“Life is full of ups and downs… You may have too much negativity in your mind right now, so close your eyes and breathe… Breathe it all out. Seek peace from within. There exists quietude in solitude. Be with yourself for now. Breathe in deeply then breathe out slowly…”
My eyes stared into the kitschy ceiling lights as the Yoga Instructor switched the garish fluorescent into blue, green and red streaks. On my left, a middle-aged woman lay on her purple yoga mat. She had brought her 5-year old son into the Yoga studio and I’ve witnessed her struggle of trying to follow through with the yoga steps while ensuring that her restless son does not disrupt the class. It was stuffy and torrid in the studio cramped with too many yoga mats and aspiring yogis. The original instructor took a day off and her replacement seemed more fascinated with basic stretches rather than the archetypal ‘shaping yoga’ YouTube boasts. My favourite part of this Chinese Yoga experience was perhaps the final 5 minutes of simply relaxing – lying down in a temporal tranquillity I’ve missed greatly.
The blue, green and red streaks remind me of this week’s hubbub. Life here appears to be comparatively more clamorous – cars honking aggressively, students cursing or chatting by the corridors and stairwells, street hawkers yelling out this week’s specials… but life in this city is different from my urban experience in Singapore. At home, the noise was familiar and almost comforting; it assured me that civilization and convenience was all around. Yet here, the cacophony overwhelms. Despite looking physically like the locals, and being capable of their language, I am inherently foreign. Each day, I see at least two people spitting on the floor, or littering their cigarette buds on the already grubby pavements. Every morning, I see the cleaner clothed in green uniform sweeping the streets and I wonder if said people who spit or litter ever did think of themselves as being inconsiderate and unappreciative. Some people scoff when I confirm their assumptions about Singapore: Chewing gum, spitting and littering are all illegal. Frankly, I could not care less about their scoffing because it pleases me immensely when others praise Singapore for her cleanliness standards.
There exists quietude in solitude, but even in those deceptively calm and solitary moments, the mind can play tricks. For a great part of my first yoga session, I was accosted by numerous stray thoughts. Almost every decision in life guarantees an opportunity cost. Naturally, my participation in Duke Engage Zhuhai is no exception. There are mirrors surrounding the yoga studio and I recall my reflection looking considerably worn out. A student texted me on WeChat last night:
“Sleep early Teacher. You look so tired. We are all worried for you. Goodnight.”
I had randomly selected him as the class monitor for the hip-hop class I was conducting. The girl I saw looked terrible. My host mother works from 8am to about 6pm daily, and her day extends into the evening when she starts on the household chores. She highlighted the importance of self-care as a constituent element of her daily routine – she attends yoga classes, visits the gym, gets her hair done twice a week and indulges in piquant, ambrosial delicacies from time to time. Her invitation for me to join in those activities was a great distraction from the quotidian lifestyle I am slowly but surely getting accustomed to. Teaching is demanding, and teaching many rowdy, boisterous young teenagers is indubitably onerous. Some refuse to participate because I don’t seem as cool as the other Duke students. Others allow shyness to be an excuse/ impediment to learning. Then, I see in the eyes of some the weary spirit I once was. ‘Jaded,’ they say. A couple of nights ago, my host sister told me that a good majority of the content we Duke students teach is too simple, that they have actually covered those topics and are fully aware of the relevant vocabulary. My classes at Duke have emphasised class participation. Education is a two-way affair that requires more than just passive reception. Yet, it is a thorny issue trying to engage these students actively – it is easy getting them to repeat after me, but getting them to formulate sentences of their own seems like an insurmountable task.
Soon enough, the blue, green and red streaks disappear from my sight. I let my eyelids droop. My mind is not at ease; I am exhausted. There are so many other things I could be doing: this time last year, I was at Europe’s highest peak (Mt. Jungfraujoch) dancing in a sea of snow. Then I was drinking a mango smoothie in a café on top of Hongkong’s Victoria peak. At some point in time, my German friends and I reminisced about our high school days over cocktails at Marina Bay Sands in Singapore. On weekends, I’d wake up early just to have breakfast with my parents – If I keep count, I’ll only be able to have about 12 to 14 breakfasts with them in a year. This year, we’ll eat together for a mere 8 times.
She counts down and suddenly I am brought back into the here and now. Tomorrow, I will see the same security guard standing by the school gate, the same man at the bubble tea store and the same students who come by our office all too frequently. Tomorrow, I may be lonely once more – just like the woman hanging her laundry, or the cleaner sweeping the streets.