Posted by Jeremy Goldkorn on Wednesday, March 9, 2011 at 1:31 PM
This is an adapted excerpt from Big In China: My Unlikely Adventures Raising A Family, Playing The Blues and Becoming A Star in China, just published this month. Author Alan Paul tells the story of arriving in Beijing as a trailing spouse, starting a blues band, raising kids and trying to make sense of China.
I met my Chinese teacher Yechen within two months of moving to Beijing and developed an immediate affection for him. When he told me that he was going to quit the language school where I was studying, I immediately hired him to give me private lessons and helped him find some other students who were also drawn to his rigorous, intellectually demanding sessions.
Yechen was an unusual guy, thoroughly grounded in classical Chinese philosophy, culture and religion. He spoke in aphorisms without pretension, animated his conversation with references to ancient parables, guided his decision-making by looking to historical precedence and was deeply out of step with contemporary Beijing’s go-go aesthetic. But he was also full of contradictory impulses, an Anglophile who spent five years teaching at a prestigious London university and had cultured taste in music and literature, both Western (Tennessee Williams) and Chinese (Gao Xingjian).
During our second year studying together, Yechen asked if I wanted to accompany him and a Taoist monk friend on a pilgrimage to the holy mountain of Huashan. It sounded like an unforgettable journey but I already had plans, so Yechen went with another of his students, returning deeply moved.
He told me all about the harrowing hike up to Huashan’s five peaks and showed me photos of single-plank walkways along sheer cliffs suspended by chains above steep drops. The peaks were shrouded in mist and dotted with small stone temples and stunted evergreens. His enthusiasm made perfect sense.
A month later, Yechen sat down for a lesson and told me he would be leaving Beijing. He had a great job offer from another London university, with a high salary and free lodging in a storied Victorian mansion. He often spoke longingly about his time in London, so I thought this was great news, but when I congratulated him he said he wasn’t sure he would accept the position. He had been profoundly moved by that trip to Huashan and was giving serious thought to becoming a monk instead.
Discussing it further, I realized that he was restrained only by guilt about his mother’s reaction. “Chinese parents don’t want their kids to be monks,” he explained. He felt tremendous pressure not to disappoint her by essentially pledging to live a childless life of poverty.
When he asked my opinion I told him rather tepidly that he should go to London. I thought being a monk sounded like a wild gambit, but I didn’t want to insult him.
I thought about Yechen constantly over the five days before our next class. The more I did, the crazier becoming a monk seemed and the more inadequate I considered my milquetoast response. He was obviously unhappy and looking for a change. But renouncing the material world was too radical. Going to London might turn things around and if not, he could always return to China and enter the monkhood. If he chose that route first, however, it would be much harder to change course. I developed a coherent argument and was prepared to have a good talk.
When Yechen returned to my house, he promptly announced that he had rejected the London offer and would soon be searching for a monastery. I wanted to try to talk him out of this until he told me that over the weekend he had visited Baiyunguan and ceremoniously burned the meticulous diaries he had kept for years and which I knew were his pride and joy. A chill ran through me as he said that he had come to see the journals as totems of youthful naiveté, markers of a past he was leaving behind.
I hoped that the feeling would continue, but I was concerned. He said that he would travel with one small bag, going from place to place until he found a place that suited him. All of his friends thought him crazy, he said. I did not consider Yechen insane but his vision of monkhood seemed awfully romantic. I was shaken that he hadn’t decided whether to be a Buddhist or Taoist monk, which seemed to cry out that he was seeking escape more than true spiritual enlightenment.
A few days later, we met for lunch at a vegetarian restaurant near the Lama Temple.
He took a sip of tea.
“Everyone is concerned about being cheated by someone else, but it doesn’t matter.”
“They should worry about cheating themselves instead, which is the worst crime you can commit,” he said. “If I didn’t do this, I would be cheating myself.”
“There are many good teachers,” he said. “You won’t have a problem finding one.”
After two years, he was acknowledging the 800-pound gorilla in the room; I would some day forget everything I was studying. This cynical thought had pushed me to skip over any word or grammar rule for which I didn’t see an immediate use, but I had never dared express it to Yechen.
“But the language is a bridge to the culture,” he continued. “And the culture can stay with you forever.”
This story is adapted from Big In China: My Unlikely Adventures Raising A Family, Playing The Blues and Becoming A Star in China (Harper Collins). Available March 1 in all formats. Copyright 2011 by Alan Paul. For more information, please visit www.alanpaul.net.
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