master Jou arranged a trip to Taiwan for his students to study with Tai Chi masters. It would have taken all my savings, $5,500, to go, and at the time, I didn’t realize this would have been a small price to pay for such an insightful and personal experience.
In the years that ensued, I periodically lapsed out of and returned to Tai Chi practice many times. In retrospect, periods where I intently practiced Tai Chi corresponded with successes in creativity, learning, and performance.
As I contemplated the decision to travel with my wife, I wondered if traveling to China would put me back on the right path. Would my life be altered and how so? Each morning, at that crack of dawn, would I practice Tai Chi in a plaza with 100’s or even thousands of people? Would I start sketching and drawing? Would I know myself
With this in mind, along with a sharp drop in ticket prices, I decided to jump at the opportunity, and go to China. Upon purchasing my non-refundable ticket, I was instantly committed. In preparation for my travels, rather than planning to be a simple tourist, soaking in the sites, history, and culture, I endeavored to learn to speak Mandarin to further justify my travel. I found a few Ted Talks discussing Chinese culture, and a few more talking about rapidly learning to speak Chinese through immersion. In each of the Talks, the presenters talked about removing self-limiting boundaries and opening possibilities, as well as the honest and frank conversations they experienced with the Chinese people they met. Could I learn to speak Chinese? Could I learn to be frank and honest with myself? Could I exceed my boundaries?
For a few weeks, before we left, I started learning to speak Chinese. Luckily my library had an MP3 course in Mandarin, otherwise, I may have learned Cantonese instead. I completed 15 half hour lessons before we left for China. While in China, I found it a little difficult communicating in Chinese with my limited vocabulary. Luckily, I rarely had to rely on my minimal Mandarin speaking skills, as the Chinese people and I usually innovated some means of communication. Whenever we were unsure of our path, inevitably a kind stranger directed us on our journey, usually in English, but always understood.
In China, I was never able to get up early enough to beat the summer heat and practice Tai Chi. To my surprise, I never actually saw anyone practicing Tai Chi. Maybe my Tai Chi opportunities all occurred whilst I slept? I also anticipated sketching and drawing more and though we visited a few galleries in Xi’an exhibiting calligraphy, I only picked up a brush to draw in our final days in Beijing. I was first prompted by retirees. I watched the retirees practicing their calligraphy on cement patios in a park, using water as their medium, applied with long sponge-tipped brushes. Later that night, in another part of Beijing, an artist asked my wife and I to visit his studio/gallery. We were so tired after our earlier exhausting summertime trip to Badaling to see the Great Wall of China, but we acquiesced due to my artistic curiosity. Our artist host, upon learning that I previously studied art, set up brush and ink, inviting me to draw. I sketched the artist, and with a brush stroke, another obstacle was removed from my path.
In nearly all my interactions with the Chinese people in China, with or without verbal language, I felt I achieved a level of understanding. Maybe being juxtaposed in a completely foreign setting befitted me, requiring me to slow down, and capture each moment. This realization resonated with a lesson I learned from my Tai Chi teachers. Tai Chi is practiced slowly, thus enabling consideration of many possibilities. My Chinese travel experience taught me to contemplate the possibilities and to know myself.