Students Training Diary – Matthew Week 1
Graduating high school usually comes paired with two major things in a boy’s life: becoming an adult and going to college. You can imagine all of this would be quite intimidating and scary for a young boy (now man) but the scariest part of all of this for me was the fear of being boring like everyone else. Everyone seems to think that there is this path set in stone and that if you don’t follow that set path, you haven’t any chance for success when this closed-minded way of thinking couldn’t be any further from the truth. Sadly not too many people understand that so it is easy to be pressured into doing what everyone deems acceptable but if you let go of all that fear of judgment, you can start to envision your path more clearly, and take that first step.
So, it was July 2014, I had just graduated high school and was mindfully and reluctantly following that set path that I had previously mentioned. I was reluctant to follow through with my admission to the University of California for a few reasons. Mainly, I was scared of going from being king of the school at my little high school in the suburbs of San Francisco to being a little fish in a big pond at the university. Petty, I know, but it was a legitimate fear that stuck in the back of my mind for weeks. Another reason for my hesitation was that I was absolutely terrified of being like everyone else. Everyone in college is unique in the same ways and all that uniqueness gets lost in all of the sameness and I just didn’t want to be a part of that.
To celebrate my good friend, Kristine’s 19th birthday, we all went out to dinner and then a few of us went back to her house to hang around and converse and whatnot. Everyone except for me and my friend/workout partner/bro, Lucas, was discussing how scared and excited they were for college. It was exactly that type of conversation that I did not want to be a part of so I sat out. Lucas didn’t have much to contribute either as he was not planning on attending a university. Eventually the conversation shifted to him and we all asked what he planned on doing after the summer was over. He sounded unsure but he said he’d probably end up going to the local community college but he went on to talk about how he wanted to explore and get some life experience. We’ve talked about this before but never seriously. Until that night. Something about that night made that conversation serious for the first time. We really bought into all the ideas that we were throwing out. It was then and there that we decided to go out on a limb and into the world and experience life to the fullest as human beings as young as us hardly ever get the chance to do. We were serious about it. I suspended my commitment to attend the University of California one year and started t o look for opportunities to make the most of the time that I had. After some research, we came across this great organization called WWOOF (Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms) and that’s what we decided on. Deciding on China was a little random as we just did it because of our lack of knowledge of the culture. It was an especially tantalizing destination for me because of my status as an American-born Chinese who knows absolutely nothing about his heritage. My mother was full Chinese but she passed away when I was only two-years old so I never really got to know her. So I figured taking a journey to China and immersing myself in the culture would make up a little for never getting to know it through my mother.
After about four months of planning and preparation and patience, we finally embarked on our voyage to the mystic east. We had three stops planned on our journey: Hong Kong, Shanghai, and finally Middle Kingdom Martial Arts School in Tai’an. We weren’t really sure what to expect but we were certain that it would be interesting and humbling experience. We were not wrong. It’s safe to say that I’ve learned more about life in this last month than I would have in two years if I had just stayed back in California. I’ve experienced what it’s like to protest with the people of Hong Kong, to live by myself, to do manual labor, to work in construction, to do farm work, to live off the land, and to be surrounded by people who I never would have met had I not decided to take this trip. I never would have experienced any of these things had I not come here. It’s ridiculous for me to think about how much experience has been compacted into the month that I’ve been here and I love it. I feel more worldly because of this trip. I feel like I’ve learned more about myself and I feel like I have more to offer to the world all because of what I’ve experienced so far in China and I have one more month here, at Middle Kingdom, to experience even more of what China has to offer.
The Shanghai to Beijing high speed rail map. Our route was from Shanghai to Tai'an City.
Day 1 - 1st November 2014
I woke up at 6:45 at the house that we were staying at in Shanghai. I got dressed quickly and went to wake up Lucas. We walked over to the farm at which we were currently volunteering only to find out that we had the day off. Lucas immediately crawled back into his bed while I got out my journal and decided to write a few letters to some friends back home. At about 9, the boss came in the room and told us to not be late for our train to Tai’an. I was confused as hell. We weren’t supposed to leave for Tai’an until the 6th. Turns out there was a miscommunication that was left unnoticed until the very final moment possible: they accidentally bought our train tickets for the 1st and we didn’t bother to check. Even worse, they already promised our rooms to a new set of volunteers so we had to go to Tai’an that day but we weren’t expected yet. It was a stressful day for everyone. Luckily, I was able to get in touch with Luke over here at Middle Kingdom and explained our situation and luckily for us the school was understanding and accommodating enough to allow us to come a few days before we were scheduled to arrive.
It was my first time riding high speed rail and we arrived in Tai’an after three and a half hours. We were greeted at the train station by Luke and James. We discussed everything about Middle Kingdom and our experienced so far in China on our way to the school.
They were cool guys. James didn’t talk too much, presumably because his English isn’t perfect, but Luke was pretty funny and was the one that showed us around the place and to our chalets.The school grounds were very interesting with the rustic feel and the trees. Especially since it was night time and memories of old horror movies lingered in my mind.
I have to say, I was pleasantly surprised when Luke gave us a tour of the place. The pool and ping pong tables made me happy, and it was nice to quickly see everyone in the chill out room watching movies, but I was ecstatic over the weight room. I had been yearning to get back into a weight room since beginning this trip and I was so happy to finally have the opportunity to lift again. We couldn't do a full tour since it was dark and time for bed so Luke told us breakfast at 7:30 and wished us a good night.
Day 2 - 2nd November 2014
We were lucky enough to arrive on a Saturday night with Sunday being a rest day so we got to spend our first full day at Middle Kingdom just getting acquainted with the grounds and the Masters and the fellow students. I misheard Luke as telling us that breakfast was at 7 instead of 7:30 so I was up early for nothing. I decided to explore the grounds myself despite the fact that it was what I would call freezing. It was all so beautifully calming in a way. It was all very peaceful. Everything felt crisp and brisk and seeing the steam coming off the fish pond was oddly beautiful in way. I ascended the ladder and enjoyed the view from the roof as the sun peaked up from the mountains. It was a gorgeous sight.
When I came back down, I ran into this Asian-looking woman who greeted me with a British accent. She introduced herself as Meely. She was quite quick with her responses and we had a nice little, amusing conversation. It was nice meeting another person who looks Chinese but isn’t actually from here. She invited me to come stretch with her so, having nothing better to do, I did. While we were stretching, I met Tabitha (a Canadian Chinese）and Claudia (from Switzerland). They were students at the nearby university who come to Middle Kingdom to train on the weekends. I went on to meet Israel, a rather quite fellow from Australia, and Jorge, a loud and proud Mexican. Never in my life have I ever been a part of a more diverse circle of people and it felt great. We all lead exceptionally different lives and our paths probably never would have crossed had we not decided to come here. It honestly feels like a crazy family and I love it.
We all spent the day just hanging around, talking, getting to know each other, walking around, and we even watched Casablanca together. It was great and I never even thought I’d get that experience coming here when it’s actually the best part of it all.
Shaolin Master Leo (sorry Master Liu!) and Lucas during our morning training session.
Day 3 - 3rd November 2014
My first real day here. I forced myself out of bed at 6:25AM to make it to the front of the dojo for the morning tai chi class. When I got there I found everyone just standing there, freezing to death. Then I realized that they were locked out because Lucas accidentally put the lock on the doors incorrectly and so there was no way to fit the key in to unlock it. I can always count on him to make a great first impression. It was honestly hilarious, though, and we all had a good laugh about it. We did our tai chi class in another room while others sorted out the problem of getting the doors open.
To be completely straightforward, I’ve always had mixed feelings about the art of tai chi. On one hand, I respect those who can do it and find it peaceful and meditative, on the other, I’ve always found it a little too slow and boring for my taste. After actually being in the class with Master Wong and learning an actual routine, I can honestly say that I’ve learned that I am now one of those people who find tai chi relaxing and meditative. And there’s just something about doing it in the morning when everything feels so crisp that just adds to it all.
After tai chi, we had breakfast and then separated into our respective disciplines. Luke suggested Shaolin kung fu for us since we’re young, athletic guys and we didn’t object since we didn’t know anything about kung fu, really. All my experience with martial arts before Middle Kingdom was tae kwon do which I studied for about ten years but didn’t retain all that much. We got put with Master Leo, a pretty young looking guy and we knew we were in for a workout. I haven’t been able to determine yet whether he’s trying to kill us or get us into the best shapes of our lives. Maybe both. I really enjoy finally getting a chance to work out again, though. I’ve fallen to the temptations of foreign food over this trip and that coupled with the lack of exercise really showed in how difficult Master Leo’s workouts were for me. The conditioning he put us through was brilliant. Brutal but brilliant, they were workouts we’d never do anywhere else. He had me and Lucas get in a wheelbarrow and run the other around the campus.
He then proceeded to teach us some basic moves and it was all pretty funny. Master Leo doesn’t speak much English but he’s a funny guy from what I can pick up. Definitely a character. That night over dinner, Lucas and I suggested that we all play a game of BS together and everyone was down for it so we set up in the dojo after dinner and played for two hours, I think it was. It was so much fun (or, as we’d say in San Francisco, “hella fun”). We were honestly probably laughing more than we were playing but that was fine by us. I especially didn’t mind since I was able to win 7 out of the 10 games we got through. #champ
Day 4 - 4th November 2014
Getting out of bed was a little difficult this morning as I stayed up a little late last night writing a letter to send back home but I was able to muster the willpower to get myself to my feet and over to the dojo. I think we actually managed to impress Master Wong with our quick learning. We were able to commit everything he’s taught us so far to memory by some miracle of god. There was this really cool scene of Luke and Master Wong doing tai chi next to one & another as the sunrise was visible through the window behind them. It was really a Kodak moment. After tai chi, we had breakfast and then we separated again. Master Leo put us through some hard conditioning and stretching again. Though, to be fair, it is our fault for being out of shape and inflexible. Master Leo is clearly determined to change those two thing s. Today our translator arrived. The only reason she wasn’t there the day prior was because of our unexpectedly early arrival. Leo had us do some more crazy stuff with the wheel barrow. I’m starting to think that it’s his favorite training tool. He had us do some wild variant of a Russian twist with the wheelbarrow over our heads to work out our abs. If I don’t have my six pack back by the time I return home, the only excuse I ’ll have is too blame the great food over here because I really can’t control my gluttonous ways at mealtimes.
The food here really is great, though. The dumplings and sweet potato dishes are my favorites. Especially this great candied sweet potato dessert thing they had for us the other day. God, I was in heaven. The food here is reasonably healthy but the caveat is that it’s delicious and overeating is a legitimate concern so beware or face the loss of our gains.
Day 5 - 5th November 2014
Getting out of bed was another challenge this morning. I’ve really got to stop staying up late doing nothing. But I got myself up and over to the dojo for tai chi and Master Wong taught us a few more steps to add to our form. I think we’ve got it down pretty well. He doesn’t correct us as much anymore, at least.
Lucas informed me that he had caught something and was feeling really under the weather. I told him to sit out class today but he was too stubborn to listen. Master Leo put us through the daily strenuous dose of hell. Word of advice: if you choose to go with an extremely physically demanding program, make sure you have what it takes to survive it... Learn from me, I don’t want my death from exercise to be in vain. At least I’ll look good at my funeral.
Master Leo had us strengthen our legs and our upper bodies today. Thankfully the wheelbarrow had mysteriously gone missing. Probably god having mercy on us. I spent the break time we had chatting with the translator. She’s very nice and really interested in American culture. Poor girl has been studying English for over 15 years and has never been out of China. When Master Leo called us back to class, we worked on some kicking. He doesn’t speak much English but he seems to love the phrase, “More power!” I hear it about 30 times a day. He kept emphasizing the importance of exploding and using your entire body to generate the necessary power to strike. I fear I haven’t learned enough about the concept of chi to fully grasp what he’s trying to tell me but he said he’ll start to teach us more about it soon.
I’ve always been a skeptic when it came to stuff like chi but Tabitha (who is studying traditional Chinese medicine at the nearby university) shared a rather eye-opening point of view with me on my first day here. When I mentioned how I didn’t really believe in all that stuff because it didn’t have all that much scientific backing, she told me about how it’s more of an experiential thing and if I keep thinking in the way I am without opening my mind to the ideas, my ears to the experiences of others, and allowing myself to experience it for myself, I will just hold myself back and will never truly be able to understand the benefits of what so many have learned to take advantage of and utilize to its full potential.
After lunch, I took a walk by myself to the nearby village with a Frank Ocean album blasting through my headphones. I passed by a herd of children who had just survived another day of elementary school and I bought some snacks from my favorite little shop. The lady who owns the store is really nice and seems to love people from Middle Kingdom. Probably because we buy from her so much. I ran into a little puppy on the way back and squatted down for a bit to play with it. There was honestly a 50/50 shot of me taking it back to the school until its owner popped up and showed me some of the tricks the pup knew. It feels really good knowing that the villagers are good people because sometimes China can feel a little sketchy as I’ve learned from my experience in Shanghai but these people all smile back and wave and it just feels safe around here.
Day 6 - 6th November 2014
Morning tai chi was exceptionally relaxing this morning. Lucas’s stomach virus got worse as I had predicted and he elected to stay in bed all day and recover. I was able to focus on the form Master Wong had been teaching me and learn the last few steps. I have this problem where I rush through it too quickly and he never hesitates to tell me to slow down and relax and focus on what I should be focusing on. I was honestly a bit terrified to be in class with Master Leo (who I just found out is actually Master Liu and I’ve been embarrassingly mispronouncing his name this whole time) alone but it was actually the best session I’ve had. He worked me hard again but we got to do some pretty fun workouts, in my opinion. We worked on punching today and we used weights to assist us in that pursuit. My shoulders are pretty wrecked right now from the exercises but they’ll heal and they’ll be stronger when they do. We also finally got to hit the weight room. Now I weight train every day back home but this was some different stuff, man. Sets of 50 lat pull downs and jumping squats with plates on the bar!? Now I’m certain this dude is trying to make me the fittest dead guy out there.
In the break between classes, my family called me and it was the first time I had spoken to them (or anyone back home in California, for that matter) in weeks. I got a little too absorbed in the call telling them about how crazy my experience over here has been and was a few minutes late to class. When I got there, I apologized to Master Liu for my tardiness and explained why and he was kind enough to not only excuse my tardiness but also allow me to go back to talk to my family. Man, great guy. I’m really thankful for that.
The Lucas & Meely Snickers Showdown...
Day 7 - 7th November 2014
I really love the new tai chi moves that Master Wong taught me this morning. They flow so beautifully and the motions just make me feel really chilled out. Class with Master Liu today was pretty fun. I had Lucas back with me and it really wasn’t anything too bad. We’re getting stronger and faster. The push-ups on the stairs are becoming much less challenging and the stretches are becoming easier to perform. He also showed us this new movement to warm us up that was really cool to me because it resembled the types of moves performed by the air benders in this cartoon I used to watch when I was a kid that was majorly influenced my martial arts so I was joking about that quite a bit. Master Liu is a really funny dude. His English is extremely limited but man, he’s getting there. He’ll probably be fluent by the time we leave. He was comparing some of our moves to Michael Jackson’s dance moves and I think he got a little carried away dancing. So we unintentionally took a little break to laugh and continued. I’m really starting to wrap my head around the techniques he’s teaching us. Especially the idea of using your whole body to generate power. I’ve started to relate it to throwing mechanics in football where you similarly generate power with your legs and let the motion flow to your arms. I’ve still got a long way but I’m really optimistic about my improvement.
Since Meely had an exam today, we all got to be her audience. She was quite impressive. Master Liu helped her a bit with the swords and, man, I really never want to get on his bad side. Especially if he for some reason has a sword. After Meely was finished, Master Liu and Luke were messing around trying to do some acrobatics and they’re attempts were hilarious. I really really love the family atmosphere we have here. I’ve only known these people a week and I feel as comfortable around them as I do my family back home.
After we all finished, Meely walked up to Lucas and reminded him of the deal they made the second day we were here. Meely gave him a Snickers bar and told him that he could have it if he earned it. Well, apparently to earn that candy bar from a week ago, he had to box Meely. Master Wong was the ref and I was really rolling on the ground laughing. She really was getting head shots in on that boy. If she wanted to, she could have put him to sleep at any time. Ah, it was great. For everyone except Lucas, of course. Poor kid. Hope that Snickers was worth it.