Cultural exchange has a way of sneaking up and surprising you. At times, it feels so basic. How to communicate with a foreign language, acclimating to the constancy of strange foods, and of course, the sit or squat toilet? In the beginning, the basic exchange consumes. Simple logistics and practicalities. Overtime, it becomes natural to cross the street with the flow and not with the light. But something else is happening too, has been happening. Slowly, very very slowly, so as not to wake your consciousness, the real exchange starts to happen.
It’s been this way with me. Sneaking up slowly, in miniscule increments until it rains down.
At the cutting studio last week, I finally – let me emphasize that better – finally figured it out. It is hard to explain. They’re also known as Aha! moments; an instant where your brain connects with your body, your body connects with your memory and all of them converge in the present moment. The power of the three coming together all at once creates a force of realization that expands beyond the thing at hand.
I was cutting, rushing a bit here and there, pondering the goings on of the last 10 weeks, the first fourth of my fellowship, why my arm was aching, what would I have for lunch, why can’t I ever get that cut right, etc and I heard myself say again slow down. I say this a dozen or so times a day while I work. I work fast by habit because of deadlines, time crunches, graduate school and America. At home, it’s a point of pride – my ability to multitask, work quickly and pack the activities in.
But there was something about this day following three months of these days. The morning had been slow and steady. A few quick and genuine exchanges on the bus and with my favorite street vendor. I flowed with the foot traffic instead of the light. When I arrived at the studio, everyone was napping, chatting or working calmly. It all created a strange quietness. So when I told myself to ‘go slow’ this time, I finally heard myself.
So I tried it. I slowed down. I glanced down at my hands and took a deep breath and moved s l o w l y. To me, it looked like I was moving in slow motion. And for me, I am.
It felt so odd at first. So silly. But my tired mind and body insisted on persisting. Within the space of a long minute, I was paying attention to different things. Not how I was doing, but what I was doing. The simple act of cutting. The cowhide determines your pace, your blade must take time to negotiate with it and your hand, the willing accomplice.
I focused on my slow motion cowhide being pushed ever so slowly onto my upturned blade. Cut after cut after cut. After a time, my dry eyes blinked me back into consciousness. I looked down at my work.
Aha! This was the thing. This is what it takes to cut a puppet. My cuts had the quality I had been looking for, something I could find sometimes by accident but not with any consistency. I laughed loud enough to make my friend Wang Yan look up at me. I’d been rushing to find the key to cutting puppets and it had simply been to slow down.
I feel China is often telling me to do this. In the small ways, the unseen ways. Rare and beautiful things like eye contact and a considered answer. I have never felt rushed in an exchange here, ever. It makes me feel safe and human.
I took my time, not entirely without reminders, for the rest of the day. It really is the thing.
Thanks for reading ~