Yangshuo County, Guilin, China
September 4 and 6, 2017
Was it the Dalai Lama who said, “Sometimes not getting what you want is a wonderful stroke of luck”? Our last morning at our remote Yangshuo hotel, Riverside Retreat, was supposed to be a quick check-out. Nature foiled our plans. Rain started pouring in sheets at breakfast. As travel surprises went, our detention at the hotel turned out to be a stroke of serendipity.
Sheer boredom compelled us to take closer notice of the traditional courtyard where our breakfast was served. Something caught Quinn’s eye at one cloistered corner: brushes bundled in a cup and bottles of ink. He had a lightbulb moment. The waiter came with a large rectangular sheet of paper and, viola, Binu and I would be trying our hand at calligraphy. We practiced with the most basic character completed in two simple strokes: ren, “man” in Chinese, which looked like a running man to me or, at least, one taking a long stride.
Our first lesson was holding the brush. Quinn kept the wooden brush upright with his fingertips. A firm yet tender grasp made strokes tight yet fluid. With the effortless dexterity of an arm in place, Quinn steered it only with his upturned wrist. In what seemed to be a singular graceful stroke, he pirouetted his hand to write his three-character Chinese name, Shu Xing Kui, as this ancient art. I realized that calligraphy was a dance, each stroke a study in structure and spontaneity, restraint and release. How could we even remotely approach the discipline in a single short sesh?
Our final output was to render our Chinese names in calligraphy. We divvied up the paper into four and drew our names in a vertical line, as done traditionally, in our respective column. I went by the name Ai Jie, closest in pronunciation to A.J., my nickname. The first character, ài (艾), was an herb called mugwort, considered a weed in the West but, in China, used as traditional medicine. Coincidentally a couple of days before, I ordered a rice cake flavored (and colored) with my namesake. The second, jié (杰), meant “heroic” and “outstanding.” I could only live up to being a flavorful weed, neither a hero to anyone nor outstanding in anything.
Our Chinese friends were gracious enough to appreciate our first attempt at calligraphy. Binu drew flowing lines and dovetails. My strokes were too straight, devoid of any graceful taper produced only by masterful hands. The rain was letting up by the time we posed behind our names on the calligraphy paper that I got to keep. It was a meaningful souvenir, not only of our calligraphy, but of this serendipitous moment made possible by the morning downpour. The Dalai Lama was right, after all.
Some Chinese characters were akin to pictographs, depicting objects and concepts in stick figures. Chinese names were as fascinating in assigning characteristics, or even character, to their bearers. Mine may have been an odd combination, but Quinn later wrote after our trip, “I think China is still on the way to learn how to be a gentleman, so please be truly proud where you are from, and truly I do think you are a gentleman.”
He was the second Chinese friend of mine who had called me a gentleman – not quite the hero my Chinese name implied, but decidedly more respectable than a weed.