Sunday, December 12, 2010

Riding the Purple Wind

When I was young, Syracuse, New York had no Chinese food and you had to drive across the bridge to Canada to get tang cu xia (sweet and sour shrimp). Asia, especially China, called to me because I wanted to walk among Zhongguoren (Chinese) and look at the world from a different perspective.

It was when I was living in New York City that I read "The Razor's Edge" by Somerset Maughm, a novel in which a rich American, disillusioned by World War One, gives up his life in Chicago to go to India and study in an ashram. He ends up driving a cab in New York as he provides spiritual sustenance to old friends. It was clearly about transcendence of the world's pain in a journey to enlightenment. I would read it on the subway and one day teenage boys were whipping each other in my subway car while I went on absorbing the plot.

 As life progressed I wanted also to know about 5,000 years of Chinese history.  I figured that there was so much I hadn't been exposed to that could enlighten me. I knew little about the world, because I was looking at it through the eyes of an Upstate New York white guy.
As I grew older, everything Asian attracted me. I wanted to hang wind chimes that came from there, learn to speak Chinese, and develop an Asian mind that looked at the world from a different perspective from the Western mind that made my decisions. I studied Kong Fu Zi (Confucius) and tried xin fo (practice Buddhism).
Now most of my friends where I live are Chinese and we talk about things it would be hard to talk about with most Americans. One of them said to me writing English is just a bunch of letters put together while Chinese characters are an art form. I can say “Wo you Zhongwen ji chu,” (I know basic Chinese) but I know the limitations of my knowledge of the Chinese language.
One might say this is just the attraction of a different way of life, and I’m sure that’s part of it. But before I die I want to have an Eastern mind set as well as a Western one. How do people persevere in the midst of the Cultural Revolution or the Korean War, and still keep striving? Why did a shame society like Japan condone the Rape of Nanjing? Soon the yuan, and to a lesser extent, the won, will be world currencies and Asia will be the place that matters. I have walked the steps to Sun Zhong Shan’s mausoleum, walked a short portion of the Great Wall, and seen the Laughing Buddha in all sorts of temples. I’ve been in places where fo jia is called Chan and Zen. I’ve walked in the Forbidden City. I feel the change in my outlook. I once worried my upbringing would hold me back. In bad times, or even in good times, I pray and thank Ye Su (Jesus) and have decided what is right or wrong based on training in Sunday school, but I’ve figured I can keep those beliefs and attitudes and add other insights. After all, I've discovered the journey never ends, and as it was for the main character in "Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man" by Joyce, the epiphanies still keep coming.

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