It’s hot in Cambridge, Massachusetts right now. The same kind of damp heat that I have grown to love at times…like while sitting in front of a steaming bowl of rice in a back-alley restaurant in Kunming waiting for the first plate yusheng qiezi to hit the table. Over the past few weeks, similar thoughts have taken me back to China in a déjà-vu kind of way. The best thing is, it has been the seemingly less memorable moments that have hit me the hardest, like the early morning silence in a rural village apart from the percussion of a dedicated farmer gathering his tools for another day’s work among the mountainous landscape or the taste of an evening cup of tea by Green Lake in Kunming and the song played gently on the bamboo flute somewhere in the distance. While these memories slowly creep into my head I am beginning to realize how excited I am to explore new places and all their distinct sensations with each and every one of you. After all, a steaming bowl of rice is best shared at a full table of other smiling and hungry faces.
When did you become interested in China? For me, it happened before I even knew it. During the fall of a year-off after high school, I was getting ready to travel to Southeast Asia with a group very much like our own. Perhaps, like many of you, I had never been to any part of Asia before. After two months of anything from venturing into Thai jungles on elephants to watching the sun rise over Angkor Wat in Cambodia, I was hooked. The local people I learned to say hello to and share stories with seemed to greet each day with a certain poise and presence that I had never seen or felt before. I think that’s what hit me the hardest; it was the gracefulness with which they lived and treated people who looked, smelled and sounded so different than they did. People like me. Later that year, I spent a semester surfing and studying Spanish in Spain and felt something was missing. I wanted to go back to Asia. But this time to China.
As a freshman at Middlebury College, I began taking Chinese classes. To be honest, I recall laughing out loud the first time I saw a professor write a sentence in Chinese characters on the blackboard, as if to say, “hold on, you guys want me to learn how to do that?” And the stack of flashcards that I use to study characters has been growing ever since. Beyond that first day of class, there is only one other time I can remember as vividly from my early experience with the language. After my first year of Chinese, I enrolled in Middlebury’s nine-week summer Chinese language program. Mind you, that entails nine weeks of not speaking any English. It was during that summer that Chinese became a language of my own. The language pledge that initially made for quiet dinners and what seemed more like a game of charades than Chinese school became something I cherished by the end. I learned to “live” in Chinese. And it changed me forever.
For those of you who have previous experience studying the language and for those of you who have recently made the commitment to do so with our group, I am sure we can all agree it is something we take pride in; it’s something that distinguishes us from everyone else. We are among very few Westerners who dare to dedicate themselves to learning the language and the ancient culture that it articulates. If you don’t think so yet, just wait until the first Chinese person you carry on a conversation with literally faints in amazement. One of the things I like most about returning to China each time is the opportunity to improve upon my language skills, to learn how to express myself just a little bit more clearly or appropriately than before.
Recently, I have thought a lot about the Daoist principles of yin and yang and wu-wei, both for my own life and for the time we will spend together in China. Primarily, I think it has been inspired by the times I recall the gracefulness of the people I observed during that first experience of mine in Asia. Yin and yang represent the balance of opposites, and when they are equally present, all is calm. I believe this principle can guide our journey away from home and into the unknown in China. Without the courage, confidence, and intrigue we develop at home we could never leap into the unfamiliar landscapes and culture we will soon encounter together with the same poise. Although our trip is designed to maintain this same sense of balance through travel in both urban and rural environments, as well as cultural exploration complimented by language learning, it will take our own composure, as individuals and as a group, to fully reap the rewards that await us.
I believe that embracing the Daoist principle of wu-wei will help us achieve this quality of composure. Wu-wei refers to behavior that arises from a sense of oneself as connected to others and to one's environment. Laozi, the central figure in Daoism, instructs us to be quiet and watchful, learning to listen to both our own inner voices and to the voices of our environment in a non-interfering, receptive manner. These ideals will be essential to both our group cohesion and personal experiences in China. While surrounded by a foreign culture, we will need to rise to the challenges of each day with an eagerness to understand and a deep interest to go further into and beyond the unknown. Similar to your decision to dedicate yourself to seek out the uncertainty and rewards inherent to our journey together this fall, this will take both courage and excitement. But by now, I know all of you possess these qualities.
While trying to interpret these Daoist ideas into my everyday life and stay calm amidst the daily excitement of meeting all of you soon, I will spend the next month or so planning creative ways to make this the best decision you have ever made.
Here is a quote representing the Buddhist tradition in order to maintain the sense of balance and calm mentioned above. I look forward to hearing from all of you soon. â€¨â€¨
“Just as a white summer cloud, in harmony with heaven and earth, freely floats in the blue sky from horizon to horizon, following the breath of the atmosphere — in the same way the pilgrim abandons himself to the breath of the greater life that wells up from the depth of his being and leads him beyond the farthest horizons to an aim which is already present within him, though yet hidden from his sight.” â€¨—Lama Govinda, The Way of the White Cloudsâ€¨â€¨
Nimen Hao! It’s hot in Cambridge, Massachusetts right now. The same kind of damp heat that I have grown to love at times…like while sitting in front of a steaming bowl of rice in a back-alley restaurant in Kunming waiting for the first plate yusheng qiezi to hit the table. Over the past few weeks, […]