Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Shaolin Si

In the first week of courtship, almost every guy I've ever dated has asked me the same question. It was apparent that the future of our relationship was hinged on the answer I provided, and the 'right' answer was always obvious: "But of course! I LOVE Kung Fu." It's a myth that the way to a man's heart is through his stomach. From my experience, it's through a shared love of Kung Fu and video games.

I didn't always like Kung Fu movies. In the 'old' days, the mention of Kung Fu called up nasty memories of my brother's tube-sock-clad-foot in my face as he practiced his moves; the static on a tiny black and white t.v. in the cold basement, where late night Kung Fu films flickered in the darkness; the preposterous eyebrows of old men that creeped into my dreams and gave me facial hair nightmares. But mostly, I just saw a bunch of Chinese guys fighting. And neither of the two things interested me.

Fast Forward to Present Day....

Before we arrived in China, Benjamin mentioned that he couldn't come here without making a stop in Shaolin, the birth place of Kung Fu. If he didn't visit Shaolin, he reasoned, he was not a 'real' Kung Fu fan. Of course I didn't argue with him. Not only was I concerned for his ranking among the legions of Kung Fu fans around the world (and especially in the Bay Area, amonst his friends)... I also wanted to go. We even talked about taking a one day class at the school and I was excited to pick up some moves...

The legend of Shaolin is unclear, but the story goes that an Indian monk founded the temple in the 5th century. Several decades later, another monk by the name of Bodhidharma showed up and began teaching Zen Buddhism. According to some reports, Bodhidharma was denied entry to the temple and took up residence in a nearby cave remaining upright, in prayer for 9 years. His shadow is said to be permanently etched onto the cave's wall. The legend goes that Bodhidharma's students would perform exercises based on the motions of birds and other animals after long hours of meditation. Over the years, these exercises turned into a form of physical and spiritual combat and Kung Fu was born. It's said that the Shaolin monks intervened in the many wars and uprisings in China's history... of course, they were always the 'good guys', just like in the movies.


We took an overnight train from Beijing to Luoyang, a city near Shaolin... two hours by bus. Soon after arriving in Luoyang, in the early morning hours, we found ourselves on a mini-bus to Shaolin -- a surprisingly easy task considering not one soul in Luoyang speaks English... but Shaolin is a popular tourist destination -- especially for Chinese tourists -- and the guidebook warned that it was a tourist trap.

As always, the bus ride was an experience in and of itself. We were finally on the road after a slow take off, an hour later than when we were told we'd depart (we had to swap busses in the parking lot, pick people up from a hotel, return to the bus parking lot, troll for people to fill the vacant seats, etc...). The guy who sold us our tickets was on the bus -- not unusual for bus 'conductors' -- and he was speaking loudly the entire way -- not unusual for Chinese. Benjamin and I started snickering when he took out the megaphone, halfway into the trip, to describe something about the landscape to our right. He was loud enough to begin with, especially considering there were only 10 of us in a small mini-bus. I thought a megaphone was unnecessary, but some people like to hear themselves talk, you know? It was curious, but I ignored it and put my headphones on.

We should have known then that we'd managed to get ourselves onto a tour bus... but we didn't figure it out until after the first stop at a temple that was not Shaolin. We waited in the parking lot there for a good half hour with a German couple wondering where we were, why we were there, and how we would get to Shaolin. We thought about splitting a cab but there were none. We argued with the driver, but with the language barriers, it didn't last long. After a while, the German guy concluded that we were just making an extra stop on the way so we waited and sure enough, we were back on the bus in a half hour. It wasn't until the second stop at a temple that was not Shaolin that we figured out we were on a tour, so I dug my camera out of my backpack and joined the group.

We finally made it to the Shaolin temple, too tired to pursue the Kung Fu classes. It's possible to stay there overnight, but the guidebook was right: it was a major tourist trap, complete with an amusement park atmosphere. It was not the quaint, quiet, forested temple of my imagination. The place was overrun with tourists snatching up souvenirs and posing for photos with old monks who don't look like they've Kung Fu-d in years.

As we left, I asked Benjamin if seeing what the place has become will make it hard for him to watch Kung Fu movies, now that the magic of Shaolin had been shattered. In the style of a true Kung Fu fan, he turned to me and replied, "For me, it's more about the philosophy of Kung Fu than the reality of it... so... I'm good."


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