09.24.2012 - 11.25.2012 22 °C
Today is November 20th, (2012) and I am getting ready to leave China. When I arrived here, in Kunming, nearly two months ago, I had big plans to run around the country visiting all the cool places I have heard about. I even sent out a group email to just about everyone I have an email address for, letting them know that I would soon be going to diverse and exotic destinations like Dali, then Lijiang, Tiger Leaping Gorge, Shangri La, Tibet, and Beijing, with time for some other places I hadn’t mentioned, like Shanghai, and Xi’an. I reinforced the expectations I had built up for myself by telling the story of how awesome my journey would be to all my friends. Two months later, and I am still in Kunming, with no regrets.
At first it wasn’t like this. From the get-go, I wrote up a 60-day calendar with precise dates to be moving on to the next city or town. I expected to be in Kunming for just one week before leaving for Dali; and though I always give myself some leniency with such plans, I started to feel anxious that I was fooling myself into wasting time, after a week and a half had passed and I still hadn’t bought a bus ticket out of here. I felt it would be very easy to fall behind and not live up to the expectations of my dreams if I didn’t get a move on it soon. And if there was one thing that I want to make sure that I do a great job on, it is living up to my dreams! After all, it is a rare privilege that I have set myself up for, to be able to travel around the world solo for a year, and the last thing I want to do is to squander the precious moments of this dream by not taking opportunities when I have them. They most likely won’t come again in this lifetime – at least, not in the fashion a free-floating solo-traveler would encounter. At 36 years old, it is about time to get serious about building a career and a foundation for a future family. A sense of urgency is built into the mechanics of this trip.
But as I ticked the days off the calendar, slowly crossing off the week allotted for Dali, then Lijiang and Tiger Leaping Gorge, the one thing that wasn’t truly coming to life was that sense of urgency. I felt I should feel urgent, but it just wasn’t there. My days were spent in writing, deepening my observations about life, and also in walking randomly through Kunming as if following one new spoke of a wheel each day. No single spoke revealed anything all that tremendously different from the rest; not like if I had gone from town to town across the country and had seen an evolution of architecture and food and culture and landscape and people. But what I did see instead, in more clear detail, was the smaller differences from one side of the city to the other. I tasted the same food at different restaurants and gained an appreciation for who served up the best dumplings or chow mien. I slowly came to recognize, and enjoy, the subtle changes in the way Kunming breathes from day to day, from hour to hour, and from minute to minute. I found some hidden gems or moments that no guidebook could offer. I felt more deeply, the life and pulse of the city in ways that I could never have encountered if I had just breezed through from one touristy highlight to the next.
About three weeks into Kunming, and I let my plans go. I didn’t let them go completely; they were floating at the end of a tether that I could reel in when I needed to, but I let the slack go way out. I could sense that what I needed was to let this trip breathe a bit more, and that firing off with all the precision and passion of a rocketship to the moon would get in the way of trusting the winds to blow me where they needed to – where I needed to go, but didn’t yet know.
One day, my computer broke – again – and though I tried hard to cling to the inner serenity left over from ten days of meditation in September, thinking I would be better for it, I had to go for a “pissed-off walk” to calm myself down. I walked like a bull in a China city; no longer flowing with the traffic of people and cars, but plowing my way through the crowds and barreling through the pushy swarm of bikes and autos on the streets. I dared them to run me over! It felt a good way to blow off some steam, and it wasn’t until by barging out into the street, I nearly caused lady to fall off her bicycle, that I decided to admit that I was behaving like a bully and that this was unfair to those around me; not to mention, dangerous. In truth, I had been hiding my own bully tendencies away from myself in a dark corner of my mind, pretending I wasn’t like those bad guys who bully people around - that I am a good guy – that the bully tendency is something to be cured and done away with. But on that day, I decided to embrace this darker part of me, in order to handle it responsibly and judiciously. And in doing so, I made some peace with the warriors of the world who use their own bully strengths to push back against the guys bullying their way through the world on selfish and evil purposes. In short, I have long considered the spiritual path to be superior to the warrior’s path, but in this moment, I embraced that they both can work for the greater good.
The timing of this revelation was divine. I had gone several kilometers on pissed-off steam, into a satellite city, and I found a large park to explore. It would make a good spot to rest for a moment before heading back to the hostel. I like Chinese parks. The gardens are beautifully arranged, and well-maintained. There always seems to be at least one group of old people gathered to play music together. I sat down nearby one such group, and listened, feeling good about the world, and not understanding a word of the songs. I strolled further through the park, seeing men gathered together gambling over a card game or Mahjong. Locals gawked at my singular foreignness, as we walked past each other. Groups of ladies clustered together here and there to dance to China-pop tunes over a portable speakerbox – a common form of social exercise here. Lovers lounged together on the grass. The sun was high in the sky warming my skin, and a light breeze coursed through the trees, cooling me back down. I felt the computer-born concerns melt away. Just as I was about to leave the park, I found one last thing to look at: A monument to the American Hump Pilots and Flying Tigers of World War II that had risked their lives and died, fighting off the Japanese Empire, to protect and liberate China from invasion and foreign domination. My great uncle, Clarence Anderson, was among those airmen.
The monument was a long wall of sculpted stone depicting different scenes from the war. One showed Chinese workers building an airstrip by dragging gigantic stone rollers to flatten a gravel runway. Another showed the cargo planes being unloaded by workers, after landing with supplies for the war effort. In the center, gathered around, and on one of the Flying Tiger planes, posed a group of American volunteer airmen – smiling in service to their own country and to 1940's China. On the reverse of the wall was another mural, depicting scenes from Kunming life 70 years ago, and a squadron of Flying Tigers scrambling to defend the city. I had no idea the monument was here. It wasn’t in the guidebooks. There was no mention of it that I saw online. I came to Kunming, in part, to learn about and honor the service and sacrifice my uncle made during the war. His plane crashed in Burma, while flying “The Hump” over the Himalayan Range from Assam, India to mainland China, with supplies. He was never heard from again.
I suppose you could say that his plans overseas changed too, and not in a good way like mine. And yet, seventy years later, his great nephew would be standing serendipitously in front of a monument made partially in his honor, and having just come to peace with his own “inner bully,” would look upon the sculpted airmen and townspeople working side by side to fight back against oppression and annihilation, and for the first time in his life, feel an uncomplicated and unglorified gratitude towards those who fight for good in the wars of this world. I doubt that the weave of the universe was stitched directly so that Clarence would die and that years later, my lesson's unfolding would culminate at this very spot. But indirectly, because he did die in service to China, and my own plans fell apart in Kunming, and my computer broke when I hadn’t bothered to back up data after promising myself that I would, and I stormed off on huff of a pissed-off walk, and embraced my inner bully for the greater good along the way, and because I found, at the apex of the walk, this unknown monument in this park for the Flying Tigers and the Hump Pilots, something magical was allowed to come together that wouldn’t have happened if life had stuck to the plans.
It is clear to me that the lack of urgency, the computer breaking, the nature of my walk, the fact that I was in Kunming on account of my uncle, and finding this unlisted monument were no mere coincidence. It would seem then, that I am being deliberately moved along on the steps of a master plan by a force greater than myself, in order for this all to come together. But I do not believe that this is actually the case. I do not believe that by surrendering my will to life’s mysterious ways that I am placing myself at the whims of a bully God. After all, no matter how good of an outcome might come by surrendering my will, is it not still be my life to live as I choose? I do not see this moment as a sale-of-soul payoff for giving up on my grand plans to dominate China travel in two months. Instead, I believe that what has happened is that I have allowed myself to move as a leaf in the wind. I am not submitting my will and plans to a dominant force, but have opened my life up to allow things unseen and unknown to find me and connect, through the steps I take, something I would not have done on my own, and yet is exactly what I needed to live through.