A MONK DURING PEACETIME
The Luohan Temple can be found next to a bike co-op in the heart of East Oakland. It is comprised of a simple hardwood floor and a back entrance that is opened in the summer to let the neighbor cat wander in. Above a row of mirrors, woodblock prints of Chinese scholars hang on the walls with the snarling father of kung-fu, Bodhidharma, in the center.
The Shaolin monks used to meditate in mountained temples, seeking enlightenment. They would sit in place for hours a day, waiting for the feeling. I don't know the feeling. I don't actively seek the feeling. Enlightenment is a $1.50 taco in the middle of the night. I leave Oakland for Missoula in three weeks, to get my degree in creative writing. Skimming through the emails of incoming students, I prepare for what is maybe the whitest education of my life. Every day that passes, I feel the Rockies rising to meet me, and the tide to the West receding. I plan my last lengua burrito. My last Korean barbeque. My last mango sticky rice. I have friends and family promise to send me care packages from Ranch 99. It feels wrong to plan for these things when I wake up every morning feeling there is so much to do, and that I don't do enough, and it kills me.
Sparring step number eight looks like this: I step my left leg behind my right and wind up my torso. I fling my right leg up and give a small tap with my heel. It's supposed to aim for the groin—it only needs to be a tap.
"That's the feeling!" my teacher says. "That's the one you want!"
This is Master Sheldon, the man who taught me how to fall with my hands slapping the ground in focused aggression. During breaks we talk Star Wars mythology. I tell him Jabba the Hutt ate his own wife and Master Sheldon laughs with his whole body and says, "He would!" He tells me how the trash compactor scene represents the belly of the whale. I once told him I liked kung-fu because kung-fu likes metaphor.
I continue down the length of the temple, and try to remember the feeling. The tension in my midsection and the angle of my leg as it springs up. I try to replay it and get used to it. I want to dream about it at night. But I don't feel it clearly anymore. That first step was the Platonic Form. Every other attempt is blinking during a camera flash and only seeing spots.
When I started kung-fu last year, Master Sheldon noticed my discomfort almost immediately. I could barely do ten pushups. I envied the neighbor cat for its balance. When doing forms in the mirror, I was reluctant to make eye contact with my own reflection. "If you’re getting too in your head, you can blur your vision a little bit,” Master Sheldon had said. “You’ll see the shapes, but not the details." His voice had been casual, but I had felt immensely grateful at the suggestion. As the months passed, I slowly grew familiar with the shape of my fist. I crouched lower. I learned to tuck my thumbs. To contour my palms into a shallow well, as if to offer seed to a nearby bird, the fingers aiming under the jaw to strike and pull back again, like a snake’s head.
Today Master Sheldon asks me if there is kung-fu in Missoula. I say I've only been able to find Aikido. I'm afraid I'm going to forget everything I've studied, and that Missoula will undo me in certain ways that are out of my control.
After class, I walk down International Boulevard with my keys in my hand, running my thumb across the serrations.
I make it to the end of the block where three young men are toking by a doorway.
"Hey baby," one of them says.
I turn to respond, but my mouth won't open. I keep walking.
"She had to look at you to know she didn't want you," another says. He's laughing as I pass underneath the street lamp. Once in my car, I loop back around to stop at the taco truck on my way home.
In the monasteries, many of the monks never reached enlightenment. Or maybe they caught glimpses of it, but couldn't draw it back. As they tried, the knit kept unraveling. Their muscles became stiff and their bodies atrophied. They died at nineteen and twenty years old. Nobody knew the importance of bodies back then. Were you supposed to transcend your body or did your body, itself, become a temple? What’s the feeling I'm supposed to feel? I sing K-pop songs without knowing the words. I read books I don't understand. I'm shit at counting to ten in Chinese.
That weekend, when the fog burns off, I go out with a few people in the Mission, at a bar where the drinks are too pricey for me to really enjoy myself. But San Francisco friends never come to my side of the Bay, and I almost never come to theirs. It's just too much trouble, and we always like our own neighborhoods better. We find a table on a patio and watch people pass the alley.
As the waiter sets down our drinks, my friend taps me on the shoulder to show me pictures sent to her of a nighttime excavation site just outside of her hometown in El Paso. The sky looks like it's swirling, and it’s like I’m leaving the atmosphere through the backlit pixels of her iPhone.
"Holy shit," I say. I can't help but be impressed.
"You might see a lot of that in Montana."
A friend of a friend moved out to Oakland from Coeur d'Alene. He sits with us at the bar, telling me proudly that “Missoula is a blue dot in a red state,” and pressing his knee against mine in that way that could be excused as an accident. He'd studied journalism at the University of Montana, but now he showed up in my city looking like an L.L. Bean catalog, with Sperrys, salmon colored shorts, and a smile completely lacking in irony. The first week he was here I had to tell him it was not a compliment to call a Black woman soulful. He touched my arm when talking to me and I had to figure out how to make him stop without making a scene. I found out he was trusting of police. He believed in the Golden Rule. He exhibited every blind spot I have ever encountered in another person, and it felt like everything I ever learned about my own values was setting me up for dealing with him. "Are there more like you and where are they from?" I had asked him. I laughed to show that I was joking, but I also said it to be a tool. Idaho Liberals would be a good name for a band.
I watch the wasp trap swing above our table and worry about money, about my city. In conversation “gentrification” becomes an incantation. Its utterance reveals an economic and political divide between friend groups, and to speak the word would destroy a necessary illusion that keeps us at the same table. Instead, some of us hint at its creeping through the peninsula, add up the numbers, and become quietly resentful.
The Mission used to be its own thing, I say. You used to hear a lot of Spanish. Now alt cafes, bars, and brunch venues all encroach upon the strip. We watch more than one person walk by wearing Google Glass.
"Brunch is a symptom of gentrification," my roommate says, as if setting up for a punchline. She crushes the lime in her Moscow mule. "But everyone loves brunch, so..." Her voice dies mid-sentence. We are probably thinking the same thing: including the BART fare, this will be a $15 Moscow mule by the time we get out of here, and we both know we’re done.
We take the train home. I hate getting my lazy ass to the city and coming back exhausted. Sinking into my seat, I notice a sign near the window that reads: "For security matters call BART Police." Underneath, someone has scribbled the name "Oscar Grant."
The things that make me angry under my skin also paralyze me. I'm a participant with no idea how to participate. I can imagine myself scribbling that name like a hieroglyph, in impotent passive aggression, knowing only to express myself through words and signs, but never movement. My auntie once asked me, "What are you gonna do? You gonna write, or you gonna march?"
I had reminded her what happened at Frank Ogawa Plaza around my birthday, downtown littered with bean bag rounds, tear gas cannisters, and broken glass. I hadn’t gone. I was just learning what it meant to be political, to become comfortable with my outside voice, to ask: “Whose streets?” and to answer: “Our streets.” A writer and activist who did work with the United Farm Workers, my auntie wrote a few episodes for The Simpsons in the 90s. But when I was younger she taught me isang bagsak, a unity clap she learned just ten years earlier, during the People Power Movement. I did it with her, but never took it outside. Who would clap with me? What does anyone know about revolution aside from the buzzwords (Marcos, three thousand pairs of shoes, the Philippines’ "Let them eat cake")? Now she lives in Culver City doing juice cleanses and watching Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations.
I wonder if I will deteriorate in the same way, or if I will simply implode. My roommate puts her head on my shoulder as we pull away from the Embarcadero station, and she's asleep by the time we come out the other side of the tunnel. I lean toward the aisle to check the station map. Four stops left to MacArthur, I imagine dipping my feet in the basin of a tide pool, and I try not to think about how long it will be before I hear an ocean.
"I'm worried I won't be able to learn everything before I leave," I admit on a Sunday before class. Sunday classes are by Lake Merritt, where you aren’t supposed to take your dog but everyone does anyway, and where people tie ropes to trees and slackline in the sun. We’ve been in a drought for a while. The lake is shimmering in the middle, and scummy at the edges. I watch joggers stretch under the columns and can smell someone nearby smoking brisket out of their truck.
Master Sheldon says, "Well, you can’t really learn everything."
I didn't mean everything everything. Just everything up to the next level. But I don't say that. In the early 70s, someone recorded Bruce Lee saying, "Now you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. You put water into a bottle, it becomes the bottle, you put it in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Now, water can flow or it can crash. Be water, my friend." I think about it often when I tense my shoulders to keep my bra straps up. Master Sheldon watches my forms and tries to keep me loose. He claps his hands on my back, as though he were throwing clay.
When Bodhidharma invented kung-fu, it was to keep the monks from dying. Horrified by the state of their health, he felt moved to share what he knew. The movements were designed to be precise, thoughtful, and meditative, so the monks could still focus. Their muscles grew. They became stronger, they stood taller. Later, they observed earthly conflicts and saw themselves as participants. Some were glad of this: to be healthy, to live longer, to know enough to defend themselves during wartime. Others were just glad for their extended shot at enlightenment, and continued to focus their energies there. They didn't want to answer the hundreds of questions that come with participation.
August approaches, and I finish clearing out my bedroom. I do a once-over with the vacuum, scrub the marks off the wall, and remove the nails. They sit, bent up and abused in a ramekin I borrowed from the kitchen. As I drop them onto the porcelain, I notice an echo that wasn’t there before. I can see all four corners of the room now. Standing in the doorway, I Instagram a picture of this visible emptiness, and put the image through the Valencia filter to really bum people out.
What do I do to prevent myself from dying? I get eight hours of sleep a night, eat lean protein and vegetables. I find one thing to like about each new person I meet. I choose mentors. I don’t weigh myself because a number that can only get lower encourages perfection, and the risk of confusing disappearance with results, when really I don't want to disappear. I want to be enormous with courage. I want to be the ten-car train that goes screaming into the tunnel. I count my arm bruises in the mornings now. Earlier this summer I showed them off to a boy who looked concerned and tried to kiss them, and I just laughed, pulling my arm away.
After my last class, Master Sheldon and I share a goodbye meal at Shan Dong. It's a small cubby hole in Chinatown on the corner of Webster and 10th. They make their own noodles behind the counter, roll and cut them by hand, and saturate them in brown sauce and MSG. Master Sheldon goes every week and practices his Mandarin, which, after ten years of study, is pretty legit. They know him there and they know the look on my face that says I know the protocol, but it's watered down because I learned it from my parents. So even though I'm the one who blends in, they defer to him, the 6'4" Black dude in the Chinese Cultural Center t-shirt.
At the restaurant, Master Sheldon orders his standbys and asks if I am nervous to be leaving, and I can't help but tell him the truth. It's at that table breaking up wontons with my spoon that I discover Master Sheldon is a radical badass, and it's at that table that I realize I want to associate with radical badasses for the rest of my life. He says from his experience, one goes through two stages of emotional discomfort when it comes to activism. The first is being angry all the time.
You are angry because your sociopolitical consciousness has been awakened. You realize that you have been suffering quietly in a way that no one else suffers, and that no one has prepared you for. You realize others suffer in similar ways, and that they're similarly unprepared. You realize for years you have been blaming yourself for this suffering, and wonder how many others have done the same. You now notice you have been lied to, that you have been made a fool of. That the things you thought you could stand on were indoctrination and not education. You see everyone who defends this as complicit in this lie, and the more you think about it, the more sleep you lose, the more it seems to take a physical toll.
But then you are trapped. Because it’s not okay to be angry and political. You stifle it in good nature, so as not to alienate, or people will say “She's so angry,” and let the sentence alone imply worth or goodness, or in this case, lack thereof. So suddenly you have all this anger and no place for it to go. You talk to others about it, try to reach across the gap, but the conversation is driven around fixing your feelings instead of addressing the lie.
I tell Master Sheldon I am there now. He helps me to a serving of gailan and says, "Try being a Black man, and don't even try writing a two-star Yelp review as a Black man because someone will find out it's you and find a way to call you hostile."
More dishes come and soon the food spreads to both ends of the table.
At some point there’s a shift, he says. You don't get angry anymore. You just laugh at the absurdity of it. You see the way the lie operates, everywhere, and how everyone falls for it, and you simply decide, most optimistically, that it's not going to get better. Not in any significant way. You just keep doing the things you do because they are right. But this operates on a more passive, less urgent, and more complacent attitude, and by the time you fall back on it, what does it say about you? How much of that is code switching? How much of it is an affectation, and how much is actual complacency?
When kung-fu became martial, the monks began to study animals: the crane, the monkey, the leopard, the snake, the mantis, the tiger, the bear, the deer. Maybe even the drunk man. These were animals that knew how best to survive in hostile environments. This is, as some say, how many styles were perfected. Over the last year I have also grown and become stronger. But when I think about it, I understand how a particular environment might make becoming an animal the best course of action.
“You remember what we learned about yin and yang,” he says. I do remember. We learned that our stances are strongest, and most rooted to the ground, when there is a combination of hard and soft power. And how soft power is ultimately strongest and most underestimated. Soft power is why you can slap a wall with the palm of your hand forever without repercussions, but it hurts all the way to the shoulder to punch it even once. I try to let my limbs be loose, but anger has made my body rigid.
I don't know where I am now. I still get angry but I compartmentalize the feeling and dispense it in measured doses, like when I want to put more sugar cubes in my coffee than I am allowed to, before getting somebody else's side eye. I self-censor. I tell myself nobody wants to hear it. I strike the word "problematic" from my vocabulary and start using the more Marxist-friendly term "fucked up."
Master Sheldon talks about how my chi will be vitally important in these moments and I tell him that I am doomed. Because I am a flattened, spiritually imbalanced person. After all these months, I still do not know what he means when he says "chi," though I ought to know. It’s supposed to be in my blood to know these things. I talk about how I worry that it isn't enough to just be good. People are good all the time and do harm every day, like the people on the Google bus. Like the good people from out of town. We talk about how Oakland is perhaps the only place for us but we can see it slowly being taken away by good people. I say that I too am being taken away, and I don't know what the city will look like after two and a half years. He piles more food on my plate and says, "Well, try to come back."