This is the first installment of “Shaolin Letters,” a travel blog I’m writing regularly for Cairo Scenario, tells the ‘China’ story in chronological order. Enjoy and please share …
Everyone called it my Eat, Pray, Love experience; my stomach turned every time I heard that, but I almost always managed to draw a begrudging smile in response, mumbling, “Yeah, yeah.” (Except for that time when I impatiently retorted, “Let’s just call it my Batman Begins or Starfleet or Star Wars experience, alright? Batman, cadets and Jedis are cooler, and I’m going to the SHAOLIN TEMPLE Kung Fu school, not to a wimpy spiritual retreat.”)
The reasons why I hated comparing my big trip to The-New-York-Times-bestselling-book were:
A) I didn’t want to think of my little adventure as another ‘new age’ excursion into the East, where a culture-shocked-girl-cum-illuminated-Buddha returns with an immaculate record of a spiritual journey where she found love, peace, and a measure of ancient wisdom, which she wittingly peppered with some modern humor in the re-telling;
B) It takes originality out of the idea;
C) Eat, Pray, Love was womanish and fluffy;
D) I really liked the book, so maybe I was influenced;
E) Everyone was probably right.
May be it would be my Eat, Pray, Love moment. Perhaps that was what I was secretly hoping for.
Back in April, however, at the very moment I set a foot in Dengfeng – the town lying at the foot of Mount Song, housing the Shaolin Temple, the cradle of zen Buddhism and martial arts – I immediately knew we were all wrong. This was neither Batman Begins or Eat, Pray, Love, or even the darkest episode of Star Wars. I found myself plunged into a gloomy, dark village in mainland China; dirty and, by the looks of it, still stranded in the Middle Ages. AND I was to be there alone, trying to learn an exalted form of Kung Fu when I can’t even kick above the waist.
Suddenly, it wasn’t Hollywood-like, spiritual and surreal, like my fantasy promised. It was very real, in a very non-Batmanish way.
A school bus with the Shaolin Temple logo had picked me up from the Zhengzhou Airport, roughly a two-hour drive away from my final destination. When I arrived in Dengfeng, it was well after midnight, following a grueling 26-hour journey, 11 hours of which I spent flying and the rest in transit. I was starving and thirsty but all the small shabby shops around were bolted shut; the place looked deserted, and disheveled – like a storm had recently swept through it leaving everything covered in grime. No emerald woods, flowery shrubs, or wild bamboo forests a la House of Flying Daggers. And none of the Kung Fu heartthrobs (Takeshi Kaneshiro, Andy Lau or even Jet Li) were waiting for me at the gates.
It was horrifying to suddenly realise I’d be tethered to this town for a few months. My escort couldn’t speak English, at the time I knew zero Chinese. A large metal gate opened for us just enough to let the car in. The school was hushed and dark.
The head matron who received me at the dorms (and who was probably awoken up from a deep slumber, by the looks of it) was grumpy and aggressive. She showed me to my room: spacious, dim and layered with dust. She shoved some clean sheets and a thin, floppy pillow into my arms, and after some miscommunication and sign language, she managed to get me a bottle of water and a pot of chili-flavoured instant noodles. In my head, I gave the sullen woman a three-part name, as per Chinese traditions. Peevish-Mrs-Knots. It suited her. That habit of inventing names and giving them to the Chinese people I deal with daily would stay with me and, in the course of this blog, you will be introduced to people carrying names like Moon-Cloud, All-Frowns, Flower-Who-Cooks-so-Well, etc.
On that night, the dorms were quiet, the surrounding hills menacing, and my room overlooked a large patch of land that was more like a tree cemetery. I felt I was the only soul in the school, besides Mrs-Knots. I also felt like crying hysterically, but I held it in, and instead wrote a hurried text message to my younger sister, updating her, and asking, “Did I make a mistake?” A few minutes later, my phone beeped – the only sound I heard that night apart from my own breathing and the distant wind – with my sister’s response: “No, we’re all proud of you. Now, don’t use your phone to get assurance from us or channel any negative energy. Remember this is your adventure. We’re not here anymore. Forget about us, and the rest of the world. You’re on your own.”
Brilliant, I thought. As if I needed to be reminded.
In retrospect, I did. And for a split of a second, a fleeting eureka-like realisation came upon me: I am on my own, and this is the best thing that ever happened to me. No job to worry about, no scuffles with friends or foes, no politics, no revolution, no Cairo traffic, or social networks. It’s just me.
Let’s back track a few months: I was stuck in a rut back in Cairo; my was job making me miserable, the politics were stressing me out and the aftermath of the January 25th Revolution, in which I was heavily invested, was pushing me to the brink of madness. The “China Plan” ––to come here, take time out from work and the mundane, and learn Kung Fu for a few months, learn about a new culture and religion, and fulfill a childhood fantasy–– seemed like an epiphany. It was “the thing that will save me,” as I explained to a friend.
But on that first night, the fantasy came crashing down around my ears. I have left everything behind, but I have taken ‘me’ and therein lies the main challenge; to clear my mind, to focus on the experience, to adapt, and to toughen up a bit. No experience could save anyone, I quickly realised. Only I could save myself. So grow a thicker skin, I told myself that night, as I popped two pills of Panadol Night. Tomorrow will be a surprise, I thought. I whispered the words “I’m on my own,” repeatedly like a mantra until the magic of Panadol kicked in and hurled me into a deep, dreamless sleep.
To Be Continued
Pakinam Amer is an award-winning investigative journalist and travel writer. She is currently in Henan Province in China, living near the Shaolin Temple in the martial arts town known as Dengfeng, learning Kung Fu in a boarding school called “Little Dragon”, and chronicling her journey. She blogs regularly about this experience here: http://pakinamlights.tumblr.com and she tweets at @pakinamamer