Delicious Watermelon Salad

Introduction: Watermelons are one of the great pleasures of summer. After you finish your cool water sandwich, don’t just toss the rinds in the trash. You can make a tasty watermelon pickles with the rinds. Here is my wife’s traditional Cantonese style watermelon salad recipe. Adjust the amounts to suit your tastes. Blend the ingredients together gently after each step. This recipe makes a bowl full of watermelon salad, which came from the leftover rinds of two slices of watermelon.

Preparation Time: About 15 minutes

Ingredients: Watermelon rinds /Cilantro /Vinegar /Ground Black Pepper /Red Pepper Flakes/Sesame Oil /Soy Sauce/Dried Fried Garlic /Salt

Step 1: Begin by cutting off the outside hard green rind. Cut off the inside pink flesh down to the rind. Water thoroughly in warm water.

Step 2: Thinly slice the clean watermelon rinds about the width of a french fry.

Step 3: Add about a teaspoon of cilantro.

Step 4: Add a tablespoon of dried fried garlic.

Step 5: Grind some fresh black pepper over the top.

Step 6: Add a dash of salt.

Step 7: Add a dash of soy sauce.

Step 8: Add some red pepper flakes.

Step 9: Add a couple spoonfuls of vinegar.

Step 10: Add oil – a teaspoon of cooking oil and a splash of sesame oil.

Blend all the ingredients together and serve. Adjust the amounts as you like. use some hoisin sauce to give your salad a fresh, savory aroma. You can add other ingredients such as: meat, peanuts, sugar, chopped onions, or chives. Experiment and enjoy the season. If you have a favorite recipes please share it with us in the comments. Enjoy.

Wanderment in the City

Because he had no place he could stay in without getting tired of it, and because there was nowhere to go but everywhere. So just keep rolling under the stars. – Jack Kerouac

Scientists say our hominid ancestors first stood upright millions of years ago. To witness your baby take his/her first steps remains one of life’s most beautiful miracles. The first steps are followed by a long line of footprints that inevitably wander away, towards an individual horizon. Wandering is our lifeblood. There is an Old Norse word – “Flana” which means to wander with no purpose. Our spirit has a strong longing for or impulse toward wandering. People get valuable health benefits from walking a few thousand steps a day even at a leisurely pace. But there is more to wandering than the physical health benefits. I see too many people stride at full steam down the beach, seldom stopping to marvel at the wonders on display. It seems they have an appointment to keep with the end of their walk.

The health benefits of walking are manifold. Some benefits for those over Fifty include: improved circulation; lightens your mood; lose weight; strengthen muscles; improve sleep; slow down mental decline; Studies have show that for people in their 50s and 60s with underlying health conditions are 45% less likely to die over the next eight years when compared to non-walkers. But simply wandering refreshes the spirit and puts us in contact with our natural origins.

Exploration is in our nature. We began as wanderers, and we are wanderers still. We have lingered long enough on the shores of the cosmic ocean. We are ready at last to set sail for the stars.Carl Sagan Not everyone has access to a long deserted stretch of beach or wooded path, but anyone who lives in a city does have access to what the unstructured borderlands between town and countryside which have been called edgelands. This wild partially untamed area bordering the urban landscape is our liminal space. A liminal space is a transitional boundary between two states – as in a rite of passage, or two ecosystems – farm and woods/city and grassland/. This can be extended to aesthetically to an airport in the middle of the night or even an empty hallway in a hotel. Have you ever had that feeling when walking into an long, empty hotel hallway that something unseen is there with you? When traveling, you stop at a rest stop between home and your destination, and there is some disorientation on how to navigate the space. All these are experiences of liminal space. Liminal means threshold. And you can harness that liminal energy can increase your wellbeing.

There is a certain sense of pride that comes with wandering along with no particular place to go. In fact, there is a word in French Flâneur – A stroller; wanderer of the city and the crowd. To quote Baudelaire “ The crowd is his element, as the air is that of birds and water of fishes. His passion and his profession are to become one flesh with the crowd…” People were encouraged to immerse themselves in the city. This all flowed from modernity resulting from the Age of Reason. The development of modern cities changed the social order and human relationships to the built environment. One modern example of a flaneur would be a street photographer. One of the great joys of travel is simply wandering in a new place.

Being confined to a tour chafes my independent nature. I have only been on one official tour to Beijing with my wife for her birthday. It was right before the 2008 Olympics. The best part of the tour was when we got into a car chase through the city’s ancient back-alley hutongs in the tour guide’s van – but that is another story. Living in a city has many advantages, but one great disadvantage is the lack of access to nature. For example, statistically 100 million Americans do not live within a ten minute walk of park. I learned this statistic because October 10 is National Walk to a Park Day. Even if there is no park nearby, you can wander along your city’s sidewalks and roadways. Take note of the transitional spaces between the paved and the unpaved. Primordial energy pulses there – you can feel it in your feet and the curling of your toes, taste it in the unconscious deeper breath. There is a delightful children’s poem by Shel Silverstein – Where the sidewalk ends. Which speaks to this urging towards the liminal areas, just off the paved pathways and byways.

Many writers and artists found inspiration during walks, whether in the city or in nature. Ambling along simply being in your own skin is a form of meditation. The word meditation carries such an unnecessary psychic weight. There does not have to be a series of steps, or ritual performance. Anyone who has ever gone swimming knows the feeling of anticipation just before plunging into the water. Standing on the solid one second and immersed in liquid the next, surfacing to grab some air the next – you are literally awash in transitional energy. A similar energy rises in the pulse when wandering along. Your body desires the feeling of wanderment – the act of wandering, roaming.

There is an indefinable, mysterious power that pervades everything. I feel it, though I do not see it. It is this unseen power that makes itself felt and yet defies all proof, because it is so unlike all that I perceive through my senses. It transcends the senses – Mahatma Gandhi

Off the Beaten Path in China:Part 4

Immersed in the wonder of the Tao/ you can deal with whatever life brings you/ And when death comes you are ready. – Zhuangzi

Introducing the Happy Genius

One thousand years ago the banished poet-scholar Su Shi composed his brilliant prose poem “Ode to the Red Cliffs”. Master Su’s exquisite calligraphy and eloquent storytelling forever immortalized a moment in his life which has inspired artists for centuries. The story begins with Su Shi floating downriver with friends, drinking and singing. They are passing near the site of the world changing Battle of the Red Cliffs (208 AD). Before the battle the mighty poet/warlord Cao Cao was attempting to gain control of the Yangtze River in order to try and restore the Han Dynasty’s former glory. He was not familiar with naval tactics and lost a great portion of his powerful army when his opponents burned his boats. This was considered by many to be the largest naval battle in history with hundreds of thousands of men involved. The near utter destruction of Cao Cao’s army would usher in the Three Kingdoms period a decade later. This era is memorialized in one of China’s four great ancient novels: The Three Kingdoms.

As Su Shi’s boat floats by the site of the famous battle, one of his guests sings a song with verses from Cao Cao’s poetry. The poet asks why he is singing that song. The friend says he is downhearted because he is but a grain on the ocean, and he wishes to fly with the immortals. Su Shi says the moon waxes and wanes and the river flows on and viewing them from the perspective of Change shows that all things are forever changing and neither the moon nor the river are ever the same moment to moment. Everything has a master and Master Su states he would not take even a hair that was not his. The sound of the wind on the river is received by the ear; the moonlight is captured by the eye which makes color. The inexhaustible infinite treasures of the Universe are all around and this glorious life is what we share.

Within the work the exiled Su Shi weaves his own brilliant understanding of the permanence and impermanence of mortal life. In addition to poetry, Su Shi was also one of the Four Great Master Calligraphers in Chinese history. The depth of emotions displayed in this incredible artistic treasure became a common theme in Chinese art throughout the ensuing centuries up to today.

Colophons are one aspect of Chinese handscrolls which is unfamiliar to many Westerners. As you can see in the magnificent Ode on the Red Cliff, there are a lot of red seals. Along with written commentaries, these red name seals are from fellow artists and famous dignitaries. They are literally seals of approval. A handscroll is an art history documentary of its time, and Su Shi’s art genius is nearly unparalleled.

The Grand Historian Sima Qian wrote that great works of literature were written by men of wisdom and ability when they faced adversity. It is adversity that pushes us to the edge of tolerance and understanding. The edge is what we decide is unknown to us. Its limitations inspire survival skills. Adepts like Su Shi train their spirit-essence through meditation in order to overcome the yearnings of the heart-mind. We must cultivate the essence of our souls, and not allow our greed to force us into unnatural behavior. Wrongdoings are manifested by unnatural thoughts or beliefs which warp our behavior. We must strive to adapt to the environment around us and resist trying to force situations to meet our expectations.

Discovering Su Shi’s Final Home

Walking through the gap in the wall I saw a large stone memorial stele with a meter or more Chinese character Zhong carved on one side. My first impression was that this stele must have been some recent addition, as Zhong (Middle) Guo (Country) is Chinese for China, and maybe it was a local government marker. But as we got closer, I could see this stone had been worn and battered for centuries by the elements. Remnants of Chinese characters were barely distinguishable from the stone. Zhong was the family name of Su Shi’s friend in Danzhou. Zhong also means “middle or center”. I have seen dozens of memorial stones, with poetic descriptions of local tourism sites, and this was not one of those.

Su Shi was also one of the most celebrated writers of travel writing. He would compose essays based on his leisure travels. His famous Red Cliffs writing is carved into the very cliffs themselves. Throughout China famous writers composed odes to their experiences when visiting certain places. These are later carved into the actual spots. In this way the traveler, if he is famous enough, alters the actual destination itself. This is also why many local tourism sites include photographs of famous politicians and the like. The words or image of the famous are similar to the red seals of fellow artists on great works of art.

This must be why the stone monument was erected to immortalize the words Su Shi wrote while living out amongst the sago (sugar palms). Although We could never find any record of who set the monument at Su Shi’s door, I am sure it was his great good friend Zhong.

I too had my words immortalized somewhat when I was an editor in China. Articles I wrote about out-of-the-way spots were included in the travel guide to the province. At one time, my voice was the English language voice for local tourism, when I took a voice acting job arranged by a former student. All those things raced through my mind as I studied this wondrous stone monument standing at Su Shi’s former doorway. My fingers and eyes traced along its edges, gently stroking fragments of once elegant characters. Remembering that Su Shi was a connoisseur of rocks, I wondered how much time the sculptor took to select just the right stone.

Su Shi had two prized stones which he took with him everywhere. He named the stones after a poem by DuFu the great Tang Dynasty poet. He acquired the stones after a vivid dream about a heavenly mountain. The mountain had steep, sheer cliffs on all sides with only a single path leading to the summit. On top the mountain there was hundreds of acres of good land watered by clear streams. In a sense the mountain was kind of Utopia. Many Chinese travel articles refer to an imaginary utopia known as “Peach Blossom Springs”. This was similar to Shangri-la. But Su Shi created an inner realm which could be entered through tranquility and meditation the door to which disappeared with the slightest distraction or a single thought. Su Shi meditated on his “scholar rocks” to achieve an inner tranquility and by so doing created his own inner heaven.

Zhuangzi had written about the “transformation of things”, and this concept of metamorphosis runs throughout Taoist thought. Just as something reaches the end of the line it transforms into its opposite. This spiritual transformation allowed Su Shi to change the misfortunes of life through self-discipline. As he wrote, “A falling pot knows it will shatter.”

As one disaster after another battered his life, he transformed the misery into inner bliss. Su Shi felt that our world is a common shared place, but a person can create an inner realm through meditation and eliminating extraneous thoughts. Su Shi said metaphorically that his life was a stopover – a temporary stay. Throughout his life his goal was to return home. In his old age “home” was an illusion. He returned home by achieving his original state, and by so doing, home was within and through tranquility he found himself. Tracing the outline of the tremendous Zhong (Center) character I tried to imagine Su Shi glancing out his window at his garden before meditating.

The large six-character inscription on the other side of the stone was still legible, and it was obvious there were multiple columns of characters which had mostly been obliterated. If I had known in advance that it was there, I would have taken a rubbing of the stone. But that is the thing with unexpected discoveries, they catch you unprepared. Running my fingers over the rough surface, I imagined the artist who carved the stone and his patron. I settled for photographing this magnificent monument.

Several feet from the stone was Su Shi’s second well. This was the sweet water well he had dug for his own personal use. There was no mention in the available records that this second well was still being used at his former home site. Peering over the shadowy edges of the well, I saw myself reflected on the watery surface, and thought about the great genius smiling face as he brought water from the well.

Su Shi had written of his three pleasures in his exile to Hainan: waking late and combing his hair, napping and soaking his feet in water drawn from his own well. My wife talked to one of the local ladies tending the vegetables, who came over with a red plastic bucket on a rope. She deftly dropped the bucket into the well and drew out a half bucket of cool restorative water. We sat on several nearby stones which looked as if they had stood ready to receive company for over nine centuries. I was lost in reverie as I cooled down my aching feet at Su Shi’s doorstep. We had not only found the wells, but we were able to relax in what had once been Su Shi’s front yard. The idyllic scene is forever etched in my mind.

On the way, I had taken several photos of the small simple homes nearby. They were truly humble abodes. Nearly every city, town or village I visited in China were jammed with construction projects. The government’s urban renewal projects have transformed the entire town, and so I wanted to share a few photos of the descendants of the local Li people who honored the memory of the great poet who once was their neighbor.

Later we worked together to translate the inscription. I drew the large characters as best as I could, and my wife translated them one by one before doing some more online research. She found a local historian’s photo of the monument which he said had the commemorative poem Su Shi had written about his simple home. I believe that something, perhaps the Tao or Su Shi’s powerful spirit, guided us towards this amazingly rich experience.

My wife and I work as a team to translate and reveal the essence of a piece. The following is our informal translation in a prose poetry style of the poet written on the back of the stone at Su Shi’s home. I chose this style to give the feeling of a conversation with Su Shi – the self-proclaimed “hermit of the sugar palms”. I feel this stone inscription was meant to be more of a personal letter to his former neighbors and friends who had welcomed him during his gloomy time of exile. It is not meant to be a scholarly in-depth translation. It was here that the exiled Su Shi, Su Dongpo created his final reinvention as the “Hermit of the Sugar Palms”.

Returning from China the first time my good friend said I had an edge about me. Edginess, when I saw him again five years later I had honed that edge into the character Wheeler, which I became in China. Telling stories, making connections for students, using aphorisms, inspiration, trying to equate western things to more familiar Chinese concepts. I am a storyteller, and I adapted to the job of teaching by using aphorisms, stories from life, woven with a bit of truth and a dash of myth. Later when I was sat on a lintel stone in the happy genius’ doorway, I imagined him walking home from teaching. He wore his Li minority hat and straw sandals, scraping the cow poop off before going inside and soaking his feet. He would pour a cup of wine and meditate. In this way he transformed into the Hermit of the Sugar Palms.

Inscription for Guanglang Retreat

The whole world is one. If you have spirit you can live anywhere. Sugar palm trees, tall and straight stand like hundreds of stone poles. Sweet palm leaves are very thick like millions of roof tiles. The sky is my quilt and so grand is my bed I don’t need to cover the roof. Look up and I can see the sun and moon. The wind and rain help me sweep my yard. The winds from the ocean helps me breathe freely. No walls, no doors let snakes, rats and monsters come in or leave. Poison snakes and bees make this their habitat. They are my mates; I have trained through meditation at home. I look at the forest as my room. Being peaceful to deal with changes. I use my magic imagination to deal with reality. Getting away from the five elements helps me reach the realm behind the earthly world. If I pass away, nobody will know who I am. Even if the old me is gone. The world won’t know who I was even if I looked the same it is not me. Spirit helpers appear before my eyes and help me leave the real world. I have nothing to bother me when I live in my house, and when I die this is my tomb. Even though I worked for the government for thirty-six years. Now I am still here in this uncivilized place. Soon I will go roaming in the land of Great Concealment.

Off the Beaten Path in China:Part 3

To a mind that is still, the entire universe surrenders.Zhuangzi

Su Shi was ethically unyielding. The subtle political context of one of his poems caused him to be thrown into a dark prison cell for one hundred days. The hopelessness of his miserable condition changed the great genius forever. This terrifying experience further strengthened his resolve to refine his inner world through self-cultivation and reinvention. Su Shi was convinced that one’s lifespan was not determined by the environment but by how an individual mentally adapts to their fate. Su Shi was not content to just survive, his goal was to return home to his family.

Henry Miller said, “One’s destination is never a place, but rather a new way of looking at things.”

For most of Su Shi’s life he had to remake himself in order to fit the location. Highly educated and talented scholar officials like Su Shi were sent to various posts around China as administrators. Su Shi was an astonishing intellect and he performed very well for the citizens wherever he was posted. In 1089, when he was governor of Hangzhou, he dredged the world-famous West Lake in order to provide water for irrigation and to clean up water-borne pestilence.

The West Lake’s Su Causeway was built from the soil. I used to wander over there when writing articles for the monthly magazine where I was editor. Choosing a shady bench, I would image the city when it was the Song Dynasty capital, and later when Marco Polo worked in the city. The city was the largest in the world from the 12th Century to the 14th. And Su Shi is one its most renowned former citizens. But none of those accomplishments mattered when the great genius was banished.

Su Shi did make another long-lasting impact on the city of Hangzhou. According to a local legend Su Shi, also one of China’s great ancient gourmets, created one of Hangzhou’s signature dishes – Dongpo Pork.

Although the two best restaurants in the city, Lou Wai Lou and Zhi Wei Guan, won’t reveal their secret recipes, this Dongpo Pork recipe is adapted from the one posted at the Su Dongpo Memorial Hall in Hangzhou.


3.5 pounds – fatty pork

The best ingredient for cooking Dongpo Pork is from the Jinhua pig. Jinhua pig have been one of China’s finest since the West Jin Dynasty (266-316).

1 cup – green onion

1 cup – white sugar

2 ½ cups – Shaoxing rice wine (a very famous wine)

¼ cup – ginger

¾ cup soy sauce

Wash the pork thoroughly before slicing into squares of about 3 – 4 inches per size. Boil the pork slices for five minutes. Insert a bamboo screen in a large earthenware pot. Place the pork with the fat side down onto the screen. Add (one at a time) the green onion, ginger, sugar, soy sauce, Shaoxing rice wine. Use some parchment paper between the lid and the pot. Place the earthenware pot on high heat. Reduce the heat to low once the liquids begin to boil. Test for tenderness. Once the pork is tender, skim off the fat. Place each piece of pork into a small clay pot, fat side up. Place the clay pots into a bamboo steamer. Heat to boiling and let steam for thirty minutes. Each pot of Dongpo pork is one serving. The glistening pork fat on top is the dishes signature look.

The Great Genius’ Final Reinvention

In banishment Su Shi kept active and wrote about a wide variety of topics. Scholar officials were supposed to serve the public, and he was given the title of Administrative Assistant without a salary. My wife read a couple articles that mentioned Su Shi had a well dug while he was banished to Hainan. As a highly refined scholar-artist Su Shi wanted to better the lives of the locals. He used his own money to dig a public well. He wanted to better the lives of his new neighbors, but little did we know he dug two wells.

Su Shi’s friend Zhang Zhong was the local military commander of Danzhou. He offered Su Shi a place to stay which didn’t sit well with the national government whose banishment of Su Shi was supposed to be a death sentence. Su Shi’s reputation had of course preceded him, and he was asked to teach, and a rich local man offered him a fine building for his classrooms. Su Shi, the imminent calligrapher wrote the inscription for one hall as the “Bringing Along Wine” hall. Su Shi and his son played Chinese chess with their friend Zhang Zhong and their life settled down for a time.


It was not long however before an official on an inspection tour demanded the removal of the banished poet-scholar from the government housing. So Su Shi was sent further inland to the small Li minority village of ZhengHe. It was there amongst the sugar palms Su Shi once again reinvented himself. Just as he had in his earlier exile when he adopted the name Dongpo Ju Shi The Hermit (or Novice) of the Eastern Slope, Su Shi would undergo a final transformation not written about widely. This was one of several discoveries we made that day.

On the way to his final posting in Danzhou, Hainan, Su Shi was 61 when he wrote “In this life, how will I ever return home? Looking all around, truly I have come to the end of the world.” As soon as he arrived in Hainan, Su Shi made arrangements for his death saying he wanted a coffin made and grave dug as soon as he arrived. He had believed to extend your life, you had to get attuned to the environment – “unplug your apertures”. As he arrived on the forsaken land of his banishment, the great genius began a path that would lead to even greater enlightenment than he could have imagined.

At the Dongpo Academy, they have stories of his life and the official guides say he lived there, but actually a visiting official did not like seeing the banished poet enjoying his life. Although tourism sources state he lived in the Dongpo Academy Su Shi was actually ran out of town by the punitive imperial officials who wished he would just conveniently die.

Later my wife and I worked to translate one of the displays in the Academy. It included a recipe for one of Su Shi’s famous wines. Su Shi was one of ancient China’s most famous gourmets. He was forever dabbling in the chemistry of wine making. During his exile he was able to make money for his daily living by selling wine. The great genius used wine to soothe his mind and fire his creativity. The display included the mortar which Su Shi used for making wine.

The following is our translation of Master Su Shi’s wine recipe and description. I do not endorse making this, or any other, wine recipe. I think it necessary to warn you at this point. Part of Su Shi’s legend is his experimentation with wine making and other natural sciences. But his son, said his father’s famous special occasion cinnamon wine gave everyone lā dù zi – diarrhea, which is a very useful word to learn. So, as they say, don’t try this at home.

新疆天门冬 Xin Jiang Tian Men Dong

Asparagus Neglectus Herb Winter Rice Wine

* This herb grows in central Asia. You could substitute a healthy herb alternative

Wash Rice

Dry Rice

Grind herb into paste

Pour off and drink the excess liquid

Add the thick paste to the rice and water


Seal in jar and let mixture ferment

The rice wine will taste sour at first, but let it ferment for a few months and it becomes more fragrant and flavorful.

The herb wine can be used for: cough, thirst, calm nerves to ease sleep, constipation, inflammation of organs, slow the progress of leukemia, longevity and to kill mosquito larva.

Beneath the wine recipe was the following poem written while he was in Hainan.

GengChen Year, January 12

The TianMenDong Wine is ripe

I taste it as I filter it

Then I am drunk

I wrote two poems

I uncovered the big jar next to my bed

The wine smells so good it is intoxicating

New Years is coming

It is time for drinking wine

The fragrance of the wine brings happiness with the New year

Wine makes the house smell wonderful

I lean on my “fire-wood” door

And see the vegetable garden

As the rain falls, the fragrant wine makes the whole garden foggy like a poem

Now I lean on the bed and feel like I am escaping into a dream.

But I know where I truly am

The wind from the east blows away my difficulties

In Zheng He Village Danzhou

My wife and I visited the village of ZhengHe where Su Dongpo actually lived amongst the local Li minority. The locals were quite excited and happy to tell us about Su Shi’s life in their village. Hong asked a group of older ladies who were sitting around a table cleaning vegetable the way to Su Shi’s well he dug for the locals. They argued among themselves, but we got the general directions and set off in search of Su Shi.

Chinese village alleys and walkways grow organically and as such there are few straight paths from A to B. Further along my wife asked a group of local schoolkids the way to Su Shi’s well, and they had no idea. A man stepped out of his door when he saw us standing there. We found out later he was a local historian, and he pointed us in the right direction. He seemed slightly peeved at the kids who did not seem to appreciate their local history.

In a couple minutes we stood before the ancient well. A local Li minority woman was washing her clothes with water from the well, and she offered us a bucket to refresh ourselves. My wife gleefully dipped the bucket down into water. We happily washed our hands in water from the great poet’s public well. I then anointed my head and felt reinvigorated.

The Li ladies at Su Shi’s public well told us the locals had protected Su Shi’s former home site with a brick wall out of respect for the great man who had once been their neighbor. This was a revelation to us. Once again, my wife asked the general direction, and we headed off in search of Su Shi’s footsteps.

Backtracking down the narrow road the local historian stopped us and told my wife about the once grand Confucian Temple which had been demolished. He wanted us to see one of the temple’s sacred stones which lay at the bottom of a trash heap. Kicking aside miscellaneous garbage he grabbed a wooden block and brushed aside the filth.

Pouring water on the stone, the historian revealed the lines of finely carved Chinese characters running along the massive stone. He said the local people could not move the stone because of laws governing antiquities, so they petitioned to have the stone and others reinstalled and protected. He said the large buried stone had been used decades previously as a bridge across the nearby stream. When a new cement bridge and road were built the glorious remnant had then been discarded by the side of the narrow village road where it ignominiously remained for decades.

I was lamentably reminded again of the sweeping scope of Chinese history where centuries were hammered to dust by the victors. I ran my hand over the moldering nearby wall tracing along the shadows of once wondrous incised celestial motifs. We took several photos, and the historian thanked us several times for photographing the temple stones. Later, my wife, her brother and several friends would try to read and translate the ancient inscriptions.

When my wife asked me which way I thought we should go. I quoted from Alice in Wonderland, “If you don’t know where you are going, any road will get you there.” Just after that Hong’s phone lost power – she had been using a mapping application, which was more for comfort than guidance, since the well and home were not on any map. Coming out onto another village road, at least I think it was a different road, we saw the broken wall of a garden.

What we found there was a treasure beyond anything we could have imagined. In the final part of the story , I will reveal the treasure, and the secrets of the ancient artist-scholar’s transcendence.

The Weight of a Cloud

Clouds come floating into my life, no longer to carry rain or usher storm, but to add color to my sunset sky. Rabindranath Tagore

Scientists have calculated that a typical fluffy white cumulus cloud weighs around a millions pounds (about 500,000 kilograms). Blue whales are the largest animals that have ever lived. According to National Geographic, blue whales can weigh up to 200,000 pounds (about 90,700 kilograms). Incredible as it may seem those gorgeous clouds drifting across the sky on a sunny day weigh as much as five blue whales. Or alternatively, twenty-five gray whales (40,000 pounds), eighty-three orcas (12,000 pounds).

Nephology is the branch of meteorology that studies clouds. Cloud scientists have calculated that the volume of cumulus clouds is around a cubic kilometer. And the density of water in a cloud is about a one-eighth of a teaspoon per cubic meter. A cubic meter is about six bathtubs full of water. So even though there is a lot of water, it is spread out over a huge area. That is why clouds float, and that buoyancy can be a symbol for a multitude of emotions. Symbolic clouds have a wide variety of meanings: ignorance, silver-lining, worry, etc. Clouds are the metaphoric multi-tools of lyrical language. To quote Joni Mitchell wrote in Both Sides Now, …So many things I would have done / But clouds got in my way.

There are days when it seems a gray cloud follows us around. The weight of problems, obligations, setbacks, memories, etc., settle in our heads like a gloomy gray helmet. Neither sunshine nor positive light can chase away the joyless melancholy. We clutch to our hearts the choices we make and the steps we take. The shadows of unsettled choices long past dog our steps and eclipse the luminous potential of Now. But how to scatter the clouds?

Focus the flame of your attention on the essential center of your anxiety. What are the sources of this angst adhering to your spirit? Through self-awareness you can distill the distressing truth from the cloud of uncertainty. Transform the energy of upset into positive incandescence. Vaporize the mist of doubt. Allow the steam of resolution to rise from your spirit. Reveal the central point of apprehension and release the heartache and suffering. Let newfound understanding lift anxiety’s veil.

When clouds begin to gather on your horizon, imagine they are a pod of playful whales come to temporarily interrupt your day. Problems may seem enormous, but they can be symbolically reduced to shadows of bygone days with a more affirmative perspective. One day, anxiety’s once dreadful leviathans will float away. Your spirit will sail upon the blue sky towards the endless horizons of happiness. And as the great poet Tagore also wrote: Dark clouds become heaven’s flowers when kissed by light.

Off the Beaten Path in China:Part 2

A good traveler has no fixed plans and is not intent on arriving. LaoZi (Lao Tzu)

My wife Hong likes to track down unusual places that her family and friends have never visited. In this way people exchange information and photos to both recommend a place and to brag about having visited such an out of the way place. She had read some articles about an unusual Li minority village with thatched roof huts. So we plotted our “off-the-beaten-path” adventure across the back-roads of Hainan Island.

We had a good breakfast, always a critical first step. I double checked the road food supply, and we added bottled water and hot tea. Chinese always carry personal water bottles and/or a thermos on trips. With all supplies laid in, we headed off the usual route around the island and took a far less traveled route across the center to “BaiCha Village Boat-Shaped Thatched Cottages”. Hong had discovered this destination via a few travel discussion groups. This place was very far from the major tourism sites, and so it whet our appetites for adventure.

Our route cut across the middle of the island before heading southwest. Years earlier, when my daughter was studying in China, we all journeyed to southern Hainan. After a bumpy ride on a three wheeled motorcycle taxi, we stayed in a fantastic rain forest resort in the Jianfengling Rain Forest. But that is another story. On the way to BaiCha we drove past the northern edge of that same rain forest and surprised the locals.

The Li people have moved from the old village to a nearby new village. We passed through the new village on the way there and back. The new village had been constructed during a modernization effort by the local government. The buildings looked more or less like any other village.

What made this place stand out in my mind was the livestock roaming the streets. Pigs and chickens wandered down the paved roads the same way they must have traipsed around the old village.

The old village was accessible via a partially flooded roadway. Many tourist sites like this have administrative offices and information areas. And these tourist sites are allowed to languish for most of the year except on special occasions.

The Li minority traditional “Boat-Shaped houses used wattle and daub construction techniques that have been used for thousands of years. This is the same style, more or less, that has been used around the world for over six thousand years.

There were a few people living in the village, but the place was almost completely empty. It seemed that everyone had moved either to the new town or further away to the big city

I found it very interesting that they had built raised storage rooms in a sort of precursor to today’s storage units. Some of the homes were in better shape than others. It was an interesting peek into the culture of one of China’s ethnic groups. Some of my fondest travel memories are of visiting ethnic minority areas in China.

After leaving the village, and consuming all our food supply, we navigated our way down to the coast and got a great room in a fine hotel. In the morning we had a large breakfast and replenished our food stock. Chinese supermarkets have a wide assortment of snacks and drinks. We headed north up the coast towards our ultimate destination – the Su Dongpo Academy.

The night before we had researched stories about the genius poet/scholar Su Shi (Su Dongpo) when he was banished to Hainan, which has been known in China as the “End of the World”. Su Shi is one of my favorite historical figures in all of China’s five thousand year history. But I digress – more about the “happy genius” poet later.

There is a very fine highway along the coast which greatly reduces travel times. Our next destination was the Yangpu Ancient Salt Field in Yantian. The unusual site has more than one thousand stones for evaporating seawater to make salt.

At high tide the seawater covers the shallow rimmed stones, and at low tide the tropical sun evaporates the water and the salt is collected. This out of the way place was first established over 1200 years ago. There are still a few people there who make salt this traditional way, as a part-time income.

The ancient salt fields are a bit hard to find, even when you reach the city. The gps guided us to the local neighborhood, but the last few blocks were not well marked. Hong stopped and asked a local business man. Instead of telling us, he just hopped in his car and drove there so we wouldn’t get lost on the narrow roads.

The parking lot had the usual local folks selling various foods and some souvenirs, but this was not a tourism hot spot by any stretch of the imagination. But we visit out of the way places because we don’t like the oversell of larger, more famous tourist spots. Due to the complete lack of crowds, it was a nice place to wander around. A hearty older woman was gathering firewood with her granddaughter when we were there.

Some little kids were playing on the water’s edge as they checked on their fish and crab traps. Looking across the bay, you could see the gleaming new high rises rising above the coastline. the juxtaposition of the ancient and modern was a familiar sight to me after living in the rapidly changing country for so long.

Plotting a course north towards Danzhou and the Su Dongpo Academy. Su Shi (Sue-Sure) was the poet-artist-scholar’s given name and Su Dongpo was his adopted literary name. To give you some idea about Su Shi’s character:

Su Shi was banished to Hainan for his political writings. Years earlier his wife summed up Su Shi well. One night after dinner he was walking around their home with a satisfied look on his face. He turned to his family, patted his stomach and asked, “Do you know what I have in here?” To which his wife answered, “Yes, a belly full of unpopular ideas.”

In addition to his many artistic achievements, Su Shi was one of ancient China’s most famous gourmets. And so, the next installment will feature a secret never-before-translated recipe for the famous Dongpo Pork (invented by Su Dongpo); a never-before-translated wine recipe from the genius poet and we begin our search for the lost wells of the artistic genius.

Off the Beaten Path in China: Part 1

The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page.St. Augustine

There are many article written about famous tourist spots in China. The vast majority of tourists in China visit Beijing (Forbidden City, Great Wall and more) and Xi’An (terracotta warriors). I was lucky to have friends and family in China who encouraged us to travel to places that are more off-the-beaten-path. For a few years, I wrote, edited and researched articles for the Ministry of Tourism during my time in China. I was also did some voice acting as the voice of Hangzhou tourism.

I want to kick off this series of posts with my last road trip in China. As part of his university internship my step-son was working at a large hotel in Haikou, the capital of Hainan Island. Hainan is China’s large tropical island province. We visited several unusual places and the highlight was our search for the actual home of the banished poet Su Shi (Su Dongpo). I will include more information in future articles.

We rented a car from the Chinese partner of Hertz car rental. Renting a car allowed us to see so much more when we traveled around China. Seeing places before there are torn down and rebuilt is one of the most interesting reasons for traveling to out of the way places. Every city in China, large and small, is being rebuilt in one way or another. This is especially true of Hainan. In Haikou, there are huge construction sites down near the ocean especially. But the city is also known for its local architecture known as Qilou (chee-low). A similar building style is used across southern China and southeast Asia. Wandering around looking for Qilou, we worked up an appetite, and decided to try the local specialty.

For Chinese, learning about the local food specialties are a very important part of the preparation for visiting any area. One of Haikou’s signature dishes is “Cold Sour Noodles”. Because it is tropical, a cool dish is much appreciated. But in China I seldom ate anything cold, due to hygiene concerns. The room temperature dish had peanuts, strips of beef, pickled vegetables and coriander in a thick broth. My wife Hong had some dried fish and extra spice in hers. The secret the boss told us, was to mix it all together from bottom to top. Not much of a secret, but he was right. The dish was pretty tasty.

The first night we stayed in a sort of boutique hotel within an apartment building. Sometimes a hotel is located within an apartment/business building. In this situation, you take the elevator to the designated floor to register. The “front desk” had a facial recognition mechanism for registration as required by the local government. It took a while to have my passport scanned and accepted. All foreigners have to provide a copy of their passport, visa page and entry stamp page.

We had a nice room with a balcony. For dinner we ordered food from the awesome Meituan delivery service. I call them the Kangaroo Men, because their jackets have a yellow kangaroo on them. The kangaroo men are one of the things I miss about China. They are nearly every town and are fast and convenient. We had sweet and sour fish, duck, beans and rice for around ten dollars.

One odd thing about many Chinese hotels are the glass walls in the bathrooms. Now, my brother-in-law, who owns a construction/design business, says the glass wall is to provide more light in the bathroom and make it seem more spacious. I still think it is more of a voyeuristic design element. Either way, I always pull the curtain.

We visited a supermarket nearby so I could stock up on road food. There was a lot of friction about food on a trip I took years ago with my wife’s younger brother. Since then, I prepare in advance by packing some road food of my own. As I’ve said before, China is a food culture, and so food is a large part of life. This is especially true when traveling. What did you eat it seems is just as important as what you saw.

Coffee is not easy to find when off-the-beaten-path. There are two main varieties of 1+2 instant coffee (1 coffee – 2 creamer and sugar): Nescafe and Maxwell House. Nescafe is more common. In a pinch just dump a couple into a bottle of water and shake vigorously. The shaking helps relieve stress too.

Because young people in China like chips, there are a huge variety available. I like these with honey, plus there are two packs in the tubes so you don’t feel too greedy eating them one at a time.

Orion berry pies work as a snack or breakfast. Sometimes when my companions take too long to rise and shine, I have a “first breakfast”. Blueberry and strawberry are both good.

For a taste of home, I liked soft Nabisco Chips Ahoy.

And to make the angry tummy smile, nothing is better than these white chocolate covered beauties. For a trip to go more smoothly my backpack had to have some of these “survival” foods. There are no delivery men in the countryside.

We loosely settled on our itinerary before going to sleep. But the unexpected was often the most enjoyable part of traveling in China. About 2,500 years ago, Confucius said, “The journey of ten thousand miles begins with the first step.” Actually he said a journey of ten thousand li . A li 里 (lee) is around 500 meters, or 1640 feet. But it is further divided into 1,500 Chinese feet chi 尺 (about 333 millimeters or 13.123 inches. The Chinese foot can further be divided into ten cun 寸 also known as the Chinese inch. The cun is the width of a person’s thumb across the knuckle. I learned all this when I borrowed my wife’s measuring tape and my measurements were way off.

When we traveled in China, we used a gps with Chinese characters and Chinese voice. I was never brave enough to drive in China, so I was the navigator. Fortunately I can read the numbers and images on the gps and know that gongli (like the actress) means kilometers. I can also count in Chinese, but as navigator, my job was to make sure we got where we wanted to and back safely. I didn’t want to miss by a mile, Chinese or otherwise. Fortunately, we didn’t have any accidents, but we did have some great adventures. Stay tuned for the next installments.

God Speaks in Your Voice

When the Universe calls – Answer

Symbol of man reaching out for God. God is listening.

Since the dawn of time, humans have sought the divine. Humanity has always had a dual nature – intellectual and spiritual. These twin poles are the magnetic field of the human spirit. Spirit, which is derived from breath, animates life. And it is this nonphysical somethingness that inspires all human ingenuity and spirituality. Perhaps it is symbolic communication that distinguishes us most from other animals. In this way, language can be simultaneously humanity’s most sacred and profane creation. God must have been one of the words created in any language. The ancient etymology of the word God includes the concept of invoking: to call upon with earnestness. How do you know when God answers your sincere entreaties? You will know, because God speaks in your voice.

The title of this post comes from personal experience. Months ago I was talking with my wife about faith, and I told her I did not have to believe because I know. This is the core of my faith which is not organized around any exclusive religious doctrines, but is grounded instead in knowing there is a supreme spirit. Once again, however you label this celestial presence is blessedly up to you to decide. Whatever attracts your spirit is sacred to you. We shouldn’t allow terminology to prevent us from expressing ourselves. I know there is a divine Universe which responds to our fervent prayers, because I have experienced it directly. In movies the voice of God is usually a gravelly, authoritative baritone who intones in lofty ways about the bigness of things. Many famous actors have portrayed the voice of God: Morgan Freeman, Charlton Heston, Graham Chapman. But God speaks not through the ear but through the heart and in your voice. And like billions of people, God first spoke to me in a time of desperate need.

The image is a metaphor for God answering prayers

Years ago, I was laying on the couch, running the day’s events through my head. In our old two bedroom house with a basement, I slept on the couch so that each of my kids could have their own private space. Without warning, my heart began to pound wildly like a fish flopping on a drum-head. The pain was immediate and terrifying. I gasped for air in little sips. My limbs seemed to petrify. I rolled onto my side hoping that would offer some relief.

Deeper pain pierced my upper chest. Lightning exploded behind my eyes. Fragmented images of my life tore through my frightened mind. The white hot iron spear in my chest drove away the memories. Gruesome electric tendrils slithered across my clammy torso. The veins in my neck stiffened. My heart fluttered in random palpitations. The chaotic heartbeats sent my mind reeling away. In growing crimson-tipped terror, I cried out into the darkness. Somehow, I remembered reading one should cough as a sort of crude self-CPR. Mercifully, the coughing spasms triggered a calming reaction. The pounding in my skull fell silent. It was as if it a red-hot iron had been plunged into cool water.

I took a minute before sliding my feet over the edge of the couch and sitting upright. The pain eased. My breathing grew deeper. The iron band around my chest loosened. My heart’s erratic beat slowed and became regular. My eyes burned from tears. Until then I had not realized I had been crying.

Is this how it ends? Is this my fate? How can this be all there is?

In the rush of life returning, countless thought-fragments exploded into being and ricocheted around my quavering mind. In a profound moment of clarity, a single word manifested from out of nothingness – CHANGE.

The image is a swirling gyre which represents the ever-changing nature of the cosmos

The word Change – entered my mind from the Universe beyond consciousness. It was as if the word had lain dormant until touched by a ray of light. The voicelessly uttered word awoke from my heart into my mind. A point of pure light illuminated the latent path ahead. From that moment, I swore to try and find my true course across the untrammeled ever-unfolding landscape ahead.

The next day I bought nicotine patches and ceremoniously tossed my last cigarettes into the garbage. After a couple weeks, my children noticed I was humming to myself more often. My sweet kids applauded my decision to stop smoking. They diplomatically suggested I change my diet too while I was at it. They will always be my greatest blessing. Over the next year, I lost sixty-five pounds. Whenever my coworkers asked how I lost weight, I said simply, “Eat with chopsticks and get moving”. Meaning switch from an all Western diet. But diet alone is not enough, you must change your lifestyle towards healthier alternatives. During this time, I dove deeper into Eastern philosophy, art and meditation, allowing my spiritual nature to blossom.

The image is a flock of seagulls flying low over the beach,. It is a metaphor for letting our spirits fly.

A couple of years later, the Great Recession had begun. I found myself trying to cobble together a way forward after losing my job. I grasped at freelance jobs, and worked at night in a parking lot. The breaking point on that job came when a mentally unstable co-worker hanged himself in the break room. The horrible after-images of scuff marks on the wall and strange drawings troubled my mind for a long time. At the same time, I had to try anything to make ends meet. But they seldom met. It was the most turbulent time in my life. The ten-thousand stresses coalesced into a cruel boulder under which my spirit was slowly being crushed. The full weight of life came crashing down one fateful day.

The image is of a foggy road. It symbolizes the unknown up ahead.

I was cleaning the basement when I experienced my second major coronary catastrophe. My legs buckled. Blackness began to creep along the edges of my vision. After several painful breaths, I was lying supine on the cold cement floor. I called out to what I can only call the divine force. I cast my soul into the timeless Void and was delivered from oblivion. A loving presence enveloped me. In an instant, the hammer blows to my chest stopped. An ethereal hand reached into my chest. Divine energy gently cradled my heart as a warm clarifying flow washed away the suffering. The cataclysm in my spasming heart calmed. A soothing warmth spread throughout my body. It was as if my very soul was cleansed. Once again transcendent words emanated from the center of my consciousness – you will be okay. Thereafter, when faced with adversity, I knew I was not alone.

The image is a heart shaped stone I found on the beach. it symbolizes our love for all people.

From that day to this, I have had faith in what I simply call the Universe. The same omniscient and omnipresent energy flows through all sacred texts under a multitude of names. For millennia, various wise teachers, sacred texts and inspirational artists have illuminated many redeeming paths. Everyone should explore the incredible richness of humanity’s spiritual and intellectual treasure. We must find common ground with one another. We live on a planet with over 7.8 billion people. In these troubling times, we all need to find ways to make our shared home more peaceful. With 7,800,000,000 voices of God calling out with love and compassion, we can change our world. Peace and Love to you all.

Finding Inspiration

The main thing is to be moved, to love, to hope, to tremble, to live. – Auguste Rodin

One weekend when I was in high school, my family visited Chicago’s magnificent Art Institute. The Institute’s collection is superb. I saw so many masters for the first time. But out of all the art I saw in that Beaux-Arts style sanctuary one painting still stands out in my mind over forty years later. It was an ancient Chinese painting. This was my first encounter with the profound power of Asian art. A magical mountain floated atop curving empty space. At first glance, the blank spaces made the painting look strange and unfinished. But upon closer inspection it seemed the emptiness contained a hidden presence. A lone gnarled tree, clinging to the sheer soaring cliffs, reached into the blankness. A single narrow path was barely visible along the precipitous cliff-face. A lone scholar figure, dwarfed by the mountain, stood at the edge of the abyss. His robes billowed slightly, and his long hair flowed down his back. The scholar starred into the void just below the soaring mountain. Perhaps he scanned the skies for signs of an absent love or a path forward. Mentally stepping into the magnificent landscape blazed a path into my mind. I was entranced by the astonishing vertical perspective and bewildering depths of the artistic minds that created such marvelous works.

My family wandered off. A profound calm surrounded me. The hairs on the back of my neck stood up as if a slight breeze flowed from the painting. My scalp tingled from the vibrations of metaphysical illumination. The mystifying characters and wondrous red seals cascading down the scene expressed meaning beyond my comprehension. Every element in the painting appeared to be under transformation – man, poem, mountain, wind, the Void… Swaying gently before the altar of art I began a metamorphosis which would take years to comprehend. Small wings began to beat within my soul. Just as it seemed I would take flight; my mom’s gentle touch interrupted my reverie. After the epiphanous moment subsided I began my own journey towards transformation.

In those pre-Internet days, I began looking as best as I could for imagery and articles about Asian culture in general and China specifically. Luckily while browsing a university bookstore I found a well-illustrated book which generally laid out the styles, methods and aesthetics of Chinese painting. Chinese landscape painting is called Shan-Shui-Hua mountain-water-painting. A work of Chinese art has multiple vanishing points to illustrate distances– high, deep, level. The goal of the painting is not to realistically portray a scene. A landscape depicts the spirit of nature while evoking a feeling which is sometimes expressed in poetry.

This artistic introduction led me to geniuses like the poet/artist Su Shi (pronounced Sue Sure). Several times when I was reading about Su Shi I came across the word polymath. A polymath is a person who has great knowledge about several fields. Su Shi was one of the finest examples of a Chinese scholar or literati. He was one of the first Chinese literati began to add elegant poetry to the blank spaces in paintings over a thousand years ago in order to heighten the impact of their creations. A few years ago, my talented Chinese artist friend explained a little about the use of Chinese poetry in art. She said when a viewer reads a powerful Chinese poem the nature of the characters and the skill of the calligraphy summons the vivid imagery of the scene into the mind of the reader. The scenes depicted come to life in a visual display of artistic alchemy in the mind of the viewer.

As a student of Asian art, I would draw or paint the Chinese characters on some of my Asian influenced watercolors. I have studied: Asian arts; eastern civilizations in college; and the intricacies of Taoist thought for over four decades. Along the way there were hints from the Universe that the answers to my deepest questions would lie in the journey ahead. We travel through life along numerous paths tracing and retracing countless tracks in the dust of time. And so it is difficult to identify exactly where one path ends and another begins. But part of the life-path I walk now began the day I first experienced such artistic dynamism.

Many years later, when I was living in China, I was discussing Chinese art with Flora one of my best students. She had studied calligraphy and painting for many years. In one of her lessons her painting teacher said the ultimate goal of the artist is to create a dynamic xiao yuzhou – “small universe” – within their work. When viewed correctly this small universe explodes into the mind of the observer thus altering the individual forever. In this way, my moment of earlier metamorphosis had injected me with an aesthetic lodestone that altered my spirit-compass forever.

On My Monkey-Mind

The only reason why God created man is because he was disappointed with the monkey.

Mark Twain

Dedicated to my great friend Tom

Living overseas away from family and the familiar is difficult. There are stages of difficulty related to culture shock. The stages of culture shock are a general guide to the sequence of emotions people experience. The four basic stages are: honeymoon stage (everything is new and interesting); hostility and irritability (frustration with everyday differences); gradual adjustment (first adapt on the surface and then working on deeper personal issues); acceptance (assimilation, adjustment and integration with new culture). And if you live overseas long enough you get reverse culture shock. One of the odd things that remained a constant source of cultural refreshment for me was the presence of monkeys in Asia. I know it may sound strange, but that was a little thing that brought me back to the so-called honeymoon stage.

There are no monkeys in North America. I don’t fully understand why but I have had a deep affinity for monkeys since I was a little boy. Perhaps it is some far-reaching primate kinship, or just I think they are cool. I’ve always tried to connect with primates I saw in zoos, because I don’t like to see them trapped in such a mind-numbing environment. I saw this sad little orangutan in a Chinese zoo and spent twenty minutes playing with him through the glass. His face was rapturous, as he had gotten used to people banging on the glass trying to upset him. Monkeys and apes seem to naturally gravitate towards me. I don’t like performing monkeys because the owners are often cruel, but I will feed them if I can.

Probably the first monkey I got to know was Curious George. As a little guy, there was a time when I wanted to be the Man with the Yellow Hat, because I liked George’s misadventures. The first monkeys I ever saw in person were spider monkeys owned by a family down the street. To say they were not sophisticated people would be an understatement. I think they had three little monkeys. They would wear tiny diapers, and were given racist names. I remember seeing them climb the tree in front of their house, more nimbly than squirrels. This was also back when pet shops could also sell apes. Okay, let me date myself a little, as a kid I really enjoyed the cartoon Magilla the Gorilla which anthropomorphized gorillas. Because I thought having a gorilla buddy would be fantastic. But thought better of that idea, after I’d watched all the Planet of the Apes movies several times.

I have always loved space exploration. The first primate astronauts were named Albert I – VI were launched atop V-2 rockets. Albert I reached a height of 63 kilometers, not quite outer space. Albert II was the first living being launched into space in June 1949 when he reached an altitude of 83 miles. During the Space Race between American and the USSR, I read about them and wondered, what did the apes and monkeys think as they were launched into space. That was before I learned of the meaning of anesthetized. On January 31, 1961 a chimpanzee named Ham reached 253 kilometers and returned safely. This brave chimp paved the way for Alan Shepard incredible suborbital flight May 5, 1961. After that I was only interested in human space exploration, except for a brief time when my kids would watch Captain Simian & the Space Monkeys.

The first wild monkey I ever saw up close was in Hunan Province at the Zhangjiajie National Forest Park. It was one of the inspirations for Pandora the Na’vi home-world in Avatar. The natural scenery there is stunning, but what made the trip special for me was getting up close and personal with the native, semi-tame, monkeys. They would hear the tourists rustle cellophane and plastic and rush down to panhandle or outright pilfer food. I laughed when one stood up in a pantomimed threatening gesture so another could sneak in and snatch a bag of oranges from some tourists. Chinese ladies carry umbrellas to protect against the sun and one lady expertly fended off the monkey bandits by opening and closing her umbrella while thrusting it at them. I was in heaven just watching the little buggers run around.

I would later encounter monkeys in many places. For instance, when we visited Angkor Wat, I laughed as a crafty monkey crossed between tour groups on his way across the ancient temple grounds. There is a monkey god shrine guarding a bridge in Hoi An, Vietnam. My last six years in China I lived in my wife’s home province in the tropical south. There were many banana fields nearby. There was a tourist cave nearby that had many local monkeys. As they were often harassed by small children throwing things at them, most would stay in the hills until after the tourists went home. When we visited, I brought some high quality bananas from Thailand. The guard told us where to wait, and after the tourist left, the monkeys came down to raid the trash. The one in the picture looked at me, and I am not kidding, he raised and lowered his eyebrows several times, as if to ask – how about a banana? I gave him one of the Thai bananas and his expression changed to one of delight and he immediately thrust his hand out for another. A nearby monkey must have gotten the scent and reared up as if to charge me, I gave him two bananas to keep him busy and retreated. Their expressions were human-like, we “had a moment”.

I was the managing editor and lead writer for a monthly magazine and weekly newspaper while I lived in China, and as such I got to dive deeper into Chinese culture than most visitors – that and: being married, teaching little kids, chatting with family friends, traveling to far off the beaten track. And so my wife and I were lucky enough to meet Sun WuKong – the Monkey King. The number one superhero of Chinese history. The Monkey King is the protagonist of classic novel The Journey to the West . The television show has been on since 1986, and it is one of every Chinese person’s favorite shows. A well-connected friend of mine paid back several favors by arranging a private tour of Hengdian World Studios – the world’s largest at the time. We got to watch the filming of an episode. The director thought I was a foreign director. After we watched for a few minutes, the famous Monkey King actor said, “Hello, how are you?” We were then told to leave the set. So, in the end I got to meet one of the most famous monkeys of all time. Meeting the Monkey King ended my culture shock altogether. In closing, the Monkey King, and I suppose I do too, personified an expression used in Buddhism, including Zen, Taoism and Asian Literature: Monkey-Mind – restless and whimsical. Our human minds/thoughts/passions are like monkeys. There is more, but my monkey-mind could use a banana and some simian videos.