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.

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Jinhua as an Introvert

Every morning in Jinhua, I wake up around 5:30 to grey light, and a moan of buses on the highway.  My shoulders and hips ache on the rigid mattress, the ones the Chinese students call “too cushy,” but at least my back never hurts.  Chaise, my roommate, tries to keep sleeping while I hunt for my driest running clothes. I find my increasingly orange-dusted running shoes and take the stairs down from the seventh floor to the lobby, two at a time. Outside at 6:00 a.m., the air is like warm soup.

ZJNU's Campus
ZJNU’s Campus

At the first intersection, two people walk backwards in different directions. Several small groups of older people shuffle; one man runs fast, but the rest move slowly. The woman with her branch-broom sweeps off the brick sidewalk too uneven to use. I followed the arc of the road curving towards the dining hall, Commercial Street, more construction dust. A sign near a clump of trees reads, “Warning: Do not walk alone. Desolate woods.” An e-bike zips by. I am never really alone in China. If I run on the hill my students walk by in clumps of ten or fifteen; on the track middle-aged men jog and climb poles; middle-aged women walk and clap in time.  On my loops around the lake still older men practice Tai Chi. A lone photographer sets up a tripod. None seem to sweat. My hair and my tech shirt drip.

During and after my shower I keep sweating, especially when trying to drink up my warm lemon water (to stay healthy) or my Nescafe (to stay alert ten hours from now). On the twenty-minute walk to class, there are never enough trees, and always too much construction dust. At 8:15, my students chant the sports vocabulary from yesterday in the stifling classroom while sweat beads on my arms and legs. The water tank in the courtyard is almost empty and the air dulls the students’ voices to a drone.

During lunch, 300 people and I wait in snaking lines in ZNJU‘s cafeteria for bowls of rice, greens, mysterious soups of tofu, watermelon. In the afternoon I sweat in the supply room, eating dragon fruit a co-teacher has given me, and preparing for tomorrow’s lesson, which I have just learned is too advanced for my students. Suddenly I am told to hurry up and go downstairs for a photo; suddenly I am told to sit and wait. My students chase dragon flies and catch each other in trust falls while the photographer stages the groups in front of us.

20150709_154555Afterwards in paper-cutting class, all the instructions are in Chinese, so I write an email to my husband while waiting for the photos and demonstrations. The wifi cuts out before I can press send. My most eager female students will create and give me intricate red paper snowflakes and flowers while the boys cut theirs  into jagged pieces and tug my co-teacher’s hair. She bursts into tears and shouts at them. A typhoon is coming and our bodies take on the quality of the air–hot, wet, tense. Very pitta. In this heat, I drink water all day but don’t need to visit the acrid squatty potties. In this building the stall doors barely clear our torsos. “Did they really save that much money cutting the doors in half?” a girl on our team asks. No one knows. They’ll never ask.

At dinner, another line. My co-teacher, Sunny, helps me order a plate of porkless fried rice that I drink with a cup of cucumber juice. At lunch we might discuss Chinese and American wedding rings, or tomorrow’s lesson plans, but at dinner: silence. When I get up to leave, I’ll trip over the tiny ledge going from one room to another in the dining hall. “Don’t forget,” says Kot, our Cambodian-American cultural liason, “everything in this country is trying to kill you.”

Like the e-bike that whips by when I cross the road. Or the wet marble stairs to the cafeteria. Or the tree, recently gutted from the earth and swinging overhead from a crane as Chaise and I walk to the dorm, licking our pineapple ice cream bars.

Later, I spread out my thin travel yoga mat in the small space between our wardrobes and the window. Chaise sits head-phoned and cross-legged on her bed, planning how to teach Chinese middle school students about Mother’s Day, checking her watch. We have a team meeting soon but this is what we do; Chaise creates a bubble of music while I move through sun salutations and warrior poses. Even with the air conditioner on, my mat gets slicker in each down dog and my hands turned pruney from the puddles of sweat. But when I finally I lie flat on my back in a sweaty savasana, or corpse pose, I am entirely rinsed out. My body is limp, my hands open. I am hanging on to nothing.