I had set my alarm for 05:20 with the idea that I would beat the bell they have and be ready a little earlier. However, instead, I woke to the sound of their bell. A very loud bell. What I realised, is that they have one bell at 05:20 to wake people up and another at 05:30 to congregate outside. When the second bell went off, kids started running out their rooms and making their way downstairs, with an air of “panic” on their faces.
As I went outside, I could see they were starting to form lines in what looked like a height or age order. I randomly chose the second line and parked myself at the end. A senior student standing in front, facing the students said “new?” to me, to which I replied “yes” and nodded. He addressed the group. Each student said something and then they shuffled along to form tight lines. I had no idea what to say, so I naturally said what most aliens would say – nothing. Then, the first and third lines trotted off and myself in the remaining second line began doing walking laps of the forecourt. I wasn’t sure if this was the usual drill or if I had messed something up for the line by not saying something and the laps were a “punishment” shared amongst the line. After walking several laps, we jogged a few more and came to rest.
Whilst we stood in a line, the senior student stood in front of us and demonstrated breathing exercises. We watched and followed. The other students had the luxury of watching, listening and following. In other words, I had to try and work out what was going on instinctively. What progressed from standing breathing exercises, evolved into exercises in a stance with the tailbone of the back tucked under. I had the luxury or experience from my kung fu teacher in London explaining the concept and read about the importance of it before I arrived. The idea is to straighten the spine so that the Qi energy flows from top to bottom better and is the basis of the strength and power they generate. Cultivating Qi is the fundamentals for this form of kung fu. As the class is taken, I watched the other students to know when to stop, continue, take a break etc. After an hour of training, the class was dismissed.
I was told yesterday, that after the first hour of training, the students get 30 mins to wash and change before breakfast. With around 30 students and 3 bathrooms, it’s pretty obvious that washing wasn’t going to occur in the morning. At 07:00, the bell was sounded again and the student lined up for breakfast. As I came outside to line up, I noticed Master Wu Nanfang sitting with the manager and Veena. To deviated for a moment, Veena was someone who contacted me after I initially reached out to the school by email many months ago. I spent an hour on the phone to hear listening to advice and information about the school to decide and prepare for the trip. Although at the time of the call she was based in England, she had told me she would be in the area while I was there and would drop by. After a brief greeting, I joined the line of students and went for breakfast. Breakfast consisted of some vegetables, bread and a soup. I was told that the soup contains a fruit that promotes Qi. Again, the food was really tasty and I’m being given big portions.
After breakfast, we were dismissed back to the living quarters, to await another bell ring to tell us the late morning class was about to start. I used the time to brush my teeth, but chose not to shower for fear of getting caught in the middle of a shower with the bell going. The late morning lesson was taken in the plot of land behind the living quarters. The land contains tall trees and some stones scattered in the corner. The trees have been planted (or grown) with almost perfect spacing between them. Cleverly, this allows us to train in the shade (the branches almost perfectly meet at the top) and give some temporary cover from the rain, all without impeding on usability of the space – i.e. dodging a few trees in known positions is easy. The lesson started with the same breathing exercises as the morning and evolved to some twisting and weight shifting routines. The lesson was about 3 hours long, split with a “break” period, where the students and I sat on the rocks (like Westerners would around a camp fire – only without the fire). They’d entertain themselves for the break with their mobile phones and lighthearted chat. What’s really nice, is that the senior student who takes the class relaxes with them, so you can see there’s a real bond with him. But there’s a definite respect when he takes the class.
After the late morning class and lunch we retreated to our rooms again. I could see a schedule in Mandarin on the wall as you come through the front door of the living quarters and was able to place where we were in the schedule. Also, spotting the symbol for the late morning training, I was able to work out that the afternoon training was next and started in about an hour. I used the the time to have my first shower. I was warned that the hose for the bathroom next to me didn’t work (I also found out the hard way that the toilet flush didn’t work either) and that the one across the hall would take 5 mins to warm up and the one downstairs would take 2 mins. The bathroom upstairs was taken and I opted to go downstairs one. Not knowing who is living where in the building, I never know whether I’m intruding on peoples space by using various rooms/bathrooms. Showering was an interesting experience – no hooks for your clothes (or anywhere that looked anywhere clean enough to place clothes) and a drop toilet right next to you isn’t the most glamorous. My hanging wash kit doubled up as a hanger for my clothes.. Another result on my packing list. Squatting on the floor with a hose was so refreshing that the views/smells of the bathroom were put to one side.
I crossed paths with the manager on the way back to my room and asked him if I could give him the money for the first month of stay. He invited me to give this to Master Wu Nanfang and took me to his room. With some translation about the fact this money was for one month and I will follow up with the rest in town, Master Wu Nanfang showed his appreciation. The manager translated by telling me that Master was very thankful of supporting the school and the money would be used to build new facilities. I think his appreciated was very genuine. Until now, they had taken me in, fed me, trained me and hadn’t even asked for any money.
With time to spare, I fell asleep on my bed. I awoke and saw two people entering the room – it was the chap who accompanied the taxi driver yesterday and another westerner. The westerner turned out to be Matthew, a former student of the school who had stumbled upon my blog a couple of weeks before departing London. He had been incredibly helpful over email from the US, answering my questions about his past experiences. He had told me he was arriving on the day after me and it was quite refreshing to have him turn up. When he entered the room, he was speaking, what sounded like, fluent Mandarin to the Master’s son (I confirmed that was in fact the Master’s son at that point). As he unpacked, he told me a little about his story. He practiced kung fu to help recovery and maintain a regular level of health after spinal surgery. The spinal surgery was performed to fuse two vertebrate in his back after his vertebrate shifted over one and other when he was younger. He had visited the school in the past and practiced the breathing techniques daily ever since. Because his wife being native Chinese, he had learned Mandarin to communicate with the in-laws and embrace the Chinese culture. What was apparent after talking to him, was that even his understanding of Mandarin he struggled to understand their dialect at times, because the accents were thick and a lot of the vocabulary new. Good to know that I wasn’t being thick struggling with the language, but bad because it meant I was probably going to struggle for the remaining 55 days of my stay 🙂
The bell was something new to him. When he was last here, he said they all stayed in the main house where the food is served (we lived in a separate house), and there was only a few adults so was taught my Master Wu Nanfang himself. For him, the bell represented something like a military academy. For me, the bell was actually a great way to communicate that I have to be somewhere, so I can relax in my room until then and with everyone meeting outside, I never have to know where to be (we all march off together). Maybe this represents my place in the society that represents the school – I’m ignorant and need to learn the methods.
That evening, one of the senior students gave a lesson in Chinese medicine. Unfortunately, with that lesson being given in fluent Mandarin, I skipped it and relaxed in my room.