I bumped into my 20-year-old self. She lives in 1995. I told her about my new app.
L42: "I just down downloaded this really cool app"
L20: "What is an app?"
L42: "It’s an application for your smartphone!"
L20: "Ermm smartph…"
L42: "Imagine that you have a mobile phone that you can bring with you everywhere? You’re only three years away from getting your first! It will be a Motorola Startac, by the way, and it will cost you an absolute fortune. Well after that, you’ll be introduced to the smartphone. It’s a portable phone that allows you to send messages, play games, go on the internet – don’t look at me like that – you know what the internet is, right? In 11 years time, you'll even be able to check TheFacebook from your phone. And your e-mails!"
L20: "How cool! I just got my first e-mail address yesterday! It is is firstname.lastname@example.org. I can only use it at the university's computer lab where we have internet. So yes, I know what the internet is, thank you very much! I tried to login to my e-mail for ages and finally managed. Turns out you don't put a space between the name and the @"
L42: "Anyway this app. It’s called coffitivity"
L20: "Weird name. But tell me more"
L42: "Well it plays background noise from cafes and other public spaces on your phone"
L20: "And why is that neat?"
L42: "This way, you feel like you’re in a trendy place when actually you’re at home in front of your computer, starring at the wall and totally blank on ideas. When you open the app, you'll hear chatting, people ordering coffee, people coming and leaving and the clinking clanking sound of plates and cutlery. You can choose between Morning Murmur, Lunchtime lounge andUniversity Undertones. These sounds get you inspired, you know! You'll truly believe that you're surrounded by cool people rather than just your cat - and that you’re sipping a latte with other hipsters while writing on your blog. Before you ask: A blog is an online platform where you tell your friends what you’re up to and all the nice things you’ve been experiencing. Sort of like an online diary. But really easy to use – and you don’t need to know anything about programming to create your own! Give it just a few months. You’re about to see the invention of the blog. Only that it will be called ‘weblog’ in the beginning".
The evening meal is served. Laura is trying to communicate with Theresa :-)
Our first meditation session
Time to say goodbye
It’s an early Monday morning in May. I find myself together with nine other expat women on the fast train to Shijiazhuang in the Hebei province. Destination: The Bailin Monastery. An 1800-year-old Zen monastery and the only active Zen temple in China that allows for foreigners to stay overnight.
China Cultural Centre has briefed us about the rules in advance - so on the train we agree talk and laugh as much as we possibly can before we need to be quiet for 24 hours.
A train ride, a few small towns and a nap later, our bus pulls up in front of Bailin temple. We are struck by its semi-urban location and had somehow imagined a romantic place in the mountains. But we are soon to discover that, behind the big wooden doors, only a stone’s throw from the flashy 7-eleven sign, lies a world of beauty and peace. This is exactly what we had been hoping for. And more.
Once the check-in procedure is over, we are taken to our rooms. They live up to their promise: basic accommodation. I try to encourage my roommates. One night ladies. We can do this.
It is raining cats and dogs but luckily, the corridors of the temple are covered. Our fantastic guide Feng has arranged for us to be shown around by one of the monks. A young fellow whose charisma and Zen takes us by storm from the moment we meet. We are amazed by his knowledge about the temple. With twilight approaching, our jaws drop at the spectacular sight of the monastery’s 140 monks silently striding across the courtyard towards the chanting hall. Evening chanting is about to start and we’re invited to watch from a respectable distance at the back of the hall.
We have been very excited about the prospect of eating together with the monks in the dining hall. It is important that we do not disrespect them by leaving food on the plate or, God forbid, starting to talk or laugh. Once we're seated at a long table, the monks start serving the humble meal. It is bland to say the least. Some of us manage to drink the lukewarm porridge and eat the red bean baozi with cabbage on the side. But for some it proves too difficult.
After the meal, we make our way to the meditation hall for a workshop with our friend, the monk from earlier. We all walk in expecting to have an hour of pure relaxation ahead of us. What we’re about to experience, is a far cry from candlelit, guided meditation on yoga mats. Buddhist monks meditate up to six hours a day. They sit on a cushion. In total silence. Their aim is to take control of the mind, while still acknowledging the body. A small bell rings every half hour in order to allow them to slightly change position. We meditate with the monk for 20 minutes and find it hard enough.
To the sound of the sunset gong, we retrieve to our humble abode for the evening. Some secretly snack on the chocolate we brought from Beijing and some finally give into the urge to talk and giggle. Lights out at 9.30 pm. Tomorrow’s program starts with breakfast at 5.30.
Not all of us choose to have breakfast (the exact same meal as dinner). For some, a couple of Snicker bars seem like a better option than bland congee. But we all meet for a final chat and a meditation session. We have had a day and a bit to take it all in. And with Feng as our interpreter, we welcome the opportunity to ask the monk all the questions that have arisen over the since yesterday. Most of them are related to everyday life here at the monastery. But we slowly move onto more existential questions. We find it hard to contemplate how the monks, of their own free will, have chosen this way of living. Away from their families and with no contact whatsoever with the outside world. We discover that our friend has a university degree and used to run his own business. When he ran into trouble, his parents recommended that he go and talk to a monk about his problems. He tells us that his parents were later to regret encouraging the encounter. Little did they know that their only child – a son - would end up devoting his life to Buddhism inside a monastery, far away from home.
With all the respect in the world for his choice, we agree that this is nowhere near a life we could imagine for ourselves. But just like this young man’s parents, we realize that no ‘logical reasoning' can change the mind of a person who has followed his calling. We are almost obsessed with the need to be enjoying life. But what defines enjoying life? For us it may be travelling, sipping drinks in fancy roof top bars, watching our children grow up, exchanging points of view at dinner parties, shopping at the mall. But what gives us the right to assume that these monks are not enjoying life?
In the early afternoon, the moment has come to say goodbye to the monk. Getting to know him has been a privilege and we feel humbled by this unique experience. He waves goodbye to us by the big wooden gate and walks back into his world. He wouldn’t want it any other way. ------------------------------------------ Special thanks to Vanessa for suggesting/planning this trip and to Mette and Feng for the pictures
(Unedited version of my piece published by Global Times on 3 September 2017)
He shuffles along the street at the Zaoying community. His pajama bottoms are showing underneath the hem of his pants and he is carrying a small bird cage in his hand. He smiles at my gaping face and seems to be thinking “hit me with the questions, lǎowài!”. I want to ask him: “Where are you going with that bird in a cage?”. “Is it because it needs fresh air?”. “Do you ever let it out?”. “Does it have a name?”. “Do you go to a different park every day to hang it up in a tree?”. Yet the only thing that comes out of my mouth is “Wǒ kěyǐ pāizhào ma?” – may I take a picture? Once again, I fall flat on my face and hit the language barrier at full speed.
If I were a WeChat sticker, I would be the happy piglet in a convertible, waving toy windmills at a hundred miles an hour. I am enthusiastic about living in Beijing. My curiosity has no limits and I want to know what the Chinese think. Bombard them with questions. Mind their business in every possible way.
Thanks to the efforts of my fantastic Yu Laoshi and the progress my classmates and I have made in speaking mandarin and recognizing characters, I am now beyond the phase of “Nǐ yǒu L de ma?” (do you have it in large?) and “tài guì le” (too expensive) but alas, not even remotely capable of having a deep-ish conversation in Chinese. When I’m together with my Chinese friends, I tend to treat them as my walking-talking Chinese dictionary and they often hear me exclaim “wait, let me get a piece of paper and write that expression down”. But they are my friends because – well – they speak English so we are able to communicate. And sadly, I don’t always have them by my side when I feel the urge to let out an avalanche of nosy questions to the “real” Beijingers.
The man who sings beautiful arias by the lake at Tuanjiehu Park. Completely alone and lost in his own world. During my imaginary conversation with him, I ask him if he’s a trained opera singer. Whether he sings for his own joy or whether he secretly hopes to impress someone.
The beautiful raven-haired fashionista at Sanlitun Village. Perhaps she’s a popstar? Is that Prada handbag real? Hmm, I actually already know how to ask that (“zhēn de ma?”). But perhaps that’s too direct?
The elderly couple in the queue at the supermarket. Their grandchild is adorable. Despite their love and devotion to this boy who is most likely their only grandchild, do they sometimes wish they had more freedom?
One of my friends once said that “learning Chinese is nine kicks in the crotch for every one kiss on the cheek”. It’s an uphill struggle. But I can see the reward on the horizon. For every small improvement, every kiss on the cheek will, slowly but surely, tear down the language barrier, bring me closer to “the man in the street” and give me a broader understanding of the culture and the trends in China. Wait for me please. I am learning.