It never occurred to me that I would have the (mis)fortune of encountering this viral disease on two occasions within the span of three months. When I left my friends in Nanjing, it was in part due to pressure from Fulbright. Otherwise, I was quite happy and content with my life in the monastery. Between dishwashing and prayer sessions, I had access to nutritious vegetarian food and high-speed internet. Life was good.
But being back in the United States for a few months now, it seems like a lot of the criticisms Americans (I use this term generally, referring to my experiences interacting with anonymous “American” identities online) had towards China’s falsified death toll are happening again. This time though, the inaccurate counts are being recorded in the United States, with the number of patients tested positive for COVID being much lower than what’s predicted.
I don’t want to seem like I’m shifting the blame in an direction. As we try to grapple with something as dangerous as this virus, I think it’s simply helpful to keep in mind that this is a difficult situation, and I hope that rather than being entirely cynical, we can understand how difficult it is for governments to produce a competent response when things are happening so fast. This being said, I also do not want to excuse the misdeeds and inactions. The US knew that this issue was affecting China for months before it truly blew up in the US, but even as I flew into San Francisco International Airport on January 31, I was not subject to any tests or screening, but merely a simple questionnaire.
One major factor I blame for this incompetence is the blindness that Americans have regarding global citizenship. Despite sharing the same planet, it felt like the overall view (when coronavirus broke out across China in early January) was that this was a distant issue. It surely would not affect the US.
But the US doesn’t live in a vacuum. People travel, and people travel internationally. Even as cases began to appear in the US, our frames of reference became even more limited, thinking, “oh, but New York is so far away,” or “ah, but that’s Seattle,” not thinking of how the web of connections which ties us all together on this planet is both the key to recovery and the key to catastrophe.
As the trajectory in the US remains as dismal as ever, I am left wondering what things would be like if the US had a competent administration, one with the compassion to have reached out to aid China in mitigating the virus while it was still growing, one which would have thought of implementing screening procedures for vulnerable populations and boosting health care access at the first alarm. I am left disappointed, and as tribalism spreads online, violence towards Asians increases, and amygdalian reactions spread, I fear that the global population is moving farther and farther away from a universally beneficial solution.
Growing up, I was told inspiring stories of self-made billionaires—people who pulled themselves up by the bootstraps, who had absolutely nobody and nothing to rely on but themselves, and were eventually able to overcome a vicious cycle of poverty.
I find that an absolute lie.
It is a harmful lie, and not just because it paints this false narrative that everybody has equal opportunity in the world, but because it disregards and willfully ignores all of the help we all give and receive from each other.
After returning to Portland, I visited some old friends at College Possible, the organization that helped me apply to college and helped me get to where I am today. This chance encounter led me to the state capitol, where I helped them request more funding from the state to expand the program and coach an even broader range of students.
During these past few weeks, I’ve also been looking at my resume, reviewing my list of accomplishments and past work. In looking at this sheet, which distills my life’s work into one 8.5 by 11 inch page, I realized that none of these accomplishments are mine—
That is to say, none of these accomplishments are mine alone.
I graduated high school, not solely by my own virtue, but by the virtue of my teachers and my family. I did not get into college merely because of my own accomplishments, but because I had mentors who helped me prepare my application. Even now, as I write this blog, I would not have been able to share these thoughts if it were not for the library’s public internet access, funded by taxes, and for the web server, which is graciously donated by a friend. Going back even further, this set of opportunities would not be within my reach if I had been born in another country, if I had a different family, or if I had never been born at all.
Perhaps that is too far, too abstract, too difficult to conceive of. Bringing things back to the present, there is no task that I have completed which I can credit myself for. There is no skill I can do, nothing that I own, that was not taught or passed onto me from somebody else. This body of mine is a gift from my parents, this laptop I am typing on is the creation of some factory (probably in China), and the air I breathe a precious gift from the lush greenery that surrounds me.
When we lead ourselves to believe that those who are successful reached that success due to their own individual capabilities, it ignores the complex, interwoven network which ties us together in this vast universe.
For the past few years, my approach to life has been to simply walk the next step in front of me, to merely do the next right thing. One thing will lead to the next, and without calculating too much, it has led me to limitless, unimaginable opportunities and experiences. In turn, these experiences shape who I am, who I become, and my next step leads from the previous.
As I think of my next step, I believe I will spend the next chapter of my life in Portland to repay the kindnesses my mentors and teachers have bestowed upon me. I do not believe that spending a few months, or even a few years here will fully repay the kindness I have received, but after that, perhaps I will move to some other place and inspire others, just as my teachers have inspired me. In the mean time, I will continue to learn and improve, with the hopes that a wider range of capabilities will provide me more skills to use when others are in distress.
To say that one is a self-made man is to say that one owes nothing to the community from which one is created. No matter how resourceful, how brilliant, how skilled one may be, the resources and brilliance one draws from is not innate—it comes from the kindness of others.
I know I’m skipping a lot of Nanjing experiences by jumping to the departure. In between, there were countless memories of meals, chores, and outings that made me feel like a part of the family at Tianlong Temple.
But the departure came quick. It came one day after I called to tell my mom, “I’m staying in China.”
It was immediate. It was unexpected. It was, from my current perspective, fortuitous.
I logged into my computer one afternoon and noticed that the flights from Nanjing to Portland had dropped drastically (likely due to the coronavirus outbreak). While I did not feel like I was in danger at the monastery, the price had dropped so low that I was tempted to fly home, even if I would need to return to China in a few weeks. And at the time, I was thinking that it would all blow over in just a few weeks.
I purchased my plane ticket on Monday with an expectation that I would fly on Thursday, for under $400.
My friends were taken aback when I broke the news.
“Don’t you think you’ll be more at risk at the airport than here?” they asked.
I nodded. It would be more of a risk to spend nearly 24 hours on a harrowing trans-pacific flight with people from all over China. But at the same time, it was cheap, and in the days after I purchased the ticket, the situation deteriorated rapidly.
I purchased my ticket as soon as I received a message from Fulbright saying that we would not be in violation of our contract if we temporary left China. The day before my flight, Fulbright changed their stance to “leave as soon as possible,” although at that point, flights had been cut and severe travel restrictions imposed.
These sudden warnings led me to think that I made the right decision in purchasing a plane ticket out, but alas that was not the end of my ordeal.
In the days leading up to my flight, there were unexpected cancellations of my connecting flight from Nanjing to Beijing, forcing me to reschedule to Friday, January 31. After a few stressful midnight correspondences with United Airlines, I was finally set to fly.
Due to all the rescheduling, my leisurely afternoon flight had turned into an early-morning departure from Nanjing. The night before, my friends scurried around to get me ready for my 21-hour itinerary.
“It’s fine,” I told them. “I’ll just pick up a McMuffin and some hashbrowns at the airport.”
I knew that wouldn’t stop them.
I woke up the next morning and brought my suitcase downstairs. Three monks stood waiting for me. I checked my phone; I was 5 minutes early.
“Stay safe,” one said. “I had Huiting steam you some buns.”
He handed me a brown bag, its steam escaping into the frosty air. I thanked him and grabbed it, feeling its warmth in my numb hands.
It was not a particularly emotional farewell. We all knew we’d see each other again. Being a man involved in temple life instantly makes one part of a tight-knit community. After all, women in the Taiwanese Buddhist world outnumber the men nearly 5 to 1. And so, with only a handful of guys in this sphere, it would only be a matter of time before we crossed paths again.
There were no cars on the street as we drove to the airport. Granted, it was close to 5 am and most workplaces were closed for the New Year anyways. I ate my buns and noticed a surprise at the bottom of the bag—a pouch of heated soy milk.
That was my last home-cooked meal in China. After arriving at the airport, it was either plane food or instant noodles.
After I returned to the US, I read a NYT article about the experience of a foreign exchange student from Portland, and I felt like the framing of his ordeal was sensationalized and lacked any sense of context.
Upon arriving at the airport, everybody was wearing a surgical mask. While this might be unsightly to those unfamiliar with it, I had spent enough time in Japan and Taiwan to become accustomed to it. Upon entering, I put on the masks the temple had provided me, and walked inside.
We were made to wait by the door while airport security took our temperatures. Everybody in our batch was okay, and we walked in. Despite the panic going around all over the country—and the world—I felt like I was in the eye of the storm. In this bustling airport, I didn’t hear a single cough. And should anybody cough, the masks we wore would theoretically cover a lot of the droplets.
The flights were smooth, and despite my six-hour layover in Beijing, I managed to keep myself entertained with their free wifi. On the plane from Beijing to San Francisco though, I realized how woefully unprepared Americans were.
The crew—all self-proclaimed native San Franciscans—wore masks like the rest of us, except they did not seem to understand the purpose of the masks. One pulled her mask down to talk to an elderly man, who shirked away and cringed as she did so. Another fellow felt that his mask was too restricting and only covered his mouth, leaving his gaping nostrils wide open—ready to spread and receive droplets of potentially infected body fluids.
In the US, a lot of people are uncomfortable with both the look and the feeling of face masks. Even my mom said she tried it for about fifteen minutes before deciding that it “probably wouldn’t work anyways.” This sentiment, shared by quite a few of my friends who post about the issue on Facebook, is a fact-defying act: studies have shown that depending on the type of mask used, SARS transmissions were reduced by 68 to 91%. Given that both SARS is also a coronavirus, it would be wise to develop good mask-wearing habits on a plane full of people from various parts of China, but it seems like Americans care more about comfort than safety.
And while I think the chance of coronavirus transmission in the US is so low that wearing a mask wouldn’t make much of a difference (you wouldn’t catch it anyways), I do think that mask-wearing habits coupled with good hand-washing would surely limit the extent of flu and cold cases.
But rather than worry about issues in our own backyard—are threatening American lives—attention is redirected to the potential dangers of a foreign germ.
There have been many articles on the harassment and prejudice Asians have faced in recent months due to the coronavirus scare, but as an Asian who did in fact come from China, the moment I was worried most—the moment I decided that I needed to wear a mask—was when I boarded the flight from San Francisco to Portland.
Despite the silence and general feeling of safety I experienced in China, landing in San Francisco made me realize how low our sense of caution is, considering that it’s both flu season and that there’s a viral outbreak going on.
Nobody wore masks, and through social pressure, I felt like I should take mine off too, lest I get heckled for being a suspicious Asian man wearing a mask.
But then I decided that social pressure was no reason to catch a cold from the cacophony of coughs and sneezes around me. I had a sneezing toddler (who did not cover his droplets) behind me, a coughing grandmother in front of me, and a few middle-aged men with runny noses just to my right.
If got sick, it wouldn’t be because of China’s coronavirus. It would be because of America’s cold and flu season.
(It’s been nearly a month since I got back from China, and despite my parents both coming down with a cold and recovering, I haven’t even let out a sneeze.)
Not long after the two temple visits, we had a small trip to see the lanterns that adorned the streets to celebrate the New Year. The frigid air was refreshing that night, and I enjoyed the company of temple friends.
We were nerds, to put it lightly, and everybody in attendance had previous experience with elaborate lantern shows before. In temples throughout the world, the Lunar New Year is a hectic time when every set of hands is required to help decorate and clean.
For most of us, this was the first lantern show we saw in China.
I grew excited with each step as we walked down the cobblestone path, street vendors hawking their sizzling snacks at us as we passed.
And then we saw them.
The lanterns, while impressive enough to attract a healthy-sized crowd of photographers, left me with a wistful sense of dismay. I looked at my companions, and their furrowed brows reflected the same sense of distaste.
Finally, one young novice monk broke the silence.
“… That’s it?” his voice faltered.
Our temple’s director let out a sigh, “I suppose so. And here I thought we’d get some inspiration for decorations next year.”
As we left the lanterns behind and walked towards the nearby bookstore, I chuckled internally. It was silly. It would take a spectacular show to impress a group of monks who grew up executing one of the most elaborate festival of lights in Asia.
Leaving the lights behind, we entered the bookstore and browsed. Very few of us bought anything. We simply walked around, enjoying the ambiance and bustle of avid readers.
Finally, at the end of the night, we decided to stop for a midnight snack. Unfortunately though, none of the street vendors provided vegetarian options, except for dessert, and we wanted something with a bit more substance than sweetened tofu.
After a few rejections, we finally found our vegetarian meal at an unconventional place: a burger joint.
I was both curious and suspicious. They featured mozzarella sticks and veggie burgers on the menu. We ordered both.
As we waited for our order, a young boy—perhaps around 10—sat with his mother and called out to my Indian friend.
“Excuse me,” the young boy exclaimed. “Do you speak English?”
My friend froze. He turned towards me.
“Him, him!” he gestured. “He speaks English much better than me. I speak Hindi and Chinese.”
I turned towards the duo, and the boy giggled.
“Can you really speak English?” he asked me.
“Sure thing, bud,” I replied as I sat down on the empty chair next to him. “Where are you from?”
“I’m from Beijing!” he responded enthusiastically.
“Oh, it must be really cold up there. Are you enjoying your fries?”
He nodded as he munched on his french fries.
“How do you speak English so well?” he asked.
“Well, I grew up in the US,” I said.
“Really?” he exclaimed. “I love McDonald’s!”
I laughed. This boy had absolutely no filter, and I found it hilarious that McDonald’s is the default representation of American culture.
His mom found it strange though and pressed me a bit further, asking in Mandarin, “So you didn’t grow up in China?”
“Nope,” I responded back in Mandarin. “This is actually my first time in China.”
This was an interaction I had become accustomed to by now, as new acquaintances struggled to comprehend how the same Chinese face could utter such foreign words while also speaking with such familiar tones.
The two finished their meal as our orders came out, and they bid their goodbyes while we munched on our mozzarella sticks. The restaurant didn’t have any marinara sauce, so they provided ketchup instead. It wasn’t quite the same, but I wasn’t going to skip a chance to eat some fatty and salty American goodness.
The burgers were pretty good too, and I realized how long it had been since I’d tasted mayonnaise.
Reflecting on my experiences in China now, I realized that most of my interactions involved navigating the American-Chinese dichotomy that people had ingrained in their minds. I looked Chinese and spoke Mandarin fluently, therefore I was inherently Chinese. But at the same time, I disliked calling myself Chinese, for that would erase the unique opportunities and upbringing I experienced for the first 20 years of my life. If I were to say I was simply “Chinese,” I would have no proper response when people asked where I went to high school, or where I went to college, and clarifying the situation at that point would make it even more of a mess.
And so, I decided that it was easiest for me to say, I’m American. That part isn’t obvious. It’s not what people notice when they see me. But that’s the part I feel like I need to come clean about. I qualify it by saying that I spent nearly a decade enrolled in Chinese classes and spent my undergraduate years reading Classical Chinese literature, but in a lot of ways, there is an “Americanness”—whatever that may be—that permeates my personality.
We visited Niushoushan the day after our trip to Dabaoen Temple, but I haven’t had a chance to write about it until now. A lot has happened in the past few weeks, and I will attempt to retell all of this chronologically.
Niushoushan was constructed in the early 2010s after the excavation of Dabaoen Temple revealed the Buddha’s skull relic. The construction, primarily funded by the Chinese government, is reminiscent of the imperial sponsorship that Changgan Temple (as it was previously called) enjoyed while it enshrined the Buddha’s relics.
This new construction features a mix of modern, Indian, and East Asian architecture, drawing from cave temples and “Tang dynasty” aesthetics. Overall, it is a grand and impressive structure, but nonetheless I was rather disappointed.
It is—in all senses—a tourist attraction. There are no events, no services, not even an active monastic community. Adjacent to the majestic palace is a small monastery which houses a modest community of maybe ten monks who take care of the relics.
While the architecture is spectacular and the vision broad, there was not much in terms of research, and this led to quite a few errors in iconography. But again, this was constructed on a tight schedule and meant to be impressive rather than accurate.
By visiting this newly constructed site, a site meant to memorialize an integral part of Nanjing’s past grandeur, I noticed that these reconstruction projects are not very educational. They serve primarily to bolster national spirit and morale, exude pride in the greatness that China once embodied, and suggest that China’s current trajectory will restore it to that fantastic past.
I don’t mean to say that it is inappropriate for China to highlight its grand past. In fact, I appreciate that the country is rebuilding its past and letting the world see how majestic it once was. My issue with it comes from the inaccuracies that plague its presentation. I would enjoy it much more if, say, the spaces sought to replicate a particular time in Nanjing’s history.
Of course, every time we have modern architects reimagining what ancient Nanjing looked like, the most we will get is an architect’s imagination. It will never be fully accurate. However, there is still value in attempting to replicate and giving credit to the inspirations for the replication.
That being said, I think it is also interesting for an architect to have free reign and create this conglomeration of Chinese/Indian art to highlight the entire spectrum of Chinese Buddhist history. But even then, I think it would be helpful to identify the inspirations for each aspect rather than presenting it as an artistic Frankenstein.
Overall, I am glad that these sacred artifacts are being maintained and well-preserved, but I do think there is a lot more to do for this to become educational. Sightseeing brings visitors, but once they’re in the door, there needs to be much more to give them a sense of new perspective and understanding. Only then will they leave with piqued curiosity and appreciation.
A visiting group from another part of China came to stay at Tianlong Temple today, and they were planning on seeing a few other local temples while they were in the city, so I got to tag along.
Our first trip was to Dabaoen Temple (I believe the official translation is Grand Baoen Temple, but I find it weird to translate part and then transliterate the rest). Despite being founded in the third century, it went through a few periods of construction, destruction, and then reconstruction. Its most recent iteration was in the Ming dynasty, when the emperor built it to memorialize his parents. Unfortunately, it was burned down during the Taiping Rebellion a few centuries later.
This next part is hearsay, but apparently there were originally plans to build some commercial center, except once they started digging, they found the ruins of the temple and were ordered to stop. The government took over the area and built an enormous structure around it to protect the ruins from the elements, and then started digging—eventually finding hidden treasures untouched by the Taiping Rebellion.
Being an imperially sponsored temple, it’s almost a given that the temple must have housed quite a few treasures. Of these, the most significant one is a finely-crafted gold pagoda encrusted with jewels. While there were supposedly a lot of fine murals and paintings, those have all disappeared, although there are attempts in the exhibitions to reimagine what they might have looked like.
The pagoda housed a relic—although it was unclear what the relic was. They had it on an altar and gave it a fancy name of 感應舍利, which literally means “the relic of invoked-response.” This tells me nothing about the particulars of the relic and its origins. After some Googling, I found out that these relics aren’t relics in the usual Buddhist sense. They’re not remains of some holy figure, but rather jewels the emperor commissioned to serve as relics.
In this sense, I don’t see anything holy about them.
Sure, they’re beautiful crystals, and the case enshrining them is a masterpiece, but there is no religious significance to me. If anything, the entire space—which is beautifully imagined—is not much more than an attempt to help visitors conceptualize Buddhist scenes and what this temple might have looked like four hundred years ago.
Despite this though, there was an egregious attempt to make the space around the relics a “temple” in the sense that there was an altar (which is fine). What made me frown was a desk where visitors could make donations—except the donations aren’t going to support the monastery because there is no monastery. I suppose the argument is that the money supports the museum, and while I’m fine with this, I think it’s confusing to have it masquerading as a temple donation station.
From a Buddhist perspective, supporting an active community of monastics is very different from supporting a museum. While they’re both great causes, it’s misleading to suggest that the donations are going towards supporting a Buddhist community—or to provide maintenance for the relics which aren’t really relics.
Overall, I was extremely pleased with the conservation work and the items in the exhibit. The newly built scenes were nice too, and I did learn a lot from the tour.
Oh, this leads me into the tour.
So, having been a docent for quite a few institutions now, our docent today definitely knew her stuff (although part of me felt like she had simply memorized a script without having a particularly deep understanding of what she was describing). Still, being able to smoothly remember details about each exhibition and explain them to a group of twenty-some people is no small feat.
Now—an issue arose in terms of visitor experience. At the beginning of the tour, she instructed me to be in charge of returning the earpieces at the end of our tour.
Sure, that’s fine.
Then, halfway through the tour, she confirmed with me that I would help her collect earpieces at the end of the tour.
“Yup,” I replied. “I’ll help you collect the earpieces.”
“Then why are you still here?” she jabbed.
I was confused, “Why shouldn’t I be here?”
“I handed out 22 earpieces, and there are only 17 people here right now. How are you going to return the earpieces to me if people are missing?”
“Chill. The tour isn’t over yet.”
She gave me an exasperated sigh and kept moving.
A few minutes later, she pulled me aside again.
“I’m serious kid, if I don’t get 22 of these back, you’re going to pay for the missing ones.”
I looked her dead in the eye, “I’ll let you know right now that I don’t have money, and I’m not responsible for what other adults do during the tour. But, if it makes you feel better, I can assure you we’ll have all 22 back to you by the end of the day.”
While I wasn’t too bothered by the exchange, it did make the entire experience less pleasant than before the snappy attitude.
We kept moving, and I thought to myself, I have no idea who these people are. I’m just going to help her collect them—what else does she expect of me?
Like I said, at the end of the tour, I rounded people up and had them return their earpieces before letting them leave. She counted 20. We were missing two earpieces.
“I told you we’d be missing earpieces,” she glared at me. “Now pay for them.”
“Could you count them again?” I asked.
We went inside to count them on a table—21.
“We’re still missing one,” she insisted. “They’re 500 rmb each. I’m serious. You need to pay before you can leave.”
“I’m not the one who didn’t return my machine. I’m not responsible for other adults on this tour—I don’t even know them,” I explained.
Her coworker came up to us, “What’s the matter?”
My docent explained the situation.
“You’re fine,” the coworker said to me. “Please take some time to enjoy the rest of the exhibitions.”
“Why are you letting him go?” my docent lashed back. “Doesn’t he need to pay us first?”
We both stared at her blankly.
“… Is he Mr. Wang?” the coworker asked.
“No,” I answered quickly. “I’m just a tag-along.”
“Then he’s not responsible,” she said firmly. “I’m sure it’ll show up soon. Somebody probably just took it with them to the restroom or something.”
“You better find it and bring it to me, young man,” my docent’s voice was getting fainter as I stepped out the door and towards the other exhibits. “I’ll charge you!”
I laughed when I got outside. She never told me where to bring the earpiece, so even if I did find it, I wouldn’t know where to find her. Besides, I only had 100 rmb on me. If they really wanted to charge someone, they’d charge Mr. Wang, the tour coordinator.
But, I decided that I’d make an announcement once we got on the bus to make sure everybody had returned their earpieces—they did cost 500 rmb a piece, after all.
I browsed around a bit more, looking around at the exhibitions and gift shop before deciding that I was thoroughly unimpressed by their overpriced merchandise. Alas, such is the case for most gift shops anywhere.
When everybody gathered together to get on the bus, I checked, and all machines were returned. We were good to go.
Although, honestly if I had found a machine then and there, I wouldn’t have had any means of giving it back to the docent.
On Mondays, I have no household chores to do, and I close my laptop to take my research outside.
For my first outing, I went to Jiming Temple 雞鳴寺, a nunnery on the edge of Nanjing, adjacent to the city wall, which is in turn adjacent to Xuanwu Lake.
Upon arriving, I was surprised to see a line to purchase admission tickets. While I’m not a stranger to admission tickets for temples (they’re common for any historical temple in Japan), I doubted that Jiming Temple had anything on display that was worth charging admission for. National treasure statues? Probably not. Famous gardens? Unlikely.
But it was supposed to be a relatively popular destination in Nanjing, so I paid the 10 yuan and walked in.
It was old, that’s for sure.
The temple is built on a hill, so there are plenty of steps that lead to the various halls. While the buildings themselves seem somewhat old, the statues inside are probably no older than say, 20-30 years, and that’s if I’m being generous.
This is—however—not including the statues in the main shrine, which I couldn’t really see because it was closed when I visited.
Overall, I was a bit disappointed in the state of affairs—the menu-like array of donation options, the lack of any Buddhist activities, and the proliferation of people tossing coins in donation boxes for spiritual protection.
In a way, it reminded me of the malaise I felt at a lot of Japanese temples, except here it was much less tasteful.
They had given me a few sticks of incense at the door, and I offered it in the one, giant censer they had outside. Again—nothing was very orderly about this, and my years of shrine attendant training kicked in as I began to arrange the incense so that there would at least be room for others to place their sticks.
I didn’t spend too much time in the temple, opting instead to sit in the temple library for a few hours. I was impressed by its collection, although it was understandably limited to Chinese language resources. It was still nice to have access to all sorts of rare books though.
They even had a guqin on display, although I decided not to mess with it since I didn’t want to be kicked out.
After my library session, I had lunch at the temple cafe before continuing on my Monday excursion. From the temple, I walked to the city wall and took a stroll along it until I reached Xuanwu Lake and looped around there.
At the lake, I encountered an interesting memorial to Guo Pu (276–324), an esteemed scholar and influential founder of Fengshui. Similar to how Abe no Seimei has his own shrine in Kyoto, Guo Pu’s cenotaph is surrounded by people’s wishes.
Now, from the temple to the city wall to the cenotaph, there were a lot of museum-like exhibits that were meant to be educational. The only issue was that they weren’t executed particularly skillfully. Display cases had objects without any sort of explanation or labeling, and although didactic panels were helpful, they didn’t interact with anything else in the exhibit.
So I left the park, disappointed in the exhibit design, but pleased by the misty scenery which transported me to what I imagine Song dynasty scholars would have seen while strolling by on a wintry afternoon.
On my home, I happened across a sluice which was used to divert water from the lake and into the city. This was an amazing little landmark with an exhibition that was actually well-done. The panels, the samples of bricks and pipes used in the sluice, and the diagrams of how the entire thing worked blended smoothly with the sections discussing the history and significance of the lake itself.
According to one panel, there was a monster in the lake which would terrorize the locals at night. Eventually, they decided to pray at Jiming Temple for some divine intervention, and Guanyin appeared that night to seal the monster at the bottom of the lake by agreeing to release it again in the morning.
As a result, the neighbors did not announce that it was morning ever again, and the monster—thinking that morning had yet to come—has been waiting patiently ever since. It is interesting because Jiming literally means “rooster’s crow.” That is, presumably, if a rooster were to crow near the lake and the lake monster were to hear it, it would be released from its watery prison and terrorize Nanjing again.
I’ve always been a fan of such myths, and whether or not they’re true is irrelevant to me. They make certain places significant to the locals, and that itself imbues the space with a solemn feeling that wouldn’t be there otherwise.
Next week, I’ll be meeting with a friend from Claremont I haven’t seen in about two years.
I got off the plane to a familiar feeling: the damp chill that defined my childhood in Portland. Through a window, I peered up at the gray sky—yup, very Portland.
But the similarities ended there. As I walked through the subway station, navigating my way to Tianlongsi, I began to realize how big and bustling Nanjing was.
Being the site of war atrocities and the regal capital of various dynasties prior, Nanjing is a city of history and heritage. Nestled in the Jiangnan region, it was nurtured by the boom of scholarly culture and commercial enterprises, developing a distinct flavor that distinguishes it from its northern counterpart: Beijing.
After about an hour on the train, I made it to my intended destination: Tianlongsi station. It was then, just as I was exiting the station, that I remembered—I forgot to bring an umbrella.
I chuckled to myself. This really did feel like Portland again.
I walked through the chilly drizzle, reminiscing about my afternoon walks home from school in the chilly rain.
And in a sense, I was returning home.
I turned my head and immediately saw the imperial glazed tiles. Home.
I started walking towards the towering complex. How long had it been since I had visited a temple? Despite living in one for months at a time while in Los Angeles, I hadn’t visited a temple since coming to China. A random shrine here and there, sure, but nothing that felt like a temple. The temples in China do not feel like active spaces, but rather as passive landmarks poised to charge admission and sell incense to tourists. Faced with such a predicament, I typically just abstain from going, as I presume it will lead to more disappointment.
But Tianlong Temple is different.
I was greeted halfway down the street by a young temple assistant in his 20s, perhaps only a few years older than me. He took my luggage and brought me to my room, where I got settled. After receiving the Wi-Fi password and key card, we set off for a quick tour of the grounds.
Since the temple is still under construction, it’s not officially open to the public. However, there is a growing team of volunteers—all trained with the unmistakable signature of Fo Guang Shan’s impeccable service.
The first thing I noticed was that they were all well-versed in temple etiquette. Moreover, they had the perfectionism of any experienced temple volunteer. The altars, flowers, and bookshelves were all meticulously cared for.
Most nostalgic of all though was the moment we started evening service. The comforting scent of aloeswood coupled with time-old chants brought me home in a different sense—back to evenings in my childhood temple, where the sound of slow, melodic chanting was interspersed with the pattering of rain on the rooftop.
After we concluded, I befriended some of the temple residents, including two young monks from India. I’ve since become their go-to English conversation partner, since they haven’t met anybody who speaks English since arriving in China.
The next morning continued my nostalgia, as the sound of a wooden board woke me from my sleep—and sent a rush of adrenaline through my body. I jumped out of bed and dashed to the bathroom, preparing for a line of people trying to finish washing up.
Except I forgot that I live in a sparsely-occupied hallway.
Nobody was in the restroom, and the next guy who walked in groggily about 5 minutes later stared at me, confused as to why I was brushing my teeth so vigorously at 6:05 am.
The rest of the day went smoothly. In my spare time, I helped arrange some supplies for the office, and in the evening I went out to browse the nearby mall, where I found a delightful bookstore and cafe. While I didn’t buy any books, I was enticed by the sale that Muji had going on. Besides, I thought to myself, I need more clothes to survive this chilly weather anyways.
I came out with three sweaters, three button-ups, two long-sleeved tee shirts, one pair of shoes, a phone charger, and a bag of hojicha latte mix. All of these—especially the last item—are winter essentials.
I’m looking forward to my month here. Between the familiar cold weather, delicious vegetarian food, and clockwork routine, I’m hoping that this month will provide a conducive atmosphere for my project.
A few months ago, I was debating where to spend my Winter Break.
Although school is out for roughly a month, Fulbright insists that we have to remain productive nonetheless, and so we’re not allowed to have too much fun. If we were, I’d probably be kicking back on a beach in Thailand—or meeting up with Pomona friends in Japan.
Staying on campus would have been pretty miserable too. There’s only one not-so-vegetarian-friendly dining hall open—with limited options—and barely anything open around the school. Besides, I wouldn’t have access to the library anyway.
If I were to spend my break trying to be productive in a non-academic environment, I’d want to spend it in a place where I can be fed, kept reasonably warm, and bask in the presence of friends.
Then came a message from a friend in Los Angeles.
“I’m moving to Nanjing,” he wrote. “Let me know if you want to come by for Winter Break. I can arrange for you to stay in the dorms.”
My friend is a monk, and his recent transfer to Nanjing helped me find a place to stay over the month-long break. However, he also warned that there really was not much going on, since the temple itself is still under construction.
Nonetheless, being in Nanjing would unlock a new region in China in terms of my research. I already predict that people here prefer green tea since it has more of a local connection. There are also a handful of tea-related landmarks—many of them doubling as Buddhist monasteries—which I hope will help me see how these mingle and present themselves.
And so, I wrote a proposal on why I should be allowed to spend a month in Nanjing, and after a few days, the embassy approved it.
Yesterday, I woke up bright and early again to ride the bus to the airport. Now, the bus only has a few time slots scheduled. I could either leave at 7:30 (and get there by 9) or leave at 10:30 (and get there by 12). My flight was at 12:20. Not having much of a choice, I woke up early only to get to the airport roughly three hours before boarding.
Fortunately, I had a friend with me.
After sleeping for the entire bus ride, we groggily unloaded the bus and waited in a McDonald’s. I had three hours before my flight, and she was waiting to greet a friend who had come to visit.
As we talked a bit in the restaurant, she mentioned that she and a few other friends had planned to come over for tea the night before.
In some earlier posts, I mentioned that my friend group primarily consists of international graduate students. I suppose that’s still loosely true, although the group has splintered off over the past few months. The once lively group chat has become silent, and the occasional prompt to plan an outing is typically ignored. Sure, it shouldn’t be too shocking for a larger group to split off into smaller ones, and it wasn’t like I had been left completely friendless.
Every so often, a friend or two would ask to come by for tea. It would always be a wonderful time, and depending on who came in, we’d either be chatting until 10 pm or 4 am, with topics ranging from Confucian theories on moral development to our own past instances of academic insubordination.
In the past week or so, the splintered friend group suddenly reached out after about two months of planning their own gatherings. I found it strange, but I humored their requests. I don’t mind playing host, after all. However, the person who often planned these never bothered to tell me about their plan to visit until they came to knock.
While I don’t mind playing host, some advance notice is nice. Sometimes they come in and I already have the kettle on (because I was planning on drinking some tea). But sometimes they come in and I have to scramble to get things in order, or drop whatever I was doing to entertain my unexpected guests.
But I knew that they had planned to come the day before. In fact, I received a message about having tea that evening. I would have welcomed them, but unfortunately I was in Putian and had far too many things to do that night.
However, I appreciated the advance notice.
Then I realized that my friend here sitting next to me was the reason why I had received a request so early in advance.
“SS (our mutual friend) planned tea a few times actually,” my friend, HM, mentioned.
“Oh? When was this?” I didn’t recall them coming over that often.
“A few days ago,” she continued. “We got there and your room was empty, dark, nobody was home.”
“Oh,” I was puzzled. “Nobody told me you were coming over.”
“Exactly!” she said with an exasperated sigh. “SS told all of us to just come because, ‘Oh, he’ll definitely be there,’ but she never bothered to check! So then we all showed up, only to realize that there was absolutely nothing going on.”
“Wow, that’s pretty sad.”
“Right? And that’s why this time, when SS told us we were going to have tea again, I told her she has to let you know we’re coming in advance. Otherwise, how are you supposed to schedule your evening?”
Thank you, HM.
While host-guest relations can be rather complex, a bit of courtesy on both sides goes a long way. While I won’t tell a guest they should leave, I hope that my guests will know to not overstay. Typically this goes well, although there was a time when SS showed up unannounced and stayed well into the night, doing her homework while I was trying to figure out how to get some sleep.
“What time do you usually sleep?” she asked.
“Preferably 10,” I replied.
“Nah,” she shot at me. “That’s too early for a college student.”
She stayed past 1 while I was completely confused about why she had shown up after sparse interactions for the past three months or so.
HM, on the other hand, lets me know well in advance before arriving—leaving me ample time to get snacks, choose a good tea, and clean up my room before her arrival. I was actually a bit disappointed to hear that the only reason SS asked in advance this time was because HM told her to.
After her friend came, we stuck around and talked for a bit more—debating the pros and cons of higher education in China, the inefficiencies of Fujian Normal University’s administration, and how age doesn’t always guarantee maturity. It was a nice shift from the usual topic of conversation, which—for the past few nights—had been focused exclusively on romance.
After they left, I waited around some more before finally going to my terminal to board the plane.
Next, I’ll talk a bit about my arrival in Nanjing. Despite this being my first time here, it feels strangely nostalgic.
I woke up extra bright and early yesterday to go to Putian, a coastal town famous for its shrine dedicated to Mazu 媽祖 (the patron goddess of fishermen) and its proliferation of traditional carvers.
Like my last visit to Putian, I spent the day with a friend who I will call Wenlin (because I don’t actually know his real name… Shaojun? I’m not sure). He’s a carver I met at the Buddhist Supply Expo in Xiamen a few months prior, and one of my friends in the US had commissioned a statue from him.
Since the statue was finished, I came to check on Wenlin’s handiwork as well as drop off another order.
He picked me up from the train station, and we started the morning by inspecting the finished statue. There were a few alterations I had made to customize the order, and he had completed them brilliantly.
Although, the gilded base seemed to have been scratched during transport, so I requested that they add a fresh layer of gold leaf, then coat it with clear lacquer. This dulls the gold, but I’d rather look at a bit of dullness than very obviously-scratched gold.
However, other than that, and a minor adjustment to one of the implements the statue was holding, everything seemed fine. Overall, I was incredibly pleased with how it turned out. After sending a few pictures to my friend back in the US, he responded and said he was pleased as well.
When I told my mom of this situation back when I first began ordering custom statuary, she was incredibly confused.
“Since when did you ever learn to tell if a statue is good or not?” she asked.
I thought about it for a moment. This isn’t a particularly common skill, after all. I suppose partly, it came from exposure. After visiting dozens of temples in the US, Taiwan, and Japan, I had acquired a familiarity with various styles of statuary. This developed further when I took art history courses in college, and then further yet when I interned at The Huntington over the summer. While my time at The Huntington did not directly involve Buddhist statuary, it still helped me hone a scrutinizing eye for any imperfections.
After lunch, I looked through Wenlin’s warehouse just to see their previous work. Indeed, the walk-around helped me formulate ideas for potential orders in the future. Unfortunately though, I had misunderstood the budget I was working with for the order I was supposed to place that afternoon. The range I would be working with was a lot smaller than I had expected.
It ended up being a very quick discussion, since my budget wouldn’t allow for very many bells and whistles, and I spent the remaining time discussing other custom orders that may or may not happen in the distant future.
Overall, despite the sudden shift in what I thought my budget was, the day went smoothly, and I am still very impressed by what they were able to do with the first ordered statue. Wenlin’s mom even made us noodles!
After dinner, I headed back to campus and finished packing for my upcoming trip to Nanjing, where I will be spending Winter Break. I realized halfway through the night that I had neglected to record a song for my guqin professor, and after playing furiously for about two hours, I recorded an imperfect track and resigned myself to the product of my poor planning. If he’ll allow me to record again later, perhaps I can get more practice in.