Sunday, June 14, 2009

In Pursuit of Tai Chi

I was in Boston for a short trip and my old friend Mary, whom I hadn’t seen for a year, visited me from Philadelphia. Over the weekend, she could not stop talking about Tai Chi.

I took my first English writing class from Mary 12 years ago. We have been close friends since. She witnessed my various attempts to fit in America, and I kept her company through her various heartbreaks. Still, her fascination with Tai Chi took me my surprise.

Mary grew up in the Midwest a pious and liberal Christian. After receiving her Ph.D. in a humanities field, she taught writing at universities and was heavily involved in community building and social justice. Despite our great friendship, she would only smile politely each time I sent her books on Chinese history or invited her to visit China. What had suddenly drawn her to the Chi?

You know that I went to Taiwan in 2008 for research on Eastern Healing, said Mary. I arrived in Taipei with my knee and back badly hurting. Dr. Lin, my host, did acupuncture on me and the pain went away! He also suggested that I took up Tai Chi, as a way to change my lifestyle and my health.
After that trip, Mary started taking classes at a dance studio set up by a gay Taiwanese dancer in Philadelphia. The Tai Chi teacher, an Italian American from South Philly, also taught at the community center where most of the students were African American and Muslim women with their faces behind veils.

The South Philly teacher sent Mary, a slow but tenacious student, to classes by his master. Master Ching came from China. He was in the same generation of Jet Li and appeared in many of Jet Li’s early martial arts films. Now he owns a martial arts school in Philadelphia in order to have his two kids educated in America.

I mused at the people of various colors and background threading the story of Tai Chi in America. We were having brunch on the porch of the hotel restaurant overlooking the Charles River and the Boston skyline. Mary was asking how to pronounce the Chinese names of the different moves, for Master Ching could not speak English.

We took a break. Mary read me an I Ching passage she liked. Besides health reason, what else drew you to the Tai Chi oneness? I asked.

Mary was silent for a beat. It’s almost like fate, she said slowly, that the invitation for that research trip came out of the blue from a former student of mine. I had never had any interest in Eastern medicine but I needed a chance to get away. Remember Marcos, the capoeira teacher from Brazil? I thought I had helped him much, trying to get the his non-profit going and helping him with his immigration. In the end he and his wife kicked me out of the organization, telling me that I was too pushy in my desire to help. That experience shook me up. I had always considered it necessary to actively go out and help others. But with Marcos…?

She borrowed $8000 from her high-interest credit card to hire an immigration lawyer for Marcos. She’s still paying it back, having never asked Marcos to pay back.

The church was of little help, Mary continued. I had tried two churches in Philly. Each time I spent my time and energy in building the community, and each time the leadership politics disappointed me. I stayed away, meditating and praying on my own. Then there came Tai Chi. How to maintain a balance between the community and the self? The action and the reflection?

Young and old jogged by the river. The sun shone warmly. It was a beautiful day in Boston. I marveled at the journeys we undertake, across East and West, in pursuit of happiness and peace of mind. Mary used to be my English teacher and my guide; now it is my turn to help her with the little I can.

I taught Mary how to say Open, Close, Push, and Breathe in Chinese, and in her booklet, she earnestly wrote every pinyin down.