Edge to the Whetstone

A blog of ten thousand hours.

Category: 2012 Travels in Asia

November 11, 2012 Sunday in Guangzhou

It started to seem like old China – anything not apartment houses that housed each a division of people, and dozens of them, all anonymous, all alike; or neon imitations of vermillion arches, materialism gone so rampant it was all-enveloping – was gone, bulldozed under, buried. Then what you did see – a beggar playing a one-string viol in pentatonic melodies, plaintive – its upright support another crippled begging human; an old man squatting between two rattan paniers piled with fruit, suspended from a pole, as painted on silk screens: these things would break your heart. But China has been breaking the hearts of foreigners for thousands of years, and is unlikely to stop any time soon.

The Toaist temple reeks of disrepair and shabbiness, some odd cross of piety – a lovely Quanyin, impressively fierce stone lions with loose round spheres in their mouths holding down paper money offerings, superstition, and tourism. It’s fairly evident the place has undergone a hasty rehabilitation after years of abuse and neglect. Equipment and oddments litter corners, and a small staff of determined monks seem to be holding on to tradition by their fingernails.

November 18, 2012: Steamers – the ancient microwave

Anyone familiar with Asian cooking knows the ubiquitous steamer basket. While also made in steel (as one sees at dim sum restaurants), the traditional model is a round bamboo basket with open slats at the bottom. These stack neatly over a pot with water for steaming – a wok works well – and are topped off with a tightly woven rattan lid. In a street market in Guangzhou, I saw steamer baskets 2 feet or more across, stacked up 12 layers, at a dim sum stall.

Steaming is used as an alternate cooking method for crescent-shaped shoumai dumplings (which can be fried as well), and as a method for bao – fluffy bread prepared plain or with egg, red bean, vegetable, or meat fillings (these can also be baked). My mother favored steaming whole, cleaned fish in wine – sliding slivers of scallion and ginger under slits in the skin.  When I was young I didn’t appreciate its subtle flavors, but now this exceptionally healthy, fast, and elegant preparation resonates.

But I digress.  Here was the problem: my hotel room in Xiamen offered a selection from the usual assortment of amenities for a slightly nice hotel in China, including a tea kettle but of course no microwave. I had leftover small bean buns from our visit to the Southern Shoalin. I hadn’t wanted to see them wasted after our wonderful vegetarian meal (I still dream of the millet fritters and the hot ginger soup with tapioca pearls). You may say, “Why not just eat the bao cold?” but being about 24 hours old, they’d become a little dry, and when possible, I enjoy a hot breakfast. So here’s the method I employed:

1) Impale a bun on a chopstick (always travel with a humble pair of bamboo chopsticks), so the bun is about halfway up the stick.
2) Put about an inch of water in the electric kettle.
3) Put the chopstick with the bun into the kettle, carefully ensuring the bun is well above water level. This ensures your bun does not become a sodden mess, while making a sticky lump in the kettle as well. The chopstick may extend out of the kettle – this is okay.
4) Turn on the kettle so the water boils and steams the bun. A few minutes should do it – don’t over-steam (sodden mess alert).
5) Take out the bun and enjoy. Mine was hot and fluffy – better than when reheated in a microwave. And my water was hot for coffee or tea.

There you have it – a free 2-Yuan breakfast in bed!
Note that you could do something similar at home if you were reheating a bun or two and didn’t want to get out the steamer basket (or don’t own one). But I don’t think this would work with frozen Bao.

“Chingrish:” Introduction to the Luoyang Great Dragon Hotel



Introduction to the Luoyang Great Dragon Hotel

Ah, Chingrish.  One of our intrepid otomo and native guides remarked, “That’s even a little weird in Chinese. Overdecorated. Baroque?”

“The lobby of the hotel is the place you enjoy the best quality tea, coffee, wine and cocktails. Which makes you happy rest time.”

And who could resist: “Comfortable, Warmth, Luxury, personal butler. Showing guest lofty position?”  Sign me up!

In all fairness, I continue to work on learning spoken Mandarin while commuting to work and driving back and forth to the dojo. It’s a personal goal to teach an Aikido class entirely in Mandarin when I (hopefully) return to China.  I am quite sure that making some unintentionally funny remarks during the course of that class is an inevitable risk, but as with the Introduction to the Luoyang Great Dragon Hotel (which really is a great name, and it was a very comfortable hotel), sometimes it’s the effort and the thought that counts.

Or as the Great Dragon’s international marketing specialist puts it, “The Great Dragon Hotel, with the utmost respect, nuanced, Ambassador courtesy, plays the newest cadenza for you!”

Thursday, November 15: Arcologies

After visiting Shaolin Tzu.
Traveling by bus to our night’s lodging, out the bus window rank on rank of identical highrise apartment buildings recede into a gloomy distance. Cranes everywhere – where are all the people to come from?  No beauty in the architecture, the effect is chilling, warehouses  for people. Perhaps it’s excellent practice for living in spaceships, these anonymous arcologies.

What would communities in in these places be like? Are there any? Do people go slightly crazy, packed so densely into identical dwellings, all on top of each other? Or do they create tiny, self-contained worlds of beauty to sustain themselves?

In a few years when the construction decays, what happens? One sees the predecessors of the new generations’ construction, rusting balconies, random afteribuild air conditioners, wire vines, shanty markets, piles of discarded materials and assorted junk in corners.

When in doubt, more neon, preferably crawling colors.
Is such a concentration of people a virtue, or a terrible problem?

November 10, 2012: Northern Shaolin

Driving up the mountain towards the Northern Shaolin, you progress past a series of what look like large hotels, each with a large, flat courtyard – like a large parking lot – in front. The courtyards are filled with square formations of red track-suited figures doing calisthenics or martial arts forms. It looks a bit like a kung fu movie featuring the army of an evil overlord, with no projectile or explosive weapons in sight.

Tour-bus parking, inevitable multiple gift shops. and seating for tired guests along a straight, paved path past a large square practice ground (more track-suited figures doing calisthenics) and a sign: http://www.shaolintraining.com. There’s a show with an announcer (an over-amplified lady in a short, tight skirt and sarcastic delivery), weapons with wobbly aluminum blades, music, and fancy lights. We are, collectively, underwhelmed. The acrobatics are impressive, but there’s no extension in the strikes or cuts.

In the gift shop, though, there’s a very serious monk at the feet of a lovely Quanyin statue, who blesses each of us with a bead bound with a red thread to our left wrists, and a small jade laughing Buddha. We continue up the path to the temple itself. A young monk in a long grey robe manning the ticket turnstile shadow-boxes through a form while awaiting the next visitor. Here we find an ancient tree planted by the monastery’s first abbot, and steeles with memorials to their Shaolin saviors from long-dead emperors. Through hall after hall, in what we  come to understand as the classical Chinese fashion, linear and square, Confucianism laid out in architecture, we progress to the practice hall itself, high-ceilinged for long pole-arms, the floor pitted by centuries of form-practice, huge round pillars, sketches of daily life that are  said to change each decade. The sense of martial heritage here is palpable.

On the way back to the bus, we stop to observe the training grounds. Practice here looks rigorous enough – running, hopping, leaping, katas. And yet, so little seems the true echo of a fighting art. We walk away a little saddened. There appear to be no women practicing here, either – not that we expected any. Through the gauntlet of identical gift shops, back to the bus.

November 11, 2012: The Guangzhou Seminar

The seminar was held in the university’s echoing, cavernous gymnasium, where puzzle mats were laid out. There were 51 attendees, including 12 Aikikai participants from Macau and a local Aikikai dojo, in addition to the Wadokai students from Guangzhou (who were also our indispensable interpreters). After warmups, Sensei showed Sayunage from a wrist grab. Shihan Chad showed the “Sinawali” punch drill, and then Sensei followed up with Iriminage. Shihan Sonny showed Kubinage (if I remember right). I showed Tenshinage off a punch from Shihan Franklin. It was great to have guys from the local dojo running up to bow in and work with me. They said I explained things well, a welcome piece of positive feedback, given the language barrier.

Shihan Sonny took this picture:
Iriminage Guangzhou

It’s always a bit of a challenge remembering everything that happens at a seminar, when you’re participating. I get caught up in the waza (that is, the technique) and the great energy of it, and then am really tired at the end and it’s a bit of a blur.  Then, years later, I’ll be sitting in church (this mostly seems to happen when I’m sitting in church, although it happens when I’m in the kitchen cooking, too) and will suddenly remember a technique Sensei showed years before, in a seminar or at Summer Camp.

It’s an odd experience. It may happen because when I watch Sensei do technique, I do my best to just look – not analyze, not think, but to focus completely. Just watch and absorb. Then the waza sinks in, and when I do technique, I have a sense of how “Sensei-ish” it is, and what I need to adjust to get closer to the model, imprinted while I was absorbing the technique. Analysis is fine (and helpful) for learning from less definitive teachers.  I reserve the “filterless” absorption for a very, very small number of teachers – not even a handful – and Sensei is the first of these. I would add that this does not always seem to help one when you are first learning an art, but I recommend practicing it as early as possible, because once your hands, feet, and body “stop talking back to your mind,” this way of learning will become invaluable when used judiciously.

A side note about technique names. In traditional Aikido, Japanese is the technical language of technique, as it is in Judo and any number of other Japanese arts.  I’ve heard arguments against this – some say they don’t understand why Japanese is used instead of English, or why the traditional names are used at all.

Japanese names are very useful simply for clarity – it’s a name, and it means a specific thing or class of things, and beats the heck out of “the move that goes like this” for clarity and brevity. In the Wadokai, they form a common set of terms, both technical and philosophical (and these two things are more closely related than one might think), across the organization. Also, in some cases technical words convey a cultural meaning or cause students to learn about the culture via the language, which doesn’t happen if everything’s conveniently translated into English.  In Wadokai Aikido, we also learn a whole group of concepts and philosophical terms that actually end up being extremely critical to effective Aikido – and some of these only translate part of the way into English.  It took me a while to figure out how important the concepts behind these “tough vocabulary words” are to describing what has to happen in and around the technique to give it that subtle, scalable effectiveness that is the hallmark of our style. But it all starts with learning the proper names of techniques…in Japanese.

November 9, 2012: Saturday Morning Musings in Guangzhou

A Starbuck’s is an oasis of quiet this morning, after yesterday’s extended rides on the excellent Metro system here. Indeed, it’s as if all the world’s subways have standardized on the London Tube-model maps with their clear colors and rounded geometry that reflect not much of reality but are blessedly simple to follow. The metro rides on the way to Foshan presented prime opportunities for people-watching. The ladies of Guangzhou are stylish in an idiosyncratic way. While the Chinese seem to harbor an odd affection for uniforms at work, mufti involves mixing pieces, a general tendency to sexiness that somehow skirts trashiness. The skirt will be short, the top, prim. And the shoes are amazing.

Foshan itself spoke to me of places that may have been familiar to my family long ago: communal houses with a balcony overlooking the central courtyard, dark wood, tile roofs, some “Chinese Gothic” ornamentation. It was a little sad, too, like a vase assembled from the shattered parts of several, with pieces missing. In a chronology of Ip Man in the museum, “1937-1945: He had a hard time.” I’d like to know the Mandarin phrase that translates to, “No kidding.” A lovely Buddhist shrine, located near the latrines, still had worshipers and fresh joss sticks in the sand.

The Lion Dance was astonishing, the two-person beasts creating living animals with joyful, cocky personalities as they lept to balance on pillars, tested a bridge before walking over it, looked at the imaginary water flowing under it, and lapped a drink of invisible water. When Shihan James, Sensei Ken and I went up to purchase commemorative scrolls from the lion, a (rather loud) murmur of amazement swept through the crowd. 3 foreigners! And one so massive!

The Wushu demo in the courtyard was mostly a classic example of a martial art transformed into acrobatics. the “swords” whipped about like thundersheets used in an orchestra, there wasn’t enough extension in the strikes or cuts to do much more than annoy, and transitions between movements were full of gaps. But there was one Sanchin-like form that was suddenly real, the gripping motions and extensions visibly powerful. One wonders if the true forms simply aren’t shown to visitors, or if they’re indeed not remembered. One certainly could not fault the fitness or acrobatic quality of the practitioners, but I think of Alfred, who used to practice Judo with us when I was in seventh grade. He had practiced Chinese Boxing, and his forms always looked, to my young perspective, usefully powerful – coming out of a kicking backflip into a fighting stance.

On a T-shirt: “With great love comes courage.”

Dinner last night at a favorite tepanyaki restaurant of Shihan Sonny’s was a great celebration. I can’t remember seeing so much delicious food – wave after wave of sushi, fish fried in butter, shrimp, coconut bannana flambe’. Saki, beer, tea. It was like a big, rowdy international family dinner. I went over to drink sake with a table of ladies from Guangzhou, who explained that Guangzhou is very traditional, and expressed concern that if they became too competent, no one would want to marry them. It is, unfortunately, a reasonable concern, even in this late age. One must decide what one wants, and be willing to duck under the wave, but continue to train. Otherwise, what do you have? And it is difficult but not entirely impossible to find a man who wants a partner rather than a…what? Reflection? Sigh. This makes me grateful for the men who are kind and respectful.

November 8, 2012: The 7 deadly sins of the Guangzhou subway

After navigating our way through the fare machines (with the kind assistance of the local Aikido students who guide us, and likely feel like they’re herding cats), we board the subway.  The Guangzhou subway looks pretty much like modern subways anywhere.  You can almost imagine yourself in one of the newer stations in London or in Washington, DC.  But there are some distinctive differences, for example, the signs posted near the doors.  They show stick figures lying across the seats, swinging from the handholds, and generally misbehaving with remarkable elan and attitude. Below, in Chinese and English:  “No lying, no swinging, no climbing….” A total of seven behaviors in which one should not indulge while riding the Guangzhou subway.

I have the momentary mental image of sedate Chinese people entering the subway late at night, and mysteriously transforming into the sort of reprobates who would swing vigorously on the hand-grips, climb on the poles as if on a playground, and insouciantly recline across the seats.

The question is, would one ever think of doing these things on the subway if not for the prohibiting signs?  I vaguely recall a Lao Tzu quote about more laws leading to more thievery, but really?  Perhaps the Guangzhou metro is in fact…a very swinging place!

On the flip side, long yellow signs on the station escalators exhort, “Take care of the elderly and children.”  A good and virtuous thought if there ever was one, in any context.

November 7, 2012: Guangzhuo Day 1

Slept like a rock last night. The room is quite nice – a suite really, in the style of a nice European place, with the spare duvet softening the bed a little. In fact, the entire hotel resembles a traditional European hotel from perhaps the 1920’s or 30’s.  Built of grey stone, set back from the street in a small gated courtyard with a modest water feature, with large round windows on the upper storey and a comfortable marble-floored lobby.

My window overlooks a construction site, trailer-like prefabricated worker dormitories alongside. There’s a crane (the Chinese national bird, ha), as well as men moving dirt with shovels and wheel barrows.

Giant dim sum lunch today, with a 3-foot lazy susan bringing exquisite treats around the table, which seated a dozen and a half people comfortably. It was in a private room in a 3-story restaurant that’s frequented by the hoi palloi here.

I’m finding the bit of Mandarin I learned helpful, with a caveat. I used the Pimsleur Mandarin audio CDs (which I recommend) – learning while driving to and from work, and at lunch. As I worked through the lessons, taking several days on each to learn it well, I wondered if I would be comprehensible. I would imagine asking for directions, or greeting people properly, and practiced not mumbling. Well, the results were a bit funny. First, one gets The Look: “This is an obviously not-Chinese person who appears to be speaking Chinese.” Then, the reply with a lot of Chinese I don’t understand (glad I learned how to say, “I’m sorry, I don’t understand what you’re saying” – I use that one a lot).  Turns out my accent is pretty decent for a beginner, the downside being that people assume you know more Chinese than you do. So I’ll have to continue to study when I get home.

We’re now on the way to get a massage.

Turns out Chinese massages are not like American massages. For one thing, there’s no soft music or scented candles, and, while I like a Swedish massage that will dig in and work the knots out of a fairly-muscular-for-my-size back, the lady who gave me the massage went a bit overboard. This was not an experience I would care to repeat. On the other hand, the Wadokai guys who went to get massages at the same time (in a separate room, of course) had an utterly uproarious experience that they will have to relate themselves. Really. Ask them sometime.

On the way back to the hotel, we passed a small dim sum shop, where ladies were preparing delicacies in rattan steamer baskets three feet across, stacked up a dozen high. These were the very big brothers of the humble six inch version I use over the wok in my kitchen.

When I was growing up, dim sum was the most special of special occasion foods. We would enjoy it in family gatherings in Oakland. My dad could tell from a person’s accent when speaking English what Chinese dialect they spoke, and would do his best to address them in their home dialect. So we would get terrific food most of the time. My mom would sometimes buy frozen dumplings and steam them up at home, and we all liked it when she decided to take this delicious approach for a short-cut dinner.

But here, one can have dim sum for breakfast in the hotel!  This seems an incredible luxury.

November 7, 2012: Travel Tips while Approaching Hong Kong

We’re approaching Hong Kong! This was one of the most pleasant long flights I’ve had, because (following the thread of the journey so far), I decided to fully enjoy the “not having to do anything” state. I reviewed a Mandarin lesson, watched two movies (enjoyed “Brave” recommended by my daughter), read a book, napped.

By way of “travel tips:”
1.  For long flights, bring a kit that contains:  an inflatable neck pillow that cradles your head, an eye shade, and earplugs and/or noise-canceling earbuds for your smartphone/music player. This will allow you to sleep.
2. I tucked my down jacket, made into a pillow by stuffing into its own integrated stuff-sack pocket (a very nice piece of gear from Eastern Mountain Sports) under my legs at the edge of the seat, putting my feet – sans shoes – up on my leather backpack/purse as usual. As I have a long waist and long legs, this helped me nap comfortably.
3. But don’t sleep too much or you hazard bad jet lag. I napped enough to be rested, but not for the entire flight.
4. 2.5 hours before landing, everyone else will be asleep. Go to the galley and drink a full glass of water. Then go to the washroom, wash your face, brush your teeth, put on some moisturizer, makeup, deodorant, and comb your hair. Adjust clothing layers for climate you’re landing into. Everyone will wake up about 2 hours before, so this is perfect timing.  You’ll land feeling refreshed, hydrated…in short, presentable.
5. I tend to pack everything into “kits” – small bags each containing items sorted by use.  For example, the “on-plane comfort kit,” “makeup kit,” “entertainment kit,” “snack kit” (containing high-protein snacks to avoid eating a lot of junk).  All of the kits go into my well-traveled Katana leather backpack. The kits allow me to quickly put my hands on what I need when squashed into the plane. I learned to do this when packing ruck sacks – if you don’t, everything goes to the bottom and you spend precious sleep/eat time rummaging.
6. Keep a pen close to hand along with your passport.  You might carry a spare or two, as your seat-neighbors will want to borrow.  As they will now, that it’s time to…fill in the immigration card.  
We’re landing!