Shanghai’s buildings can seem oppressive in their vastness. Lining the streets like cold mountains, the grey sky makes it almost claustrophobic at times. Other days, when the sun is out and the clouds are fluffy above you, the city comes alive and you are mindful of it. The locals flood the streets on their bicycles, dodging one another as they talk, smoke and laugh. The day I met Zhu Ji was one of those days, there was anticipation and excitement in the air.
When Zhu Ji arrives at our school, high up above the street in one of those Shanghai buildings, the atmosphere changes. The students are buzzing, all my coworkers are clamoring. Zhu Ji is something of an anomaly when you see him, his boyishness initially shocks you because behind his smile there is an obvious well of wisdom. When he walks, he almost floats. There is something reproachful yet playful about him and that combination makes him somewhat intimidating.
That night we all go out to dinner. Everyone is huddled around the table, drinking beers. We eat an amazing Xinjiang meal. The multinational table full of teachers, Americans, Brits, Greeks, Australians, and Chinese alike are all taken with Zhu Ji. And of course, me being the overzealous person I am, I go sit right next to him. I laugh and joke with coworkers for a bit, but when I turn to Zhu Ji and start asking him questions about life, theology, Buddhism, he cuts me to the quick. He tells me that he knows I have baggage. That I’m going through things and that I am trying to figure it out. So, as plainly as he told me, I ask how. How can I figure it out?
“Be mindful” he tells me, “in everything you do.”
He tells me to pick up my cup, so I do it, quickly, sloppily sipping my beer. Not very mindful. He tells me to do it again, slower. Slower. Slower. Every time I pick up my beer I feel like I’m a bad mime. I feel idiotic, but then, strangely, everything is heightened. I notice the heaviness of the glass, the cold condensation of the beer runs over my fingers, and the muscles in my arm contracting each jolt closer. I feel thirstier, I want that beer even more, and when it finally reaches my lips it tastes amazing. Woah.
The next day, my friend and I meet Zhu Ji for meditation and lunch at the temple. He teaches us walking meditation, circumambulation and the mindfulness in each step. Basically, we walk around the temple really slowly. Afterwards, we grab some noodles and walk to a coffee shop near my house. This is more my speed. We sit and talk for hours with Zhu Ji, he tells us about his experiences, travels and studies. Then he tells me his impression of me, the strength I have, what he sees in me, and what I have to learn. I am taken aback. He knows what’s inside me without knowing me that long. His intuition is so strong. And I wonder, is this a super power? Or is it simply mindfulness? Maybe when we stop letting our thoughts, emotions and judgements swirl around taking us out of the moment we can stop and see, really see, what is in front of us.
Zhu Ji comes to our work the next day to say his goodbyes. I say I am glad to have met him and I realize that I feel a real connection with him. Behind that exterior, the robe, his smile connects with me more than anyone else. He says “We will meet again” and I laugh at his certainty, because I know I will be leaving China soon and that I probably won’t see him again. The thoughts swirling around in my head absently. And as if he has read my mind, he says,
“It’s our karma.”
Months go by and I continue my life in Shanghai, night after night of parties, dancing, going to bed as the sun comes up, going to work and then doing it all over again. Time passes and slowly the memories, mindfulness and mediation fall away. I planned my trip back to California, leaving China for good. And as the plans solidify and the dates draw closer, I get a message the day before my birthday. Zhu Ji.
He invites me to Chengdu, to visit him at his temple. After sifting through the excuses, I don’t have the time, money, whatever. He reminds me “you have freedom, buy your ticket and don’t worry about the rest.” Well, who can argue with that?
I arrive in Chengdu. It’s July, hot and balmy. I have no idea where I am, where I am going or who I am meeting. I go outside to wait for Zhu Ji’s friend to pick me up. I feel the difference between this city and Shanghai. The people stare a little bit longer, smile a little bit wider and talk a little bit louder. From out of the parking lot, a bespectacled young man greets me. “I’m so sorry! The traffic was horrible.” he says in perfect English, and leads me to a car where a woman is waiting for me with the biggest bouquet I have ever seen. Their kindness and excitement radiates as they talk to me and each other. Speeding down the road, taking curves and drifting through Chengdu alongside ancient rickshaws, I feel like family by the time we arrive.
When we approach the temple, Zhu Ji is there to meet us. He has the smile that stretches across his face solemnly, showing no teeth. We greet one another and he shows us to our rooms in the temple. The temple is serene, with many trees and not many people. Our living quarters are reserved for the monks’ friends and family. He shows me to my room and there is a woman there waiting. When I see her face, I know immediately it is Zhu Ji’s mother. She is a small, round, tan woman with Zhu Ji’s face. Soft with big cheeks and a sweet smile. We are introduced and he tells me his mother has never been around foreigners before. We are rooming together, Zhu Ji’s mother and I. Her wide eyes and curious demeanor catch me off guard.
When the night falls, the mosquitos in the room buzz between the loud snoring of my roommate. It’s hot and balmy and I am going crazy. I swat at the insects as I try to get comfortable in a bed that might as well be the floor. I try to follow Zhu Ji’s advice, being mindful and patient and calm but I WANT TO SCREAM AND FREAK OUT AND I CAN’T SLEEP AND GET ME OUT OF HERE. *Mindfulness*
Somehow, I fall asleep, and the next day we venture out to the temple. I am already grateful to myself for booking a hostel “just in case.” After we have lunch, Zhu Ji’s cousins take me to the back of the temple where a woman sits in what would be best described as a type of booth. In the booth, she is surrounded by stacks and stacks of tiny yellow cards which are labeled with numbers. They tell me that she can tell my fortune. My eyes roll back. You see, I believe in fortunes. I believe in them so much that I don’t want to know. I don’t want to know because even if it’s total b.s. how would I know? Maybe it was self-fulfilling prophecy.
The way it works is: you go into a corridor. This corridor is dark and kind of scary. There are hundreds, I mean hundreds, of statues. These statues are of people and they all look different. So, you walk around this room, and look at all of their faces. The one that makes you feel something inside is where you stop.
I walk around the corridor, some are scary, some are crazy looking, some are ridiculous and some are just down right hilarious. Eyes-bulged-out-gawking-tongue-sticking-out-looking-stupid-af funny. But the one I stop at is this woman. She is looking down at me, and she just has the most pleasant face, smiling, rosy cheeks, like she just baked me some cookies. So I stop. From there, you count. Your age (in Chinese years which means +1). So I count, one, two, three, looking at their faces staring down, and I’m thinking I’m going to get the scariest, weirdest looking statue, but I keep counting, until I get to 29. I stop.
There she is. A woman. But she is holding her face open. As if she has peeled back another face to reveal her true, beautiful, serene face. What the hell. What does this mean? I’m two-faced? Or better yet, that I have some kind of inner-goddess waiting to come out? I write down her number. The others have done the same and we meet outside. We give our numbers to the woman and she tells me first.
“Wow,” she says. “This is a really rare one, but it’s also really good. First of all- you are going to be very successful. No matter what you do, you will be successful in every aspect of your life. But,” she pauses, “you’re going to have to work very hard for it for your whole life.” Then she tells me a bit about myself, that I am stubborn but a free spirit. At this point, I am pretty sure she says this to everyone. Then the other’s have their fortunes told. The guy turns white, the girl’s eyes glaze over. His fortune is not very good. Her fortune is ok. We take our yellow cards and compare them. Mine is a man, in a robe, leisurely sitting cross-legged, contemplating. His is someone shrouded in clouds, hers is a person being chased by horses. Interpret what you will.
Zhu Ji and I decide to explore another temple the following day. This one has a zoo connected to it. So we go to both. First, the zoo. Zhu Ji is walking so quickly he is almost skipping. He takes me to the pandas and lemurs and tigers and I have never seen him like this. His usual solemness is replaced with a giddy childish joy.
And then it hits me. Zhu Ji is only 24. He became a monk 5 years ago. He lives in this place of inward journey and hasn’t really had experiences like mine. Nor will I have his. I can try everything, sampling experiences, devotions, loves. But I will never be as committed to something the way Zhu Ji is. He has a calling.
His mother didn’t want this life for him. She, I can only assume, wanted grandchildren and a family surrounding her in her tiny village in her tiny world. But Zhu Ji was meant for something else. He told me that he saw monastic life as not only just a devotion but also a way to see the world, to leave behind his bad habits, and his selfish little bubble. That we have in common. The desire to see more, do more, be more. We both followed a calling away from normalcy.
In this temple there is a tree that is 1000 years old, so big that it overtakes most of the temple’s courtyard. It is breathtaking. Its’ giant branches are so heavy that they almost touch the ground. Zhu Ji tells me to go and take a photo under it. He loves taking photos, which I think is interesting because in my experience, anytime I’ve ever been in a temple, there is a unwritten rule: “don’t take pictures.” He asks me to go under the tree where I stand and pose. I see Zhu Ji readying my phone, preparing for the shot with his mother behind him looking through the lens over his shoulder. He is telling me ok, ready, hold on. He backs up into his mother almost knocking them both over. “MAAAA!” he shouts in an obviously annoyed tone, almost scolding her. This makes me laugh probably harder than I should. He is just a boy with his mom, annoyed by his parent, embarrassed of her, just like every other young adult in the exact same situation.
I say goodbye to Zhu Ji as he leaves for a retreat in Xian, and I to my hostel to explore Chengdu on my own. I feel that same pang of “This is the last time we will see each other.” But I remember, “it’s our karma.” They are all there, the cousins, friends and people who made my stay in Chengdu feel like home. Sometimes you realize that you are living in this world, as an expat, you are an in-betweener. You aren’t home but you aren’t fully here either. Not really, anyway. You live in this hazy area, where you hang out with other foreigners in this foreign place. Those people become your family. With their experiences, their interactions with China and the commiseration about how everything back home is easy and everything here is difficult. You communicate with locals in barks and gestures, only talking as much as you need to to get by, limited by language and cultural barriers. But you are never fully immersed, you are never fully a part of their lives, their home. Here in this courtyard, after four years in China, just as I am about to return to my own home, I feel that connection. Where I am with a family, a part of their family, living, breathing and communicating my best. I feel immersed.
I look out over the temple on my last morning, the trees are still heavy with dew. The chanting and clamoring on the street outside is just beginning. I take a sip of my tea, and breathe. The thoughts float away, there is nothing but me and the tea. I take my cup and I slowly raise it to my lips, my arm steady, my muscles heavy, and I enjoy the moment of calm. And then it’s time to go.
Zhu Ji has since come to visit me in California, he experienced an American Christmas, toured San Francisco and stayed at Buddhist temples in Northern and Southern California. We often message each other out of the blue and sometimes I call him to discuss life, love and theology. Even if we haven’t spoken for a while, it feels as though no time has passed when we do. We have immersed ourselves in our calling, our friendship and our respective countries. We have shown each other a life different from our own, a place that is not our home. Now, I know I will see him again. It is our karma.
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