Wednesday, September 10, 2014

My Martial Arts Experience in China

I previously published this elsewhere, and wanted to bring this cherished story to my blog here.  

I did not realize, donning my white gi Saturday, June 27th, 2009, that this would be the last time I'd sport the unflattering uniform. I had been training since January, but I had only been an Orange Belt at the Gilbert studio of the United Studios of Self Defense for a little over a month, and would be testing for my Purple Belt in less than a week. Purple Belt is a unique milestone in kenpo in that it represents a passing from a beginner to an advanced kenpo student, and is visually recognized with a black gi. Normal testing procedures dictate I would wear my white gi through training and testing, only switching to a new black gi after successfully earning my Purple Belt. I was not testing under normal procedures. It was an honor and a privilege to be joining 150 other kenpo students, instructors, friends and family on a fast-paced, memorable tour through China, during which I would train with real Shaolin monks, and test for my new belt in the homeland of this respected and beloved martial art. I assume simply for uniformity's sake, we were advised to bring black gi pants (our normal, heavy tops were not required for the trip) despite being beginner-level students. So after a challenging private lesson, followed by a group class, I purchased my new heavyweight black gi from Sensei Casey, who sold it to me at cost in exchange for my agreement to buy him t-shirts in China. I reluctantly tried the pants on, and found to my astonishment, I loved them. I joked about how good it felt to get into those pants. I enjoyed them so much, in fact, that I wore them to the mall, where I had to do some exchanges before the trip.

I spent most of Sunday on the couch, lazily getting up from time to time to do something productive, be it laundry, packing, cleaning or getting organized. My roommate, Karen, came home around noon and joined me in procrastinating in front of the TV. We eventually went shopping for a few things I still needed, and as it neared dinner time, she made an ironic suggestion, for which I have to back up to explain. In college my parents afforded me an amazing opportunity to study abroad in Japan, and it was the time of my life. The night before I left, realizing my distastes for virtually all Asian food (rice, cooked vegetables, fish), I desperately wanted to learn to eat such things. My boyfriend at the time, Paul, took me to Ichi Ban, a teppan yaki restaurant where they make a show out of cooking in front of you. Since graduating college, I have lived less than a block away from the restaurant, but had never returned to eat there (not to reflect badly on Ichi Ban, I actually really like it, but I just never made it back). It was because of this memory that I found it hugely ironic that the night before I flew to Tokyo (to connect to Shanghai), Karen suggested we eat at Ichi Ban. When I explained my sense of déjà vu, she insisted that we go. We met her boyfriend Brian there, and enjoyed my favorite (fake) Japanese dish, Teriyaki Chicken. We also had a few drinks, which made my last-minute chores and packing quite entertaining. Tom, Kyle and Mark from my dojo would be picking me up sometime after 9 pm to drive to LAX for our flight, and before I left I still wanted to clean the fish vases, pick up clutter around my house and pack my carry-on. I managed to do so, but my intoxication would later be a source of minor panic attacks as I wondered about the possibility of forgetting something. Somehow, I was ready and waiting when the SUV backed into my driveway, although I greeted the guys by dancing to that ridiculous song, "I'm on a Boat". I said my goodbyes to Karen and Brian, and my dachshund chihuahua mix, Carly, and hopped into the front seat of Tom's SUV. The journey begins.

Tom had joined USSD shortly after Karen had roped me into it. He worked through the ranks of white belt and yellow belt quickly, then joined the instructor academy, thus receiving extra training, and he and I tested together for Orange Belt, along with a very large group of people, including his daughter, Taylor. Mark was at the highest belt level in our foursome; he would be testing for Brown Belt in China, and Kyle was a new Blue Belt, the level above Purple. Tom, and another student, Doug, had just tested for Purple Belt Friday, in order to be awarded their Red Belts in class on Saturday, indicating they had passed the instructor exam and were now Sensei's in training. Tom and I had spent some of our training together, so I knew him a bit better than the other two. He had joined a group of us for lunch after class on Saturday, where we joked about Chinese prostitutes knocking on the doors of the hotels. "Knock, knock, knock, hey-ro?"

Tom drove through the night, guided by his GPS and accompanied by music from his MP3 player. Just because toys are fun to play with, we had spent over an hour trying to connect Mark's Blackberry via Bluetooth, as well as my phone and GPS, but with little success. We hit some traffic on our way out of the Phoenix area during our Bluetooth experiments, and had a good laugh over Tom's version of hitting the reset button: throwing the car in park, cutting the engine and opening and closing the door, on the free way in slowly moving traffic.

I'm one of those people who laughs at almost all bad jokes, so I think Tom enjoyed my company. His jokes are really bad sometimes. He joked about how we were carpooling, and we would be going through that tunnel on I-10, so it was a "carpool tunnel". For his next joke, he explained that a finial is the embellishment on the end of a curtain rod, and that if he had a buffalo on the end of his curtain rod, it would be a "bison finial".

The combination of a dark, boring road, intoxication and lack of sleep caused me to quickly fall into intermittent sleep for about three hours. Tom pulled into a gas station to grab a soda, prompting me and my fellow passengers to wake up. With renewed energy, I engaged in a pretty interesting conversation with Tom for the balance of the drive, covering topics from business to religion, relationships and kenpo as a religion. When we were 16 miles away from the airport, about 4:30 in the morning, we hit stopped traffic again, this time for a pretty severe accident just ahead of us. We were parked there for about an hour, and when traffic finally started moving again, we were forced to exit and take a detour. Tom took a wrong turn, so we opted to eat breakfast at Denny's. Back on the road again we found that, two hours later, we were still 16 miles away, and we joked that if Tom kept taking wrong turns we would circle the airport, always staying 16 mi away.

For a flight leaving at 1:20 pm, we were a bit early, so we settled into a carpeted spot upstairs at the airport and attempted to nap. Having little success sleeping comfortably, we were thrilled when the check in counters opened, and were second in line to another red belt from the Ocean City dojo, John. There were also several other groups of USSD students, including a familiar face, Gaylene, who had previously gone to our dojo before switching when her son-in-law got his own studio, and her husband, Dave, who was traveling with her. Our group of four checked in together so as to be seated together, checked our bags and returned upstairs. Tom and Mark grabbed coffee, and we waited until 10:30 so I could get a cheeseburger from McDonald's one last time. We found a table to sit at, sharing glances and comments about the nearby officer with a huge gun strapped tightly to his chest. We eventually made our way through security without incident, and claimed a spot at the gate across from Gaylene and Dave. Other than our bags, none of us were wearing USSD logo'd apparel, so as other USSD students passed, many of them wearing obvious USSD t-shirts, we received no recognition that we were one of them. A high schooler sat and talked with us, expressing that he was connecting to Shanghai, to which we pointed out that we were all USSD-ers like himself. Other small groups gathered, and in conversation, we determined they too were from USSD. We watched first class board, looking for Master Prosch to no avail, and were some of the last to get in line and board the plane, knowing that we had a ten and a half hour plane ride.

Boarding the plane, I enjoyed the opportunity to use my rusty Japanese, as our flight was one of Japanese Airways. The take off was smooth and uneventful, save for my pleasure in finding the personal video screens which show movies, a map of our route and video from the pilot's perspective, just as my last flight to Tokyo had. I slept for about 5 hours on and off, eating and drinking as we were served. I watched the map as we quietly crossed the International Date Line, and I listened to an audio book. As we neared Tokyo, we were informed of a delay that would keep us in the air for an extra half hour. We joked that we were 16 miles away from the airport again, and laughed at the map, now showing our route looping over itself. We landed at Narita, and would soon be on our way to Shanghai.

Getting off the plane, Tom was telling bad jokes again and we were so tired, even I wasn't laughing. He pointed to a matrix of bumps on the floor, and called them speed bumps, and I did my best impression of a car crossing such speed bumps. We laughed, but it was not enough to get our energy back. Mark commented that I was almost as funny as when I was drunk. To be fair, I had had a glass of white wine with the second meal on the plane. For the first meal, they only had fish left when they got to me, but Tom was kind enough to switch his chicken with me. The second meal had been pasta, and both had been relatively good.

Having landed late with only a three hour layover, we were a bit stressed out when we joined a never-moving line to go through security. Soon, however, the security opened up a second line, and starting pushing us through. We found our gate in no time, and plopped down on the floor to wait. We shared stories and pleasant conversation with some of the less familiar faces of USSD, and showed each other pictures of our dogs at home.

The meal on the flight to Shanghai was not so good: mystery fish in mystery sauce, salad dressing in packaging which made it look like apple sauce, something tofu-like, a variety of raw fish cold cuts and a strange Jello-like dessert did all but comfort my hungry tummy. I contented myself to eating the rice packaged like a UPS box. Other than eating, I was asleep for the whole flight.

After landing, we had to be examined by quarantine officials right there on the plane. Like something out of a sci-fi movie, the Chinese officials, wearing solid white bunny suits and masks, invaded the plane, shooting lasers at our foreheads and commenting to each other in the language so foreign to us. The lasers, we determined, were checking our temperature to seek out possible fevers. One person a few rows behind us had to be checked out more thoroughly, so the white aliens gathered around him and his friends for about 30 minutes, while we anxiously sat and waited. Worrisome chatter began about whether the whole plane would be quarantined for a week or more. My Japanese came in handy, as the announcements were made first in Japanese, then in English and Chinese. I heard the Japanese phrase that told us we were okay to go and gave an overjoyed head nod to the rest of the group. We filed out, I did my speed bump impression again in an attempt at comic relief, and we went through customs.

We got our luggage and were directed to five buses. Our tour guide was comical to us, repeating every phrase spoken in broken English, as if repeating it made it easier to understand. I suppose it did in a way, but it was still amusing. He would say: "Shanghai in rainy season, in rainy season, so is humid and wet, is humid and wet…" He finally stopped speaking, acknowledging that half the bus was asleep and the other half wanted to be.

The hotel was astonishingly beautiful. Modern, trendy and sparkly! I wearily noted the name of the hotel: Pullman Shanghai Skyway. Professor Mattera greeted each of us personally as we unloaded; he was clearly well-rested, having arrived a day or two earlier. We gathered in the lobby and the room keys were passed out and we headed upstairs. After utter confusion in regards to the lack of electricity in the rooms, we finally determined we had to put the room keys in the slot just inside the door to turn the lights on. I kicked myself, knowing I should have remembered that from the dorms in Hiroshima. I soon met my roommate, Gloria, soon after I arrived, and she told me they had to quarantine a young man in our group for at least a half hour, not knowing his fate beyond that.

Gloria and I woke up early Wednesday morning and went upstairs for an amazing breakfast buffet by about 7. My group, including Gaylene and Dave, had planned to meet for breakfast around 8, but Gloria and I were early birds. We got a table for six, and before long, John joined us and then Frank, both of whom we had just met. We had some entertaining conversation and delicious breakfast, including hash browns, bacon, omelets, and cereal, before I saw anyone from our group. Gaylene and Dave were then seated on the floor above us, as well as Kyle and his roommate, Caesar. I grabbed Tom and Mark on their way up the stairs, but the Chinese waiter started yelling, "No tables, no tables!" I finally convinced him that we had two chairs for them, and they were allowed to sit with us.

After breakfast, we put our gi pants and USSD shirts on and met downstairs for our morning seminar. The room for the morning seminar was on the first floor of the hotel, looking out on the gorgeous garden we had spotted from our room. Our group congregated by the windows, near what would end up being the back of the class. We chatted and stretched and made note of the various USSD VIPs in the room. Dave had his camera ready, since he is not in karate, and I left mine out as well for him to utilize on my behalf. Shihan Taylor briefly introduced Professor Mattera, who demonstrated some techniques on Mr. Jeff Cash, a black belt, and directing us to do the sticky hands exercise. Before having us pair off, he blindfolded himself and demonstrated the effectiveness of the technique. Tom and I paired up, Gloria paired up with Frank, and Gaylene paired up with Mark. Tom and I started slowly moving our hands and wrists around in a wax on, wax off motion, letting tightly pulled strikes fly at random and observing the results. Out of the corner of my eye, Gaylene and Mark appeared to be flailing and getting a bit goofy. Professor Mattera periodically pulled us back into a circle to show us something new, and we would take that direction to try out on each other.

Shihan Taylor taught us a windmill guard with a tiger claws technique, and a fun combination in which we elbow the attacker several times from different positions. Master Prosch taught a technique to get out of a grab escape in which one arm twisted and pulled tight against the back. It started with downward hand strikes, a hook to the solar plexus with a palm heel to the back, stepping around into a choke hold, palm heel to the temple, and finally a head grab, pulling it into the knee. Shihan Taylor came around and worked with me and Tom individually on the grab escape, and showed us some further insight. Overall the seminar was very basic and relaxing. We didn't work up much of a sweat, but we did get some insight into a few basics.

The first morning tour took us through a downtown area of Shanghai with some gorgeous architecture. There was one iconic building in particular that was composed of several spheres. The tour guide said something to the effect of, "We are going to get off the bus here and look at the building with big balls." I made a crude joke that, "with balls that big, how could we not get off?" Our bus stopped in the middle of the street to let us out, and some angry drivers started yelling at him, to which he neglected to respond. We walked along the shore of the river there, spotting some familiar sights like a McDonald's kiosk, and other American fast food chains. It was hot and humid, and we were pretty tired and not very interested in this activity, so we were thankful when we were herded back onto the bus.  We were dragging, and Gaylene and Tom started talking about how good a Starbucks would be.

I had a hard time understanding what our tour guide was saying about our next stop. It was a jade Buddha temple, literally, a temple built for a Buddha statue made of jade. We were asked not to take pictures of the Buddha himself, but there were all sorts of things in the temple to take pictures of, and it was somewhat interesting. I noticed there were several swastika-like symbols all around, but I forgot to ask their significance. We were brought upstairs and sat down and family-style tables to taste tea. I was hoping for a full-scale tea ceremony, but this was at least less strenuous on the knees since we got to sit on chairs. We watched as the servers mixed leafy things into hot water, filtered it, and poured it for each of us into tiny little trial-sized cups. We tried about five or six teas, most of them were bland at best, and each had special properties that supposedly cure cancer or relieve stress, etc.

We toured a silk factory which was clearly set up for show and to sell merchandise, but it was still interesting and fun to see. We watched as a young girl tediously tied knot after knot, forming a beautiful rug, which would take months to complete and would sell for a few hundred bucks. Another woman using electronic scissors artfully carved the rugs to make the design pop. Our tour guide showed us a number of smaller rugs and spun them on the floor so we could see how the colors appear to change due to the knap of the silk thread. We later joked about spinning the large rugs, and I dimwittedly suggested we could just take the picture upside down to see the color change. It appeared the whole factory was little more than a store with a few show rooms to demonstrate the techniques used. Clearly, the number of machines and women laborers we saw was not enough to maintain the impressive inventory we saw in the store. We sarcastically pondered the possibility of a sweat shop in the same building, or even the possibility that the rugs were all really made by machine. After ooo-ing and aww-ing over the store's selection, we noticed the big heavy doors we had entered through were shut, and joked that we, ourselves, would be forced to work there like in a sweatshop. Gaylene and Gloria seated themselves comfortably on a pile of rugs, and I joined them, joking about how I can feel the texture though my thin khakis. Sitting there, Tom decided to see if his GPS could identify Starbucks stores near the hotel.  It found five, and he showed the map to Gaylene, who was overjoyed. 

The tour did not end with the rugs; when we were assumed to be shopped out, they showed us how the silk duvets are made, followed by another store full of duvets and duvet covers. We learned about silk worms and how their cocoons are stretched over an arch and layered to create the duvets. They were soft and nice to touch, but I was disappointed that, like the rugs, the styles did not appeal to my taste very much. Before long, we were brought into yet another store show room where there was a larger variety of goods: mostly clothes, including pajamas, ties, scarves, lingerie and shirts, as well as purses, bags, stuffed animals, silk art and dolls. Besides our adolescent jokes about cross dressing and choosing the most ridiculous outfits for one another, we also joked that they would not open the doors to let us out until our purchases passed a desired amount.

All around Shanghai are signs and large statues advertising for Expo 2010, which we decided was similar to the world's fair, and was obviously to be held in Shanghai. The mascot, a small, blue Gumby-like character with a Johnny-cool hairdo, was absolutely everywhere and it was he that drew our attention to all the advertisements and various buildings of importance. Statues of him, about 10 feet tall, were scattered throughout the city, and all the signs carried his image. He became a beloved character among our group, especially after our hysterical debate about his origin. Was he the mysterious love child of Papa Smurf and Gumby? Is that even possible assuming both are male? Why not Smurfette? How do we know what gender Gumby is? Can he form the organs needed to reproduce, considering he is, like Ken doll, not anatomically correct? Did Gumby and his horse, Pokey, strike you as gay? Clearly, this conversation was not the most intellectual one our group had, yet not necessarily the least.

Dinner that night was on a boat, followed by a cruise, which might imply that the two affairs would occur on the same boat, but this is China, after all. I found very little of the meal appetizing, especially because we had to guess the identity of most of the so-called food. When I tried to get a refill on the beer, a translator was summoned to tell us our table had maxed out, and that we'd have to pay. We were beginning to catch on that we were only allowed about two glasses of either soda or beer. When I say two glasses, however, I'm referring to cups barely larger than shot glasses, reminiscent of what my grandparents used to drink their morning orange juice in with their cereal - hardly enough to quench our thirst in this hot, humid environment in which we can't even drink the tap water. In this case, we had the option of purchasing more beer, and I was the first to jump on the opportunity. My American money was not acceptable here, however, so Gloria bought our table the first round and Dave bought the second. After dinner, we walked around and took some pictures on the dock. The bridge nearby was apparently the bridge in Transformers, so we had to take a few shots of that.

Along with the two-small-glass policy, we saw patterns in our dining experiences in Shanghai, which continued in Dengfeng and in Beijing. One might imagine that it’s pretty challenging to find restaurants to accommodate 150 people all at once, especially in a country like China. Around town, most shops and restaurants we saw were very small, barely fitting a few people in them. So I guessed that the eating accommodations were only loosely authentic Chinese. At almost every stop, with the exception of a Western buffet in Shanghai and another in Beijing, we sat at round tables equipped with large lazy susans in the middle, and we would scoop random dishes onto our dessert-sized plates. Generally, we were limited to two shot-glass sized drinks, choosing from Coca Cola, Sprite, beer or water. The dishes of food would be brought out in quick succession, usually starting with rice and soup, and always ending with watermelon - always, and in between would often be unidentifiable fish, vegetables, beef, unidentifiable meat, tofu, etc. Orange chicken and French fries entered the mix later on in the tour as well. For me, eating was much less of an adventure in foreign culture, and much more a means of sustenance than I had planned it to be. I had come mentally prepared and more than willing to try exotic, intimidating foods, like scorpion or something that was still moving. But the way our meals were presented to us, as unanimous dishes we could only guess about, took all the fun out of trying new things for me. Namely, it took out my ability to brag in the grossest-food-you've-ever-eaten contests back home, and the possibility of bragging rights of how adventurous I was in China. So instead of hilarious dining experiences, I simply got by, eating rice and one or two meats that someone else had okayed for me, and french fries when they were available. If it weren't for all the beer I drank, I probably would have lost ten or twenty pounds. As it was, I lost about six pounds with little effort and exercise (only a few days of the trip were really physical).

The typical restaurant got very old to me for reasons other than the awful food. They were all bundled with souvenir shops, and not cutesy little places, either. I'm talking Walmart-sized warehouses with pushy salespeople everywhere you turn. Had the stores been unique from one another, this may almost have been tolerable, but many of them carried items of the same theme and likeness. Along with restaurant-tourist traps, our "factory tours" were little more than identical stores with a small-scale demonstration of how something is made. Each carried the same merchandise as the others, and the same pushy salespeople latching on and following you around the minute you even glance at something, and the same shifty business practices. I guess this is to be expected for being on tour; I was not aware of this implication, and the whole game got very old very fast.

That day's city tour did not strike me as being very interesting, and on our cruise that night I shared the sentiment that it did not really feel like we were in China yet. Rather, I felt that we were in some US city, in the China town district. From the boat, the Shanghai skyline was very picturesque, however, and the city started to grow on me.

We were pretty exhausted after the cruise, but unwilling to retire immediately, so we settled on smoking cigars in the hotel's fancy cigar lounge. A man named Richard joined us, and Gloria brought Alex and Jason. I completely failed at keeping my cigar lit, but I managed to smoke the whole thing. Then we gave up and went to bed.

Thursday we had much more energy, and I think the tour livened up too. Our lunch was hilarious; we had dancing entertainment with crowd participation, and Kyle, of all people, was dragged into it. They got a group of people on stage and did a train-like formation, taking the group down off the stage and around the restaurant and back up again. One of the activities was something like jump rope, but instead of ropes, they smacked long poles on the ground in a rhythmic pattern, and participants had to jump through just right to pass. I scooped up some soup for me, even though it had some weird black stuff in it. When I found what was obviously a bug, but not obviously a mistake, in my soup, I totally lost it. I teared up, screamed into my cupped hand, and started smacking Tom, who was unfortunately sitting next to me. The couple across the table thought I was indicating something was really hot, and they wanted to try it. They kept asking what it was that I was eating, and I didn't want to ruin anyone else's appetite, so I just told him not to eat the soup, it wasn’t too hot, it was just not good. I had a hard time eating but I finally managed to munch on some chicken with my two tiny cups of beer.

After lunch, we were told we were visiting an ancient village.  Our tour guide, knowing how much Tom and Gaylene craved Starbucks, teased us with the promise of Starbucks.  Tom pulled it up on his GPS and watched as we neared a Starbucks, and then went a block over.  The ancient village which was really an insanely busy, crowded marketplace with a sickening smell and hundreds of unidentifiable foods to go with it. We saw pigeon-sized birds fully cooked, heads and feet and all, strung up on sticks, and what are called Happy Eggs, eggs with half-formed chicks inside them, among other spectacles. Tom and I looked for scorpions, but found none. There were also small, live fish inside necklaces, and inexpensive goods like toys and purses. I bought a pair of sunglasses for 15 Yuan, which Tom told me was about $2 USD. They lasted through Shanghai, so I was pretty happy about my purchase. As we made our way back to the buses, our tour guide was relieved to see us - as if we had been missing for hours.

Our next stop was the famous Yuyuan gardens, which, as you might guess, made for some beautiful pictures.  On our way in, we noted that there was a Starbucks just outside the garden, and our tour guide decided that we would meet outside the Starbucks when the tour was over.  In the gardens, we saw some magnificent rocks that had thousands of tiny craters in them, and we were told that smoke from the incense would rise up through the holes.  When the tour was over, we entered into a marketplace, where Gaylene, Dave, Gloria and Tom found yet another Starbucks, and were thrilled to finally get good coffee.  We wandered back towards the meeting place, and I happily picked up some Dairy Queen on the way. 

It started drizzling, so we took cover under one of the buildings lining the square where we were to meet.  Some elderly Chinese men who looked like they were homeless, half of them shirtless, wandered towards us, starring hard at us as if they were expecting us to turn into mutants at any moment.  They got very close to us, and stood behind us, still starring intently and acting as if they were trying to understand our conversation.  I clutched my purse tightly, not knowing what they wanted, but they didn't seem too intimidating - just creepy.  When the tour guide came to talk to us, they moved over towards him to hear what he was saying to us, but of course, he was speaking English to us, so I'm not sure what they were after exactly.  They circled us, and came around again, but never did anything to alarm us further.

Thursday night we had a western style buffet, which was actually really nice. Gaylene and I ordered a bottle of cabernet, having excitedly determined that we both loved a good cab, and we were feeling pretty good. We met up again shortly after returning to the hotel, meeting at the Blu Bar upstairs, where we hung out with the Shihan and masters.

Five of us went out to a bar in town for some dancing: Gloria, Frank, John, Jason and myself. The bar had a live cover band singing American music from the 80's and 90's, including the YMCA. The singer didn't appear to know any Chinese, and she made all her announcements in perfect English. I thought it was amusing that the bar was promoting a new beer from Carlsberg, a Danish brand, of all things. The cute waitress, escorted by the cute Carlsberg girl, took our order: seven Carlsberg Chills (the special promotion was buy 6 get 1 free) and a Heineken for Jason. We listened to the cover band and relaxed, drinking our Carlsberg Chill, which was more like water than beer, and toasting each other. After several slow songs in a row, we decided to request some dance music so we could dance a few times.

Wondering if the singer knew more current songs, Gloria and I wrote two song requests on a napkin, followed by a third choice: "any dance song". To our disappointment, the singer, laughing, announced that she was going for the third option. I went up and danced on stage despite the bad song choice, accompanied by Frank and Gloria. Jason and John watched protectively from their seats on the couch. The singer dedicated the next song to Frank and Gloria, proclaiming "Viva la Mexico" and starting a salsa tune. I grabbed a guy who said he was from Malaysia and did my best to teach him salsa on the fly, which I didn't actually know all that well. Gloria and Frank, on the other hand, were on the hot tamale train!

After that, we sat down again for a short break, and then Frank and I got up to dance. I grabbed John for a dance, too, but the song ended shortly after we got up, and I didn't like the next two. A guy from Hong Kong came and sat with us to talk, and I eventually decided I wanted to learn to play the dice game I observed his friends playing at the nearby table. So I asked him, and he introduced me to his friends and they started to explain the game.

It was a game of bluffing and chance. All the players would shake five or six dice under a cup, and look at their own dice without letting anyone else see. Then they would go around making statements like "Ten sixes" or "Nine fives" until someone calls them out as a liar, then all the dice are revealed and it is determined whether or not they were right. I didn't get to learn the rest because our friend from Hong Kong apparently tried to pickpocket Frank, so I was told we were leaving. We paid the bill quickly and had just enough money left for a cab back to the hotel.

Since there were five of us, we had a hard time getting the first taxi driver to agree to take all of us, the second driver we talked to refused as well, but the third agreed to take us. On the way home and back into the room, Gloria and Frank explained that the guy had been scouting us out, was asking a ton of questions and already knew that we were with a martial arts tour group. It was all pretty scary stuff once the pieces started coming together; I had then realized that the people rubbing up against me may not have been going for just a feel - they were searching for something. After putting it all together, I was sure we did the right thing by getting the heck out of there.

The next morning, I again put on my black gi pants and USSD shirt, expecting to be testing for my purple belt that evening in Dengfeng, near Zhengzhou. Gaylene, Gloria and Frank and I went outside to the beautiful gardens and they helped me practice my techniques and forms. Dave stood by, taking pictures and offering encouragement.

The tour group was broken up into two groups for traveling domestically, and our group, including half of bus three, all of bus five and our bus, which we renumbered to bus eight since four was unlucky in China, was the second group to leave. After checking in at the airport, we found out the first group's plane had been delayed and almost cancelled. We ended up about an hour ahead of them, and when they caught up to us at dinner, Professor Mattera announced that we would not be testing in the hotel that night as expected. Instead, we would test in the morning at the Shaolin temple after the morning ceremony. Being mentally and emotionally prepared to test that night, in A/C mind you, I had a minor panic attack and started tearing up. I'm not entirely sure why I got worked up about it, but I'm sure it was a combination of things including lack of sleep and nerves.

Our hotel in Dengfeng was not nearly as nice as in Shanghai, but all in all it was better than what I imagined. Gloria decided to crash when we got to the hotel, so I went to seek entertainment with Mark and Tom. My nerves were still keeping my heart rate up, and I needed to be distracted. I mentioned to them that Gloria and I had noticed a disco-type place on my floor, so we decided to check it out.

We walked up the steps into the place, but we couldn't see much. The hostess and several men insisted we come in as we made our way up. So we ventured down a long, dark corridor with bottles of alcohol and dim neon lights on the walls. As we walked, the men were screaming frantically, and we were all a bit scared. I grabbed Mark's arm and squeezed as they took us around a corner and down another dark corridor. We finally arrived in a room, and figured out it must be karaoke. We tried to tell them no thanks, but the language barrier prevented any effective communication. I tried Japanese, and they didn't get that either, so we just started walking out and they followed us, trying to get Tom to buy alcohol. We found out after we left that the creepy feeling we all got was actually justified: the place was something of a whore house.

Having struck out there, we wandered outside, but didn't get too far out of the hotel gates. The hotel security guard watched us as we approached the gates and continued eyeing us as we walked through. We stopped, because the sight before us was straight out of a Dawn of the Living Dead movie. The locals were lazily walking down the street, not looking around or talking. The weirdest part, we realized, was that they were all going in the same direction. We briefly considered whether it would be better to go where they were headed, or where they were coming from. They were coming from the direction of the park we were told about, and considered going there, but with this ghastly site before our eyes, we decided not to go anywhere and headed back inside.

We caught up with Frank and told him about our adventures, and it was as if we had dared him to challenge our fears: he headed into the karaoke whore house. When he came back, he told us a guy had pulled a knife on him, and he got the guy to back off by explaining that he was a kung fu instructor. He also commented that the lady in white, the hostess, was the scariest person he'd ever met. Coming from a life of gangs and crime, I supposed that's pretty significant. Having accomplished my goal of getting my mind off the stress of testing, I hugged Tom and Mark good night and Frank walked me back to my room, and I called it a night.

Saturday was amazing. It was July 4th, and this was the big day of the trip in my eyes, especially since the testing was delayed. We started off with breakfast at the hotel, which was okay, and were off to the Shaolin Temple.

We took our places in a standing formation, surrounded by monks, spectators and news personnel. There, we stood at front position as an opening ceremony took place between Professor Mattera, Shihan Taylor, the Masters of USSD, and the Abbott of the temple. Taking in the whole experience and my surroundings, I noticed a large white statue at the top of a mountain towards my left, so far away I could barely make it out. A Buddha statue, I presumed, and probably made of Jade like the one we had seen in Shanghai. I decided that I would at least take a picture of it when I had a chance, in case it was significant. As it turned out, I would see that statue up close the following morning, but more on that later. The Abbott greeted us through a translator, and after some ceremonial bows and songs, we sat down to enjoy a spectacle of martial
arts from both USSD and the monks. There were weapons forms, breathing forms and classic forms, all impressive in their own ways. USSD's whip chain demonstration was amazing; many of us agreed later that it was even better than that of the monks. A 10 year old monk did all sorts of contortionism-like movements, coupled with high flying leaps and moves bordering on break dancing. After this cultural exchange, we participated in a final ceremony of bowing and prayers.

The people that would be testing were then split off from the rest of the group, who got to enjoy a nice tour of the temple. The testers were speedily taken to about the fourth level of the temple, into a gymnasium-like building, where we lined up by rank and split into groups by belt. There were 98 testers in all, and about half were going for a black belt. Merely four orange belts, including myself, were testing for purple, and there were no lower ranks. Mark, John and Frank were among a large group of green and brown belts, and there was another large group of purple and blue belts. Professor Mattera directed Jeff Cash to take the orange belts outside, so we would "not see the blood and carnage that will happen in this room."

We took a spot down the hill a bit, and lined up. We went through some basics, doing pushups for mistakes, and moved on to forms. Being from different studios means we all learned the forms a bit differently, making it doubly challenging to stay together. We had to run all the way down the hill and back up when one woman made a mistake on Kata 1. We then paired off, the two older women together and me with the one male of the group, and punched in for kenpos and defense maneuvers. Cars continuously came up and down the road we were on, and we would often have to move out of the way and then resume testing. At one point, I fell off the ledge of the road and caught myself on the red wall behind me, which stained my sweaty hands. I managed to get red all over myself and my partner.

Professor Mattera came out and had us spar for him - no gear! I blocked almost everything the guy threw at me, and got a few kicks and hits in myself. My partner had footprints on his shirt and blood-like red marks on his arms from me. When he left, we picked back up on the defense maneuvers. I made one very big mistake: Mr. Cash called out DM 2 and I did DM 18. He asked me if I had DM 2. "Yes, sir," I replied. He told me that was a very nice DM 18, but to get back up and try DM 2 this time. I focused more and refused to let myself make that kind of mistake again. I had chills throughout the whole test, which I thought was simply from the nerves and excitement. Reminiscent of my memorable yellow belt test, when I was nearing the point of giving up, the test concluded. Mr. Cash gave an inspiring little talk and asked us what we learned from the test, during which I was again tearing up. He then congratulated us and dismissed us.

I congratulated the other three new purples belts and we went to watch the green and brown belts just up the hill from us. Sitting there, I witnessed the unenviable task of stepping stool kicks up hill, among other very challenging exercises. When they were dismissed, Mark and I went in search for water, and settled for sweet tea, which we chugged immediately. We only had a little while to walk around before the promotion ceremony, during which Mark and I were photographed a half dozen times with several Asian tourists, one after another.

We met back up with the testing group, and were brought to the site of the promotion ceremony, just outside the Abbot's chambers. We lined up by rank, lowest to highest which is unusual, but it made sense in the context of honoring the highest ranks last. Professor Mattera informed us that, because of the unfortunate circumstances around the delayed flight and postponed testing, the Abbot had agreed to congratulate each of us personally, something he has never done before. Because of my relatively
low rank, I was in the first group of six to be called. We lined up in rows of two, and Professor Matter and Shihan Taylor escorted us up the steps into the Abbot's chambers. Cameras were flashing, news reporters were busily describing the event, and curious onlookers were anxiously adjusting their position to get the best possible view. Entering the chamber, we could smell the burning incense. The Abbot was standing there, patiently waiting. We bowed, and were called one by one. I was the third to be called, and I approached the Abbott, bowed and shook his hand. Then he handed me my certificate and a 24 karat gold Buddha pin. The pins were a surprise even to Professor Mattera. When all six of us had been called, we thanked him in Chinese, and proceeded back down the stairs to thunderous applause.

I stuck my pin on my shirt and rolled up my certificate. A few minutes later a reporter asked to interview me, through a translator of course. She asked me to explain my rank and what had occurred. With the camera rolling, I did my best to say something respectful and profound. When the interview was nearly over, they asked me if I had anything to say, to which I thanked the people of China for hosting us. They shut off the camera, thanked me and started walking away. Suddenly, they came hurrying back and asked if I would say, "Chinese Kung Fu Number One!" So I did, in a little bit of a silly, sarcastic way, and they thanked me again. I watched the rest of the ceremony with Tom, Mark, Gaylene, Kyle and Dave. When it was over they told Mark and I about their tour and Mark and I talked about our tests as we made our way down to the bus.

We ate lunch at the same restaurant we had had dinner at the night before. Back at the temple, we had the honor to learn forms with the monks, training for a few hours. The group I went with did our training where the brown and green belts had tested, just up the hill from where I had tested. Training with the monks, along with everything else at the temple, was an incredible experience. They did not speak any English, so we struggled to communicate, but we followed their movements, and worked quickly. We all felt a great sense of honor when a monk would correct our movements individually.

It was incredibly hot and humid, so after about an hour we were getting really drained. The monks

would give us breaks to practice on our own and also to sit and rest. We went through our water very quickly, and still needed more. Tom and Gaylene became concerned about me, but I pushed through most of the workout, only sitting when I absolutely had to. Someone in our group thankfully went and found a case of water and brought it back, and we gratefully chugged it down.

When the training was over for the night, Gaylene and Tom were really worried about me, citing my goose bumps and clammy skin as evidence of heat exhaustion. Tom took my bag from me and Gaylene started dumping water all over me. When we stopped at the front of the temple, they had me sit down and sip cool water, and I snacked on some Cheez-its I had brought along. I tried to convince them that I felt fine, so when they asked me if I was feeling better I told them I had felt fine to begin with. Nevertheless, I let them pamper me and appreciated their concern and aid.

Since the black gi pants were still new to me, this was the first time I had really worked out in them. So, with emotions flying high from the day, I was easily worked into a panic when I was unable to get the pants off. Gloria was in the shower, and we didn't have much time to change and get ready for dinner. I debated calling Gaylene's room or Tom's room, and I rationalized that to call Gaylene would only be a 50/50 chance (at best) of getting someone who knew about the pants (Dave is not a USSD student), but both Tom and Mark could help me. So I dialed their room and Tom answered. "Hey Tom, its Laura," I started. "This is going to sound really awkward, but I can't get my pants off. Any advice?" He laughed and walked me through the process, and before long my frustration passed and I was able to change for dinner.

Dinner was at the same familiar restaurant / store that we had patronized twice already. After dinner, we walked to a nearby clearing, where a stage and seating had been set up, to watch the monks put on a show followed by a 4th of July fireworks presentation. Eerie locals encircled the clearing, keeping their distances for the most part, but starring creepily nonetheless. A large group of kung fu students perched on top of a nearby building to have a look. The monk show was amazing; they flipped, spun horizontally through the air, performed impressive weapon forms, and imitated scorpions, dogs, frogs, tigers, monkeys, you name it. The accompanying Chinese music was as would be expected, although the guy running the show felt the need to narrate and make incredibly odd commentary throughout an otherwise incredible show. I felt he took away from the entertainment value, rather than add to it. The one thing he said that was remotely interesting was that the young monks practiced what was called
virgin kung fu, implying that their youth and inexperience allowed them to be more flexible. When the monks were done, we were directed to turn around for the fireworks, which were far too close to us and therefore unbearably bright and loud. They rained down ashes all over us, and one firework tipped over and shot at us. Still, a very pleasurable ending to an incredible day.

Sunday morning, some of us were on the bus at 4:30 am, heading back to the Shaolin Temple to climb up to Bodhidharma's cave. The cave was nearly at the top of the mountain, the white Buddha I had spotted during the opening ceremony was just above it at the very top of the mountain. John and I were towards the back of the bus. Tom, Mark and Gloria were at the front. They had gotten off the bus long before me and John, and I expected to meet up with them before starting the actual climb. But we started heading up the hill and before long, I realized we were on the path, at the back of the group, and we would not be meeting up. Not a big deal, I thought, since I had John with me and I was determined. But about a third of the way up, the goose bumps and chills came back. I took a break, trying to fight the impending heat exhaustion, but my skin became clammy and I felt I might vomit. John insisted that I keep pushing, but I stopped every chance I had. I was finally on the verge of giving up, not because I couldn't do it or didn't want to, but because I feared I would push myself too far. Having been lectured about heat exhaustion just the day before, I logically didn't think it was a good idea to push myself, even though I knew I could. It was a really tough predicament, and I wished then that Tom and Gaylene were around to defend me or at least advise me. Instead, John kept pushing me, and I broke down in tears.

A few other people were around us, bringing up the rear due to bad knees or lack of stamina. My pride prevented me from really relating to them, knowing I could be up the hill already had I not been concerned about my symptoms. Nevertheless, they became a support group for me, forging friendships on the fly based purely in this common, daunting exercise of will and endurance. The plan had been to climb up and back down in two hours and then do two more hours of training with the monks to finish our forms. At this point, however, I was well aware that I would not be able to do both. I tried to convince John to go on without me so he wouldn't miss the training, but he refused. So I made him promise that he was okay with not making it to training. He agreed, stating that it was more important we finish this. He carried my bag for me, and walked behind me. We started seeing our friends on the way back down, and I regretted my heat exhaustion, knowing it was preventing me from joining them.

Eventually, the symptoms passed, and the top was getting closer and closer. I began pushing through quick climbs and then stopping for just a moment, feeling better about the climb and confident I could reach my goal. The views were magnificent, and the people heading back down exclaimed how
much better the view was from the top, how we were almost there, and that it was totally worth it. We finished strong, reaching the cave like we were crossing a finish line. I sat for quite some time there, peering into the little cave from a distance. I caught my breath and slowed my heart rate, reasoning that it would be better to pay my respects in good shape, not exhausted and depleted. I finally stood up and followed John in, as he was purchasing incense to burn in respect. We stood in silence at the shrine. After several minutes passed, we started light conversation with the tour guide and the young woman attending to the shrine. Apparently, the monks had not expected us so early, and had sent her running up the mountain in a last minute rush. She had run the whole way, so as to open the cave before we got there. There wasn't much to the cave itself, but the surrounding scenery made for wonderful, meaningful pictures.

There were two ways to get to the top from the cave, dubbed the hard way and the easy way. We veered to the left, going up the easy way, and it wasn't much at all to get to the top. We sat in a little gazebo, enjoying the view and the breeze for quite some time before making our way over to the large white Buddha. John and I were alone up there, and it was actually really nice. We took some pictures and then plopped down on the ground at the edge, our legs dangling over the edge like we were on a roller coaster, and talked. It was definitely worth it, we agreed. This was a unique experience and we were glad to make it. As we watched, two of our USSD guys climbed down the mountain on their hands and knees, something the monks do habitually in training. For us, the way back down was a breeze, but even if we ran we wouldn't have made it to the training on time, so we took our time and enjoyed the hike and the fresh air. We stopped at a gift shop on the mountain, speaking in random sign language to get the shirts I had promised Sensei Casey back home. As we passed people on their way up, we encouraged them in the same manner our friends had encouraged us. We made our way to the familiar hill where we had tested and trained, and sat to watch the last part of training and what they had learned. After training, surprise, surprise, we returned to the same restaurant for lunch and shopping.

Our next stop, as far as we knew, was the airport. I fell asleep on John's shoulder, so it was quite a surprise when the bus stopped, and I was awakened by expressions of excitement. I looked out the window to see 8000 children lined up in formation and clapping for us. We recognized the uniformed kids as kung fu students, and several of the monks were lined up in front. We had come to a full time
kung fu school, where these students lived and trained, learning kung fu half the day and traditional education the other half. We were all incredibly moved by the gesture, and when we were off the bus and the students stopped clapping, we clapped for them. Then they started clapping again for us, in an awkward, comical exchange of greetings without language. Unfortunately, half our tour group was already on a plane to Beijing, so we were doubly honored to have this opportunity. We were greeted formally, then took a quick tour of the living quarters, the dining hall and the training areas. Much of the school was reminiscent of prisons and war camps, especially to those of our group
who had been in the military. While we were wandering the campus, the young kung fu students waited in formation. We took some group shots with them, and waved our good byes.

Our flight to Beijing was delayed little by little until it was about 5 hours late. Most of us took naps in the airport, but it was hard to sleep the entire time. We were offered complimentary tea and an airplane meal consisting of squishy hot dog-flavored meat balls and weird fish. Tom had been sleeping for quite some time, so when he showed signs of awakening, I told him a number of times that there was food available, having learned by now that he'd eat just about anything. He would respond each time by looking at me with glazed over eyes, and then passing out again. The rest of us, running on little sleep and bad food, were quite amused by this. It stunk to be stuck in the airport for so long, but we made the best of it, laughing, talking, and relaxing.

We arrived at the New World Hotel in Beijing around 3:30 in the morning and planned to be up by 8 for our city tour. The hotel was beautiful; each floor seemed to have its own miraculous and unique chandelier. Entering the elevator area, we were passively asked to hold our palms in front of a scanner that would determine if our temperature was okay or feverish.

It wasn't until shortly after we left that next morning that we noticed Kyle and his roommate Caesar had not made it onto the bus. We felt a little bad that we had not noticed, but hoped that they had intended to sleep in. We toured the Summer Palace first, which was a large group of buildings with beautiful gardens on the shore of a lake in which fresh water pearls were farmed. The Summer Palace had been built by the Dragon Lady, an empress who had begun as a concubine to the emperor, and derived her power by controlling the emperor's sons as they became emperors. We learned that a few of the buildings had been used to imprison people, and that her top eunuch, who may not have been a true eunuch, had a secret underground tunnel from his chambers to hers so he was available for her every beck and call.

Our next stop was lunch at another super store/restaurant, and then onto Tiananmen Square where Kyle and Caesar luckily met up with us. I have seen pictures and videos of the political center, but was largely impressed by just how expansive the square was. With a cloud of fog over the area, it seemed it could almost go as far as the horizon. We saw the famous portrait of Mao, took a group photo, then headed on foot towards the Forbidden City. I didn't know what to expect or anything about the Forbidden City, except what the tour guide had told us: it was the yang to the Summer Palace's yin, and something about its significant for seeing it in the afternoon and having seen the Summer Palace in the morning.
The Forbidden City was again impressively expansive, with a number of large buildings with detailed decoration and doors that looked like they weighed 3 tons. We posed by several sculptures of real and fantasy animals. At this point, we had decided to get more creative with our posed photos, and in doing so, became instant celebrities among surrounding tourists armed with cameras who began flashing pictures of us with every move we made. One of the more memorable photos was of the guys lined up in single file, kneeling in front and standing in back, doing goofy things with their arms.

It was already late in the afternoon and we were being hurried out of the Forbidden City. Gates were closing behind us, and as we slowly neared the exit, our tour guide started to get yelled at and reprimanded by the guards for taking so long. We literally stepped over the last threshold with the gate closing at our heels. As we made our way back to the busses, we were attacked like crazy by tourist-hunting salespeople on the street, to the point where some people in our group got physically defensive, and others just brought the crap hoping in vain to get them out of our faces.

Dinner that night was another Western and Chinese buffet. I had scoped out Kung Pao chicken on the table - the first time I had seen the dish in China, and was excited to see that it looked edible. I tried just a small serving, and went back for seconds. Mark had taken one bite of the Kung Pao chicken and decided he really didn't like it. While eating my seconds, about three or four bites into it, my mouth was suddenly filled with an awful taste, coating my whole mouth and instantly killing my appetite for Kung Pao chicken. I thought it was odd, but didn't saying anything until Tom apparently had the same experience. It was awful, we agreed, and probably why Mark didn't like his. Whatever it was, Mark probably had it on the first bite. As we were discussing the unsettling taste, Gloria was on her second bite, and had the same experience as well.

After dinner, we received tickets to see the Peking Opera. I hooked my arm around Tom's, and more than slightly intoxicated, declared Tom as my date. The open seating was paid for us, but we soon learned that we could get upgraded to a table up close if we bought a bottle of wine. So we did, and got a table for six: Gloria and Alex, Mark and Laura, and Tom and I. It turned out the opera was awful. We were all but decided that no talent was needed at all to be in such a show, as the singing was more like the worst high pitched shrieking you might see on American Idol auditions, and the dancing and acting weren't much better. The stories were bizarre, the costumes were overly dramatic and the show was hard to follow (I didn't know until later that there were multiple stories told, I assumed it was all one story and I was very confused). There was some display of talent towards the end, in the form of choreographed swordplay and some flips, leaps and tricks, but we were thrilled when it was over.

That night, a large group of us planned to go to the Hard Rock Café, where we were told would be dancing. We met in the lobby downstairs, and Gaylene and Dave met us just to have a drink and bid us good night. In order to get there, we'd ask the concierge to write Hard Rock in Chinese on a little card, which already had the name and address of the hotel so we could get back. All we had to do was hand the card to the taxi drivers and they would take us. There was no dancing at Hard Rock; it was, after all, a typical Hard Rock. So we sat around with drinks and bad service, and finally called it a night.
I really could have gone without visiting the jade "factory", another tourist trap where all of two people were actually producing product and the rest of the large building was a show room and store, and expensive at that. But I went along because the following stop was one of the highlights of the trip for me. Today, I'd be accomplishing one of my goals on my life list: we were walking the Great Wall of China. I had fallen asleep on the bus ride there, so I was not really ready to walk the Great Wall when we got there. What's worse, I had not considered proper footwear or clothes that morning, so I
found myself in flip flops and a nice, three-quarters sleeve length T-shirt. I had brought an UnderArmor shirt, so I changed into that before beginning our journey up the wall.

The section of the Great Wall that we visited had two directions to venture, both leading to a high point on top of a mountain. One way was shorter and steeper, dubbed the hard way, and of course the other way was longer and less steep, dubbed the easy way. We somehow mixed the two up (actually, I think our tour guide got it wrong), and Gloria, Caesar, Gaylene, myself and a few others found ourselves on the empty slopes of the hard way. Most of the guys in our group, intending

to go the hard way, found themselves among the masses of people visiting the wall - the easy way. In my drowsy, half-consciousness, I had made the incorrect assumption that we would all end up in the same place, but soon realized the impossibility of that idea, as we were literally headed in opposite directions. Looking back toward the other direction, a part of me regretted not going with the guys, as the path they were on was more familiar, the one you see in pictures and postcards. Later, I was glad we picked the direction we did, because we did not have to fight through hoards of people, and the famous path served as a great background for our pictures. Plus, I declared that we were bad asses for taking on the hard route, even if it had been unintentional.

The climb was certainly difficult. There were points where the slope was so steep, we could turn around and we barely had to stretch our hands behind us to touch the floor. Gloria had also made the unfortunate mistake of wearing flip flops, so her and I had little traction and found ourselves slipping periodically. While taking pictures, someone noticed how unusual our stances were. Without realizing it, we were bending our bodies to accommodate the slope and still stand upright. We called this the matrix pose, and took a few pictures of each other doing the matrix. Parts of the wall had stairs because the incline was too steep, but the stairs were uneven in every way: height, width, and horizontal flatness. Low railings were mounted in many of these areas. We had to bend a little to reach the low railings, but they did help to reassure our slippery footings. It
was easy to get winded on the climb up, and with the heat, dehydration and sleep deprivation, we gave ourselves plenty of breaks. Slowly but surely, and with great pride, we made our way up to the top. The path continued beyond the highest point, going down and continuing as far as we could see, but we did not have enough time to venture much further. I would have liked to have the whole day to spend on the Great Wall; just being there gave me so much energy, joy and excitement, and I would have liked to go up in both directions. But as it was, it was an incredible and emotional journey I will not soon forget.

There are lots of stories and legends about the Great Wall. Our tour guide had told us of a Romeo and Juliet-like tragedy of two forbidden lovers, one was buried with the 13 million other farmers who died, there at the wall, and his lover found him and killed herself so as to be with him forever. The story ends with two butterflies, the reincarnation of their spirits, perhaps, fluttering around the wall together. It was with this touching legend that I was moved to photograph a butterfly that landed on
the railing near me on the way down. Ironically, Mark mentioned later that, on the other side of the wall, he had also spotted a butterfly along their path, almost as if the one was watching over the women and one was over the men. Like the hike down from Bodhidharma's cave, we had a much easier time coming down the Great Wall. We did some shopping at the bottom, and took photographs by large placards on our way back to the bus. One specific photo was really fun for us: our tight group of seven (temporarily entitled The Magnificent Seven), made up of the six people from Arizona and my roommate Gloria whom we adopted into our group, posed in front of a sign declaring the Great Wall as part of the new
seven wonders of the world.

The location of our next round table lunch was an absolutely ridiculously large store, easily the size of two Ikeas, filled with a large selection of all the merchandise we had seen at each of the factories and stores before, and little else. Tom and I thoroughly enjoyed the name of the place, however, and we just had to pose in front of the sign reading Yulong Friendship Shop.

Some of the groups returned to the hotel after lunch, but our tour guide did not give us that option. He dragged us through one of the Ming tomb sites, which was barely interesting. It had buildings indistinguishable now from the ones we had seen at the Summer Palace and the Forbidden City. He wanted to give us an hour to walk around after the tour, but we expressed our disinterest and left immediately.

Back at the hotel, we had about an hour to get ready for the Peking Duck dinner. Mark called our room to verify that this was the formal event of the trip and that they should dress up. Meeting downstairs in the lobby, we noted it was odd to see everyone all dressed up, when we’re used to seeing each other in gi's and athletic clothing. On the way over, we learned about the traditional Peking duck meal, and I was excited for it, having enjoyed duck many times before, but many of our group were not so excited about trying duck for the first time. The meal started in the usual manor, random plates being set on our spinning table top, and tiny drinks served a shot at a time. One of the plates looked like meat in the shape of Cheetos. John was the first to point it out and try it, and said the meat tasted like Cheetos, too. We all pensively tried it, and agreed that indeed it did and that it wasn't great, but it wasn't bad either.

We watched the chef slice the duck into hundreds of thin pieces, which we would then put onto a tortilla (yes, a tortilla), top with onions and sauce, and roll up like a tamale. I also used the tortilla to wrap up the Cheeto-like meat, calling it my Cheeto Meato Burrito. Professor Mattera made a short speech, thanking Shihan Taylor, the masters and other people who helped make the trip a success, including Chris Diaz and our China tour coordinator, Miss May. He also mentioned that one of the masters had brought his mom, which we all thought was touching and ironic, since he was one of the biggest, most bad-ass looking masters of all. Afterwards, we stalked and harassed the leaders for necessary photographs, then headed back to the hotel.

It was our second to last night in China, and I had not had a great time dancing yet. It was time to get our party on. I was surprised that I was able to drag John (who was always falling asleep when we invited him out), Mark (who was not a fan of dancing) and Tom (also not a
fan of dancing) out to a dance club, along with a large group of people from various circles of friends. We arrived at the club, called Banana Babyface. Frank had scoped it out the nights before, and told us it was perfect. We had a little problem getting into the club - Laura did not want to toss her water bottle, so she had to check it before we could enter. I didn't know what that was all about, but we got over it and entered the club. Gloria and I, of course, found a dance floor on the upper level behind the bar, and hit the dance floor immediately. Laura and I were able to convince Tom to come out to dance with us. From then on, I couldn't get Tom to stop dancing, which I thought was absolutely hilarious. Gloria found a couple cute Chinese girls to dance with Caesar, and one was soon taken back by her apparent boyfriend. The other girl seemed into him, and they disappeared for the most of the night, making occasional appearances. Mark continued most of the night to try to put his moves on Laura, and I danced my little heart out with whoever was around. Form our vantage point on the dance floor, we watched a spectacular show - the bartender was playing with flames and juggling bottles, etc.

The bar was a little shady - they wouldn’t give you change unless you demanded it, and then it would take 30 or 40 minutes to do so - no joke. There were some other oddities, like when we got bottle service to get a table, security continued to watch our table, and periodically would rearrange our glasses. We weren't sure if they were signaling to each other, checking the contents of the glasses, or just messing around with us, but it was definitely confusing us. Nevertheless, we had a great time.

Tom was propositioned by a hooker, not once but twice. Later, John was drinking himself silly, and Tom told him about the hooker. John didn't seem to believe Tom, so he sent her over to John, who later commented "I hate you" to Tom. Our group started dancing on the lower level, closer to the DJ, and there was a riser that several of us got on and danced. At one point, we were in very tight quarters with the locals, and a Chinese girl accidentally jumped on my foot with her heel, causing a pretty severe bruise almost immediately. I initially reacted to it by pushing her lightly, and then realized she had no idea, so I let it go and moved away from her.

Late into the night, Gloria informed me that John was outside throwing up, and I knew I had to go take care of him. So I sat with him for a bit, got him some water, and then grabbed Mark to help me take John back to the hotel. The rest of the crew lingered a bit later, and Laura caused all sorts of drama for Tom concerning her magical water bottle, first claiming she had left it in the cab, then claiming her phone was in there, and making Tom try to get the cab back.

The tour planned for the last day was the Olympic park and the Temple of Heaven. Tom, Gaylene, Dave and I, among others, decided that we could survive without seeing those places, so we ventured out on our own. Mark stayed back for some extra sleep, and Gloria went off to do her own thing with Alex. The first stop was Starbucks, of course, and then we walked around in a mall we stumbled upon. We came out into the rain, which we welcomed, and wandered until we found our way back to the hotel. We were being total tourists, taking silly pictures in front of signs and random objects that probably meant nothing to the locals. Back at the hotel, we met up with Mark, and went out in search of Pizza Hut for lunch. We found it, somehow, and enjoyed an amazing meal. We did some shopping in search of karate shoes, to no avail. It was hilarious though, to watch Gaylene try to ask for karate shoes, as she would put her guard up and show off her karate moves, and then point to her feet and say "shoes".

That night, we went back to Hard Rock, this time joined by Gaylene, Dave and John. There was a cover band playing, and the food and drinks were amazing. We reminisced over the adventures we had had, and complained about what would meet us back home at our jobs and in our lives. We

planned future reunions and get-togethers, and exchanged contact information. We enjoyed our last evening in Beijing on a relaxing note.

The plane rides to Tokyo and then back to America were uneventful as far as I knew. Tom had switched seats with a nice girl, so we got to sit together, and we watched a couple movies. I got some writing done, and took a few short naps. When we arrived back at LAX, one of the women whom I had tested with, a student of John's, had had a seizure, and was taken to the hospital. The four of us from the Gilbert dojo still had a long way home, however, so we stopped at a McDonald's to eat before starting on our 6 hour drive back to Phoenix. Kyle and Mark slept for a bit, and when Mark woke up he took over driving for Tom for a little while. I tried to stay awake the whole time, but I nodded off on more than one occasion. Tom finished the drive, stopping first to take Kyle home. Then Tom, Mark and I decided to go to Old Chicago before heading home, so we went to the one near Mark's house. It was a little funny, like we didn't want to go home and return to reality. We had grown very close on the trip, and had made new friends who we already had had to say goodbye to. It was like didn't want the trip to come to an end. We finally paid the bill and dropped Mark off, and Tom drove me home.

I walked in to my house and was surprised to see that Karen, my roommate, had not only cleaned the house, but had decorated the place in streamers and party decorations. Colorful lettering on the wall read, "Congratulations!", "Happy Birthday!" and "Welcome Home!" We had been planning a little party for my 25th birthday, my purple belt and my return from China, which was in two days. The decorations were all in purple and black, and some of the decorations were oriental-looking. I was so excited I was almost in tears - wouldn't be the first time, right?

That Saturday, July 11, I donned my black gi and went to karate with Karen. I had not actually received a purple belt in China, nor had I gotten my purple shirt that would go with it, so my Sensei provided a belt and said he would have to order the shirt for me. Mark was in the same boat - without his new brown belt, but he soon got his and we were both recognized in class for having tested in China. The tradition in the dojo is to beat up anyone celebrating a birthday in class, so my Sensei unleashed the class on me, but they went easy on me for my birthday beating. I wore my China Trip shirt to my party, and displayed my old belts and some souvenirs from the trip. My family showed up with some food and dessert, and Karen made some amazing Mexican food. Gaylene and Dave showed up with an awesome picture frame for me, filled with amazing photos of me and the group in China. I shared my pictures with my family and friends at the party, and we shared funny stories and memories from the trip. A few weeks later, Gaylene and Dave hosted a small reunion to swap pictures, and we again revisited the funny stories and memories of our journey.

By far, the most memorable parts of the trip were our short stay at the Shaolin Temple and the visit to the Great Wall. My favorite pictures come from those two events as well, and I barely remember Shanghai, as if it was years ago. So much had happened since then that Shanghai is a distant memory. Our last days in Beijing were also memorable, because we finally got to party with the locals and experience the city without the hassle of a tour group. We never heard prostitutes knocking on our doors at night. "Knock, knock, knock, hey-ro?" But we did manage to find trouble in every city: we were scouted in Shanghai, found a whore house in Dengfeng, and were propositioned by hookers in Beijing. It's not a good trip unless you come back with good stories, right? On the positive side, I tested for my purple belt in the Shaolin Temple, was recognized by the Abbot, interviewed for Chinese news, and climbed the Great Wall. I think, now, if I ever plan another trip to China (and I do want to go back someday), I will do my best to learn at least some basic Mandarin, because we had such a hard time with the language barrier there. All in all, the China trip was an amazing adventure for me, and I'm so glad I was fortunate enough to go.

I feel I should, at this point, thank all the people who made this trip happen and who made it so much fun:  To my roommate, Sensei Karen, for dragging me into karate to begin with, for watching my puppy while I was in China, and for throwing me a wonderful party upon my return.  To Sensei Casey, Sensei Andy, Sensei Brad, and the other instructors who helped me train for each rank, and especially for pushing me the last month before my purple belt test in China.  To my parents, for their generous birthday gift, financially supporting my trip to China.  To Sensei Tom, for doing a majority of the driving and organizing our adventure to and from LAX.  To Mr. Diaz, the masters, Shihan Taylor, Professor Mattera, Miss May and the tour guides for organizing the tours and the wonderful surprises.  To Gloria, for being an awesome roommate in China, putting up with me and always having my back - I hope we keep in touch and see each other often.  To Sensei Tom, Mark, Kyle, Gaylene, Dave, Gloria, Sensei John, Sensei Frank, Laura, Jason, Caesar and Alex, for being good-humored and down to earth, allowing us to have as much fun as we did.  And last but not least, thank you to the readers, for having read through this wonderful journey of mine - I would love to hear your feedback and comments as well. 

With that, I will say that traveling to a foreign country has always been a remarkable adventure, and the China tour with the United Studios of Self Defense was certainly no exception.  I took over a thousand pictures over the course of 11 days, and if a picture is worth a thousand words, well, there's a lot more I suppose I could say about it.  My gold Buddha pin from the Abbot is now proudly displayed at my desk at work, and every time I see a Starbucks, I feel the sudden urge to exclaim, "Look, there's a Starbucks!"  As you can tell, I had a wonderful time in China, and definitely wish to return someday.  There was talk that the next USSD trip would be to Japan, a country to which I would love to return.  I hope that, for all of us, the end of our China trip is not the end of our adventures, but merely a highlight in a whirlwind of wonderful memories.  Borrowing from the tagline of the trip, the journey continues…

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