Saturday, November 21, 2015

Nanjing, the last day

My last morning in Nanjing I arrived at the park at about 6:30am and practiced on my own for 30 minutes, moving slowly through the new form, and trying to simply get the postures and choreography. I was desperately sore. The park was much more empty than on the weekend days, and I practiced next to a group of grandma's practicing a choreographed tai ji fan form set to Chinese pop music. 

Shifu showed up alone and we began practicing. Thankfully, he was much more relaxed in our stances. Within an hour I had the rest of the form, faster than he thought I would have it. I ran through it many more times, and he would make small corrections each time. A couple of his older students showed up to watch and offer encouragement. Of course, the parade of onlookers continued, and Shifu continued to showoff the foreigner that had learned the entire Chen broadsword form in 3 days. Every time he would say "3 days", the Chinese faces would look astonished, and they would clap when I finished. 

By 8:45am Shifu felt I had it, so he called Li who had offered to drive me to the airport. To my surprise Shifu made the drive with us, the two of us falling asleep on the way. Li often commented on the high quality of Chinese cars, and the miserable skill of Chinese drivers. When we got to the airport I offered my Li some money and he said, "no you are my brother now, I can't accept." Shifu smiled, both at my gesture, and Li's reaction and understanding of gong fu etiquette and family. They presented me with a gift, small tai ji figures with shot glasses on top of their heads. Hinting at was was to come on my next visit. We hugged, took pictures, and I vowed to return in the spring to see my new teacher, and gong fu brothers and sisters. I really hope to see Gao Shifu again, to practice, thank him for all he has shown me, and of course for giving me this opportunity to study with his teacher. 

Friday, November 20, 2015

Nanjing, day 3

The next morning, broadsword in hand I got to the park early again, about 7:00am. Gao Shifu was in his usual spot, so I went over, and with just a bow and morning greetings we started tai ji walking drills across our little section of the park. Almost as if on cue, a man somewhere in the distance starting playing erhu, the Chinese two string violin, as we walked. With just a few people in the park we were mostly alone, just Shifu and I walking in silence, our steps and our breath in sync, moving as if were caught up in a river or the tidal change of the ocean. Once again I was overcome with emotion, and my heart just exploded open. I had rarely experienced such serenity. After quite a bit of walking he turned and said "Yang 24." Today my form was on point, much better than yesterday. When I finished he smiled, and said "very good, but you know yesterday the Yang looked terrible." We both laughed, and moments later Da Shifu walked in to the park. We bowed, I said "xie, xie," and I went over to my new teacher. When I turned to wave goodbye to Gao Shifu he was already gone. 

Da Shifu told me to stretch while the kids class warmed up. There was a funny moment when some of the senior students noticed all the mom's were dressed up for todays class, much moreso than yesterday morning. Da Shifu pointed to me, and said I was the cause. A few of the mom's blushed and we all laughed. The kids were very distracted by this new foreigner, and would run over to rub my beard and try to speak english. All the senior students worked through various forms and Shifu would offer corrections. He was very hard on them. We jumped right back into the broadsword form, reviewing the moves from yesterday, and adding a few new ones each time he felt I had them committed to memory. After a bit we took a break, and the other students would ask me to do forms with them, usually Chen forms I had never practiced before. I would follow along as best I could, and they would break out small sections for us to work on. It was great fun, and I was learning an incredible amount observing and moving with them. At various points in the morning a crowd would gather to watch us, and often just me practicing solo. At one point we had about 100 people watching as I was learning new moves. Often they would wander right in my path as I was swinging the broadsword with full force. The Chinese are not always completely aware of their surroundings. 

I had an amazing forms partner who tirelessly trained with me. She is Da Shifu's 7 year old prodigy. She would perform with me for the crowd so I wouldn't get lost, and offer corrections whenever possible. By the end of the class she was riding on my back, taking pictures with me, and I was calling her mei mei, little sister. It was also the first tai ji class I had ever been in that took regular cigarette breaks. After about 4 hours of work I had progressed well enough that class broke and we decided to go for lunch. Small issue, everyone had a bike except me and my sword partner from yesterday. They all rode to the restaurant, and we ran. Four and half hours of tai ji practice and then a 1.5 mile run with backpack and sword in hand. I was already in pain…

The restaurant was owned by one of Shifu's students named Li, so he ordered and prepared an incredible menu for all of us. I was asked what I liked and I replied anything but dog, they all laughed. Soon enough we were all joking and carrying on like old friends. Shifu called a few more of his students over for lunch to meet me. There were many toasts, and praises to each other, and of course thanks to Shifu for his teaching. We did our best to communicate with each other using translation apps. At one point the students toasted me, and called me their new gong fu brother. I was very touched. And then the wine came out, followed by more toasts, and we all joked about drunken tai ji in the afternoon though we were all a bit reserved as Shifu said we would definitely work hard this afternoon. About half way through lunch, a group of Australian students walked into the restaurant and I was asked to play translator and help them order. It was nice to speak English for a minute. After about 2 hours of good food and wine we headed back to the park, but this time I was on the back of a scooter. I would love to have video of that moment - me on the back of Li's scooter, a foot taller than him, carrying two broadswords, cigarette hanging in his mouth, both us with a bit of wine in us. Judging by people's reaction, we were a sight to see. 

Back in the park it was just Shifu, Li, and me. We worked through the next 1/3 of the set for 3 more hours. Every 15 minutes or so a new group of Chinese people would stop to watch, and ask Shifu about me and the form. Sometimes he would stop me and have me start the form from the top so they could see the whole thing. It must inspire the Chinese to see a foreigner do tai ji, because Shifu was handing out business cards all afternoon. Li was an incredible help. He is one of Shifu's senior students, and also a national champion. His forms are magical, and his coaching perfect. Again there were many cigarette breaks, and Li would often demo the sword movements with a cigarette instead of the sword. Just when I thought it was over Shifu said "we can leave after you get through the set 10 more times." I was toast, but determined to impress Shifu and Li. With just a few breaks I got through the 10 repetitions, and we said our goodbyes for the day. Shifu told me to come to the park tomorrow even if it rains, it is essential that I finish.

I stumbled back to the apartment to pack, and then ran out for some last minute gifts for friends at home. Ran might not be the right word. I was walking like an 80 year old man. My legs were jelly, and every time I stood they would shake. As I was getting ready for bed that night the rain started, and it poured all night until about 5am. 

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Nanjing, day 2

Saturday morning, I practically ran to the park. As I entered I could already see him in standing meditation about 30 minutes before the usual 7:30am class time. As I got close he opened his eyes and did a double take as he saw me approaching. He broke into a huge smile and a look of disbelief. My eyes welled up with tears, and I tried my best to hold them back. As I spoke the word "shifu," I completely broke down, the tears flowed, and we bowed to each other. I tried to explain where I had been, about my divorce, and that I was sorry I had been away for so long. He rubbed my shoulders warmly, touched my heart for a moment, and then with very little hesitation said "show me the form." I tried my best to settle down and I showed him the Chen 18. I moved slowly, and powerfully when needed, and put all of my heart into the form. When I finished he bowed and said "very good, beautiful, now the Yang 24." I moved through the next form, but I could feel that I was all over the place, my body would not listen, and I stumbled. With a smile we worked through corrections until his regular students started to show up. 

Before his class officially started I presented a gift of wine, and he said "No, I cannot accept. You will give it to Da Shifu." I wasn't clear on what exactly he was saying. I knew Da Shifu probably meant his teacher, but I was struggling. A few moments later an older man walked into the park, and we ran over, Shifu telling me to bring my things. Introductions were made, and I gave the bottle of wine to Da Shifu. He politely refused a couple times, and then accepted the gift. Shifu gave him a quick explanation of what I was working on, and then I was asked to perform the Chen form again. I was finally settling in, and feeling grounded in China as I moved through the form. By the time I was done a crowd had gathered and there were applause from some, including Da Shifu. Without a word my teacher left. Da Shifu broke out a small photo album of his teachers, and all the champions he had trained. He explained where he learned each of the styles he teaches and from who, and we exchanged business cards. In the age of Youtube masters, and self-proclaimed gurus this was a welcome change. By now his students were showing up, and for the next two hours I was treated to performances of different forms from his many national champions. In all of my years of martial arts training I had never seen anything like this - not at tournaments or even on video. Such power and grace, I was blown away. I had to perform a few forms as well, and I was completely humbled by their acceptance and approval of my practice. And then, finally, he asked through one of his students who could translate a bit, "what do you want to learn?" I was surprised, as I still wasn't clear on what was happening or the protocol. I said "anything you want to teach." He decided on a Chen broadsword form. One of the senior students loaned me a sword and we worked on the beginning of the form. I pushed myself into very low stances as I tried to impress him and the members of the class. He also took the opportunity to teach one of his other students the form at the same time. I later learned he is currently on the Chinese national team as well. That entire morning he chastised the student whenever my stances were lower or I picked up the movements quicker. I felt terrible, and really did not want this guy to hate me. Da Shifu's favorite past time seemed to be getting his students into beautifully low stances, telling us to hold them while he runs to get his camera and snap some pics.

We parted ways at about 11:30, with instructions that I would buy a broadsword that afternoon, and return the next morning for a full day of training. I looked around for Gao Shifu, but he had moved his class and I couldn't find him to thank him, or even ask for an explanation of what had happened. I assumed this was a good thing, and an honor. I just didn't understand how or why it happened. 

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Back to Nanjing

Six years ago I was lucky enough to meet Gao Shifu (Gao Xiuming). I had traveled to China with my girlfriend, and was staying in Nanjing for a few days before moving on to Dali. My first morning there I woke up at 6:00am, and looking out the window decided to walk across the street to practice my tai ji. By 6:30am the park was starting to fill with practitioners - tai ji, and qigong mostly. I practiced some bagua around a tree away from the main groups of practitioners, and then a bit of the Yang long form tai ji. As is standard in China, I attracted a lot of attention being the only foreigner in the park. Many people stopped to watch, pass judgement, and point out what I was doing wrong :) After about an hour, I noticed a man in a bright yellow tai ji outfit watching me finish up my form before starting his own class. It was a peaceful morning, and I returned to the hotel for breakfast and to start my day. 

The next morning I followed the same schedule starting at 6:30am, walking through bagua, some xing yi, and tai ji. However, on this day the teacher in yellow came a bit early to the park, and he seemed to be paying a bit more attention to me. I finished for the morning and began to walk back to the hotel, but the teacher stopped me, introduced himself as Gao Xiuming, and asked if I would like to join his class. I jumped in, not knowing what to expect. We worked on some wushu kicking drills, silk reeling drills, and walking drills. It was fun, and I learned some new exercises to take home with me. We then worked through Yang 24 and 42 frame sets. At the end of the class he asked how long I was staying and said that he would like to work with me. I explained that I was leaving the next afternoon for Dali, but would be back after a weeks time for two more days before going home to L.A.. So he said, "let's try." On my third morning in Nanjing I started training with Gao Shifu on the Chen 18 form. He was meticulous, and pushed me into very deep stances. We got as far as we could in 3 hours, and I vowed to practice in Dali.

Upon my return to Nanjing the following week we got through the whole form. Leaving him after that first trip was actually very difficult. I felt very emotional as I said goodbye, and I remember having to leave the park quickly and awkwardly. I had found another great teacher in my life. Over the next few years, every time I returned to Nanjing, I would meet with him for his regular class. We would spend time polishing the Chen form, and I would get extra instruction on the shorter Yang forms that I had not learned in the states. Gao Shifu was extremely generous with his time, and completely giving in his practice and teachings. I have many videos of him performing the forms solo and along with me, as well as class video of drills and forms from my many trips to Nanjing. We would often share lunch after class, and with the help of his students and friends who spoke English, we would talk about tai ji theory, and Chinese medicine. 

Due to Chinese medicine school, I had to slow down on my China trips, and in the blink of an eye almost 3 years passed without me seeing my teacher. But finally this year, school and state board exams done, I made a plan to go back to Nanjing if only for a few days to see him, and show my progress. I arrived in Nanjing on a Thursday night to pouring rain, and lost luggage - not an auspicious start. In order to surprise him I had not called ahead. Besides he spoke almost no English, and my Chinese vocabulary is that of a 3 year old so a phone conversation would be difficult.

I woke Friday morning to a light drizzle, and made my way to the park. It was virtually empty as there is very little cover from the elements, but a few people were practicing. I waited until about 7:45, but he didn't show. I finally mustered the courage to speak to a couple guys who had been there all morning. They didn't practice any forms or anything but they had the kung fu walk. If you study long enough, and hangout with martial artists you can tell who practices within a crowd of people. I pulled out my phone with a picture of Shifu, and began to speak mandarin. I said, "sorry to bother, but this is my teacher, is he still here?" They said yes, but not today because of the rain. I asked if he'd be here tomorrow, and they assured me he would. I thanked them, and made my way out of the park for tea, and breakfast. Disappointed that I hadn't seen my teacher, but happy with the knowledge that he would be in the park tomorrow. That afternoon the sun came out, my luggage showed up, and I had a great day seeing the sights around Nanjing. I found a great meditation spot at Xuan wu lake, kind of the Central Park of Nanjing. There's a small island with a memorial to Gou Pu, a Daoist mystic and the father of feng shui where a few people practice tai ji and qigong. It's a nice peaceful place to sit in the middle of a hectic Chinese city. Things were looking up.