Off the Beaten Track – The Hair Salon

Yesterday I went to the hair salon to get my nails and hair done.  The weather was beautiful and sunny.  Everyone looked happy.  

While I was sitting there, all of a sudden, smoke started coming out from the back of the salon.  All of us sat there for a bit, wondering what was happening.  One of the family owners ran to the back.  Yellow, mustardy smoke began wafting through the store.  

After some moments, I stretched my head forward enough to see that the back of the salon was entirely dark with large, orange flickers of light.  The smoke had turned black and poisonous.  All of us started leaving.  The owner’s brother, however, stayed in the back, and the girl who was doing my nails didn’t come out either.  She had gone back to try to help him put out the fire.  

The immediate question was whether there was a fire extinguisher.  I gathered that there wasn’t one.  As we stood outside, smoke started filling the entire inside of the store and began to pour out the open glass doors.  

The firetrucks were there in about two minutes and blocked off the entire street and intersections.  There were at least 7 firetrucks and one ambulance that I counted.  I wondered why they needed so many trucks, but now I realize you need to surround the streets in case the fire spreads.  

Before they arrived, I had already moved farther away, mostly because I was afraid that there might be an explosion.  As I stood there, I saw at least two firemen and one firewoman put on their gas masks, then their helmets, and walk in.  Visibility was poor.   Several firemen went into adjacent buildings.

The girl who was doing my nails had come running out earlier, coughing.  We didn’t see the brother of the owner come out.  I hope he’s ok.  A few of us from the salon were quite worried about him.  Crowds of people now stood outside watching.  The firemen quickly got the hoses in place, and, very soon after, the black plumes of smoke stopped pouring out.  

Now, it’s quite incredible to me that there are people who run towards a fire.  Of course, these people are trained to do that.  And it’s not just fire, which is very scary, but all kinds of danger.  Firemen and EMT’s literally put their lives on the line to save other people’s lives and even our pets and property.  

That evening, my eyes and sinuses hurt.  Firemen have gas masks with a tank of oxygen.  I have since learned that if their oxygen runs out, the worst thing they can do is take off their mask to try to get air.  (The smoke will deprive them of even more oxygen).  If this happens, they are trained to hold their breath for as long as 2 minutes and pass out while one of their colleagues try to reach them.  But firemen inevitably breathe in lots of toxic smoke because it’s a hazard of what they do.

Frankly, I don’t think these people get paid enough (along with teachers and many other public servants).  There’s a lot of talk these days of cutting pensions for people who give their lives for protecting us and our children.   Now, I actually see how quickly fire can spread.  Every second counts.  So please support your local fire departments.  And please be sure to always keep a fire extinguisher handy. 

(This piece is back-dated.)

Bruce Lee video and some quotes

Two summers ago, my nephew asked me to watch this video.  I wasn’t particularly interested at the time, but he said to me, “You’ll be sorry if you don’t!”  

The first part shows Bruce Lee using nunchucks to play ping-pong against one and then two opponents, and the second part shows him using nunchucks to light match sticks that are thrown in the air. 

My brother used to practice using nunchucks.  They’re heavy.  When I twirled them (or tried), I was afraid I would hit my own head.  Each revolution, they landed on your back in a way which could pack a “punch” and sting and even throw you off balance.

Anyways, Bruce Lee was a master, apparently, in the use of these instruments.  He was a true master in the practice of Chinese martial arts, but, like many great artists, was also unconventional in his style.  

After watching this video, I was curious to learn more about how someone could learn how to focus to such a degree that his movements are so precise and appear to be done almost with a sixth-sense, as it were.  Well, his answer was practice.  

Bruce Lee constantly practiced discipline of both his mind and his body.  He also believed that training and discipline of the mind was more important than training the body to achieve his full potential.  

Gong fu (功夫), or kung fu, literally means “achievement and man” in Chinese.  The term does not just apply to martial arts but to any type of discipline which takes great effort and practice in order to achieve excellence or perfection – in other words, the term largely embodies the idea of long and dedicated training to achieve a skill or an art.  Today, most people identify this term with martial arts, but if you’re good at anything, it can be said that you have 功夫.

When I watch this video and now when I think of some of his movies, it is apparent to me that Bruce Lee demonstrated uncanny efficiency of movement and had incredible focus.  His movements demonstrate discipline of mind and body and using this to develop one’s own style.

Here are a few quotes that I like by him:

To me, the extraordinary aspect of martial arts lies in its simplicity. The easy way is also the right way, and martial arts is nothing at all special; the closer to the true way of martial arts, the less wastage of expression there is.

I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times.

Ever since I was a child I have had this instinctive urge for expansion and growth. To me, the function and duty of a quality human being is the sincere and honest development of one’s potential.

Take no thought of who is right or wrong or who is better than. Be not for or against.

Take things as they are. Punch when you have to punch. Kick when you have to kick.

It’s not the daily increase but daily decrease. Hack away at the unessential.

I’m not in this world to live up to your expectations and you’re not in this world to live up to mine.

All fixed set patterns are incapable of adaptability or pliability. The truth is outside of all fixed patterns.

Man, the living creature, the creating individual, is always more important than any established style or system.

A goal is not always meant to be reached, it often serves simply as something to aim at.

Mistakes are always forgivable, if one has the courage to admit them.

Always be yourself, express yourself, have faith in yourself, do not go out and look for a successful personality and duplicate it.

Showing off is the fool’s idea of glory.

As you think, so shall you become.

My Father’s Beauty Secret

Do you want firm, young skin, especially around the face and neck?  Today, I’m going to share with you my father’s BEAUTY SECRET!  I’m not guaranteeing anything, but the results are amazing, so I recommend you try it.   

Every morning, my father exercised in our yard, visible to anyone.  He practiced tai qi.  But before he practiced tai qi, he exercised his entire face.  

  • If you’re ready to begin, stand still and begin moving all of your facial muscles  - your mouth, cheeks, forehead and jaw – to the right, to the left, up and down and basically all around.  Don’t hold back.  Remember, the whole point is to exercise every single muscle in your face.  
  • Simultaneously, begin blinking your eyes.  
  • Once you have a good rhythm going, your lips should be moving in and out (imagine a fish) but with the entire jaw moving around (mine moves to the right, clockwise).  It’s ok if the mouth movements are a bit jerky.  Your nose should also naturally scrunch up and down.  The jaw movement will also exercise the muscles in your neck.
  • Continue doing this for several minutes.  
  • To end the exercise, clack your teeth together (but gently) at least 20 times with your entire face still in motion.  This will have the effect of you looking like you’re smiling and then not smiling, smiling, not smiling, with all teeth bared when smiling.  (When I asked my father why he had to do this, he said this part had the added plus of making your teeth stronger.) 

Now, I admit, this looks a bit odd, and for those of you who have children or pets, you may want to remove them from the premises so as not to scare them.  But forget about how you look for about 5 minutes a day, and you’ll end up looking great. Honestly, my father’s skin is still nice and tight, and he’s in his eighties.  It’s true he also has very strong teeth, and they’re all his own.  

Ladies, if you practice this regularly, you can forget about many of your expensive facial creams.  All jokes aside, you’ll not only look great, you’ll also end up saving a ton of money. 

A Passage from Lao Tzu about Simplicity

On my way to work the other day, I found myself thinking of this passage from Lao Tzu which I have always liked:

The five colours blind the eye.
The five tones deafen the ear.
The five flavours cloy the palate.
Racing and hunting madden the mind.
Rare goods tempt men to do wrong.

Therefore, the Sage takes care of the belly, not the eye.
He prefers what is within to what is without.
*

In this passage, Lao Tzu tries to tell us that too many distractions can lead us astray from living simply. 

To live simply means that we get rid of things that “muddy” our lives and make us feel confused and less peaceful.   Too many desires or too much desire can make it easy for us to get carried away or become disappointed.  But when things are simple, we can find happiness from “what is within” rather than “what is without.” Simplicity allows us to enjoy the smallest things in the present moment.  If our minds are too busy, it’s difficult to enjoy the taste of tea or whatever is in front of us.  We’re too busy thinking of what we need to do or, perhaps, regretful of what we didn’t do.

My father told me that there are two kinds of happiness.  One is when we forget ourselves because we are caught up in excitement (as when we attend a rock concert), and one is when we forget ourselves because we feel peaceful.  The difference between the two, he said, is that when we feel excited, it tends to be fleeting, but a feeling of peacefulness tends to be longer lasting.

Now, if there is too much disorder around us, we may first have to get rid of the chaos in our environment.  Some people choose to leave their environment and take great risks in doing so.  When our environment is not orderly or is full of ups and downs, we spend a lot of time and energy worrying about our health and our safety, and it drains us of energy.  If basic necessities like food and shelter cannot be met, then it is indeed difficult.  Once our environment is more stable, our bodies and minds can relax.

To live simply means that there is order.  Orderliness allows us to see more clearly. Our rooms, for example, become messy if we don’t clean them regularly.  Then we often can’t find what we are looking for and can feel easily overwhelmed, tired and frustrated.  It’s easy to say, I’ll clean later, but later, the rooms are just as messy.  But if we start putting away one thing at a time, then we arrive at a sense of order.  We may have to take a little time every day to keep the rooms neat, but, in the end, cleanliness and neatness give us a sense of calm.  The less things you have, the easier it is.

Keeping one’s mind simple is like cleaning a room.  All sorts of thoughts and worries pile up in our minds that can make us feel heavy and tired.  We may be too self-critical or worry too much about what other people think instead of accepting what is and what we have to work with and stop blaming ourselves or other people.  We may feel we don’t know where to start or how to deal with things we have to face.  Some people try to escape reality through drugs and alcohol or other ways which don’t help their problems go away and can make things worse.

To get rid of “noise,” some people close their eyes, even for brief moments.  Some people listen to music.  Others read or knit.  Whatever we are doing, when we are able to shut out more outside distractions for a period of time, we can feel more peaceful.  Our minds aren’t so busy.  We don’t need to feel bombarded or care much about what other people are thinking or doing. 

When we can empty our minds, we don’t worry.  We can actually see more of our surroundings without feeling “pushed” this way or that.  We can see more without being judgmental about ourselves or others or situations.  We can then focus better on what we do.

So every day, I try to set aside some quiet time for myself.  This helps keep me healthy and gives me a sense of peacefulness without drugs, alcohol, or feeling like I need something to numb myself to be happy.  During my quiet time, I read, write, draw and do something I enjoy.  Or I can do nothing at all.  This doesn’t mean the bills I have to pay will go away.  It means simply that I give myself some time to rest and to relax.  Then, when I have to face the things I have to do, I feel I have more energy. 

In the morning, we get up, brush our teeth, get dressed.  We work, eat and go to sleep at regular times. Our bodies exercise and empty themselves of waste.  It’s equally important to give the mind activity, rest and empty the mind of waste.  The simpler and more regular our daily routines are, the healthier and better we tend to be.  The more things we have to juggle, the more difficult it is to keep ourselves balanced. And when our routines become disrupted, it can make us feel very unsettled and usually take us some time to regain a sense of order again.

Now, while I was walking to work last week one day, I felt rushed.  My head was very busy and full of congestion.  Suddenly, I said to myself, Stop thinking.  Just walk. Whenever a thought came into my head, I repeated this exercise, and one thought after the other would appear and disappear until I was just walking.  I felt lighter.  I no longer felt rushed.  I just walked and rode the subway, and by the time I got to work, I was smiling inside.  

When I was little, I once remarked to my father, “Dad, you never take a vacation.” He replied, “I take vacation every day when I drink tea.”  Now, when he drank his tea, he wanted to be alone, and he wanted quiet.  He did this every night.  I asked him why he wanted to be alone and quiet when he drank his tea.  He said, “Because I meditate.”  

At that time, I didn’t understand what he meant.  But today, it is one of the most beautiful lessons he taught me – that if I care to live simply and take a little time to clean out the busy thoughts that are in my head and give my mind some rest – if I can learn to enjoy tea without any expectations of myself or others and just enjoy quiet – I can take a vacation every day.

*Translation from the Tao Teh Ching by John C.H. Wu (Shambhala Dragon Editions)

The Open Hand

I was walking home from work two days ago when I came across an elderly woman standing on the sidewalk with a luggage bag beside her.  She reached out her cupped hand and said, “Please.  I’m very hungry.”  

In New York, many people ask for money, but certain people catch my attention. This woman, I guessed, was in her 70′s.  She looked East Asian, but I don’t think she was Chinese (maybe Tibetan, Bhutanese or Nepalese?).  She looked cold.

In very New York fashion, I got straight to the point:  “Why are you like this?  Do you have a home, or is there anyone you can call?”  (Some elderly people suffer from dementia.)  

“No,” she said, and then again, “Please. I’m very hungry.”  

I asked, “Do you have any family?”  

She said, “My son.  My son.”  

“Can you call him?”

“No,” she said and shook her head and didn’t say any more.  I realized it was a private matter.  Perhaps she had gotten kicked out of the home, or perhaps she had left.  

I paused and asked, “Where are you going to sleep tonight?” 

“The laundry room.  I will sleep in the laundry room.”  I didn’t know which laundry room she was referring to.  There are laundromats that are open 24 hours a day, and I guessed that’s what she meant.

“Can you call your son?” I asked again.  

“No.”  She paused a bit.  “My son changes his phone number every day.  He plays poker.  You know poker?  He plays poker every day.  He loses money.”  

I understood now that, whatever the case may be, I shouldn’t and didn’t need to ask any more questions.  I opened my purse and found two $5 bills and gave them to her. She bowed very deeply. 

I thought of inviting this woman to my home, at least for a night.  The truth is, with a poor economy, I am already supporting one friend who has been living with me and have two long-time friends (a couple) arriving this weekend to stay at my place who are not in good financial circumstances.  I have a one bedroom apartment with one bathroom, a small kitchen. 

But it was painful to see someone who was elderly and probably a proud person begging for money.  I thought to myself, No, I do not need to take on more than what I am dealing with now.  

Then a thought came across my mind – only several blocks away, there is a huge community center that helps the elderly and immigrants.  I pointed out the way, only two blocks up, three blocks left, a big building on the corner.

“They may be able to help you.  You may be able to find yourself in a better position.”

Again, she bowed very deeply.  I began to walk home.  Perhaps I should have at least walked this woman to the community center.  But I was so tired after work that day that I did not.  Also, I know people are very resourceful when they need to be.  I need to take care of myself also.

I have known for a long time that many Chinese people have problems with gambling.  If you walk into a casino, you can see whole areas that cater to Chinese people.   I have known people in my extended family who have gambled and lost a lot.  And, unfortunately, I know many sad stories of Chinese people who have lost everything because of their gambling habits.

There are many misfortunes in this world.  You can’t help everyone.  In New York City, I tend to be mindful about giving money because many homeless use the money to buy drugs or alcohol (although I don’t have anything against people buying alcohol per se).  But I don’t think this woman was trying to take advantage of me or anyone else.  I could be wrong.

I do hope she has been able to find a place where she can feel safe and warm.  What would it have cost me to have her in my home for one or two nights?  Actually, I feel a bit sorry, but then life is what it is, and I think the best thing is to concentrate my limited resources on the people who are close to me.  

I don’t expect to change the world, but I can make a little difference, perhaps, in the lives of a few people who matter the most and also in daily, small interactions where, hopefully, I can put a smile on someone’s face, even if only for a brief moment.

My Mother’s Qi Pao

Woman wearing qi pao (shorter length)

Woman wearing a qi pao (shorter length)

I was thinking of my mother’s qi pao, which hung in one closet along with several of her other precious dresses, but the qi pao was different and stood out – it was red with some embroidery, made of silk and was very shapely, with a long slit down each side of the dress.   I found out later that she wore it at her wedding. I loved the feel of the silk.  It was so soft and intimate.  I could rub it against my cheek, and it felt sensual.  

When I went to Kun Ming, I visited a factory that made silken cloth.  There were two men at a loom, weaving.  The older man sat atop an old wooden structure and pedaled away as on a bicycle but at varying speeds (I’m not sure my memory is entirely accurate here), and the younger man below moved his fingers quickly and precisely across the evenly spread out threads as across the strings of an instrument.  The older man above determined which spool of thread would filter down to the guy below.  Unfortunately, I don’t remember much more, except that the weaving of the cloth was intricately coordinated between these two men (who never spoke a word as they were working), and it must have taken a great deal of time and skill to learn how to do this.

The end product was bundled yards and yards of silken cloth of all different colors.   To this day, it is one of the most luxurious sights I have ever seen.  Each bundle seemed heavy in weight, with different patterns of embroidery in gold, silver, turquoise…  and some of the embroidery, as intricate as it was, was subtle because it was red on red or ivory on ivory.

I asked someone at the counter if I could have a small piece of cloth, just a small square as a souvenir.  She checked with her supervisor and said, “I’m sorry.  We cannot give you just a small piece.   We have to sell the cloth by the meter.  If you want, you can buy a meter of cloth.”  

A meter of this silken cloth cost $300 at the time.  Even if I could get half a meter, it would be $150, which was too much for me to afford.  Privately, I wondered if they thought I had deep pockets as a foreigner.  (You always had to be wary of inflated prices as a foreigner.)  Didn’t they have a piece of “scrap” lying around somewhere?   Whatever the case was, they were, indeed, attending to a couple of Japanese customers who had decided on what cloths to buy (most likely, for kimonos).  The woman at the counter unrolled and measured out the cloth of each bundle carefully and took out a fine pair of scissors, making an almost perfect straight cut down the middle.  

The qi pao, which is a traditional Chinese dress, is now worn mostly at formal occasions, like weddings or ceremonial functions, or is worn as a uniform for certain job functions (stewardesses at airlines, for example).  Each one is made to fit the individual body (like a glove) and has a collar at the top, traditionally with Chinese knots for buttons.  It’s not the most comfortable garment to walk around in, but it’s certainly a hip-hugging, sexy dress.  Not all of them are made with silk, which is expensive.  I don’t know if today there are still two men weaving cloths at the loom where I was in Kun Ming or whether they have been replaced by factory workers.  I do know it was a magical experience to see the cloths and see them being made.  

As for my mother’s qi pao, my sister and I both at one point tried to put it on, of course, but it didn’t fit either of us correctly (my shoulders were a bit broad, my waist wasn’t tiny enough and the bodice was definitely too loose).  My mother had a figure to be envied, and my sister and I joked that certain traits skip a generation.  We asked our mother to put it on, but she modestly declined, even though I’m quite sure it would have fit her.  Perhaps she wanted to keep the memory of her having worn it only on the day of her wedding.  

My sister now keeps my mother’s qi pao.  Even if I like to tell myself that material things don’t matter so much, I realize that certain things do, especially because they represent a piece of someone that is part of us – in this case, a memory of the vivid, beautiful woman that my mother was and what was precious to her.

The Odd and Picky Giant Panda

I watched this rather funny video two days ago of a baby panda sneezing which made me want to write about pandas.  I know this is going to sound horrible, but after watching several nature shows on pandas over the years, I’m convinced that giant pandas are partially responsible for their own endangered state due to their bizarre and strange evolution.  This is what I have learned:

  1. Pandas are solitary creatures, and they don’t seem particularly inclined to procreate. In captivity (it’s hard to spot and observe pandas together in the wild), you can put a male and female together alone for long periods of time, i.e. years, with enough space and privacy for each of them to feel comfortable, and they often refuse to copulate, even when in heat. 
  2. Pandas used to be carnivores.  Their digestive systems are suited to digest meat. Other plant eaters, like deer, can absorb up to 80% of nutrients from plants, but pandas can only absorb about 20% of their nutrients from bamboo. (Pandas’ short intestines are unable digest cellulose and, therefore, do not remove all of the nutrients from the bamboo.)  Pandas evolved their characteristic “thumb” and from then on pretty much ate only bamboo stems and shoots which accounts for 99% of their diet. (Couldn’t they have found a happy medium as both carnivore and herbivore? And as herbivores, couldn’t they have diversified their diet just a little and mixed in a few berries and cabbage or something?)  
  3. Because bamboo offers so little nutritional value, the giant panda eats 60-80 pounds of bamboo a day and spends at least 12 hours a day, eating.  It also has to defecate a lot (up to 40 times a day) because their digestive systems don’t absorb bamboo well.  (So don’t ever ask a panda whether they have anything better to do than pick at leaves.)
  4. The female panda is fertile only 1 to 3 days a year.  Breeding season is from March to May. This doesn’t give a male much opportunity to sow his oats and help ensure survival of the species.  Because pandas are solitary and territorial creatures, they usually do not tolerate other pandas in their areas (mostly because it would take too much energy to compete for food), so each adult panda needs approximately 2 to 4 square miles of land in order to survive.
  5. Once the egg is fertilized, the embryo free floats in the uterus and does not implant itself in the wall of the uterus until 3-5 months later (!) when the cells actually begin to divide and the embryo begins to grow.  (Does this make any sense to you?  The theory is that the mother has enough resources when implantation happens to keep the baby alive and that conditions are optimal for the embryo’s survival.  She has to keep her belly full during this time or else the embryo will likely not implant itself.)
  6. Female pandas mature into adults around the age of 4 or 5 and males at around the age of 7 or 8.  Pandas live for about 20 years in the wild (and 25-30 years in captivity).
  7. The baby panda is born about the size of a stick of butter (3-6 oz).  The mother is about 900x the baby’s weight (about 150 lbs), and mother pandas have been known to not infrequently kill their cubs by accident by rolling over or onto them.  Not only is the baby tiny, it’s blind, toothless and furless when it’s born. The baby opens it’s eyes after 6-8 weeks and is physically and fully dependent on the mother for about 5-6 months, after which the baby can start consuming small amounts of bamboo.  It’s emotionally dependent on its mother for an even longer time.  So the mother usually takes care of the baby panda for something like three years, which means that, on average, a female raises up to two or three cubs during her lifetime.  (Males leave after mating and play no role in raising of babies.)
  8. If the female panda has two babies or twins, which occasionally happens, she will only take care of one cub and allow the other to die soon after birth. (This is probably because the mother has only enough energy to take care of one cub.)

I’m not debating that deforestation or human expansion into panda habitat have made giant pandas one of the most endangered species in the world.  But certainly, the panda’s evolution doesn’t seem to have helped their survival as a species.

Today, it is estimated that there are only 1,500 to 3,000 giant pandas in existence. Outside of captivity, they live only in a few high mountain ranges in central China in the provinces of Sichuan, Gansu and Shanxi.  Less than a few hundred are in captivity, and human intervention has become instrumental in helping to ensure that pandas survive.  Also, several years ago, there was a breakthrough in China on how to maximize the survival of baby pandas in captivity.  The mother panda, as mentioned, is only willing to take care of one cub if she has twins, and she uses her acute sense of smell to differentiate between the two cubs.  Scientists were able, in some cases, to fool the mother into feeding the rejected cub by rubbing the smell of the accepted cub onto the rejected cub so that the mother might end up feeding both. (Humans would have to do a switcheroo of the two babies.)

As for the human Chinese population, statistics show there are more than 1.3 billion people in China alone, which means that Chinese people constitute a full 20% of the world’s population (or 1 out of every 5 people).  And, unlike giant pandas, Chinese people seem willing to eat, well, almost anything.