Stopping to Visit the Peonies of Luoyang

In Luoyang every year from mid-April to mid-May when the peonies are in full bloom the city celebrates the Peony Festival. There are many peony gardens to visit in the ancient city that was once the capital of China. The most famous and main garden is the Luoyang International Peony Garden. It is one of the oldest peony gardens in all of China.

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I did not go to this garden. I couldn’t tell you which garden I visited. All I can say is that I was in Luoyang during the Peony Festival.

It was May of 2014, the morning after I had just hiked Mt. Hua with my friend Sean, and his friend Xiang Kai. We had hiked for 14 hours the night before, ill prepared and with little experience, on one of the most dangerous mountains . I’m talking about myself as far as the experience hiker part goes, but I didn’t think Sean was an expert, and I knew Xiang Kai had not hiked many mountains. Hiking in China is different than hiking in the U.S. In the U.S. hiking is a solitary experience. You climb with one other person maybe a few people and perhaps you cross the path of another hiker or two, but mainly it is you and the wild, and the animals who ignore or watch you. In China (or at least on Mt. Song, and Mt. Hua, and the other mountain I hiked) there are no animals only hoards of people. I never saw any animals, not a squirrel or a lizard only a bird or two. I’d never seen so many people on a mountain at the same time except at a ski resort during a holiday. The day we hiked was rainy and cloudy so it wasn’t nearly as crowded as it could have been. Even on a bad weather weekend there will still be hundreds of people climbing. It doesn’t matter if you go early in the morning or late at night it’s still crowded. The key would be to go off season during the middle of the week and definitely not during any vacations or weekends, but when you’re a teacher you have the same schedule as all of China, so either you don’t go at all, or you experience it like all of China-crowded. I had decided that day that I would one day return to China, but not to work only to travel so that I could plan my visits to ancient sights and geological wonders on the off times, but those were and are daydreams for other days.

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It was Sean’s idea that we stop in Luoyang to attend the Peony festival. Xiang Kai had to work that evening so he would not be able to join us. I was exhausted. My body felt worn and broken and I was irritable and still fuming about Sean’s comment that I was too old to climb a mountain. Ignorant boy, my mind ruminated on his off handed remark about my age that only an ignorant boy would make. I had hoped his feet were still suffering from his badly chosen climbing shoes. The wise thing for me to do would have been to go home, eat something nutritious, and then go to bed, but when Sean made the spontaneous suggestion I felt I needed to go. Life is an unexpected ride and you never know when it will stop and where it will start and many times an opportunity is a one time only opportunity. When would I be in China again for the Peony Festival? I had already decided not to renew my contract. I had already decided to leave China. I could tell myself I would be back, but I didn’t know for certain. Some days I hated China, and would think, never again- never again will I return to this country. It had been a hard year for me, and not all China’s fault, but I was in China when my mother died. It was in China when the most important person in my life left this world. My worst fear had been awakened. How many times had she told me that she would not be able to live without me? How many times had I promised I would never let her die alone? How many times had I told myself I would return and take care of her? China was to be my last experience, my last galavant as an explorer of this world living a life style that I didn’t believe was meant for me. I had never imagined I would ever be able to travel, that I would have lived in foreign countries. I was an accidental traveler and it was time to return to my “real life” whatever that was meant to be. I was going to go back to California and going to care for my mother. I didn’t want to live in Chico because there wasn’t anything for me there, but she was there and she needed me. I had been too slow, and too selfish, and I had failed her. I failed as a daughter. I suffered through that guilt alone in a foreign country, a country so foreign from my own that even our process of grieving was different. My mother died alone, and I had not been there to help her.  My anger, and my guilt, and my pain all manifested into my frustrations about a country that was so incredibly different from my own. I did have Sean though, my friend with his choppy english and his oh- so Chinese ways of thinking. Sean my friend who stayed by my side the best he could and tried to show me the things he loved most about his country. Sean was an impatient Chinese teacher, and impatient about many things, and he expressed much frustration about where he was in his life, but through it all he taught me a lot about patience and how to deal with frustration and how to accept that where you are is where you are, but that change is always around the corner whether you want it or not. Uncertainty is the essential part of this life experience and in the uncertainty lies the choices.

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This was life, and I was still living, and I had to take the opportunities as they came no matter how much my body hurt, and how aggravated I had felt when would I have another chance? I agreed to stop in Luoyang and to see the Peonies.

My body was not in full agreement with my mind or my heart. As we wandered from the train station to the nearest garden my body began to pull rank and my brain switched sides and together they caused me to grumble and slouch and move among the flowers like an impetuous child snapping bored pictures here and there waiting to stop to take a nap. Once in the garden all I really wanted to do was lie down in a bed of purple peonies among all the butterflies and drift off into a deep sleep. I did my best to not unleash my grumpiness on Sean, and I allowed him to tell me stories about the history of China and the symbolism of the flowers. He was gracious enough to understand that I was not feeling my best, yet still seemed to enjoy my company. In the end I knew I was not fully present in the moment, and that my body and exhaustion had won this battle, but simultaneously I was aware of the value that the day, and the weekend held.

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We are gifted moments in life and too often they only come once. Some are large and noticeable, but most are small and subtle and too easily we miss them. We don’t take the chance to strike up a conversation with a stranger or take the path that no one is following. I know no other person from my life, as of yet, that has hiked a sacred mountain with friends from China, and eaten prepackaged chicken feet and teriyaki marinated boiled eggs, and then stopped off at a Peony festival that had been celebrated for two thousand years. When I do meet someone who has experienced this it won’t be the same as I had experienced it. We all experience our lives differently, we are similar, but still we are each unique.

I didn’t get to enjoy the Peonies to the fullest of my capacity, and I wasn’t able to collect the memories of the day here in a nice well packaged form to share with others as to the best way to see the Peonies. I didn’t have to because no matter where I go in the world I am going to be me. That means me in a bad mood, me in a good mood, me irrational and me aware. Me wonderful and me not wonderful. My goal is of course to lean my life more towards the awareness and wonderful, and to be in the presence of my life and embrace the moments. Some days work and some days don’t regardless if I am climbing a sacred mountain in China or washing laundry in a laundry mat in Portland, Oregon. Years later I can think back on my hike and my visit to an ancient garden with my friend from China, and look at the pictures I took of flowers that had been planted and cultivated for two thousand years. I can accept the fact that flowers and gardens are not top on my bucket list, and I can say to myself, I did that, and I went there, and I was in a bitchy, irritable, and grumpy ass mood, but I was there. I took that moment and received all that it offered me even if the gratitude came a week after some solid rest.

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Returning to Asia

After waiting for nearly four months, my criminal background check finally arrived last week, and with it came my permission slip to look for a new job overseas. I had originally intended on leaving in February, but sometimes things don’t go as intended. I’ve decided to look at these extra months as a time for me to get healthy and to really focus on what I need in my life to give me happiness.

It had taken about 3 months to get on the Oregon Health Care plan, but thankfully it exists because I have been able to go to the dentist, and to the doctors, and get myself back on track for a healthy mind and body. As the saying goes, “if you haven’t got your health, you haven’t got anything.” I hadn’t been feeling very good for awhile. I’m pretty certain I can guess the cause, but the point is that I’m back on a mission to feel strong again, and just in time too because I will be returning to the proverbial road.

I have been vacillating between applying to work in China and working in South Korea for a few months now. Many of my friends have been saying that Korea is the way to go, and have wondered why I would even consider China.

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“You hated China.”
“You were miserable there.”

It’s true, I did hate much of my time in China, but aside from China there were other factors to my hating it; my mother dying, conflict with the director of the program, and culture shock all contributed to my hating much of my time in China. It is not easy to live in China. I do believe some people may thrive there, but in truth, I think it can be a tough adjustment for a multitude of reasons. I do believe all of those reasons can eventually be overcome if you want to stick it out in China, and that you can learn to accept things, and even grow to enjoy them; all but one that is.

Although, my time was difficult there, I had also gained a strange love for China. It’s difficult to explain, and maybe if it hadn’t of been a year it may not have gotten under my skin, but it did. It took about seven months of being away, but I slowly began to miss it. I missed certain things like food, and the crazy traffic, and riding my bike in that crazy traffic. The insane rides on e-bikes, babies in pants with bottoms, old ladies dancing in parks, kites everywhere, are among the few things I’ve missed. There were things there that mattered to me, and left an impression on me that I will carry for the remainder of my life. My kids mattered to me, they mattered a lot, and they were such a huge part of my experience in China. I spent more time with 15 to 18 year old Chinese kids than any other group of people, and the experiences with those kids which included a special trip to Kaifeng, really shaped my view of the country. The Chinese people I became friends with mattered to me. In China it can be difficult to know if Chinese people are really your friends if they actually like you as a person. There are so many people that want you to be around because you are western, and it is about status to call a westerner a friend. You will not ever be Chinese, and you will never be truly accepted into the culture, and because of this it can be hard to ever find that bond that we all crave in our friendships. Perhaps I am delusional, but I feel blessed in my belief that I was able to move beyond this barrier with very little effort with some of the Chinese friends I had made while there. I felt a real kinship with the people I called friends, even when we came up against massive cultural differences. There are Chinese people I do consider to be genuine friends, and I feel that they look on me as the same, not as a “western” friend, but as real friend the kind of friend that accept the whole cultural and enigmatic package that makes up each and everyone of us.

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Xiang Kai and Sho Boa (Shawn) hiking up Mt. Hua 

I have been fascinated with Chinese history since I was a little girl. I remember stacks of National Geographic magazines with images of China. I remember watching the student protests in Tiananmen Square live on television. I had taken a course in the history of Eastern Civilization in college and I had become immersed in the ancient history of the dynasties. When I was a girl there were only three things in the world I had wanted to see: The Pyramids of Egypt, the Acropolis of Athens, and the Terra Cotta Warriors of China (I can mark one off my list). Chinese films are among some of my favorite, and the dissidents of China are some of the bravest people in the world. There is much to be fascinated with in China, and there is a lot to grab your heart and keep you there, but for every amazing thing Chinese there is also something insidious. A drive for cultural success that is so strong that corruption and lies are an accepted part of the society norm creating at times a dog-eat-dog world. The repressive regimes from the cult of Mao to the current CCP that smothers the real strength of what is hidden in China. The annoying and ridiculous firewall put in place to control and suppress the people, and the denial of terrible events by erasing them from history. The horrific pollution that had for too long been acceptable in China, and ignored in the majority of the world. These are things that are difficult to live in, and I believe it is difficult for many Chinese too (judging by various conversations). China is a land of great contradictions and it is these contradictions which constantly push and pull at you. At me.

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Some of my kids rehearsing for “The Outsiders”.

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So, what are the deciding factors, what did it come down to when choosing between China and South Korea? The main motivation for China was a school. A drama school where I would be a theatre teacher, and where as part of my work I would be required to direct my own children’s plays. I contemplated this school for nearly a year. It would be a job that combined my theatre, my literature and my teaching skills. I would finally be working in a creative environment and for that I was willing to move to the polluted city of Beijing. Yet, it was during a bike ride in Portland that finally solidified my final decision.

It is now spring, and the sun is out and the sky is a clear blue that bends over the city with only a smattering of cumulus clouds dotting the sky like paint on a palette. The days have been beautiful and easy going. My moods have been hum-drum and dark, and sometimes this happens even when things are going well in my life, I need these beautiful days to help lift me from my internal darkness. I knew at that moment under the blue sky in the face of mount Tabor, the small extinct volcano covered in the rich green of white-cedar and poplars, that I needed to live in a beautiful place. As much as I had wanted the theatre school and as much as I was willing to return to China, I knew in my heart that returning to an over-populated, dirty, and congested city with air so bad that there were red alert days not allowing us to go outside, was not a good idea for me. I knew, no matter how great the school, my sadness would overcome me, and I can’t live like that.

I have started the interview process for jobs in South Korea, and I’ve focused my attention on applying to schools in places where the sky is blue and the ocean is near-by. The job matters, but the environment matters more.

As I had mentioned before I believe that most of the challenges of being a foreigner in China a person can overcome, but one. That one for me is the pollution. China is a geological diamond and a natural wonder of nature, but the coal and the money made on cheap labor and unregulated businesses that damage the country is more important then the jewel. I will one day return to China, but maybe as a visitor. Till then I will be in South Korea.

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The Travel Limbo

Funny thing about this post is that it was posted before I finished writing it. No title, no tags, not even a complete thought, and all kinds of editing mistakes, and it’s had more traffic than most of my posts. Go figure. This is the completed post with an ending and a new title- well an actual title.

A couple of days ago I had to contact both of the schools I had applied to (one in South Korea and the other in China) that I was not able to attend the upcoming school year. It wasn’t because I had changed my mind and things are falling into place here in Portland. Things are exactly as they have always been for me here in Portland; nice, but I’m not doing anything that gives me call to stay put. No, it’s all because of the parts of life that I can’t control. Visas. Well, not even my visa, because I haven’t been able to apply for my visas because I don’t have the documents. I’m waiting for my Criminal Background Check from the FBI and some health insurance so I can take the necessary health test that China requires. In a funny way they’re both kind of silly things to have to wait around for. Oh, I get it, I’m going to work with children and obviously people want their children to be safe, but it is only required that I have an FBI check from the United States, a country in which I have not lived for the past two years. So, of course my record is clean, but all those crimes I committed in Europe are not even on the radar. I didn’t commit any crimes in Europe, I’m not that exciting. Czech Republic had a funny visa rule too. If I had come directly from the United States, I had no need to do a criminal background check from the U.S., but since I came from China, I had to get a criminal background check from China. So, again, I could be a criminal from the U.S., but not in China or any other country I had been living in for six months or longer. In a weird way, China of all places is easier in that sense then the Czech Republic because I just have to wait for the FBI, but to get a background check from China- is absolutely impossible. I mean, the Chinese people at the police station tell you, “Not Possible.” A fairly typical response in all areas of requesting necessary information for any kind of government paperwork.

The FBI’s been backed up. Seems that many people are trying to leave the country, and get jobs that require Federal Background checks. What in the past took 10 to 12 weeks has now been pushed back to 12 to 15 weeks. Three months has now turned to 4 months. This is difficult for an impulsive person like myself. It’s kind of like China, “not possible” to plan a trip in less than three months. Now I’m wondering what to do with my time and how much time I have here actually.

Now what? Well, it’s waiting time. Once the background check comes in then I can reapply for jobs and I’ll see from there. In the meantime, I’ll need to look for some work. A part-time noncommittal job in a city where it is difficult to find work in unless, of course, I was in the tech industry. It certainly gives me more time to research travel blogs. In a brief update, I’ve gone through 23 of 42 blogs, and really only managed to cut out two blogs. I have put them into categories, but I’ve slowed down in my research, which is totally my style.

Update: I finally got on the Oregon Health Care plan which means I can get the health check I need for the Chinese visa application.