Day 26: If You Don't Kill Your Enemy, He Will Kill You First

Monday, May 23, 2011

At Oberlin, I never had trouble finding things to do. From the sheer quantity of student clubs and organizations to the rigor of classes, it felt like I was always busy. However, for students at SAU, the situation couldn't be more different. The overwhelming majority of students complain about their incessant boredom and the incredible lack of happenings on campus. Schoolwork isn't very hard and few take part in events outside of those that they are specifically made to participate in. Though much of it comes from lack of institutional support, there are outlets for activity, so long as you know where to look.

As long-running leader of the Rubik's cube club, Bobby (middle, with a hat) has considerable sway at the school.

In early October, I unwittingly stumbled upon the SAU equivalent of Oberlin's ExCo Fair. Stands were set up along the intersection of the cafeteria and the college dormitories, large multicolored billboards were erected to advertise different student organizations, and club leaders spent the week manning tables and petitioning for student sign-ups. Among the interests represented were arts clubs (origami, knot-tying, paper-cutting), hobbyist clubs (manga, model making), sports clubs (ping pong, biking), and gaming clubs (Rubik's cube, cards, Chinese chess). There is an environmental group that is doing its part to reduce unnecessary trash burning with the introduction of giant recycling stations on campus. A film club whose members produced last spring's Campus Agents was also soliciting new members. But none was more enticing than the robe-clad men and women who were kicking and throwing each other to the ground.

It was the martial arts club, and before they could even finish describing the curriculum, I had already signed up and forked over the $1 tuition fee. Robert, the German teacher on campus, had practiced with the group after spotting them near his house, and I agreed to act as his translator if he helped me learn the moves. From the start, they didn't make it easy for us—practice was at 8am on Sunday mornings, and the weather was getting colder. At our first practice, we worked on doing falls and throws on cut-away foam boards. At our second, my instructor, a scrappy 3rd year with a history of sparring, handed me a pair of boxing gloves and told me to fight. It was a kind of initiation. It was only my second hand-to-hand fight ever, and I was annihilated. Wang Yulong never once cracked a smile as he buried his fist into my ribs and gave me a black eye. Evidently, I wasn't quick enough to defend myself. This, he said, he would teach me.

The promotional billboard for the "Energy Martial Arts Club," complete with photos of the club's members in action.

The fight instilled a certain drive in me. From then on Robert and I studied kicks, punches, dodges, blocks, and quickness drills, as we slowly got whipped into shape. Cue the Rocky sequence: together we practiced each move to exhaustion, a combination of sweat and rain lashed across our faces, the soft drone of getting stronger building slowly in the background. It was clear that our foreignness afforded us special treatment, but it was a double-edged sword. While the rest of the club practiced kicks and punches in pairs using brace pads, Robert, Yulong, and I spent each class beating the shit out of each other.

It was like our own private fight club. We couldn't tell if Yulong was doing it because he wasn't afraid of hurting us or if he was just more comfortable with foreigners. Moreover, I learned that what we were practicing wasn't actually traditional gong fu. The art can roughly be divided into three subcategories: one that stresses stretching and flexibility, another that utilizes weapons such as swords, wooden poles, and nun-chucks, and a third that emphasizes power and quickness. None of them involved putting on boxing gloves.

But it was just as well. Had it not been for playing the cello when I was young, I would have definitely wanted to take up martial arts or tai qi, and as recently as my senior year at Oberlin, I'd been interested in boxing if for no other function than as stress relief. Everyone has their reasons, and for me it was always the satisfaction of a release of tension, a show of force in overpowering a bully or a thief. Growing up, Yulong had gotten into street scuffs in his hometown. He was a long, lanky kid, and even today he wouldn't look that threatening unless you got up close to him. The fights left him with a huge gash running across his right eye that he usually covers with a hat. He later enrolled in a gong fu school where his master didn't let him stop practicing until his hands were bloody and raw. At our last spar, I saw this all written on his face, but I also felt the tenacity rising from the pit of my own stomach, ready to give it my all.

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Like others that have come before it, this too is of the 800-word variety.

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Day 25: Feels Worse Before It Feels Better

Sunday, May 22, 2011

I get uncomfortable when people do things on my behalf. I'm notoriously bad at taking compliments, receiving gifts, or asking for favors. It's not that I'm not grateful or that fiercely independent; there's just a part of me that winces at the thought of being appeased or pampered. As a result, in the states I had little interest in ever getting a massage. However, when I came to China and heard people talking about the benefits and astonishing economy of Chinese massage, I eventually acquiesced.

My first foray came last spring. Anne, Lynn, Maggie, and I hopped on bikes and plowed our way through sloppy road construction and bifurcated street crossings to the far edge of town. Lynn had been going to the same blind massage parlor for two years running, and it was, according to her, the best place in town. We slipped passed the thick plastic coverings hung like seaweed over the door and walked into a dimly-lit room with twelve massage tables, all placed within two feet of one another. The storefront could have moonlighted as a homeless shelter, so long as the inhabitants didn't mind sleeping with a 16-inch diameter incision at the top of each table to be used as a head rest.

The process of fire cupping, used as traditional medicine in many cultures, including China (photo courtesy of One Inch Punch).

I quickly learned that pain is par for the course. It is said that if a massage isn't gut-wrenchingly painful, it isn't worth the money. Unlike Western massage, you are supposed to come out of Chinese massage feeling battered, wilted, and thankful for it to be over. Another difference is that there is no direct contact with the skin—customers are fully clothed and the masseuse drapes a sheet over any exposed parts before practicing. It is not uncommon to hear shrieks coming from the opposite side of the translucent curtain used to separate customers. The supposition is that it has deep-set benefits—that over time the result of all that kneading and pounding will show with the increased resilience of your body and the lesser likelihood of that pain to resurface.

In that way, it's perhaps more similar to bodywork in all respects except price. Whereas an hour can cost you upwards of $100 in the states, 60 minutes in the hands of a blind masseuse will run you less than $5 in Taigu. It's true that labor is cheap here, especially for the blind masseuses who are trained specially in the art of massage, but it gives them a liveable income and provides a valuable service to the community. The massage starts with the back, then moves to the shoulders and the neck, before flipping over to the head, arms, legs, and feet. My legs are always the most cringe-worthy, a combination of standing for four hours in the morning during class, doing heavy weight lifting in the afternoon, and sitting down for most of the evening.

At the end of the massage, Lynn opted to have baguan, or cupping, done. In traditional medicine, cupping is used to dispel stagnation and increase qi flow to treat respiratory diseases. The masseuse uses an open flame to heat the insides of glass cups and affixes them to soft tissue primarily on the back, neck, and shoulders. As the air inside the cup cools, it contracts and draws the skin toward the surface, resulting in bulbous red and black skin markings after the cups are removed. Lying on the table, she looked like a Christmas tree covered in glass ornaments. After the treatment, we biked back to campus; me, more than a bit sore, and Lynn, her back still raised and warm to the touch.

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Day 24: Bowl Cuts Won't Be Coming Back This Season

Monday, May 16, 2011

It was summertime and I was eleven. My mom lopped a porcelain bowl over my head and with the other hand, she quietly trimmed around the circumference of my skull until the sides of my hair looked roughly flush—a mushroom cloud billowing out of the top of my cranium. It never registered as out of the ordinary—some of the girls in my class were just hitting puberty and I had too many other things on my mind aside from whether or not my sideburns were even. Still, my mom insisted that I should have my hair cut professionally before I got to middle school. And so it was decided—we went to the now defunct Supercuts on West 8th Street in Manhattan and by the time the nail-biting, 20-minute ordeal was over, I was in tears.

To this day, I still can't pinpoint exactly what tipped me off, but the loss of my bangs cannot be overstated. What I saw that afternoon when I stared bleakly into my mom's cosmetics mirror on the 2nd floor of a K-Mart, was a side part, hair that fluffed up at the top, and was buzzed flat and prickly all the way up the back. In short, it was a hairstyle not too dissimilar from the way I have kept my hair in the twelve years since, and my mom has never once had to cut my hair again. My hair has been a defining part of my identity ever since, so I suppose if I ever track down that hairdresser, not only should I give him the tip I had walked out on, but I should also extend my hand and thank him as well.

But it wasn't just my first professional haircut that left me wanting. I daresay that in my whole life, I've never once had a haircut I was completely satisfied with in America. Usually, this would necessitate finding a new hairstylist, but it's been that way with a myriad of barbershops in all corners of the city. The general arc of a haircut for me goes something like this: reel from the misery of my first two weeks with a haircut that is too short, lavish the four weeks when my hair has grown out to the point where it looks presentable, and endure the next two weeks until I can finally bring myself to go back to the barber again with hair that is too long and unruly.

I have come to terms with this fact, accepting simply that my hair will look bad for a quarter of my life, but that it will inevitably go back to looking decently again for another half of it. This has afforded me the opportunity to take a lot of risks that others might be afraid would make or break their image. At Oberlin, I never paid for a haircut, and instead, depended on friends to cut my hair for little or no money, giving would-be barbers free reign to try almost anything. Most had at least had access to a hair trimmer, which was really the only criteria. As a result, I've ended up with lopsided fauxhawks, short-trim buzz-cuts, and straight-hair Afros, all in the name of fashion and frugality.

The impeccably-decorated interior of the "Gold Cut Modeling" hair salon located in the back of the campus bath-house.

My hair is a big part of my identity here in China too. It is black, which automatically sets off alarm bells in people's minds, prompting questions of whether or not it is my natural color, and then, if it is, how it is possible that such a thing could be. Additionally, one of the things my students always joke about is when I walk in to class at 8am on a Monday morning, my hair in kinks and cowlicks, and proceed to teach a lesson as usual. In China, hair styles change about as quickly as the weather—after a long winter vacation, it always shocks me to find about half of my class with their hair newly layered or permed, sprouting brown curls or blond highlights.

So, when it was inevitably time for my first haircut in China, I was understandably a bit nervous. If my haircuts always ended up so badly in America in spite of being able to speak the language, how could they possibly look good here? My first haircut came immediately following the shut-down of campus due to H1N1. As a result, the countless barbershops and hair salons that lined North Yard were temporarily closed down, so I relegated myself to the only place left. It was a small, brightly-lit salon located in the back of the campus-run bath house. In a country where any given establishment is either run down and dilapidated or incredibly gaudy, it took the latter role.

It has the kind of atmosphere you might expect. A row of neat leather-pleated barber stools line the front of the store opposite a long full-length mirror. Like most other barbershops, there is a speaker in the back blasting pop music as a way to drum up business and the walls are plastered with pin-ups of fawning young women sporting new hairdos. In the back sits a high chair with a stone basin for a headrest—here, it is standard practice for patrons to first have their hair shampooed and washed before getting cut. On my very first visit, I was accompanied by Anne who offered to help translate for me in case any difficulties arose. It felt like my mom at my first haircut, telling the hairdresser careful instructions that he would later go on to ignore.

I got a chance to meet the owner of the hair salon who, like most of the other employees, was simultaneously nervous and overjoyed at the prospect of cutting a foreigner's hair. When asked about the poster, he said he had personally cut the hair of each of the girls pictured.

In my experience since, I've probably had eight or nine haircuts at a handful of different barbershops on campus. Whereas before I was nervous about getting my hair cut, now I actually look forward to the slightly goofy conversations, always fixated on some detail of my life in America, and how much more I can understand each time I go. I always tell them the same thing about how to cut my hair: about the same shape as it is now, a little shorter on the sides, and you can use the electric cutting machine on the back. They wash and dry my hair twice, plus throw in the occasional shave, all for eight yuan, just over a dollar, and about twenty times cheaper than any haircut in the states. And miraculously, the haircuts I've gotten here have been among the best I've ever had.

I think it has a lot to do with them knowing intuitively how to cut “Asian hair.” Whereas Nick and James have occasionally gotten the short end of the stick and other foreigners opt not to get haircuts at all, I revel in the new-found realization that my hair doesn't have to look bad for a quarter of my life. It can look good mere minutes after walking out of the hair salon. On my last visit, I had just gotten out of a conversation about job opportunities in America after college, and was walking up to pay my tab. The owner looked at me and then looked at his watch. This is too much, he smiled, motioning me to take back some change. The mid-day price is only five.

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This post too is of the “double feature” variety, totaling about 1200 words.

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