Long penetrating staffs of lightening pierced the night sky our last night in Beijing. Their crackling flashes split in spider-like formations, lighting up the already brilliant Wanfujin Street. This famous stretch still has the Foreign Languages Bookstore but each time I’m here it is less what it was and more what it will be. I remember walking down this street twenty-five years ago, before Steve Jobs, before H&M or Forever 21, before the world had given Tesela the technology to invent his car, much less sell it in a showroom along the streets of this world class city. I remember not the paved walkways and high end shops and restaurants but night vendors lined up in ordered chaos, creating maze-like corridors where locals and foreigners alike walked through, on a treasure hunt for the tastiest morsels. I remember their coal smeared faces and crooked toothed offerings, their mischievous faces when we screwed up ours at the insects cooking in oily steaming woks. I remember them playfully shocking us by answering “meow” when we pointed and gestured, “what is that?” We seemed more like visitors then, rather than tourists.
Loud thunder booms bounced off towering, architectural masterpieces and echoed down through narrower corridors of Houtongs. These historical reference points no longer house generations and generations of families but are instead wholly renovated and sit 90% empty because not even the most rich can afford the $7000 sq/meter price tag. Doug, Laura, Mary, Nina and I discussed our options for dinner, repeating ourselves to hear over the thunder claps. We thought about trying to grab one of the taxis splashing along streets, already inches deep in water from the instant and unexpected downpour, but they were already full of soaked tourists making their way back to their five-star hotels. We watched teens in high heels and skimpy summer clothes giggling under doorways, umbrellas popped, texting and posting to WeChat. They stood next to elders and us foreigners and I thought how curious this snapshot into this moment in time is: youth who never knew the Cultural Revolution - I wondered do they take their freedom for granted? Tourists too, shopping and moving along for the next purchase, the next destination - did they see the armed guards along The Worker’s Stadium as I did earlier that day? And these Elders, - do they know they are China’s memory keepers? It will be all paved over soon, the next generation gazing down from the highest floor of an innovative design. I guess remembrance is like that, though, not just for a culture, but for all of us. We think we will retain every moment, every sensation, every recollection but we will not; we will only keep a light flash or an echo of any given moment along our continuum, the rest dissolved and forgotten becoming the foundation for the next transformation.
Our group split and made their own way around Beijing the last 36 hours of our trip. I thought that would be the best option for decompressing and transitioning back home. I’m not a tour leader and had no desire to force consensus either so it worked well for me too. That morning Kathy, Gary, Nina, and Linda and I got up early to practice some Taijiquan in Jingshan Park. What a great park! Everyone moves. A robust man in his 60’s stopped and observed us as we practiced our Laojia. At the end he said, “Nei Gong, Hen Hao!” I took this as a high compliment – our internals were good! I said in my clumsy Chinese, “We have a good teacher.” He knew of the Chen Family, of Chen Xiao Xing, he himself from Zheng Zou. We walked along together and learned he is retired and likely during his medical tenure a rather famous doctor in China. He was in the army and then worked with both locals and foreign diplomats. He’s now a granddad out for a stroll with the other Elders in the Park, “Being in Nature will give you good Qi!” He said, “You will remain strong and not get sick!” He wanted to diagnose us, “for no money” and right there in the park he took our pulses and accurately diagnosed our ailments and then massaged some acupoints. By the time I got back from the restroom he had finished with the others, vanishing as quickly as he appeared. I love this about China. In an instant you can really connect with someone, magnetized by mutual affinity, and then, like the history of this place, the moment dissolves. Whether forgotten or remembered, whether renovated in a story, or faded into barely an echo, it is forever and inextricably woven into the composition of your being.
I spent the last dinner in China with my close students: Mary, Laura, Nina and Doug. As we stood in a doorway watching the downpour we decided rather than spend our last meal, dry, in the Apple Store mall or trying to get a cab back to the hotel, we would make a run for it in the pouring rain. We ran for a few blocks giggling and squealing and splahing and ended up along a side street that had not seemed to change much from the old Beijing I remember. Doug had run a “Yelp”-like search for highly rated “hole in the wall” restaurants and we ducked in, wet-headed and clingy-clad into one of those small places. We had a fantastic meal, ordered by pointing and using our server’s phone voice translation app. We were surrounded by just a couple of other tables of locals, who seemed unphased by us, and I thought we could be anywhere in Seattle right now, friends having dinner together, with the rain falling down outside.
By the time we left the downpour had subsided. The rain, like this entire experience came and went so quickly. Not long before, we were finishing our last class in Chenjiagou. Our once unrelated group having now shared 50 hours of training, shedding sweat, expectation and individuality, were solely and completely unified in a powerful thunderous stomp of our form's final movement: Buddha’s Attendant Pounds the Mortar. Not long before the night sky saw us rolling our suitcases along the streets of Chenjiagou to catch the early morning bus out of this treasured place. As we strode along past the shops and landmarks of mutual witness over these past 10 days I was aware that we foreigners ironically, were now charged with being the memory keepers not just of Taijiquan but also of this place, in its earlier days. Not long before this last dinner we were driving along the highway past the caves, past the Ying Yang fence along the Yellow River, past the Billboards advertising a better life, Chenjiagou and our time there, receding in the distance. Soon after this dinner the plane will be taxiing down the tarmac and I will be thinking about all the landscapes I have seen in my life, those personal ones deep inside me and the ones on the outside that I share with others. When the wheels of Delta Flight 128 lift off, and I leave China once again, I will be thinking about those I know and those I met. I will be reflecting on how people and landscapes come together for just a moment really, how we get to share our lives and have amazing experiences, before it all passes by, dissolving again into memory, into the unformed possibilities.