Archive for the ‘Travels’ Category

Dengfeng Wrap-Up

In Dengfeng, we’ve experienced frustration, disappointment, major embarassments and not an insignificant amount of awe, which sounds about normal for a pilot trip to a new place. In truth, from a very superficial viewpoint of what I had understood of Dengfeng, by the end of the week, I was ready to leave. To cite an example: our primary sources of entertainment were visiting the local sketchy internet bar and watching bad Chinese tv singing competitions.

Now the big question: could we have done better? Yes and no. Yes, in that I think we could have had a better attitude and pushed harder to meet the Shaolin Temple monks or delved deeper into some other aspects of the Shaolin Temple. We had five days in Dengfeng; even if denied access to the Abbot, we should have asked to talk to local people or the local monks.

Would this request have been met with success? Not necessarily — hence the ‘no’ part. In general, what generally makes or breaks an experience is the people involved, and Dr. X is no exception. I am hugely grateful to Dr. X for showing and taking us around. Still one problem that remained was the fact that he voluntarily gave us very little information, even in little cases such as where it was that we were heading at the very moment. Hence, it made access to any type of really difficult and very frustrating at times; for example, over the many meals we had with him, he consistently declined to answer what type of medicine he practiced (I think it may have been a paranoia of revealing secrets in public) but it was initially hard for us to understand this as first and he provided no explanations. When he did explain to us late at night in our hotel rooms, we didn’t understand why such information couldn’t be revealed over dinner (where nearby guests were most likely tourists) . Furthermore, his certain mannerisms such as consistently only introducing one of us and not the other made friendly overtures towards him not as easy as it could have been.

All in all, at the end of the five days in Dengfeng, we were looking forwards to Zhengzhou. Just a preview of Zhengzhou – romance! danger! and a near fatal accident!


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On Being High Profile

Life in Dengfeng was a little difficult to adjust to, and by the end of our week in Dengfeng, Nan and I were secretly glad that we didn’t actually spend 3 months there as we originally planned. Aside from daily inconveniences like food choices being extremely limited and horrible humidity that keeps our clothes wet, here are a few scenarios explaining why.

~On being high profile guests at the hotel~

[On our third day there, Nan and I walk up the stairs of our hotel after a day out.]
Hotel employee No. 1: Oh, you live in room 42 right? We’re going to switch you to room 25 on the second floor because we need to clean the carpets of the fourth floor due to the high humidity.
Nan: Um, when are you doing this? Should we move our stuff down now?
Employee No. 1: Yea, we can help move your suitcases too.
Li-Wen: Oh it’s ok, we’ll get it ourselves.
Employee No. 1: You’ll need to get your room key updated at the front desk.
[Nan and Li-Wen go downstairs immediately to the front desk.]
Employee No. 2: Oh, are you getting your keys changed from 42 to 25?
Li-Wen: Um, yea. [thinks *how the heck does she know already?*]
Employee No. 2: Sure thing. And you’re staying until XX date right?
Li-Wen: Yea… [thinks *wtf*]

~On being conspicuously foreign while pretending not to be~

[In a small, smoke-saturated internet cafe, Li-Wen types away on her computer in Gmail and simultaneously surfs Facebook. She notices the person sitting to her left staring at her screen, very blatantly and conspicuously. This goes on for 5 minutes.]
Dude: Hey what are you looking at?
Li-Wen: [pretends not to hear and hopes he’s not talking to her]
Dude: Hello!
Li-Wen: Oh, huh, yes?
Dude: You type English so quickly. Where did you learn that?
Li-Wen: Oh I study English in college. [not entirely untrue…]
Dude: What are you typing?
Li-Wen: Oh, just emailing a friend. Practicing English, you know.
Dude: Oh.
[Li-Wen flips over to New York Times page. Turns monitor over toward Nan, who’s sitting to her right, and pretends to show her something interesting.]
[Dude scoots his chair back and over so he can see the screen better!!! @#&#$!!!]
Li-Wen: Um, can you stop staring at my screen? It makes me feel a little uncomfortable.
Dude: Oh ok. [Looks away for a bit, but continues to glance this way and finally resumes staring]
[Resigned to having a spectator, Li-Wen continues doing her thing, uploading pictures onto Facebook.]
Dude: [on seeing Li-Wen’s profile page] What’s that site? Can I see it? Can you give me the website?
Li-Wen: Umm… Why?
Dude: I want to learn English.
Li-Wen: Oh in that case this site is better. [shows him NYT] It has lots of articles in English that you can read.
Dude: Oh ok… [Looks at it for a bit] Can I get that site with the pictures too (ie. Facebook)?
[After more back and forth, eventually Li-Wen scribbles down the NYT address for him, packs up, and leaves]

A few days into our stay at the hotel, it seemed like every hotel employee knew 1) that we were Harvard students from the US, 2) guests of the mayor, 3) living in XX room, and 4) staying until XX date. While everyone was in general really helpful and nice (such as an employee who let us use their business center computer after hours), it was uncanny walking around and knowing that almost everyone knew a lot about us when we desperately wanted to keep a low profile. And while the stares we got were most certainly out of curiosity and void of malicious intent, it still made us extremely uncomfortable and suspicious (I’m not sure of what). I wonder if the strong desire for privacy is an American trait, as is the sense that any breach of that privacy is a kinda of threat.

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What’s the difference between setting a big goal and a small goal? Not a lot. One of our big goal was to learn Shaolin medicine, and when we first arrived in Dengfeng, I’m sure we were both thinking, “what the #$% have we gotten ourselves into?” There were a lot of obstacles in the way, and even though it didn’t work out from one perspective, I think we learned some valuable things along the way:

1) Be prepared for everything — as YL repeatedly stressed, go with the flow. I came with a lot of set expectations, and it can prove frustrating when things don’t work out exactly that way. However, when you let go of some of your preconceptions, things get a lot better, plus you can see more clearly where you can go and sometimes more importantly, not go.

2) Have a trustworthy and patient partner to bounce ideas off — it doesn’t necessarily have to be your travel buddy although Li-Wen was invaluable as an asset to this. Talking to family and friends about what was happening and bouncing things off them as a sounding board made things much more contextualized and easy to visualize in practice

3) When you don’t get answers the first time, ask again (politely) — for some reason, we had some problems getting Dr. X to talk about his Shaolin background; he was very reluctant to talk about it. We kept asking and when it was the right moment, he was suddenly very willing to explain. This also applied to when we were in Zhengzhou and Beijing; some of our academic and life questions didn’t get answered the first time around but if you keep trying, it works.

4) Have a Plan B if steps 1-3 don’t work out — in our case, we did have a Plan B and Plan B worked out surprisingly well!

This is not to say, of course, that small goals don’t matter. They do! One of mine out of pure necessity was to learn to wash clothes. Hey, it sounds like a simple application of biochemistry — apply water and soap, rub, and the dirt falls off, rinse then hang to dry right? No. For one thing, clothes get more easily dirtied in China because there’s just a lot more soap-resistant crap floating around. For another, puny muscles mean no dry clothes. In Dengfeng, it was really humid so our clothes took several days to dry. Mine took a week to dry until I realized the full potential of Li-Wen’s uber muscles. It was really sad; I would wring out my clothes as best as I could; then hand it to Li-Wen, who would wring it and a whole bucket of water would come out again >_<. As a result, our upper body strength became nicely toned for the entire duration of our time in China. So yeah, I guess the main lesson of this one is; if you can’t do it, get someone else to!

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On the day after our arrival in Dengfeng, we visited the Shaolin Temple, courtesy of Mayor B with Dr. X as our guide. Despite the warnings I had, I still retained mental images of strolling through vast, dusty courtyards with the sound of monks training floating from the distance. What we found was thronging crowds of tourists from all over the world cluttering every nook and corner of the Shaolin Temple such that it was nearly impossible to take a single picture without catching some tourist in your picture. Of course, we took the obligatory tourist picture with Dr. X at the entrance.

As part of our project, we originally planned to study with the Shaolin monks to understand Shaolin medicine in addition to the more mainstream traditional Chinese medicine. We hoped Dr. X would be able to arrange for us to meet with some of the Shaolin medicine practitioners, as he was the Abbot’s personal physician. When we actually visited the Shaolin Temple, however, the extreme commercialism of the place and just how much we were like any other tourist provided the first hints that things may not go as we had envisioned.

As one of the first stops on our tour, we went to the Shaolin pharmacy, where Chinese herbs were stored in cabinets and weighed out by monks in training.

And they had this cool looking dude with meridians and acupoints marked on him, a standard of TCM dummy models.

We also saw a clinic where some monks were lying down for some acupuncture treatment. Unfortunately, Dr. X could not arrange for us to meet with the necessary people, and he did not really explain why. Nan and I were doubtless disappointed, but we slowly understood that there were many complicated reasons behind this, including the ambiguous relationship between the Dengfeng government and the Shaolin Temple. So… goal number one shot down, but our little brains were already churning out alternatives at this point.

Now, our guide Dr. X had a little bit of history with the Shaolin Temple. Like many young men raised in Dengfeng, he trained at the Shaolin Temple as a youth. Not only is he the personal doctor of the Shaolin Abbott, he has also worked in the Shaolin Pharmacy before. Dr. X explained a bit of the recent history of the Shaolin Temple and Shaolin medicine. In ancient times, the Shaolin monks trained in medicine because 1) they trained in combat wushu and needed to know how to treat wounds and 2) as Buddhists, they believed in the spirit of helping others and thus provided medical services to others. However, in the lost years of the Cultural Revolution, almost all of the monks were forced to return to their homes, and only a couple of monks remained at the temple. When Deng Xiaoping reopened the Shaolin Temple, not all the monks returned, and those who did tried to pass down their knowledge by mouth to the incoming generation. When Dr. X used to work at the Shaolin Temple, he worked with some of the old monks to compile and organize their medical knowledge. Right now, the Shaolin Temple is still in the process of organizing past knowledge. In terms of practitioners of Shaolin medicine, there are people in the Shaolin pharmacy that opened a few years ago, but they often only stay for a year or so, and their knowledge is not complete. So, even if we had gotten access to the Shaolin Temple, it is dubious what depth we would have been able to achieve.

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Dengfeng was where we spent the first week of our adventures. It is a township in Henan province, an approximately 1.5 hour bus ride from Zhengzhou, the capital of Henan (the bus ride we could have taken 3 times while waiting for Dr. Xu to show up at the train station). This small town of about 60,000 people is located at the foot of the Songshan Mountains, one of the five major mountains in China. Dengfeng is the town closest to the Shaolin Temple, about a 20 minute ride away. The Shaolin Temple is considered the birthplace of kungfu. We stayed in a 3 star hotel that didn’t feel like a 3 star hotel.

The sky was perpetually foggy like this.

The rooms were undecorated and visibly old, with peeling paint, off-white sheets, and stained carpets. I think because Dengfeng is located in a slight basin like area at the foot of the mountain, it was extremely humid. When we washed our clothes and wrung them out as hard as we could, they would still take 3 days to dry. The welcome notes in our room were bilingual-in Mandarin and Engrish.


The Engrish notes were prepared because many foreigners, in addition to native Chinese, visit Dengfeng for the Shaolin Temple. In the hotel’s restaurant-a buffet-style cafeteria-just about the same selection is offered every day. After a few days, both Nan and I were pretty sick of the food. However, we noted interestedly that on the one day when a large group of white tourists visited, the quality of the food improved and the number of service attendants in the cafeteria almost doubled. Hmmm…

When Dr. Xu took us on a brief car tour around Dengfeng, we saw dinky little storefronts inside the town, where all the store signs looked the same-white, blocky words on some faded picture background. In fact, it looked like many stores went to the same printer to make their signs, as this one picture of a girl in pink was used repeatedly by a variety of stores.

The ubiquitous pink girl

As we circled around the outskirts of the town, however, we saw massive multi-building complexes that surround gigantic plaza that were dotted with figures training for martial arts. There are, I believe, 50 or so kungfu schools in Dengfeng, all of them attracting tens of thousands of students from all over China and abroad. (In comparison, there are only 3 hospitals.) One would think that it is silly for all these similar schools to flock to one place, increasing competition for each other. However, there is a saying in Chinese “Zhong guo wu shu chu zhong yuan,” which translates to “Chinese martial arts originates in the central plain” (ie Henan). There seems to be a sentiment that if a school is not located near Shaolin, it is not authentic. This small town of Dengfeng has been able to grow and thrive recently due to the great number of tourists to the Shaolin Temple and students to their various kungfu schools.

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First Encounters

If life were a play (someone more famous than me put it in better words :P), then this is the script of our trip from Shanghai to Zhengzhou

Setting: Shanghai railway station, noisy, afternoon temperature in the 90s and humidity making it worse….
Characters: Li-Wen, Nan, Nan’s Aunt & Uncle who are escorting Nan and Li-Wen

Li-Wen: WHAT?! The train isn’t here yet? Why are we standing on the platform and what are these train cars doing here? [Fans herself exhaustively as she just finished dragging two 40 lb each suitcases down two flights of stairs]
Nan: [Panting, as she has just lugged one suitcase of 30 lbs down two flights of stairs]
Aunt: Let’s see if we can put our stuff on the train cars first…Wait, why isn’t the air conditioning on yet?
[Goes and asks train personnel]
“Oh, it won’t be on until the train arrives?”
Nan and Li-Wen: [dying of heat, waiting for the air conditioning to be turned on]
Uncle: [Typical stoic Chinese man who has lugged Nan’s other suitcase of 50 lbs down two flights of stairs]

Setting: The characters have arrived at Zhengzhou railway station after an overnight train ride, Li-Wen is calling Dr. X to see where he is as they’ve arranged to meet here at 7:30 am.

Li-Wen: Oh, you’ll be in in another half an hour?  Okay, he said he’ll be there in half an hour.  What would you guys like to do?
Aunt: Let’s go elsewhere to wait, and store our luggage in the train station. Ah, there’s a KFC over there, let’s go get something to eat.

Setting: KFC.  It’s been an hour.  Nan’s turn to call Dr. X to see where he is.

Nan: Oh, so you’ll be here around 11:30? Wait, didn’t you say earlier it was just going to be half an hour?  Oh, the tire’s out?  Okay, we’ll see you then.  Please call us if you’re going to be delayed further.
Li-Wen:  [looks equally as murderous as Nan]
Aunt: Why don’t we tour the city? We have quite a bit of time.
Uncle: [Sighs and continues to stoically bear the drama]

Setting: Random restaurant after a stroll in the downtown park. Li-Wen’s turn to call Dr. X who reports that he’ll be coming in in half an hour. The characters then drag themselves back to the train station.
Aunt: Are you guys going to be okay here for the next couple of weeks?
Nan and Li-Wen: I’m sure we will be fine!

Setting: Zhengzhou train station, noon time.
Dr. X: Hi guys!  Sorry about this!  The tire on the car blew out and we had to get it fixed.  We’re going to Dengfeng by bus. Please follow me.
Nan: Wait, I thought we were going by car originally?
Dr. X: Well I had to change plans when I found out your uncle and aunt were coming.
Nan: Oh, sorry about any inconvenience. I thought I made it clear on the phone that my aunt and uncle is escorting us here just for a couple of days…

Setting: Hotel in Dengfeng, afternoon
Dr. X: So Mayor B. will stop by whenever he can and then you guys can meet him.
Nan: When is he stopping by?
Dr. X: Probably this evening after dinner; he’s a really busy guy.  He’ll stop by when he can.
Nan: Oh okay.  Let’s go back to our room then and rest until then.
Aunt: We’re right across the hallway from you guys.  Let us know if you need anything.
Li-Wen: Hmm, I’m not tired.  I’ll do some stuff that I need to do.

[An hour passes, there is a knock on the door. Thinking it is probably Aunt, Li-Wen opens the door dressed in t-shirt, short shorts, holding her soggy socks that she had been hand-washing]

Dr. X: Hello! Mayor B. is here!  Come over and meet him.
Li-Wen: …
Dr. X: Let’s go!
Li-Wen: Er Nan’s asleep though, let me wake her up and we’ll be right over.
Dr. X: Oh that’s okay, she can meet him later.  Come with me. [almost drags Li-Wen out the door before she could drop her socks on the floor]


And that is how all the major characters for the next couple of weeks were introduced.  To clarify, Dr. X was our guide for local attractions and local medicine in Dengfeng as he was the personal physician for the abbot of the Shaolin Temple; he also introduced us to the doctor we would later study with in Zhengzhou. Mayor B. was our official host during our time in both Dengfeng and Zhengzhou and was the one who made everything happen.  We hoped at the beginning that he could help us gain access to the Shaolin Temple monks and that we could learn more about Shaolin medicine (one of our original project purposes).  However, it didn’t exactly work out that way as we never got a chance to meet the abbot.  Our original plan quickly got cut down to one week in Dengfeng, where we’d visit local hospitals, three weeks in Zhengzhou where we’d be visiting the an university hospital as well as shadowing Dr. C.  More details up ahead.

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