Erection in America; (or, how I didn’t learn Chinese in the Pre-Reagan years)

(this is a long story about my  passionate explorations into the Chinese language, which I tried so hard to learn, and my near-ordination as a Buddhist Nun. The story also ‘outs’ me as a psychedelic stumbler-the first and last time I had the full experience of “Dragon”…)

I began studying Chinese at the early age of 13, when my 8thgrade English teacher told me my writings ‘rang the bell of the Dharma” and gave me a book by the Chinese hermit poet Tao Chien. He also introduced me to the 3 “isms” of Chinese philosophy: Taoism, Confucianism and Buddhism, which became a roadmap for how the next 9 years would unfold.

 

During that time, my world both shrunk and expanded, as all other interests were lost in my tireless study of the Chinese culture. Poets and painters of the Sung and Tang dynasties became as friends to me. I could write Chinese with ease, mostly copying poetry, sutras, or, excerpts from philosophical works. My reading and comprehension skills fell far below that. My homemade stack of flash cards helped me recognize a very small number of characters. I had no clue as to the grammar. Of all languages to try to learn on my own…but love is blind.

 

After high-school I was accepted into Western Washington State college, in Bellingham, Washington. Initially I was excited, but immediately dismayed when the Asian Studies program I had hoped to major in was suddenly cancelled. I continued taking undergrad classes, but spent every evening in the abundant university library, continuing my Chinese studies with unbridled enthusiasm.

 

One Sunday afternoon I took a walk into an unfamiliar part of Bellingham. I stopped in my tracks at a little storefront with a scroll of most beautiful Chinese calligraphy I’d ever seen, in my favorite script, Grass Script. The signature on the scrolls said T.Y. Pang. I wrote that name in my journal, and tried to connect with him or her, but as it turned out, the phone number posted on the storefront door had been disconnected.

 

Though even at the age 19 I knew I was an engaged lifetime learner, I could see clearly that college wasn’t for me. I began spending more time on my campus gardening job or in the library studying Chinese art and poetry than in the undergrad classes. My childhood friend Jim visited me and saw how unhappy I was. He invited me to visit Orcas Island, a power place for both of as well as for our families.

 

Within just a few hours of my arrival on Orcas, I was offered a job delivering newspapers, a dog named Dog, and a place to live in one of the small cabins on Buck Mountain that Jim’s family owned, right on the north shore.  No electricity or running water, complete solitude, no one living in any of the other cabins. My mom had often reminded me that on a family vacation to Orcas when I was 4, I pointed to Buck Mountain and told her I would live there some day.  My heart soared. Home. I quit my college classes and moved to Orcas.

 

One day as I was driving up the steep hill to Buck Mountain, my eyes landed on a large mailbox at the bottom of the hill. Scrawled on the side of the mailbox, in black letters was the name T.Y. Pang. Amazing! The person I had tried to get in touch with in Bellingham, the calligrapher of the Grass Script, was living right down the street from me on Orcas!

 

I asked around out and learned that Mr. Pang led a Tai Chi class in town. I attended,

and introduce myself to him after class. I told him how deeply in love I was with Chinese culture, and how long I’d been studying on my own. Mr. Pang shared my passion for Chinese literature and philosophy, in fact, he was a great scholar, having been on the translating committee for my favorite book: A Source Book in Chinese Philosophy, by Wing Tsit Chan. To my great surprise, Mr. Pang accepted me as his student, on the spot, and I hadn’t even asked yet!

 

Once a week I’d walk down to Mr. Pangs house, where we spread our favorite translations of poetry or philosophy in Chinese and English around his kitchen table.  His sweet wife Eliza hovered around the kitchen, making sure our tea cups were full, every now and then joining us with a poignant opinion. I was convinced I wanted to become a translator, and Mr. Pang supported that decision. We ended each visit with him recording a cassette tape for me, reading into it everything we had studied that day in Chinese.

 

I recited our chosen pieces throughout each day, often while brushing my horses, who would quietly listen, flicking their ears with the inflections of the language. I was so in love with memorizing our tapes, practicing Chinese calligraphy and studying Chinese philosophy that my friends called me “The Nun” -in part because I was always copying prayers in Chinese and listening to Buddhist chants, but also because my passion for this study precluded any interest in the opposite sex.

 

I was in love, but it was an elusive love, as I still couldn’t speak the language. I needed more immersion. Each Monday I traveled 3 hours by boat and land to Seattle’s Chinatown for their weekly double feature of Chinese movies, usually a Shao-Lin Monks fight film followed by a love story.  The subtitles on these films helped me learn, as I could hear the words surrounded by context. Sometimes my friend Charlie to go with me, as he lived right there in Chinatown, but usually I’d go alone, sticking out like a sore thumb as the only “westerner” in the theater.

 

Though I gained a little more understanding each week, the hilarity of miss-spelled subtitles identified me as the only Westerner, the only one laughing out loud. The best was a fight film featuring twin brothers who had perfected a certain kick which evoked fear among their rivals. When the fighting brothers emerged from a dark alley, their rivals exclaimed enemies “Oh NO, RUN!  Here come the DOUBLE DICKS.” I rolled in laughter, while the whole theater stared at me with sharp and condemning disapproval all over their faces.

 

Still not satisfied in my progress with spoken Chinese, the following winter I sublet my island cabin and moved into a vacant storefront right next to Charlie’s studio, smack dab in the middle of Seattle’s Chinatown. The landlord let me have it for $60.00 a month. Never mind the drugs, prostitution and international gang happening at my doorstep.  Finally, I was surrounded with the culture and language I so loved.  I’d wander around Chinatown all day, eavesdropping on any conversation that sounded like Mandarin Chinese. Though I could sometimes understand what people were saying, I continued to feel inept at really learning the language. I had to up the ante again. I decided to really put myself in the thick of it again, and move to Taiwan.

 

It was the fall of 1980. Mainland China was still closed to free travel, especially for a young woman of 23. I’d been told that Taiwan was a better place to experience the ancient arts and religions I was most interested in anyway. Though I had never even been in a plane before, let alone travel to another country and culture, I naively but fearlessly threw myself into whatever the journey ahead would bring.

 

The first few weeks were a crash course in culture shock. Every thread of conditioning I didn’t know I even had unraveled with disorienting speed. At the same time, I was also warmly and heartily welcomed by people everywhere I went. Young Chinese students flocked to me to practice their English, proudly telling me their American names: “Hello, my name is Wenler”. They invited me into their homes like a foreign prize. Everyone, but especially the young students around my own age, were curious as to how I was able to be there in the first place. They all asked me 1.) why wasn’t I married, or 2.) at home taking care of my parents-as these were the only two options available for young adults my age.

 

Surprisingly, even here in Taiwan I wasn’t making much progress in learning the language. My initial idea of enrolling in a Taiwan university became less appealing after spending some time

with other westerners who were there to learn Chinese. All of them were there to learn “business Chinese” and seemed very materialistic-none of them expressed even a hint of the love of the culture and language I had in my heart. I decided to go with that love, realigned my purpose with my passion, and explore as many of the Buddhist, Taoist and Confucian temples as I possibly could.

 

After traveling around the large island of Taiwan for a few weeks, I decided to settle in Kaohsiung, a bustling ship-breaking port on the west coast of the island. I got a room for $4.00 a night in a small hotel on the outskirts of town. Every day I’d walk the streets, soaking up the sights, smells and tastes of that dirty, bustling city, chock full of monasteries, nunneries, farmers markets and street vendors. Gradually I became familiar in the neighborhood, and people would smile and greet me on my rounds. I started my daily walk with ordering a tall mango juice from one vendor, and a fresh, hot steamed pork bun, from another.

 

I made friends easily with the monks and nuns at the Buddhist temples, as I could read the carved or painted calligraphic scrolls, most of them prayers and parts of sutras that I had been studying for years. The Taoist temples were housed by a few elder men in chairs who shared tea with me. They were as fascinated as I was at how strangely familiar I was with their incense-darkened altars, the Taoist Immortals and scrolls of beautiful calligraphy. The Confucian temples were austere, sparse, and not particularly inviting, but slowly I became encouraged that my communication skills were improving. My newfound confidence was short-lived.

 

One night I bravely wandered into a hotel down the street, and in confident Chinese, ordered a glass of red wine. Instead of pouring me the glass which I hoped would loosen my mind a bit, I was met with an incredulous look. The waiter disappeared through the curtains between the bar to the restaurant. Raucous laughter erupted from the kitchen followed by a stack of Chinese faces, peeking around the edge of the curtain. Now what, I thought? More impromptu English lessons?

 

Finally, after the laughs died down, one of the men from the bar politely told me that I had ordered a glass of mucous. Right word, wrong intonation. I smiled, blushed and said “Dwai buchi! Wodobujrdao” meaning “Sorry. I don’t know a thing!” He laughed. The wine tasted like vinegar.

 

____________________________

 

Part Two: Enter the Dragon

 

So it was that the following morning I woke up with the pure intent to dedicate the entire day to opening my heart, and in so doing, tune into the universal language of the heart- though holding close my ultimate goal of learning fluent Chinese.

 

I set up a little folding altar in my room and adorned it with small watercolor portraits my Island friend Jim painted for me as a going away gift. They were of the great saints which had influenced my life so far: Sri Ramakrishna, Neem Karoli Baba and Swami Shivananda. I lit an incense stick and prayed as intently as ever with the hope that just as the wisdom of these great saints had crossed time and language barriers and penetrated my heart, so too would my desire to speak and understand the language of the culture I so loved. May it be so!

 

And then I slowly unfolded a gift from another Island friend. It was a piece of paper about the size of two sugar cubes, imprinted with the faint image of two Chinese dragons. I carefully tore the paper in two so that each half had a dragon. I bowed and prayed to the three wise beings on my altar, asking that they give me their love, guidance and protection throughout this day. I concluded this ritual by dropping one of the dragons in my mouth, letting it dissolve under my tongue. I placed the other discreetly behind a small plastic Buddha in a plastic pouch which I had been given in a mountain monastery. I reflected on my friend back home saying “This is really old blotter acid. I know you are sensitive to this stuff, but I know that even you can handle a full tab; if I was you, I’d take both.” Feeling safe and conservative, I walked happily out of my room. It was eight o’ clock in the morning, November 3rd, 1980.

 

A small man with a long grey beard and his young grandson were sitting in the lobby. near my door, eating sugar cane and playing a game that resembled Chinese checkers. I gave them my warmest smile and greeted them in Chinese. They invited me to sit and handed me a piece of sugarcane. My day was off to an auspiciously good start I thought, as I gnawed on the sweet cane. We conversed in simple Chinese. I told them how much I loved Kaohsiung and enjoyed exploring it, and that I was also here to learn the language. The older man showed respect for my longing, and wished me the best of luck. With that, we said our “dzai-chiens” (goodbyes) and I went on my way.

 

I embarked on my walk through the outskirts of the city, stopping for my daily mango juice and steamed pork bun.  Almost an hour had passed since eating “The Dragon” My heart felt like a big warm smile, but that was it. The friend who gave this to me did say it mightgive me a little buzz, but then again, maybe not.  A little buzz was all was comfortable with anyway, so that was fine with me.  Already I felt like my dealings with the locals was so much more fluent. Whatever, I’d just spend the day as always, exploring. Again, fine, even, perfect.

 

I’d no sooner had that thought when a little wheel at the back of my neck began to spin. My hip, knee and ankle joints softened as though stuffed with rags. Energy filled my chest like fireflies. I heard a zooming noise that I hoped was outside of my body, then saw the shadowy shape of a bus going by. I knew I had to focus. I held my attention to the bus’s painted side, but to my surprise and dismay, right as I gazed upon the bus, all the colors melted together like hot wax. I tried concentrating on my feet but, the sidewalk had become soft, wet concrete, and absorbed each leg up to my knees. This kind of experience had never happened to me before. I had seen colors get brighter, and heard sounds get louder, but forms disappear?

 

Suddenly it occurred to me how much trouble I could be walking into. I might even die, and these poor people wouldn’t have a clue as to what happened. My parents would be horrified, disgraced even. It would probably be in the newspapers. I knew I had to get back to my hotel room. It would be better to be found dead in my room.

 

I still had enough mind left to focus on a mantra, the great mantra of the Heart Sutra, “Gate, Gate, Paragate, Parasamgate, Bodhi Svaha.” Never mind that its meaning eerily paralled my current situation! “Gone, gone, into the beyond, beyond the beyond, into Supreme Nothingness, May it be so!”

 

Maybe People Would Just Think I have Diarrhea

 

I was about a ½ mile from the hotel so really picked up speed, silently repeating my mantra. Warm smiles were replaced with questioning looks as I parted the crowded sidewalks. Maybe people just thought I was just about to have diarrhea, I hoped. The thought of how it would be for my family and friends If I died here, or ended up in a Taiwan hospital-both options were terrifying.  I picked up my speed as much as I could, with everything around me melting like hot wax upon my glance.

 

There was a tiny vegetarian eatery which catered to wandering Buddhist monks and nuns. I had been a ‘regular’ there for the past 3 weeks. The walls were covered with scrolls of fine Chinese calligraphy, and lines of familiar prayers. This place had become an island of refuge for me in recent weeks, but now seemed like a lifejacket in the sea of this mega-samsaric dream I had locked myself into.

 

 

Maybe if I ate something, I’d come down a bit, or at least get grounded enough to navigate my way back to my room more safely. The restaurant was open, but empty. With great relief, I dropped myself into the chair behind the furthest table from the door, under one of my favorite scrolls. I was handed a menu by the owner’s teenage son. It was then I realized I couldn’t make a sound and on top of that, was sweating bullets. My disembodied hand fell randomly on the menu in an attempt to point. It landed on “imitation shark’s fin soup.” The boy looked at me curiously. I held my stomach and head in a gesture to him that I was ill. He nodded and left. I tried to focus on the familiar scrolls all around me. I prayed to the Goddess Kuan Yin, for her mercy, promising her that if helped me get through this I’d never, ever do such a thing again.

 

Suddenly there was a bowl of soup in front of me, with a real shark fin swimming back and forth among the vegetables and broth. Hoping the fin would stop so I could eat, I tried to lift the ceramic spoon, but it disappeared through my shaking wrist like a knife through soft butter. Three more times, same result. My body was on fire. For the first time of my life I was on the verge of a full-blown panic. I turned to a noise from the kitchen. All the kitchen staff and wait people were staring at me and whispering. They blushed and turned away. Their teenaged son came out from the kitchen and handed me a fork.

 

Once more I gestured that I was sick, I apologized, paid the bill and turned to leave. The shoebox sized restaurant had just at that very moment filled with old monks and nuns in brown or grey robes for what appeared to be a birthday party for an old monk. I silently begged for mercy at the feet of all the Buddha’s and Bodhisattvas that THEY prayed to, and barged my way through the crowd of monastics like a plain-clothed demon, a horse heading for the barn, a dosed Westerner, for the womb (or tomb) of my hotel room.

 

The friendly ladies of the hotel greeted me with the keys to my room. I hurried up the stairs, down the hall, opened my room up and collapsed on the bed. There was my little altar; my thermos for tea; my cassette tapes of Buddhist chants and a bootleg Bob Marley.

It was only 2 pm.

 

I jumped onto the bed, but being still intensified the rushes throughout my body. I had to try something else. I filled the tub with the Taiwan’s tepid water, stripped out of my sweaty clothes and climbed in. Mistake! Not only did the rushes get stronger but I lost the body they had been contained in! Indeed, Beyond the Beyond…The “I” who had been struggling so hard to stay in a body, was now hopelessly de-pixelated in tidal waves of energy. If I stay here, there might not even be a body to find, I thought. Wrong idea. I pulled the plug and floated back to the bed where I landed naked with my legs over the far end of the bed. For the next 7 hours, the ceiling was a movie screen, showing in great detail every possible outcome of my life from that moment onwards.

 

Finally, after three hours of attempts to get off the bed, I stood up and got dressed. It was 10:30 at night. My arms and legs were wobbly, but seemed loosely connected to my torso and my lightly functional brain. The wheel at the back of my head still spun, but had become a faint hum compared to the zing of the past 12 hours.

The Dragon was letting me go. I was beginning to come down.

 

I ventured outside onto the busy sidewalks, staying on whatever side the brightest street lights were. I walked shakily, retracing my steps from earlier that day, past the mango juice seller, past the steamed bun stand.  As I rounded the corner where the bus had melted like a candle, I heard a buzzing in my ears, which continued on in a staccato rhythm: Da da da da Da da. Da da da da Da da. Da da da da Da da. I took this to be a sign that my brain was rekindling itself. I was relieved the sidewalks were solid again. I remembered the family in the Buddhist restaurant, and promised myself that tomorrow I would go back, act normal, order something and eat it all, and verbally thank them for their kindness.

 

I continued walking around the neighborhood, but the noise in my head was still there. I became vaguely aware that I was being followed. It dawned on me that the footsteps and humming I had heard the past 3 city blocks might be coming from the same person who was following me now. Another hopeful English Student, I thought, choosing to ignore both the presence and the sound. As I approached a cross walk, the now annoying sound took form as a young Chinese man. His relentless mantra became emphatic as he held today’s Chinese newspaper to the yellow light from the street lamp. “Waygun is your weeder! Waygun is your weeder! Waygun is your weeder! I looked closer at the front-page photo he was pointing to. My mind snapped like the end of a bungee cord. The 1980 election results were in.  “Waygun is your weeder, Erection in America, Waygun is your weeder.

 

And so began the Reagan years.

————–

 

Epilogue

 

Five months later I was walking down Market Street in San Francisco with my artist friend Charlie. There on the sidewalk was a guy with a shaved head, sitting in Lotus position eyes closed. In front of him was a little metal bowl with a few coins in it. As we passed by him I really wanted to give him something. I fished through my bag for coins. Instead my fingers curled around the small plastic Buddha in the little plastic pouch from the temple in Taiwan. I dropped it into his bowl, not remembering for weeks later what was behind the Buddha; one old hit of the dragon stamped blotter acid.

 

Another year or so after that I received a letter from my friend Charlie. He had randomly picked up a copy of one of R. Crumbs underground comic collections. The cartoon on the inside cover was a drawing of R. Crumb’s brother who sat on Market Street in San Francisco daily with his begging bowl, telling the story about how one day when he was begging, and his eyes were closed, someone dropped a little plastic Buddha with a hit of blotter acid behind it into his bowl!

 

last edited 1/16/18

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