Tuesday, October 18, 2011

A short merciful trip to Chi-town (not the one in Illinois)

Photo of lily pond at Ocean Palace Restaurant in Chintatown, Houston. Photo copyrighted by Julie Pippert, 2011. Do not use without permission.

Believe it or not, Houston has a thriving Asian section. Last week, on a school holiday, along with other parents we took the kids from my daughter's World Explorers club on the Asian Heritage Discovery Tour. Here's their general description of the tour (you can customize it somewhat, as needed, for your group and they did a great job of making it very kid-friendly):
The route begins at the Chinese Community Center, 9800 Town Park and continues to Asian market and stores at the Hong Kong City Mall. A dim-sum lunch is provided at Ocean Palace Restaurant, one of the largest Chinese restaurants in Houston, followed by a visit to the Buddhist Temple. A traditional tea ceremony or Chinese calligraphy presentation concludes the tour.
It was an amazing experience and really let the kids see, hear, touch, smell and taste snippets of Asia. They had just finished studying Asia in their club, so it was an opportunity to be a part of things they'd read about, without even leaving town.

In the Asian section of Houston, signs are in Mandarin, including road signs. Businesses are specialized to serve the diverse Asian community. The architecture is modern and typical but also includes flairs from Asia, such as ornate corners and dragons. As we drove, we gawked at strip malls labeled with signs we could not read -- in our own city!

"How does it feel," I asked, "To see signs you can't read? To see things so foreign to you?"

"Weird!" the kids yelled, giggling.

"Imagine arriving in Houston as an Asian immigrant, how weird our city would look, how strange and foreign, maybe even scary," I said.

"I would not even know where to go or what to do!" said one child.

"Everyone would be talking around me and I couldn't understand them!" said another.

"How would you know where to get your cat food?" inquired one pet loving child.

"It would be hard, but maybe also exciting, maybe frightening and exhausting, interesting, and you'd have to figure it out, learn," I said.

It's good to get out of your element and feel foreign. Better yet if it is merely an hour's drive from home. The kids got a sense of what it was like to be an ethnic and cultural minority, just a little, just for a bit. They got to be like fish out of water. Luckily, they had a guide. Plus it was a small, safe taste of being alien.

It was good for me, too. It made me pause and be mindful for a while.

In the Taoist temple, the guide explained a short overview of Buddhism and introduced us to the Gods. We each got a stick of incense and at the end, were asked to choose a God to honor. Which one, I wondered. My younger daughter selected the Monkey King, and I felt glad for that because it seems necessary that she be blessed with the courage needed for an interesting journey. My elder chose the large urn at the front of the temple, a general offering to all Gods. She is good about covering her bases. I decided that I would select Vishnu, because "unimaginable, unthinkable and unbelievable" is a true life theme right now. I know Vishnu is very complex, but truly, that seems the right one for ladies in their 40s. Maybe men, too.

A very pregnant woman paused, knelt, shook sticks, rolled what looked like rocks, and stood, then repeated herself, until finally she went to the wall and pulled out a pice of paper. The guide explained the purpose of this ceremony and how so many elements had to align for you to receive a message back from the god you spoke to. Ritual. Forcing you to pause, seek and find. Forcing focus and mindfulness. I understood this completely.

However, the single moment that has lingered with me daily since our tour is the lesson about calligraphy.

In China, calligraphers are revered as the highest artists. One does not just use a character, one gives thought to the best character choice and then artfully sketches it. Several of us on the tour had the same name; however, we did not all get our names written in Chinese in the same way. It matters who you are, the person. My name included the character for jasmine, and she explained it implied grace and a reliable strength. That's flattering, but it's also something to aspire to. In English, my name merely means youthful appearance. One is about character, the other superficial.

Most importantly, though, was the lesson of chi in calligraphy.

Calligraphers, our gracious guide Ms. Chang told us, tend to live long lives. It is because they practice breath with each brush stroke. Breath, qi, ch'i, life energy. Breath is the base, remembering to breathe and breathe mindfully while doing restores, reinvigorates, balances.

I watched Master Zheng, the talented calligrapher. He was so connected to what he does. The pen flowed from his hand like an extra appendage, and from his pen, graceful and elegant brush strokes glided effortlessly across the page. When my younger daughter got fractious, he deftly drew the hint of a rabbit, with just a few brush strokes.

Be connected. Breathe. Take your time. Let it flow.

Each thing I do has purpose but it is perhaps not always that mindful, and believe it or not, I am horrible at breathing. I tend to pull air in only to the top of my lungs, breathing shallowly and quickly too often.

My fingers may fly across my keyboard but there is not any true connection. This is a tool I pound, not a tool that flows from me.

Since our trip I have wondered how I can work in breath and connection to my work, to everything I do.

I think at first I am going to try to start each workday by closing my eyes, breathing one full breath, and then, using a pen, write as slowly and neatly as I can what I hope to bring to the day.

I went on the field trip because I was curious. I scheduled it because I thought it would be a neat learning experience for the kids. They came home loving jasmine rice, liking jasmine tea, and with a pair of beautiful and ornate chopsticks. I came home with breath. We all got a lot from it.