Over the past couple of months, we’ve spent most of our afternoons learning tai chi, a form of Chinese martial arts. I wish I could say this was a leisurely activity we chose to do on our own, but it wasn’t— our school asked us to take part in a city-wide competition. We were their token white people.
If you’re unfamiliar with tai chi (tàijí 太極), it’s a form of Chinese martial arts used for self-defense, in competition, and as exercise. The tai chi symbol, the yin-yang, symbolizes the Confucian Chinese contrasting concepts of taiji (“supreme ultimate”) and wuji (“without ultimate”).
There are five elements involved in a tai chi practice. We focused mainly on taolu (hand routines and forms), but tai chi is also made up of neigong and qigong (breathing, movement, and meditative techniques), tuishou (response drills), and sanshou (self-defense techniques). Similar to yoga, a tai chi practice is all about focusing the mind on the movement.
Overall, we enjoyed learning tai chi. I think if it wasn’t for a competition, we would have enjoyed this martial art style a lot more. But, c’est la vie. The rehearsals were long and tiring— sometimes up to four hours straight. With one week leading up to the competition, we spent our lunch breaks and afternoons practicing. Classes were changed around or even canceled to practice, practice, practice.
In a typical Chinese fashion, we would find out about these practices an hour, sometimes ten minutes before they were supposed to happen. We didn’t even know the date of the competition until it was one week away...
The practices were quite challenging, too. Luckily, we had our Foreign Affairs Officer, Apple to translate, but when she wasn’t there, we were left to follow our teacher. This proved to be extra difficult whenever she was explaining hand or foot movements. Tai chi is beautiful in flow, but rigid in specific hand and foot placements, so we would rely on our ever-so-patient teacher to show us step-by-step, movement by movement.
After many many practices, we finally felt like we were getting the routine down. Then, we were met with another surprise: we had to learn a dance routine. We knew a group of dancers would perform at the beginning of our tai chi routine, but we had no idea there was another dance number we would perform together. Oy vey.
Despite our groans and complains, we learned the dance number, and began practicing everything with the dance group. This is when rehearsals became even more frustrating. The leaders of our school would watch our rehearsals, ramble something off in rapid Chinese when we were finished, and ended up changing our placements and dance moves around with zero explanation in English. We were forced to adapt a Darwinian attitude and adapt quickly. The leaders changed the routine upwards of ten times every single time we rehearsed, no joke. I don’t know how we pulled it off.
The day of the competition, our school hired professional hair and makeup artists to doll us up for the performance. If all the missed class time for the rehearsals and the performance wasn’t bad enough, we had to miss class to get our hair and makeup done.
The competition took place at a high school nearby. Picture this, if you can: hundreds and hundreds of middle-aged teachers dressed in cheerleading, tai chi, and sequined outfits. We were the only foreigners in the auditorium, so we had our picture taken about 8,000 times. While we were waiting to go on stage and watching the first few performances, we couldn’t help but think this type of thing would never happen in the United States. Could you imagine your elementary school teachers in a skimpy outfit doing a dance routine? I didn’t think so.
In yet another Chinese fashion, we were told literally as we were walking on the stage that the headmaster of our school would like Justin and I to come to the center of the stage after the performance and say to the crowd of thousands: “We love China! We love Chinese kung-fu!”
In that moment, we did not love China.
We did it with big grins on our faces, like we always do. Our performance was so great, we won first place out of 46 teams! Our school was beyond ecstatic. We were, of course, excited, but I think we were more excited to have our lunch breaks back.
Now, we are tai chi shifus (masters). If you have any stalkers or crazy neighbors, you know who to call.