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A Minnesotan in China: Learning about the world; learning about tai chi

The tai chi coach liked to show-off a bit, at the goading of some others, by playing with the newbies. Submitted Photo

It had only been two days on this mountain in Hubei province.

But in a whole new environment - one that encouraged the focus of every moment, no less -this meant a concentrated, super-saturated 48 hours that provided enough fodder for two previous blog posts. Yes, Einstein, time is relative, and seeing this play out when living on a mountain top somewhere far, far away is slightly mind bending.

Yet at the same time, for all the infinity within those two days, I knew darn well that I was only scratching the surface - just chipping away at the shell of a constant, racing mind revealing a calm that I wanted to keep consistent. To do so, I knew I had to stay longer, so I started getting word out among the students and staff about teaching them English in exchange for room and board. Before long, the headmaster offered me a deal to stay and teach. I bid farewell to previous plans to see the Muslim and Tibetan populated areas of western China and stared at another five days of tai chi, kung fu and calm.

I considered this round two of my training. The headmaster, as opposed to my previous trainer, took me a little more under his wing:

It should be noted that this guy was the real deal. He's won all these competitions and used to coach Jackie Chan. He looked hefty, even a bit out of shape, but that was an illusion. He's a brick.

As far as the English teaching went, I spent an hour twice a day with just two regular attendees - a 12-year-old girl and a 26-year-old guy, my roommate. The classes were fine, and I found it all so interesting how me being a teacher of English, the job that opened the door to China, now allowed me to be a student of tai chi.

What's more, as a teacher myself, I was later able to relate to my trainers' difficulties on account of my struggles learning tai chi.

Having learned a couple basic movements by now, I was started in with a more involved choreography. It was hard.

Because though the movements are gradual, proper posture is challenging as you have to hold strenuous poses. And the smooth movement reveals any and all mistakes, a product of me going from my head to my body, from trying to recall the moves to actually doing them. One needs to do this in a simultaneous fashion until it becomes second nature. (Ever learn to dance? Then you know what I mean.) Or like speaking your native language, it requires you to get to that place of mental activity where you just do it and don't think so much in that laborious sense.

But this kind of "effortful" thinking is how I like to problem-solve, whether mastering dance moves, when I played video games or rearranging my room. Think. Think. Think of every facet, every option. On one hand, this kind of mind activity may help my writing, and I'm sure it's what helped me help my fellow students efficiently gather firewood from my last post. But back on the concrete slab where we practiced, I was darn near all thumbs.

I kept trying to memorize every angle of every pose, every maneuver of every limb. With two arms, two legs and a trunk and head, that's five or six different things that I tried to be conscious of simultaneously. Impossible.

As a consequence, I couldn't recall even a few moves at a time. It had one instructor (the "sword and shovel" teacher from the last post) shaking his head. And I kid you not, while I had felt pressure and some embarrassment about this already, he added to it with a chuckle in an "are you stupid?" disbelieving kind of way.

I wanted to react in a "screw you!" kind of way.

But like a good tai chi student, and in a manner I look back on with gratitude, I let the reactive part of me go and was actually able to empathize with him. Interestingly, I recalled my own difficulty teaching English to a student who just couldn't get it. "C'mon!" I would think and sometimes say out loud as I ran my hand through my hair. This obviously didn't help the poor student learn. It's kinda funny, really, 'cause I'm not sure why I got mad. But I did.

Thus, back on the concrete slab, I went from a defensive state of mind to one of understanding. What a shift! I asked a bilingual student nearby to say to my teacher, "I know how hard it is to teach me. I know how hard it is to teach someone who doesn't get it. I'm sorry I'm such a hard student to teach." My teacher's face softened and he put his hand on my shoulder.

It's amazing how tight our emotions make us, how much they prevent understanding and the relating between two people. But frustrations were set aside, and affections won the day.

It's a small example, I know, but it represents a lot. Plus, it's cool to look back and see how my time in China - as a teacher and a student in a school setting and in the mountains learning tai chi - all contributed to this moment of growth.

Here's to patience in understanding the people you teach to/learn from.


Brandon Ferdig grew up in Blackduck and spent 2010-2011 teaching and learning in China.