They get up at five o'clock in the morning, get washed and dressed, and try to look respectable in their uniforms in time for work at 0530. It isn't a very far commute to work, as they live in the dormitory a bare fifty yards from the restaurant and the hotel. And it probably doesn't take them long to find their things in the morning, as they live in a room which measures approximately ten feet by ten feet. That is, four of them. In that one room. Each floor of the building has a communal bathroom, so it is not uncommon for them to greet each other prior to the start of the work day.
Breakfast starts getting served at 0600, but preparations must take place before that. Breakfast ends at 0900, after which clean up must occur. They get their much needed food break from 1000 to 1100, at which time, preparations take place for the incipient lunch. Lunch ends at 1500, which is about the time that they get their lunch break. The occasional one will run back to her communal room for a quick rest, because, all must be back at work at 1600, to prepare for the start of the 1700 dinner crowd.
At precisely 2100, regardless of whether there are any patrons in the restaurant or not, the entire work crew, consisting of cooks, waitresses, hostesses, etc, parade out into the restaurant to eat their dinner, which, is supplied by the restaurant. This is the largest meal of the day, and it usually consists of rice, soup, and steamed buns. Rarely will one see a significant portion of meat on their tables.
At precisely 2105, they head back to their respective duties, always cleaning up after themselves.
The dinner for the patrons ends at 2200, at which time all the staff help in cleaning the entire restaurant. By 2300, they are off to bed, after a long and tedious day's work.
They do it again, and again, and again, six days a week. All year. With minimal or no vacations.
And they deal with some of the most rancorous, chain-smoking, rude, demanding, loud and unchivalrous Chinese men that you could ever imagine. All day long.
And they always smile.
A few years ago, during an October visit to train at Shaolin, I had the opportunity to perform a "house call" for a fellow student's young master. It was an interesting event.
Bern (not his real name) was from Germany, and was training with a young master up in the lower mountains of Shaolin. He had been concerned about his master, because it had appeared to Bern that his master was ill with something, but, that his master had no favorable response from any sort of local medical attention. He asked me if I would go one morning with him to visit with his master, to see what I had thought of his illness.
It was about 0600, on a chilly October morning, when we entered a small, one room brick room. The door was terribly loosely fitting, and the one small window had been encrusted with dirt. Swinging from the tree trunk rafter of the very simple, and apparently not waterproof roof, swung a single small wattage electric light bulb. The floor was comprised of packed and hardened dirt. Within the room, which barely measured eight feet by ten feet, lay one small desk, and two rickety metal bunk beds. A small boy lay under the covers on the top of one of them, Bern's master sat on the bottom bunk of the other one. It was just as cold in the room as it was outside. And there was no provision for any heat producing device in the room.
I asked Bern to ask his master what had happened when it got cold out. He replied that they all, all four of them, got under their covers in their bunks. I then asked Bern to ask his master what happened when it rained. He replied that the guys on the top bunks got wet.
It then became apparent to me why the younger kids were on the top bunks, and master was on the bottom. Smart master.
But master was in terrible pain. It was obvious to me. He sat on the lower bunk, with his head held in his hands, squinting whenever he looked up at me. He smiled as much as he could, but, I could tell, being a migraine sufferer myself, what he was going through. But I also noticed something else. He was scared. He was getting these headaches frequently, and apparently, the local Chinese doctors could do nothing for him.
Early morning headaches can be a sign of a cerebral tumor, so I stood him up, and performed as detailed a neurological examination as I could, considering what tools I had with me, and the circumstances of my "exam room". I found nothing significantly wrong with him, and had Bern explain to him that I thought he just had common migraine. I made master understand that this was nothing that was going to hurt him long term, and I showed him some acupressure techniques to help subside the pain. I also explained to him that practicing Ba Dua Jin qi gong might be useful in helping to alleviate the pain. But as he was in the throes of what appeared to be one hell of a migraine, I suggested to him that he just rest for a few hours.
Master seemed greatly relieved that his head pain was just going to be a chronic, possibly daily, annoyance, as opposed to a death sentence.
He immediately sprang to his feet, and smiled profusely, as he shook my hand and patted my back. And with that, he explained that he needed to leave.
He pulled open the rickety unlockable door, and disappeared into the cold foggy morning.
I asked Bern where he was going, as this had caused me great puzzlement.
Bern said, "He's going for his daily run up the mountain....."
My master, Shi De Cheng, tells me of a pair of students that he had back in 1995. They were what we call "first-timers", having never trained in Shaolin before. Actually, "no-timer" would have been more appropriate, as neither had trained in the martial arts before.
One was a male from Taiwan, the other, a female from Germany. Both had traveled to the wushu guan to train in gong fu, but, more specifically, after their arrival, and, after their exposure to a gong fu demonstration, both had wanted to desperately learn the tornado and butterfly kicks.
Now, remember that both kicks consist of 360 degree rotations through the air; both kicks consist of the kicking leg going above one's head height, and, both kicks take some time, flexibility, and luck, to learn.
These students arrived in Shaolin during the month of February, which is usually the second month that all Shaolin village students take off (January being the other one). One reason is the holiday that occurs during this time, so, it's a good time to go home to the parents. The main reason is, however, it's just too damn cold to be outdoors working out. With temperatures hovering around 0 to 5 Centigrade, sometimes rising to 8 or 9 C, sometimes lowering to -10 C, it' s just not a favorable atmosphere to be working out in.
The man from Taiwan thought he was tough, so he worked out in only a tee shirt. This activity landed him in the local Dengfeng hospital with pneumonia, which, he recovered from, and eventually, returned to his gong fu studies. Both students had planned to, and eventually did stay, in Shaolin training, for two months.
Apparently, according to De Cheng, they did learn some things, including some Tai Ji. They attempted, but never mastered, either the Tornado kick or the Butterfly kick.
Both students were in their mid-seventies.
I had the opportunity to chastise my master the other day.
Actually, I had the opportunity to chastise many masters. It's February 2001, and I'm here in Shaolin, and needless to say, it's cold outside. Damn cold.
When I first got here, the sun was out, and it was a comfortable 7 degrees C. So, the workouts took place up in my favorite place in the mountains, up above Dengfeng, overlooking the city, on what seems to be a rare piece of uncultivated flat earth, away from probing eyes. I had spent two days up there, learning and reviewing, learning and reviewing, over and over again. But, as the afternoon of the second day led to increasingly cloudy weather, one could feel the chill in the air. Especially with the ever-increasing wind.
Especially with sweat saturated sweats.
The next day, I did what any normal human would do, once his bodily defenses are diminished, surrounded by never before seen viral activity in a new community of people. I got sick. And pretty sick was I. A good case of pneumonia had put me down for the day. The weather had changed from worse to much worse, which, as I had expected, did not do good things for my migraine condition. I tried to work out indoors, but, after a while, just discovered that I was wasting my time.
Out came the medications. And the hot showers. And the Flintstones vitamins.
And with time, I improved. But, that first night, having slept most of the day, I had awakened at 0500.
I went to the window, and looked outside. It was pitch black out, and, it was very cold. Harbin like cold. Somewhere around -10 C. And I immediately thought of one thing. Shi De Cheng.
I knew that Shi De Cheng started each and every day at 0500 with a two to three mile run, up into the mountain local to Dengfeng. And I imagined him out there, that very moment, running up into the mountains on a well worn trail, in this darkness, and in this incredibly bitter cold.
And I went back to sleep. In my sweat soaked sheets and comforter.
Later that night, I saw De Cheng for dinner. He showed up in his usual sweats outfit, with a sweater on top of that, and a winter coat over that. On his head was this cheap Chinese imitation of a Russian fur hat, which barely covered the top of his head, and did not even make it down to his ears. He was smiling when he saw me, as was usual of him.
And I noticed his ears. It was unmistakable. The black, dried up, necrotic tissue, next to areas of blazing red hyperemic tissues. The multiple and scattered areas of pale white contracted scar tissue. Yes, it was unmistakable. It must have hurt.
It was frostbite.
Severe enough to have caused tissue death, sloughing of tissue, and scarring. Many a time over.
So I did what any good disciple should do for his master. I yelled at him.
The hat had to go. Time for a new one. One that covered the ears.
And he listened to me.
And as time went on, I eventually met, and had dinner with, the rest of my monk friends. Shi Xing Qi, Shi Xing Wei, Shi Xing Xi, Shi Xing Hong, Shi Su Gang, Shi De Yang, and Shi Yong Qiang. And, I had looked at their ears.....
It was 0500, again, after a long and sweaty night's rest, as I battle this pneumonia which tries to out do me, and I get up to the window and look out into the incredibly cold quiet darkness. And I think of little feet running up the mountain on little trails.
- Written by: doc