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The bright side of Shaolin: Enlightenment

July 20, 2010

So, where did I leave off? Oh yeah, I whined and complained a lot because I’m a pampered American girl.  Here’s the rest of what I wrote this weekend, at the Bridge Cafe:

But for all of that, the trip was also a major learning experience. And I think that the most lasting impressions and memories from the trip won’t be all the details of my personal discomfort and errors, but rather the overwhelming experience of “real(er)” China–meaning, not Beijing, Hongkong or Shanghai, but out there in Henan, in a smaller city, sometimes in more rural parts.


  • “Real” China is a dirty, dirty place. Buildings are dirty, people are dirty, restaurants are dirty. Dirt and grime everywhere. Things are built hastily and not maintained.
  • Chinese businesses have almost no regard for the customer’s experience. No customer service. No attention to aesthetic appeal, cleanliness, etc. It’s every man for himself in the endless string of “chaoshi” stores (convenience stores).
  • The above applies to tourism. I went to some of the most famous tourist sites in China, only to be met with the cheapest, kitchiest stuff for sale, and cheesy, tastless decorations. Inside ancient temples. What??? Also, no restaurants, no comfortable places to sit down, usually no nice bathrooms.
  • Bathrooms in more rural-ish areas (I know where I was was not rural, but it was closer to rural than Beijing) are disgusting. Just disgusting.
  • Outside of Beijing, there are babies everywhere. This was actually quite pleasant, as I love babies. Day care isn’t really a thing yet, so infants accompany their mothers to work. Awww!
  • Not so adorable: these infants have no diapers, but rather split pants. They do their business on the sidewalk. Like puppies, sort of. But nobody cleans it up afterwards. This may be a contributing factor to the dirtiness mentioned above.
  • Most of China has yet to experience foreign food beyond KFC and McDonalds. Most of Chinese people , including my teachers at HBA, have never tried Mexican food. This also applies to the cities. However, you can find a KFC pretty much everywhere. (Near the train station in Henan, I saw three huge KFCs–two-story ones–in one intersection. Insane.)
  • China doesn’t have that many foreigners (due to population constraints and zero naturalization of immigrants). It’s hard to notice this in Beijing, especially near Beiyu’s campus, because Beiyu has tons of foreign students. Not so in Henan. So, in most of China, foreigners get oggled at, asked to be in photos, and generally have trouble communicating.
  • Chinese dialects are tricky. I could hardly undertstand anything anyone said to me who wasn’t one of my teachers or fellow students.
  • China has a long, long way to go with road traffic safety. A long, long way. It’s just a mess out there. Little kids held in their parent’s laps on a mopeds. No helmets. Constant honking horns. Cars round dangerous corners at deathly speeds, honk instead of slowing down. Lots of three-wheel carts and mopeds out on the road, always at risk of being hit by cars at breakneck speeds. Just a mess.
  • Chinese people will hang their laundry to dry just about anywhere. Clotheslines galore. This applies to Beijing, too.
  • Developing China is ugly.

The overwhelming impression that I got was that China is urbanizing (and has already urbanized) too fast, and there are major consequences, most notably the dirtiness, the ugliness, the lack of safety. Everything is changing so fast, and people aren’t adapting to their urban circumstances in some ways. And so, things are filthy, ugly, unsafe, falling apart. I think most of the building I saw, cinderblock blemishes, will be gone within a hundred years, torn down and replaced. At least, I hope so.

The sad part about this urban decay is that it’s on such a gorgeous landscape. I haven’t mentioned this yet, but the area around the Shaolin temple is a natural wonder. Absolutley beautiful – mountains, trees, green things galore. To cover this up with such hideous city blocks seems like a crime sometimes.

Old Chinese architectures, which I saw a lot of last week, is beautiful, and works together with the nature around it. Modern Chinese architecture is nothing but an efficient way to herd people.

The metaphor I came away with was this: Imagine a beautfiul woman. She wears no makeup, and is stunningly pretty. But then, she notices her “mature” friends are wearing makeup, so she busy the cheapest makeup she can find and covers her own face with it. You can still tell she’s pretty, but the makeup sits awkwardly on her face, making her appear much uglier, and clumsy, inexperienced at the act of self-decoration. Then she refuses to wash her face, determined to stand by her makeup decision as proof that she is catching up to her friends. So it gets crusty, the color fades, and it clogs her pores. Her face breaks out in blemishes. You look at her and want to cry, because underneath it all, she’s still so beautiful. If only she had taken time to learn to put on her makeup properly, and how to maintain the health of her face, she’d be so lovely. But she’s ruined her face.

That’s urbanizing China. But I have hope it will find the tools to clean itself up and rediscover its natural beauty. One day.

Well, it’s good to back in Beijing. And in a “western” cafe, drinking a lattee, relaxing my tired legs, pondering the crazy place that lies just outside my window.


After rereading what I wrote above, I realize I forgot a major piece of my enlightenment. At Shaolin, I was forced to push myself beyond my comfort zone–WAY beyond my comfort zone. What was the result (besides the soreness, of course)?  I rediscovered my limits.

Physically, I discovered that my limits are much higher than I thought they were. I can climb most of a mountain when I’m dead tired and painfully sore. My body is capable. It’s so easy to make excuses, but you’d be amazed how far you can go if you push yourself. I certainly was amazed at myself, and inspired to keep getting into even better shape.

I also discovered limits, breaking points, that I didn’t realize were there. As someone who often romanticizes “the natural way” of doing things, I was awfully unhappy with a lot the natural world once I had to live in it (sort of – I mean, I was still in a city) – humidity, bugs and bug bites, no internet. I’ve come away with a huge appreciation for the modern, industrialized world and all its wonders that allow me to selectively revere nature.

I found out my emotional limits when I felt deeply homesick, for the first time in a really long time. Being so cut off from my loved ones, and in such a strange place, was jolting. Again, you realize how precious things are once you are without them.

But also, going through something hard is incredibly valuable because it reminds you to be appreciative. There are so, so many things we all take for granted. After Shaolin, I am newly mindful of all my life’s comforts and privileges, all that others have provided for me, all the incredible luck I’ve had on this planet.

Golly, gratefulness is a great feeling. Count your blessings. Do it now. Seriously, make a little list. I’ll do it right now:

10 of my countless blessings (in no particular order)

  1. College education
  2. Self-confidence
  3. Air conditioning
  4. My brother survived leukemia
  5. Photographs
  6. Vacations I’ve taken to Hawaii
  7. Rick Menchaca
  8. Down comforters
  9. Mexican food
  10. Contact lenses
2 Comments leave one →
  1. Michelle permalink
    July 20, 2010 5:23 pm

    Glad to see Down Comforters and Mexican Food made it on the list, but your family and best friend… hmmmmm.

  2. Cbuck permalink
    July 21, 2010 4:34 pm

    your list made me smile
    i will think about it and do the same
    mexican food WILL be on my list

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