Jinua Jell-o (or, China for a Pitta)

Before we left for China, I taught the college students going on the trip how to meditate. “This could be a tool to help you with stress,” I told them as they sat cross-legged with long spines, breathing quietly in and out of their noses, focusing on gratitude rather than stress. “Remember, there’s nothing you can’t breathe through.”

The irony was not lost on me when four days later, I stood in the Jinhua Wal-Mart, staring at the lines of people, too overwhelmed to even join my group in line. A seven hour bus ride, heat, humidity, dirty dorm rooms, an hour and a half at the mobile phone shop, and finally now Wal-Mart was too much. Outside the temperature was like warm soup, and raining. Back at the dorm, my roommate and I stress-unpacked and stress-organized our cupboards, then washed the black grime off our feet. I finally sat on my rock hard mattress in the dark and forced myself to breathe in and out of my nose, thinking about anything other than how much I wanted to be somewhere else.

As I’ve written before, my dosha is part pitta, which means heat, humidity, lack of structure, spicy foods, sour foods, caffeine, alcohol, thwarted success, and summer are all irritants. When pittas are in balance, we can be glorious, happy powerhouse humans. Out of balance, we’re total cranks, who start by blaming you for our problems, and end by collapsing in a puddle of angry self-loathing. As the Chopra Center points out, “When Pittas are overstressed, their typical response is ‘What did you do wrong?” And here I was in tropical Jinhua, China, in typhoon sweaty hot season, with a gaggle of American college students and three hundred Chinese middle school students for three weeks.

And China was often an irritating place. Suddenly the classroom and afternoon activity might change. Suddenly a deep muddy ditch and a backhoe gouged the road I walked to class. Daily I’d have to cover my shoulders while men could their shirts up over their bellies (the bigger the better) in a look one of my friends dubbed the “Beijing Bikini.” Crowds pushed, everywhere. On “fun days,” I’d spend twelve hours getting on and off a tour buses, taking group photos, feeling privileged and miserable.

And yet I loved China, because it was such a convenient place to try Ayurvedic health principles. Because of the hard beds and early sunlight, getting up at 5:30 was easier than sleeping in. I drank hot or lukewarm water around the clock and walked at least four or five miles a day, much of which included the seven flights of stairs to my room. I couldn’t keep my eyes open past 11:00, and while my bed was uncomfortable, my back never hurt.

The pitta balancing techniques I’d read of became essential. Exercise every morning (a moderately paced run) and every evening (yoga) kept the pitta fires in check. Because I was always sweaty from running, walking, or yoga, I was also taking cold showers twice a day. Finding my way into meditation and deep breathing became each night’s necessity.

On my last day of teaching in China, I realized how much food could help too. The lunch meeting was another scheduled surprise, which by now I only shrugged at. Inside the small dining room, an air conditioning unit hummed and beads of perspiration collected on our bottles of water and the backs of our necks. The waiter brought out plates of sliced cucumber and bowls of brown liquid and brown gelatinous chunks. It tasted like Jell-O made from sugar-free Dr. Pepper. “This is a local dish made of herbs,” said our host, pointing to the bowls. “It is a Jinhua specialty. We believe eating it in the summer is good for our health.” I sipped the cold sweetish liquid between bites of the gelatin and noticed too the plates of seafood, the bowls of cucumber salad, the plates of watermelon—“the fortune cookie of China,” according to our hosts—the many dishes designed to bring our core temperature down. For two weeks I’d eaten many naturally sweet, cooling, light foods. I ate hardly any dairy, raw vegetables, or refined sugars—all difficult foods to digest. Because I was trying to be an adventurous vegetarian, I was trying all the tofu and cooked vegetable dishes, the cucumber juice, chilled milk tea, lychees and dragon fruit. I even tried the fermented cold rice soup Sunny, my co-teacher, recommended as good for my health, and the brown Jell-O—twice. Because I was eating new foods with chopsticks, I went from inhaling my food to eating slowly, paying attention—a technique both Ayurvedic doctors and French women recommend for weight loss. Alcohol (a pitta irritant) was forbidden to our team for religious reasons, and my caffeine intake was limited to maybe a cup of coffee per day and some tea. My body felt healthy and my mind always felt clear

During my first pancake breakfast home in America, I discovered the antibiotic I took in China had wrecked the good bacteria in my stomach along with the bad, so I spent the first few days home cautiously eating vegetables and missing greens and rice. In the weeks following, I’d wake up at 8:00 or 9:30 instead of 5:30, and miss the early dawn. In the schedule-less days of the end of summer, I missed the rhythm of waking, working out, teaching, eating, teaching, and trying to not get hit by a scooter. In the comfortable sameness of Indiana, I missed the invigoration that comes in trying to order a coffee when all you have is a picture and your hands, or teaching Chinese students the concept of baseball and Easter. I sat in my comfortable American house, at a desk with a 70-degree breeze blowing into the house, and missed even the tropical heat with its curative purge.

Sometimes when we advise study abroad students, we ask them to consider their coping mechanisms—the gym, video games, homework—and ask what they’ll do when all of those are gone. We don’t ask them the reverse, and I believe now we should. Back in America, and frustrated with my days listing like a half shipwrecked boat, I found myself unable to walk everywhere and eat greens for every meal. What I could do is find my way into my dark bedroom at night and sit on the hard floor, shut my eyes, and tell myself to breathe slowly and deeply in and out of my nose.